Interview: Logging on to the Religious Quest

Paul Raushenbush is senior religion editor at The Huffington Post, which this year surpassed The New York Times as the nation’s most-viewed news website (more than thirty million unique visitors monthly, according to industry estimates). An ordained American Baptist minister, Raushenbush previously spent eight years as associate dean of religion life and the chapel at Princeton University. At Huffington he oversees a stable of 600 regular bloggers. He also edited Christianity and the Social Crisis of the 21st Century (HarperOne, 2007), a centennial edition of the book by his great-grandfather, Christian reformer Walter Rauschenbusch.

REFLECTIONS: You were a chaplain at Princeton. Do you feel a sense of vocation as religion editor at Huffington Post?

RAUSHENBUSH: I do see this as a ministry. There’s a lot of hate, misinformation, and violence on the internet. I view my task as pushing onto the web as much positive, peaceful, helpful information as I can. That’s really a continuation of what I was doing at Princeton – bringing people together onto a larger stage, people with diverse and disparate beliefs, so that they might understand each other better. This feels like that, except we’re bringing together a lot more people.

REFLECTIONS: Which subjects and themes get the most response?

RAUSHENBUSH: That’s been kind of surprising. What’s done really well are the serious themes – reflections on Scripture, for instance. What does the Bible say about marriage, about forgiveness? We’ll offer a full spectrum of opinion – John Dominic Crossan, the American Bible Society, and many others. People are really interested. One time we did a very simple piece – “Five Things to Know about the Bible” – and within twenty-four hours, the volume of response was just crazy. For a few days, it drew the most traffic of any piece on Huffington Post.

In general, we do a mix of topical, current pieces – the debt crisis, 9/11 – but I’m also doing a lot on prayer these days. We have bloggers who look at how religion relates to the international scene, but also how religion relates to the personal quest.

REFLECTIONS: Does the sheer volume of online religious discussion say anything about the state of American religion? Is it a sign of health? Of confusion?

RAUSHENBUSH:: There may be a decline in personal practices of religion, but there is intensifying interest in the phenomenon of religion. That’s partly due to 9/11, and there are those who want to deride religion, but people are keenly asking questions like, What role is religion playing in American society and in global society? I don’t think that role has declined at all. Virtually every national story has a religion angle to it. In so many places, religion is the glue to the community.

Online the trick is not to create a cage match of constant confrontation. I could have a lot more traf- fic if I encouraged a culture of animosity. But what we are committed to doing is the sort of journalism that is participatory. Leaving religion out would be unthinkable.

REFLECTIONS: Is the internet helpful or harmful to religious life?

RAUSHENBUSH: Was it better when only the local priest and rabbi gave the answers? I’m of the opinion that the more information we have the better, as long as the information is good information. Online, people can find out what others are thinking from totally different religious traditions on questions that you thought were perhaps long resolved – or questions you suspected had far more nuances than you were always led to believe.

Maybe, for instance, you can be Christian and be gay and not have to make a choice between two very important identities. The problem with the internet is you have to be your own curator. You have to have your own BS monitor. You can’t assume that something is true just because it comes up first on a Google search. That’s the flip side of this new world of access.

REFLECTIONS: In this new digital milieu, do you see American religion on the brink of revival?

RAUSHENBUSH: It’s a really interesting moment. I sense a real desire for spiritual renewal among those who are committed to a mainstream religious movement for social justice. I meet young evangelicals who are fired up about justice. I see many similarities between young evangelicals and (Walter) Rauschenbusch. I hear them saying, Wow, nobody told me about the gospel’s commitment to the poor. This harkens back to Rauschenbusch, who was eventually confronted by poverty, which compelled him to ask, “What is the gospel saying about this? Oh! there it is, right in front of my nose.”

I’m still immensely positive about what can happen in American Christianity today. It’s all about spiritual and social redemption. They are more powerful together.