How William Lobdell Lost His Faith in Orange County

Bad Faith
William Lobdell’s Losing My Religion describes how Orange County Christianity lost its most ardent journalistic supporter

Consider this: In Orange County, a place Harper’s described a couple of years ago as one of the two nexus points of American evangelical Christianity, neither the Los Angeles Times nor TheOrange County Register bothers to employ a full-time religion reporter anymore. It’s now just another beat, somewhere between Aliso Viejo politics and Vector Control on the scale of importance for editors. And that’s a shame, not just because national religious stories emerge from here almost weekly, but because the papers were pioneers in covering matters of faith as a serious beat and not a freak show of big-haired Crouches and ever-smiling Schullers.

If it had been up to William Lobdell, the local papers would still be covering the religion beat. The longtime Times Orange County reporter and former Daily Pilot editor took a buyout last year, and his paper’s rapidly declining fortunes was just one minor reason. See, Lobdell was a Christian—the type who reads Scripture daily, attends services and Bible study groups with passion instead of obligation. He wanted to work from within the big, bad, mostly secular world of journalism to change minds. But after unearthing multiple blockbuster stories about the foibles of Orange County’s religious titans, Lobdell lost his faith. This sad journey is the subject of his well-written first book, Losing My Religion: How I Lost My Faith Reporting on Religion in America—and Found Unexpected Peace.

In nearly 300 quick pages, Lobdell revisits 20 years of his life in a style that recounts his award-winning Times work—meticulous, subdued, never sensational, always respectful. It starts with a disturbing confession—when a friend (former Weekly editor Will Swaim) meets a distraught Lobdell in the late 1980s and suggests he needs God, Lobdell writes, “If Will had said in the same confident tone, ‘You need crack cocaine. That’s what’s missing in your life,’ it probably would have sounded good, too.”

He eventually finds salvation at a men’s retreat, one suggested by local conservative commentator Hugh Hewitt (who comes off as a compassionate man rather than the clueless blowhard he plays on the radio). Once saved, Lobdell prays for and eventually receives an opportunity to cover religion for the Times, a topic he felt was dismissed as a “novelty act.” When the reporter tells his editors in the mid-1990s about Saddleback Church, they had never even heard of the place.

Losing My Religion then transforms into an artful recounting of Lobdell’s career, listing story after story, experience after experience, mixing journalistic exhilaration with spiritual growth. But his perspective began changing with the start of the Catholic Church sex-abuse scandal in 2002. By then, his approach was deeply personal—Lobdell was taking classes to convert to Catholicism, even though he already had reservations after a priest labeled his wife, reporter Greer Wylder of GreersOC.com, an adulteress for never formally ending her previous marriage in the eyes of the Church.

The efforts of Diocese of Orange leaders to cover up child molestations at the hands of their priests dealt a devastating blow to Lobdell’s spirituality. He gamely tried to maintain it in the face of these scandals (and also those he unearthed regarding Mormonism and the Trinity Broadcasting Network), but covering the sins of holy men was just too much to reconcile with the idea of a loving God. It also didn’t help that the faithful vilified Lobdell for reporting on their leaders’ limits. In perhaps the book’s most salacious line, he describes supporters of pedophile priest Michael Harris as “the Catholic version of the O.J. Simpson jury; they refused to acknowledge the mountains of evidence against their priest.”

Although Lobdell no longer believes, most chapters begin with a relevant Bible verse. And he seems to find fault only with the practices of Christian churches, rarely uttering a word against other faiths even though their organizations are just as prone to warping God’s word. But Losing My Religion is valuable whether you believe or don’t: It’s a chronicle of the Orange County of millions, the Orange County Lobdell loved, but just can’t bear to belong to anymore.

 

Losing My Religion: How I Lost My Faith Reporting On Religion In America—and Found Unexpected Peace by William Lobdell; Collins. Hardcover, 291 pages, $25.99. Lobdell will sign copies of his book at Borders, 1890 Newport Blvd., Costa Mesa, (949) 631-8661. Sat., 2 p.m.

garellano@ocweekly.com

 

 
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