The New York Times ran a profile on the 4th of July that caught my attention. The article highlighted a young woman, Sarah Jones, who works for Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, a progressive organization that champions secularism. The intriguing hook is that Ms. Jones is from a fundamentalist background in Bristol, VA and attended Cedarville University. What follows is Jones’ abandonment of Christianity and conservatism for atheism and progressivism. Her story reveals struggles with depression and even sexual assault by one of her fellow students. It is a terribly sad story.
Some may wonder why this story ran in the Times, a newspaper that generally seems somewhat uninterested in matters of religion, at least in terms of individualized stories about people coming to faith. The Times has quite a bit of heft in terms of readership and platform. It is always noticeable how it handles that power. After all, people convert to Christianity every day. Why was Jones—someone leaving the faith—chosen as an example? Obviously, the tie-in was that Jones worked to combat against the pro-religious liberty alliance that surrounded the Hobby Lobby/Conestoga case.
On the other hand, the principles of serious journalism still undermine the worth of the story. My friend Tristyn Bloom at the Daily Caller pointed this out to me a couple days ago. The Times has seen it fit to cover someone who was raised to believe in a thing, then changed their mind about that thing, and now in turn works against that thing. When you think about it, this happens on both sides of the church wall and the political aisle all the time. Different crises and painful experiences encourage people to espouse Christianity and/or conservative principles or vice versa. Moreover, Jones claims a trustworthy perspective on religion and secularism because of her past struggles. As Ms. Bloom (alumna of Yale) wryly observed, “A lot of bad things happened to me at a largely atheist secular school, let me rattle them off as though that has bearing on atheism and secularity.” There is a fallacy afoot.
What is not offered here is reliable data. That is the vacuum. The Times’ article and others like it would be much more compelling from a rational standpoint if there could be a strong observable trend rather than arsenals of personal experiences and stories. Stories can lend color, winsomeness, and interest to broader trends. Of course, without substantial evidence to back up these testimonials, stories can obfuscate rather than clarify.
This gets us to the reason for this article: narrative rather than logic rules the day in terms of convincing the most people. This article was worth writing from a culture-war standpoint. The story—a kind of anti-testimony, an un-come-to-Jesus moment—makes readers feel like this is a common occurrence, encouraging some while demoralizing others. It might be misleading, and it might even be rhetorical over-reach, but it is an effective strategy.