TERENCE SMITH: In a nation struggling to understand religion's role in terrorism, new age spiritualism, the ethics of scientific advances, and the motives of born-again politicians, religion is news.
S. BOB LICHTER, Center for Media and Public Affairs: God didn't die in the 1970s; the media just stopped covering Him. And I think they've rediscovered Him as a force in American society.
TERENCE SMITH: Bob Lichter is president of the Center for Media and Public Affairs, a research organization that conducts scientific studies of the media.
S. BOB LICHTER: America has long been, by far, the most religiously-oriented country in the western world. The last quarter-century or so, religion has become less important among political elites in America, but it has always been important at the grass roots.
TERENCE SMITH: Politicians have long understood the power of religion with rank-and-file voters. During the 2000 election campaign, presidential hopefuls were not shy about espousing their religious beliefs.
GEORGE W. BUSH: When you accept Christ as the Savior, it changes your heart; it changes your life.
TERENCE SMITH: But even before the attacks in New York and Washington, the media were beginning to recognize religion's impact outside the realm of politics. Coverage of religion by the major media in this country doubled from the 1980s to the 1990s. Here in Los Angeles, for example, the LA Times has four fill-time reporters assigned to the beat. Since surveys show that six out of ten Americans say that religion is very important in their lives, the news organizations may simply be catching up with the interests of their readers and viewers.
LARRY STAMMER, Los Angeles Times: This is more than Sunday school, or covering the bishop's tea party.
TERENCE SMITH: Larry Stammer is a religion writer for The Los Angeles Times. He says the Times must cover faith to understand its readers.
LARRY STAMMER: There are 600 distinct religious expressions in the city of Los Angeles alone. I know, it's an amazing figure-- 600. How does a newspaper worth its salt ignore that kind of influence?
TERENCE SMITH: Houses of worship, he says, have more regular attendees than sporting events. New immigrant groups may be more comfortable at their churches and temples than with the government. And trend-setting Angelinos have embraced new forms of spirituality.
LARRY STAMMER: Los Angeles has the reputation as being the epitome of the secular city. And there is much talk about Hollywood and its impact on the larger culture. But there is another side to the city, sort of an interior landscape of the soul, and it just vibrates and convulses with all sorts of beliefs. They bring with them those values into their daily lives, into the workplace. And so a newspaper's job is really to try to understand how those values influence the larger culture.
TERENCE SMITH: Religious expression has even made its way into the entertainment industry.
MELINDA NEWMAN, Billboard magazine: God never went away, but he has made a bit of a comeback.
TERENCE SMITH: Melinda Newman is west coast bureau chief for Billboard magazine. She says music with uplifting or spiritual themes has an increasing appeal.
MUSIC PLAYING: Till I am more like you, Jesus.
MELINDA NEWMAN: Where the industry is having a little bit of a struggle, in the face of that, contemporary Christianity is doing extraordinarily well.
TERENCE SMITH: Even groups like U2, on the mainstream rock charts, are more open about their spiritual needs.
MELINDA NEWMAN: It's a tough time to be growing up now. So a lot of kids are looking for something that makes the passage easier for them. Something that they can get some hope from; songs about love and acceptance, as opposed to about violence and guns.
TERENCE SMITH: So God is box office?
KENNETH WOODWARD, Newsweek magazine: Oh, very much so. You want to put Jesus on the cover, you know you are going to have a boffo newsstand sale.
TERENCE SMITH: Kenneth Woodward is religion editor for Newsweek magazine. Covers about God are among their best newsstand sellers. He says faith in America is more about experience than theology.
MAN: Whether or not you believe in a personal Satan, in personal demons, do you know those experiences that the ancients referred to as Satan?
KENNETH WOODWARD: The young people today have a low tolerance for abstract ideas, and therefore for doctrines. But they have a great, great interest in experiencing something.
TERENCE SMITH: Woodward says that religious discourse is more acceptable among the nation's media establishment. Many are baby boomers, now middle aged, losing their parents and contemplating their own mortality.
KENNETH WOODWARD: Now a person who has been immersed in a religious tradition in a reflective way, can get up, as I have, and write essays from a religious perspective that are considered as contributions to the ethical discourse and the political discourse. That is brand new.
TERENCE SMITH: But critics argue that most coverage of religion leaves the audience with little understanding of the basic tenets of a faith. Bob Lichter found that only one in 20 stories in the major media on religion said anything about theology.
S. ROBERT LICHTER: Journalists look at religion and cover it in terms of conflicts and scandals and battles, instead of the substance of religious beliefs or theology.
TERENCE SMITH: President Bush has met repeatedly with Islamic leaders in the U.S., to help forestall animosity toward American Muslims, animosity that may be fostered, in part, by Americans lack of knowledge of other faiths.
PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: These acts of violence against innocents violate the fundamental tenets of the Islamic faith. And it's important for my fellow Americans to understand that.
TERENCE SMITH: Television coverage of religious ideas is tangential at best. While the amount of religion on television evening news shows has doubled over the last ten years, there is still not much of it.
BOB ABERNETHY, Religion & Ethics Newsweekly: As far as news is concerned, it remains a pretty neglected area.
TERENCE SMITH: Bob Abernethy is host and executive editor of Religion and Ethics Newsweekly on PBS. He thinks religion isn't covered on commercial television because it is expensive to produce.
BOB ABERNETHY: They take a little longer to tell, and require a little more background, but come on, so does stem cell research or cloning. You have to be willing to broaden your definition of news to include trends and conditions, not just what happened today.
TERENCE SMITH: In a shaken and diverse American society, the search for meaning and common ground seems more important than ever.