Veteran religion writers are offering harsh criticism of Fox News religion correspondent Lauren Green for making author Reza Aslan's Muslim background the focus of a recent interview about his new book on Jesus. They say that her suggestion that Aslan's faith might preclude his ability to cover the topic fairly was insulting and illogical, and seemed aimed more at playing to her audience's biases than informing them.
"Fox News knows the zeitgeist of its readership and understands what stokes the Fox audience's anger. Fox News is excellent at providing the tinder needed to make that blaze burn," Debra L. Mason, executive director of the Religion Newswriters Association, said in a statement to Media Matters. "I was not surprised so much by the interview because it seemed to fit the Fox formula perfectly. I would have been more surprised to see an interview that recognized what the vast majority of professional religion reporter specialists and the vast majority of scholars of religion believe: that one's personal faith generally has little bearing on the ability to be accurate in the study or reporting of religion."
She later added, "Reza Aslan as the author of a new book on Jesus should be judged on his credentials as a scholar, his experience with the topic, and on the soundness of his research, period."
That view was echoed by several religion writers and authors who reacted negatively to the recent interview in which Green repeatedly questioned why Aslan, as a Muslim, had authored the recently-released book, Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth.
The first question Green asked during the FoxNews.com interview was, "You are a Muslim, so why did you write a book about the founder of Christianity?" She would repeatedly return to that question throughout the interview, and accused him of having "never disclosed" his faith during appearances on other programs.
When Aslan pointed out he is a "scholar of religions with a PhD in the subject" and studies the topic for a living, Green continued to question his background more than the book.
At one point, Aslan stated, "I'm not sure what my faith happens to do with my 20 years of academic study of the New Testament."
Aslan has a Ph. D. in the sociology of religion, a master's degree in theological studies from Harvard University, and a bachelor's degree in religion from Santa Clara University, as well as a master's of fine arts in fiction. He previously authored books on the history of Islam.
"If the accusation is that you have to be of a particular faith to write about it, I don't see the logic in that," said Abe Levy, a religion writer for the San Antonio Express-News. "Anyone can scrutinize a particular faith if they have studied it, you don't have to be of that particular faith. In my line of work, you want to have a deep respect for a particular religion, even if it is not your own, but you don't have to be of a particular faith to cover it."
Indeed, Green herself, a committed Christian, has repeatedly reported on Islam.
Yonat Shimron, managing editor of Religion News Service, called Green's argument "bogus."
"I think it's bogus, reporters are trained to be reporters, trained to assess the facts and report about them in a balanced way," she said. "To suggest that a religion reporter has to be of one faith to write about it is just ridiculous. There are many academics that write about faiths that are not their own. You can have a discipline of a faith and write about one that is not your own."
John Dart, former longtime religion writer for The Los Angeles Times and author of Deities and Deadlines --a handbook on religion coverage -- said assuming Aslan or any other author on the topic is unqualified simply due to their own religion is unfair.
"If a person is a scholar at a reputable institution, then sure it doesn't matter what religion if you have done the study and the homework what your own faith is," Dart said.
Cathleen Falsani, faith and values columnist for The Orange County Register, former religion writer for the Chicago Sun-Times and the author of The God Factor: Inside the Spiritual Lives of Public People, found the argument against Aslan appalling.
"If that were the case, practically no reportage on religion would ever be done," she said via email. "In fact, in my experience - and I am a columnist now, not a reporter - it is far more difficult to cover your own religious tradition dispassionately than it is to cover a religious tradition that is outside of your own experience. A good, fair, thorough, unbiased journalist or academic is the issue at hand, not his or her religious predilection or lack thereof."
Sarah Pulliam Bailey, former Christianity Today magazine writer now at Religion News Service, called the Fox News interview "atrocious."
"She didn't do her homework and didn't read the book," Bailey said. "And when it comes to the author, she could have looked at his credentials, she was trying to get at a controversy and wasn't sure what the controversy was."
She added, "Religion reporters report on other religions all the time, and scholars and so forth."