Editor’s note: “Look Back” is a series designed to highlight articles from the Good Faith Media archives that remain relevant or historically interesting. If you have an article from our archives that you’d like us to consider including in this series, please email your suggestion to firstname.lastname@example.org. A version of this article previously appeared at EthicsDaily.com on April 4, 2002. Abernathy (b. 1927), who died in May 2021, hosted “Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly” at PBS from 1997 to 2017. At the time of publication, Mathews was the communications director for Baptist Center for Ethics / EthicsDaily.com.
“Religion and ethics are very much a part of culture,” Bob Abernethy, host of PBS’ “Religion & Ethics Newsweekly,” recently said in an interview with EthicsDaily.com. “We can’t examine culture thoroughly unless we look through these lenses. They are a measure of what is happening.”
Abernethy is celebrating 50 years in network news this year, and five years with “Religion & Ethics Newsweekly.”
Both of his grandfathers were Baptist preachers, and Abernethy said he identifies with Baptists’ ideals and religion in general.
Religion has been an ever-present theme in his personal life and now in his work with PBS.
In his time covering the news, Abernethy said it is hard to discern whether society has grown more or less ethical.
“For many, the authority is less clear,” Abernethy said. “The responsibility for deciding right and wrong is more and more up to us now. In the past, the ideals were determined by clear authorities like the Bible.”
Abernethy said we must be mindful of what those principles and virtues are so that when we look at issues, we can make the right choices. But, he said, the more it becomes a matter of our own choosing, the more those religious ideas of right and wrong are bound to be in flux.
“The 1960s presented a great challenge to Americans,” Abernethy said. “There were certain social and political establishments that were all but destroyed; there should have been more guidance.”
All in all, Abernethy said that for those who rely on the Bible for guidance and clarity, nothing has changed. For others, they have become less trustful of religion and politics.
When it comes to a universal ethic, Abernethy said the Golden Rule should stand.
“Ethical principles are more likely to follow when they are associated with religious faith,” he said.
The problem, he said, is that we underestimate the power of each religion to establish these ethics.
Learning from 9-11
Following Sept. 11, Abernethy said the religious world began to pay a little closer attention to “others.”
“Everyone began paying more attention to Islam,” he said. “They began seeing to what extent its teachings encourage violence.”
Abernethy said that for him the events of Sept. 11 highlighted many important issues for the United States to consider.
“For instance, those most closely responsible weren’t the poorest,” he said. “They were well-educated, upper-middle class.”
As a rich and powerful country, Abernethy said the United States has an enormous opportunity to help people everywhere.
“It is not about doing what is right for the U.S. or what is in our best interest,” he said. “It is about developing an effective campaign for helping others. As I read the Scriptures, I see this as a clear responsibility.”
Priority One: Informing
As a newsman, Abernethy said he sees his first priority as informing.
“Reporters should not have an agenda,” he said. “Beyond informing, they identify what the underlying principles are in a current issue.”
By paying attention to all religions, he said, we send a message that all religions are worth taking seriously.
That is what “Religion & Ethics Newsweekly” does.
“Tolerance is the beginning,” he said. “We should move from tolerance to understanding and from understanding to respect.”
The Church’s Role
When looking at the issues, Abernethy said it is important for churches to focus locally.
“I see the job of the church to help the poor and sick, to teach, to preach,” he said.
“Bigger issues like cloning, economics and others should not detract from the more personal issues of each community,” he said.
“That’s why we have organizations like BCE,” Abernethy said. “There needs to be a way for people to be reminded about these bigger issues. But churches should be preaching, helping people heal and learn.”