Most religious broadcasting in the United States is aimed either at believers or at those whom the broadcasters wish to convert. But since 2001, "Speaking of Faith," a nationally syndicated radio program, has been speaking about religion, ethics and meaning in an open-minded forum.
"The approach of the show has always been to draw religious perspectives and ideas out in a way that is consonant with how people live them," says Krista Tippett, the show's originator and host.
Each week, on nearly 200 American radio stations, Tippett talks to religious people about their ideas and beliefs. But she notes that other than that hour on the air, there is relatively little non-sectarian public discussion about spiritual values. In fact, she says, there has almost been a taboo against it.
"In the latter half of the 20th century, there was a lot of speculation that religion was going to disappear as we grew ever more sophisticated and globalized and plural. And that didn't happen."
What did happen, Tippett says, is we stopped talking about religion. She quotes sociologist Peter Berger who wrote "religion became something done in private between consenting adults."
In her just-published memoir, also called Speaking of Faith, Tippett writes how she was raised as a Christian, but left the faith. She went on to a secular career as a journalist, and later, as a diplomat in Berlin during the 1980s.
She hoped that the wrongs of the world could be righted solely through political means. Yet she became unnerved by what she terms "disconnects" between high levels of policy and the human concerns they were meant to address.
"I was seeing people in East Berlin who carved out these lives of incredible dignity within a system that was unjust." She also met "very powerful people with all the freedom in the world, who in fact did not have lives of inner dignity."
Tippett says she began to ask herself questions: "What is really important? What do I want to be when I [really] grow up? And what do I have to start thinking about to be more like these people who are oppressed and yet free in some sense, and these people who are free and yet small?"
Almost despite herself, Tippett began to identify these as spiritual questions. She returned to the United States and immersed herself in the sacred texts of the world, finally getting a divinity degree at Yale University.
Ultimately, Tippett returned to Christianity as an insider, prepared to ask probing questions of herself and her faith. But she cautions that religion must not be a merely personal or academic concern. "The truth is," says Tippett, "we're connected to a world in which religion is wildly important, and strident religious voices have made their way into our political life."
Since 2001, those voices have increasingly been Muslim, and Islam is a frequent topic on Speaking of Faith. Tippett does not have non-Muslims talking about Islam on the program. She asserts that only by hearing the faithful themselves speak about faith traditions can stereotypes be dispelled.
"It is the second largest religious group in this country. It's a vast tradition, and to some extent, our understanding of the world and our sense of hope depend on our ability to ever more deeply hear Muslim voices and see Muslim lives that contradict the actions of terrorists."
Tippett frequently invites her guests to address political issues, such as abortion and global poverty, from a religious point of view. For example, she has discussed spirituality and environmentalism with Nobel Peace Laureate Wangari Maathai of Kenya, and the scientist Cal deWitt, a leading Christian evangelist. She also explores the way different religions treat universal themes such as prayer.
Krista Tippett says that ultimately, Speaking of Faith - both the program, and now, the book - show that diversity and tolerance of differences are shared religious values in all faiths.
"Being in these traditions," Tippett says, "may [actually] equip us richly for living in this world of difference and embracing it at the same time as we pursue truth to the best of our ability."