By Sue Botos
Growing up in Rocky River during the late 1940s and 1950s is one of the biographical threads noted journalist and author Kenneth Woodward weaves through his book “Getting Religion: Faith, Culture and Politics from the Age of Eisenhower to the Era of Obama.”
“I think of the book as a social history of the second half of the 20th century,” Woodward said during a recent phone interview from his Chicago home. Religion editor for Newsweek magazine from 1964 until 2002, and a writer-at-large until 2009, Woodward is a graduate of St. Christopher School in Rocky River, St. Ignatius High School and Notre Dame.
“I grew up feeling like I was at the center of concentric circles of belonging,” Woodward recalled, referring to the strong sense of neighborhood and family which is missing today. “As kids we thought, sidewalk to shoreline, that Rocky River belonged to us.”
Traipsing through the woods, now Elmwood Park, near the family home on Homeland Drive, crossing the railroad tracks and heading to Lake Erie was another great adventure. “That was my cliffs of Normandy,” added Woodward, who later was a lifeguard at Wagar and Rocky River beaches.
“One of the dimensions I talk about in the book is growing up during the war (WWII),” illustrated Woodward, who recalled the direct impact that war had on citizens as opposed to today’s conflicts.
“You were participating in the war effort by being denied a lot of good things you’d like to have,” he said, noting 40 percent of all produce at the time came from neighborhood “Victory Gardens.”
“We didn’t have the best sun on the corner of Wagar and Lake (roads), but we made do,” he recalled.
Growing up in what was basically an all-white suburb, Woodward recalled that as he was starting his career, the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s was a big influence.
“The Civil Rights movement was an eye-opener for me. You can see quite easily, when you’re growing up, you’re not aware of what I call the ‘American Apartheid’, or the segregation that exists in your society.
“Living in a white suburb, were we racists?” Woodward asked. “Not necessarily. To hate somebody, you have to be up close to them, and we didn’t see any (African Americans).”
Diversity, Woodward added, is not an end to itself. “Diversity used to be based more on religion which was tied to ethnicity and geography. Diversity has now become political (quotas). It gets abused in my judgment.”
Of the many stories he wrote throughout his career, including 100 cover stories for Newsweek, he said one of the most memorable was covering the march to Selma, Ala., led by Martin Luther King Jr.
Eventually, Woodward became the Civil Rights reporter for a newspaper in Omaha, Neb. “That’s what opened my eyes, and I brought that to Newsweek.”
An English major in college, Woodward noted, “I wrote about religion because when I walked in off the street to look for a job at Newsweek, they needed a religion editor. It’s as simple as that.”
Having met countless religious leaders, Woodward noted the Dalai Lama is one of the most interesting. “He laughs so easily and so heartily, and he can tell jokes about himself,” Woodward recalled.
“He’s very candid,” he said, adding the Dalai Lama, the exiled Tibetan Buddhist leader living in India, “looks benign,” but has his demanding side.
“He also works out every day,” said Woodward, describing the Dalai Lama’s strong grip. “I told him we’re the same age, but you have many more incarnations.”
Woodward recalled Rabbi Abraham Heschel, a Polish-born American rabbi and one of the leading Jewish theologians and philosophers of the 20th century, was a major influence.
“He became kind of a mentor. I learned a lot from him. One of the things I learned was that people who are deeply rooted in one religious tradition will understand somebody who is deeply rooted in another tradition.
“If you’re committed to a religion and it doesn’t deeply inform what is going on in (your) world, then it seems to me that you are not really living in the world of that religion,” Woodward stated.
Looking ahead, Woodward said he is planning traveling panel discussions for universities to address the question, “Is the future of American religion already in its past?”
“Great religious leaders rose in response to social volatility and change. Where are these people today?” asked Woodward. “I can’t name a single important leader or movement, and society (today) is every bit as volatile,” he added referring to events such as 9/11, the economic collapse of 2008 and 20 years of war in the Middle East.
One of the discussion topics, Woodward said, may be the “Rise of the Nones,” or those who do not identify with a specific religion. “Religion is more than being nice and doing charitable work. You don’t need to be religious to do any of those things. The word ‘nice’ is not in the Bible.”