by Amy Levin
For those bizarre folks who follow, track, analyze, or write about religion and media, it is essential to maintain a keen and nuanced eye when grappling with such monstrously complex topics. Religious wars, religious dress, religious money – these are the real and yet superbly complex elements of our cultural existence. Scout any crack or cranny of popular culture and you find religion creating a glorious maze of topics for writers to discover and sift and sing to the masses.
But lately, I find that a repulsive plague of repetition and banality has swept over the disenchanted cybersphere. Each day I begin my religion news search with hopeful eagerness, sifting closely through mainstream and fringe outlets, hungry for signs of a new trend, movement, argument, study–anything other than what I consumed the day before. But I search in vain, and my doldrums have led me to take action.
That is why I’ve made a list of the five “religion and media” tropes that pervade and pox the information media highway. I’m calling on writers to take new routes and exits so that we can end this circular road to religion boredom. Oh, and there’s an ethical side as well – I aim to convince that each topic’s overabundance glosses over the political reasons for its frequency, enables bad journalism, and limits our ability to have different kinds of conversations about religion without falling asleep.
1. The Loaded Term It’s the most trending topic in the history of media coverage on religion! It’s one of the most loaded terms in our public vernacular. Widely misunderstood and continually spoken for, the term religious freedom is one that is so strategically obscure that any blogger, journalist, academic, theologian, etc., can logically apply it to any number of causes. The most polarized invocation of the term tends to occur militantly between the “religious right” and the “secular left,” or also known as “freedom of religion,” vs. “freedom from religion.” Despite efforts to clarify the concept of religious freedom as explained in the constitution as well as its linguistic evolution in popular rhetoric, this conversation is more of a military crusade to get the last word.
2. Conscience in Chief First it was Obama is Muslim (which apparently 11% of Americans still believe). Even though we’re told over and over that this is an unquestionable myth, birth certificate and all, many writers feign chronic shock every time Obama invokes his liberal Protestant God. Then, before Mitt Romney became the Republican nominee, there was Herman Cain’s black liberal church (too “confusing” for mere journalists to comprehend!), Michele Bachmann’s evangelicalism, Rick Santorum’s Catholicism, and of course Newt Gingrich’s ADD (All Denominations Deserve a try). Of course, Mitt Romney’s Mormonism is about the only thing most of us know about him, and yet we still know next to nothing about Mormonism (extra wives? funny undergarments?). The media coverage of Presidential candidates’ religious beliefs almost always centers around a discussion of religion-as-threat to government (Mormonism, Islam), American’s naïveté about their leaders’ personal lives, or whether our President’s religion does or doesn’t “matter.”
3. Religion: What is it good for? The obsession with knowing whether or not religion is “good” for society is a symptom of what many religious studies scholars call the “functionality” argument. Instead of treating religion as a fluid concept that enraptures a variety of elements in human life–including language, dress, psychology, bodily rituals, consciousness, etc.–we like to reduce it to a belief system or text whose function is either essentially “good” or “bad” for the greater public. While there may be nothing wrong with this question in a philosophical setting, when we hear the functional argument in a journalistic setting, it’s almost always a part of a greater political or theological argument.
4. Atheism vs. Religion Also known as “The Good without God Debate,” or the
“Secular Humanism Obsession.” These conversations don a number of different styles, my most favorite being the “religion and science can/cannot coexist” argument. Like the religious freedom conversation, from a historical point of view, the religion and science debate in media forums is more of a function of who is speaking than what ideas they are promoting. In other words, the coexistence of religion and science is not (that I know of!) a current threat to the human condition. An argument for their coexistence tends to stem from the religious (left), while fears of their incompatibility tend to come from Atheist forums. But my exhaustion with religion vs. science is of another matter: Why do we care?
5. We’re Getting More–or Less–Religious I call this the media’s “sociology of religion” problem. Symptoms include the pouring of vast amounts of money into studies aimed to quantify religion in the U.S., drawing “informative” conclusions about social trends from these findings, and then writing exhaustively about what we think these findings mean for the religious future. I think my skepticism for this mode of information-gathering fully matured the moment one of my graduate school professors ever-so-simply uttered: “there is a difference between information and knowledge.” Surveys proving or disproving the religiosity of Americans may offer us information about how people take surveys – perhaps even about how they identify religiously. But such polls disguise, or even enable, a kind of mathematic religious oversimplification: more “secularism” equals less “religion.” But to the dismay of many secularists, religions like Christianity and Islam are expanding rapidly around the globe. Furthermore, the idea that we can measure religion (aka, know it when we see it) is one of the greatest misunderstandings of Euro-American thought, and our attempt to name and control religion is historically and presently tied to colonialism, Orientalism, and neoliberal exploitation.
*Other trending topics that didn’t make the cut include: the evolution of religion, the Dalai Lama loves interfaith, and Tom Cruise.