49,999 Girls Gone Wild

“Swazi females drop chastity tassels,” reported CNN on August 22, describing a warm-up event to a ritual dance of 50,000 virgins who perform bare-breasted for Swaziland’s King Mswati, who will pick one lucky girl to be his bride. CNN loves it — and so do, one suspects, the Christian conservative activists who preach abstinence as the only solution to Africa’s AIDS crisis. And, indeed, the chastity tassels — worn to publicly signify virginity — are a response to Swazilands horrendous HIV epidemic, directly afflicting 40% of the population. In such a situation, the tassels — an abandoned tradition reinsituted by King Mswati, the last of Africa’s absolute monarchs, in response to AIDS — seems like a justifiable idea. And it makes great copy for CNN — exotic, erotic, and wholesome all at the same time.

But wait — there’s more. On August 28,CNN presented a different story. Many of the details were the same — 50,000 bare-breasted virgins dancing for the 37-year-old king, who will choose one to be his bride — make that his 13th bride — but the emphasis was much different, now that the king’s 17-year-old daughter, apparently miffed at her lecher-king dad, had revealed that palace officials whipped here and other young women for playing their music too loudly. The story CNN chuckled over as local color and good public health policy takes on a different tone.Now CNN notices that King Mswati is, well, a king — living fantastically large while his people starve, banning political parties, ignoring the rule of law, and re-instituting an ancient custom as the ultimate strip show from which he selects child virgins for deflowering.

Meanwhile, we’re wondering what happens to the 49,999 women not selected to join the harem — they’ve just missed out on their one dream ticket out of abject poverty, they’ve danced naked in front of thousands of men, they’ve dropped their chastity tassels. Now that’s an AIDS policy.

Sermonasaurs!

Everybody likes giant, roadside dinosaurs — even folks who believe that dinosaurs disproveevolution. Whatever — a T-Rex by the gas pump? Neat-o. Which is why, no doubt, this story on attempts by creationists to use such icons as kitsch as evangelizing tools is today’s most emailed story from the L.A. Times. That, and the fact that campy creationism stories allow readers to think about one of the central anxieties of our time — fundamentalism vs. science — absent the more painful markers of the debate, such as whether LGBT people are, in fact, people, or abominations; or whether women should hold equal power in society, or are biologically made to bow before male headship.

Those questions are downers for all involved. But dinosaurs are fun, which is why variations on this story — that of a creationist theme park — are becoming a new stand-by in religion reporting.

But something’s missing, and it’s not just theological nuance. The ghost in this story isn’t religion, it’s class. What divides conservative Christians who’re horrified by these tacky sermonasaurs and conservative Christians who see them as the best thing since neon crosses? Money. And that’s a subject religion reporters always shy away from.

Religion Reporting Without Religion

The NYT‘s Gardiner Harris manages to report an entire religion story without one reference to religion. And we’re not so sure that’s a bad thing. The story is the latest maneuver in the ongoing FDA struggle over the “morning-after pill,” set into motion in part by the radical evangelical activism of FDA advisor Dr. W. David Hager, later forced to step down amidst allegations of political dirty tricks and much, much worse. The religion is — well, this wouldn’t be a story were it not for religious views trying to block the pill. That said, is there a case to be made for reporting it point-blank, as it were, absent the theology that fuels the controversy?