From time to time, academics have noted the religious role performed by the news media in American society, and if there was anyone who emblemized that function it was Walter Cronkite. At the final moment of Mainline Protestant ascendancy, he was the Mainline presence on television par excellence–providing the comfortable, paternal, embracing, and morally serious presence that is establishmentarian religion at its best.
He himself was a creature of the Mainline–raised Lutheran and Presbyterian and, when his father went in for Unitarianism, moved as a teenager into the Episcopal church. In that 1966 Time cover, he could just as well be one of those theologians Henry Luce loved to put out front. After retirement, Cronkite let his ideological hair down and served as honorary chairman of the Interfaith Alliance. As he put it in a dunning letter for the organization:
Like you, I understand that freedom of speech is a founding principle of our nation, and I respect people with the courage to speak their minds. As a concerned person of faith, however, I have watched with increasing alarm as Religious Right groups manipulate religion to further their intolerant, political agendas…They have shrewdly twisted the traditional healing role of religion into an intolerant political platform.
His, of course, was the traditional role. A couple of days ago, Billy Graham issued a statement that read in part:
Walter Cronkite was one of the closest friends I had in journalism. He
was an icon. I doubt if anybody will replace him in the hearts and
minds of Americans. I respected his views on so many subjects.
For there to be icons, cultures must have niches for them to occupy. Neither in the American media nor in Mainline Protestantism do such niches any longer seem to exist.