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Retiring NPR Correspondent Looks At How Religion Beat Has Changed


We're going to take a few minutes now to note the departure of a very much loved colleague. Correspondent Tom Gjelten is retiring after 38 years with NPR. Over that time, he has been a foreign correspondent. He's had the national security beat. He's covered any number of domestic issues. And most recently, for the past six years, Tom has been NPR's religion correspondent, and we asked him if he wouldn't mind spending a few minutes with us to talk about that assignment. And he is with us now.

Tom Gjelten, welcome. Thank you so much for being with us.

TOM GJELTEN, BYLINE: Well, thank you, Michel. And thank you for those kind words.

MARTIN: So very sad to see you go. I don't really want to accept it. But I am excited to talk with you about your current beat because over these past six years, a lot has changed in America. And I just wondered what you've seen emerge in the area of religion.

GJELTEN: You know, Michel, a big story, maybe even the biggest story, has been all this controversy around sexuality and marriage. I mean, those were hot-button issues before, but they've really been elevated in recent years. I think one reason for that is that LGBTQ people have become more open about their sexual orientation, their gender identity. I think one result of that has been that LGBTQ people have faced increased hostility, especially from religious people.

MARTIN: And I understand that you have an example of that from your early reporting that you can play.

GJELTEN: Yeah. This was from five years ago, back in the spring of 2016. I did a story on the struggle in evangelical Christian circles to accept LGBTQ people. This was - this story was in Louisville, Ky. A main character in that story was a man named Nick Wilson. He's a gay man in a Southern Baptist environment. Here's a bit from that story.


NICK WILSON: Two great-grandfathers were Southern Baptist preachers, and one grandfather was a pastor. Father's a retired pastor. Brother's a pastor. We were always in church.

GJELTEN: With lots of gospel music, Appalachian.

WILSON: (Singing) Tempted and tried, we're oft made to wonder...

GJELTEN: Nick learned to play the piano by ear as a young boy. He accompanied the choir at his father's churches. But Nick Wilson was called to preach in his own church. After college, he enrolled at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, but no congregation would ordain him. They all wanted a model family man, and Nick Wilson didn't fit the bill.

WILSON: First off, I'm single. That's a problem. They really want you to be married. But then if you throw in gay, then it's over with.

GJELTEN: And I can tell you, Michel, that Nick did ultimately find a Baptist congregation that was welcoming of him. He's now the organist there. But it was a real struggle.

MARTIN: Why do you think that this - the LGBTQ story took on such a prominence in the religion beat?

GJELTEN: I think because it brought out a fundamental conflict between civil rights and religious freedom. Conservative religious people feel they should be free to exercise their religious beliefs pertaining to sexuality and marriage. LGBTQ people and their advocates say that that religious freedom argument shouldn't be used to justify discrimination. I can truthfully say, Michel, very few stories took as much of my attention over these years as that one.

MARTIN: And what about outside of religious circles? Did you feel a kind of impact there, ripple effects there?

GJELTEN: Yeah, because it really spoke to that connection between religion and politics, which has emerged in these years as a really important thing to explore - you know, a so-called faith vote. And there has been no better example of that than all the attention that's been given to white evangelicals and their support for Donald Trump in recent years. I say there's been more attention to this religion and politics connection in these last few years than there ever was previously.

MARTIN: Now, you know, this is the worst question. But I have to ask.

GJELTEN: (Laughter).

MARTIN: Do you have a favorite story?

GJELTEN: I have several favorite stories. You know, I chose this beat, Michel, because, you know, after doing all those other things that you mentioned, I saw it as a way to connect with people personally and see my country in a different light. These stories have been, for me, ways to humanize people. One of my favorites was a few years ago, when I profiled a group of young Muslims talking about what it was like to grow up Muslim in America. Here's a bit of that story, focusing on one young woman.


GJELTEN: And then there's Aqsa Mahmud, born in Pakistan, raised in Georgia. Some of her closest friends there were born-again, Jesus-believing Baptists for whom religious faith is to be respected.

AQSA MAHMOUD: I am so grateful to have been a Muslim growing up in the South. Only in the South could you say to your friend and be like, hey, you know what? I've got to pray. And they'd be, like, of course. Like, they talked about God in a very personal way. Like, their relationship with Jesus made me want to have a closer relationship with God. I'll be honest.

GJELTEN: We have this stereotype of Southerners, evangelicals being intolerant. Here was a Muslim girl who actually felt more comfortable in the South because her friends there were more open talking about faith. It really challenged those stereotyped ideas.

MARTIN: Now a personal question, Tom. Do you think that this beat changed you in any way, either as a reporter or perhaps as a person?

GJELTEN: You know, Michel, I was actually raised in a devout Christian family. I'm familiar with that world. I feel comfortable talking to people about their faith. But for most of my time here at NPR, as you said, I've been focused on national security, international issues. And the truth is that I did fall away from my own faith tradition. I think during these last six years, I have become more attentive to people of faith, more respectful of all those people who take their faith and believe seriously more than I was before. I think that has been, for me, an important change.

MARTIN: Well, your work certainly lives on. The legacy that you leave as a journalist, as a colleague, as a friend certainly lives on.

That was NPR's Tom Gjelten, who has just retired as our religion correspondent after 38 years with the network. Tom, thank you so much for everything.

GJELTEN: And thank you, Michel, for being such a great colleague.

(SOUNDBITE OF SWITCH BLADE SONG, "NO PROBLEMZ") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tom Gjelten reports on religion, faith, and belief for NPR News, a beat that encompasses such areas as the changing religious landscape in America, the formation of personal identity, the role of religion in politics, and conflict arising from religious differences. His reporting draws on his many years covering national and international news from posts in Washington and around the world.