Religion & Public Life With Mark Silk

As a Beliefnet newbie, I’d like to add my two cents to last week’s dust-up between my colleagues Rod Dreher and Nicole Neroulias over the issue of journalistic treatment of religious differences. To briefly recap, Nicole confessed to being a bit troubled by Steve Prothero’s new book, God is Not One: And Why Their Differences Matter, saying that she prefers to consider what brings religions together rather than the conflicts among them. Rod took exception in a couple of posts, first using an essay of Jay Rosen’s to criticize journalists for bias in favor of the bland middle ground; then (with an assist from GetReligion’s Terry Mattingly) claiming that religious conflict makes journalists nervous.

Given that (as Nicole suggests) the usual complaint against religion reporting is that there’s too much emphasis on “conflict stories,” it’s in a way refreshing to encounter criticism from the other side. In Unsecular Media, I contend that one of the standard themes (topoi) of religion reporting is that tolerance is a Good Thing. The larger argument of the book, however, is that themes like that are not the special province of “the media,” but rather deeply embedded in American culture. If American journalists prefer to privilege “my Father’s House has many mansions” religiosity to a model of endemic tension, they are solidly in line with the basic inclinations of the rest of the population.

The journalistic challenge here is more subtle than usually
acknowledged. An example of public intolerance–.e.g. a prominent
Baptist preacher declaring that God does not hear the prayer of a
Jew–is reported on precisely to hold the remark up to general obloquy.
But if we recognize that God is truly not one, then why should this
expression of odium theologicum even be news at all? The point is
that what is considered or not considered newsworthy necessarily
reflects that norms of the culture within which the journalism is being

Of course it’s not good journalism to give short shrift to the religious
dimension of social conflict just because we wish it weren’t there. But
there’s no less danger in reporting as if religious differences create
identifiable and permanent conflicts of values among groups of
adherents. As important as it is to recognize the varying ways in which
major religious traditions view the world, the danger of embracing the Protherian
approach–whether in journalistic or other shorthand versions–lies in
reducing complex and ancient traditions to a few catchphrases.

Back in January, David Brooks went
so far
as to blame Voodoo–a religion
that “spreads the message that life is capricious and planning
futile”–for the extent of the devastation inflicted by the earthquake
in Haiti.
Likewise, Pope Benedict’s Regensburg speech dismissed
as a fideistic religion that ignores the kind of marriage of
faith and reason that characterizes Catholic scholastic tradition.
Such wildly inaccurate characterizations are about as useful to public
discourse as shouting fire in a crowded theater. 

Dreher’s particular concern has to do with an alleged journalistic
reluctance (observed among his erstwhile colleagues at the Dallas
Morning News
) to underplay Muslim extremism. But when it comes to
coverage of tough religious ideas, there was, after 9/11, no end to
reporting on the Koranic command to jihad. Was it a mandate to war
against all infidels or an injunction to self-reform? Should we expect
there to be a single answer to such a question in a religious tradition
of a billion people and several major sects, any more than we would
expect a single understanding of the New Testament proscription of
divorce for the world’s billion and a half Christians?

It’s also worth bearing in mind that the impetus to lift up religious
differences very often amounts to nothing more than a rationalization of
existing prejudice. Take a look at Jim Dwyer’s June 18 NYT piece
on a town hall meeting on Staten Island to discuss the proposed
purchase of a former convent by a Muslim organization:

There were many statements from the audience dressed up as questions to
the Muslim representatives: Were any parts of the Koran incorrect? Would
they denounce Hamas and Hezbollah,
and wasn’t it true that they were connected to those groups? Didn’t all
terrorists come out of mosques?

Mr. Finnegan, 25, began by introducing himself. “I said, ‘My name is
Bill Finnegan, and I’m a United States Marine recently returned from
Afghanistan,’ ” he said.

Cheers rang out. He turned to the representatives of the Muslim group,
seated at a table in the front.

“My question to you is, will you work to form a cohesive bond with the
people of this community?” he asked.

The men said yes.

Mr. Finnegan then faced the audience. “And will you work to form a
cohesive bond with these people — your new neighbors?” he asked.

The crowd booed. A voice called out: “No!”

Message delivered. 

Good reporting, Dwyer. Happy, Rod?

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