Like manna from heaven, the Ethics and Public Policy Center has received $925,000 from the Pew Charitable Trusts to bring religion to one of the most godless groups this side of the flaming abyss: political reporters.

"The concern here was that political reporters were covering religion in public life but lacking information about religious people. Like what is a fundamentalist? What does the pope believe?" said Michael Cromartie, director of the center's Evangelical Studies Project.

The center will use the grant to fund a series of seminars and luncheons, a content analysis of 30 years of print and broadcast coverage of religion and three summits where reporters will spend a day and a half listening to theologians and academic experts. The kickoff summit takes place in September near Portland, Maine.

"It's not a religion seminar, it's about how religious folk relate to politics and public life," said Cromartie, who will run the project. Already, reporters from such dens of iniquity as ABC's "Nightline," CNN, the Wall Street Journal and the Los Angeles Times have signed up.

Surveys of journalists consistently show that they are a disproportionately agnostic group, compared with average Americans. But Cromartie said this is not about proselytizing.

"The purpose of this whole study is not to get the media to go back to church," he said. "Though that would be fine if they did."

WE FUNDED 'EM FIRST: Joel Blumenthal, the irrepressible public affairs specialist at the National Science Foundation, proudly informs us that seven of the big thinkers who recently received so-called genius awards from the MacArthur Foundation had been recipients of NSF grants.

"I thought you might be comforted to know that not all federal funds go to unworthy people and projects--and that the NSF, at least, is awarding grants to a significant number of certified 'geniuses,' or is that 'genii'?" Among the hyper-smart double dippers: local thinker Bruce Blair of the Brookings Institution, who collected a $29,500 NSF research grant seven years before he hit the $350,000 genius jackpot last month.

SUMMER FUN: Speaking of genii, Marc Abrahams knows some people the MacArthur Foundation might want to call if it wants to reward comic genius.

For the uninitiated, Abrahams is the merry prankster behind the Ig Nobel prizes, which are given out annually at Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to honor wacky but real scientific research. Abrahams was in town last week entertaining folks at the Library of Congress and the National Institute of Standards and Technology with tales of weird science drawn from the Ig Nobel shows or featured in the Annals of Improbable Research (AIR), a satirical journal he edits.

Any Ig Nobel winners worthy of a genius award? we asked. "Oh, yes, some of this is really important," he said. Well, perhaps. His nominees include:

* Peter Fong of Gettysburg College, who dosed clams with Prozac and studied their reaction. Fong discovered that Prozac caused the mollusks to reproduce at about 10 times their normal rate. "For clams, Prozac acts just like Viagra," Abrahams said.

* The team of biologists who wrote the paper "Monitoring Electroejaculation in the Rhinoceros with Ultrasonography" for the 1996 annual meeting of the Society for Theriogeneology. It begins with this riveting first sentence: "Electroejaculation is difficult to perform in the rhinoceros." Indeed.

* Jungian psychologist Mara Sidoli, formerly of Washington, who wrote "Farting as a Defense Against Unspeakable Dread," which is about, well, passing gas when terrified. "That was a beautiful piece of work," Abrahams recalled.

And who says they don't get jiggy at the Library of Congress? The boisterous audience sang along with parts of Abrahams's show, then followed the AIR tradition and let loose a brief flurry of paper airplanes.

THINKING YOUNG: "I'm a junkie for intellectual challenge," says Eli Lehrer, who at the tender age of 23 will become one of the youngest full-time thinkers in Washington later this month.

Lehrer joins the Heritage Foundation as a Bradley Fellow to research how reducing crime benefits the poor. It's a year-long appointment and pays in the mid-five figures. Not bad for a 23-year-old who isn't a computer guy.

Lehrer started thinking for a living almost a year to the day after he arrived in Washington, armed with a freshly minted degree in medieval studies from Cornell University and a letter of acceptance from the graduate program at the University of Chicago.

He quickly realized that the "overall job market had never been better at a time that the job market in academe had never been worse." So he ditched his plans to become a medievalist and accepted a job offer at the Washington Times's Insight magazine as a staff writer, specializing in urban issues. (He had covered urban affairs for the community newspaper in Ithaca, N.Y., while an undergrad.) He is also a contributing writer for American Enterprise magazine, published by the American Enterprise Institute.

His articles caught the eye of Adam Meyerson, Heritage vice president for educational affairs. They met for lunch at America restaurant in Union Station. A brief courtship ensued, and Lehrer starts the 26th.

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