After the death of his father at 29, Mr. Abernethy was raised in the Washington home of his paternal grandfather, a Baptist minister who preached to President Warren G. Harding, Chief Justice Charles Evans Hughes and other prominent residents of the city.
The “tapestry” of his Christian upbringing, a love of “old hymns” and the enduring lessons of his childhood faith shaped his eventual career at PBS, he told Arthur J. Magida, author of the 2006 book “Opening the Doors of Wonder: Reflections on Religious Rites of Passage.”
But he was also deeply affected by his years abroad during the Cold War, which left him with a sense that religion and ethics were not being explored in the American media beyond anti-Communist sloganeering.
With NBC for more than four decades until 1994, he worked in Washington, Los Angeles, London and Moscow, and he covered the fledgling U.S. space program, Congress and the Soviet Union’s collapse.
He took a leave of absence from the network in 1984 to study theology and social ethics at Yale Divinity School and, in retirement, he continued working for NBC as a contributing correspondent for religion.
In 1997, he launched his PBS news program, which would run for almost 20 years and collect more than 200 industry awards.
Mr. Abernethy was the host and executive editor of the show, which featured national and international stories and commentary on religion. It included interviews of newsmakers such as former president Jimmy Carter and the Dalai Lama, profiles of religious leaders including Rabbi Jonathan Sacks and evangelist Billy Graham and surveys about “nones,” or the religiously unaffiliated, and faith after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
Author Judith Valente, who was a contributing correspondent for “Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly,” said Mr. Abernethy emphasized the need for his reporters to tell compelling stories.
“You could see that in the care and attention Bob gave to the writing in each of the segments we reported for ‘Religion & Ethics,’ ” she said. “He also believed that religion deserved the same kind of penetrating coverage that is given to other subjects, like politics, economics and social issues. He was truly a pioneer in religion news coverage.”
Mr. Abernethy co-edited with William Bole the 2007 book “The Life of Meaning: Reflections on Faith, Doubt, and Repairing the World.”
In the book’s introduction, Mr. Abernethy recalled his experience covering the space program’s start and communism’s fall.
“But nothing I have done has been as personally satisfying as founding and working on ‘RENW,’ ” he wrote, “and the main reason for that is the many opportunities the show provides for sitting down with the likes of Archbishop [Desmond] Tutu — extraordinary men and women who speak as naturally about their faith and doubt and spiritual practices as they do about the weather.”
Robert Gordon Abernethy was born Nov. 5, 1927, in Geneva, Switzerland, where his father was an aide to a top YMCA official before becoming a professor of religion at the private Hill School in Pottstown, Pa.
The elder Abernethy died in 1930 of complications from an appendicitis operation, and the family moved to Washington to live with Mr. Abernethy’s grandfather, who was pastor of Calvary Baptist Church. Meanwhile, Mr. Abernethy’s mother found work teaching piano at the National Cathedral School.
Mr. Abernethy graduated from the Hill School in 1945. After Army service in post-World War II occupied Japan, he received bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Princeton University.
Following his graduate degree in 1952 from Princeton’s school of public and international affairs, he joined NBC News and worked his way from the Washington bureau to high-profile overseas and domestic assignments. He was a longtime member of the Cleveland Park Congregational United Church of Christ in Washington.
His first wife, the former Jean Montgomery, died in 1980. In 1984, he married Marie Cheremeteff Grove. In addition to his wife, of Jaffrey, N.H., survivors include a daughter from his first marriage, Jane Abernethy of Brunswick; a daughter from his second marriage, Elizabeth Abernethy of Los Angeles; and four stepchildren.
Mr. Abernethy was fascinated by the breadth of religious expression beyond what he considered the religious right’s frequent monopolization of news coverage, his daughter Jane said. But even friction among religious factions in the United States was, for him, a major underreported story with endless depths and nuances.
“There is more of a mixture in this country, more religious traditions all here together,” he told The Washington Post in 2000. “This challenge of ‘whose truth is most true’ is there at a theoretical level, but we seem to deal with it, out of respect for religious freedoms, that tradition of innate tolerance. We’ve had episodes that would suggest we’re not all that tolerant, but we seem to be dealing with it very well. But it’s a potential source of a lot of trouble.”
“I think the more we can do to help people understand both the similarities and differences between us, the better,” he added. “That’s by no means our mission. Our mission is to tell interesting stories, to tell the news. But if, as a byproduct of that, these other things can be assisted, we wouldn’t mind.”
— Religion News Service
The Washington Post contributed to this report.
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