Beliefnet
NASHVILLE, Tenn., Nov. 29 (RNS) -- American media have misconstrued the impact of Eastern religions in global politics and conflicts since the days ofVietnam, scholars told the recent annual meeting here of the AmericanAcademy of Religion.

As Eastern faiths have grown in America, the media also has misappropriated images from those religions, academicians said during a seminar titled ``Framing the Other.''

The session was one of 400 drawing thousands of scholars toNashville's Opryland Hotel for the annual joint meeting of the academy and theSociety of Biblical Literature. The meeting's 360-page joint programalso included seminars on Holocaust denial, the ethics of biotechnology,sexual minorities and American democracy, Jesus in the movies, among others.

At "Framing the Other," scholars explored how Asian religions have faredin the United States, examining present and historical media attentionto Buddhism and Hinduism. They concluded that such faiths' significancetoo often is ignored or underestimated.

In the 1960s, when Vietnamese monks immolated themselves to protestthe Vietnam War, American reporters generally ignored Buddhism's long history in the region. Instead of examining the religion's role in Vietnam's life, Western media usually allowed its coverage to be shaped by a ``skewed portrait'' of Buddhism as a rationalist philosophy, said Diane Winston of the Pew Charitable Trusts in Philadelphia.

``Religion is marginalized because it is considered anathema in thepolitical arena,'' Winston said. The same misinterpretations held sway15 years later when Shiite Muslims toppled Iran's goverment and onceagain in 1993 during the Branch Davidian stand-off with federal agentsin Waco, Texas, she said.

Religion seems to get short shrift in television and print reportingunless the context is easy to define, said Christopher Parr of WebsterUniversity in St. Louis. Parr told of watching a TV reporter'sdiscomfort when a voter recounted praying for an Al Gore victory. ``Ifthat were coming out of the Bible belt with a Southern accent, Iwondered if the reaction would have been different,'' he said.

Media fads tend to disappear almost as quickly as they makeheadlines, Parr said. Despite a splash of media attention to everythingfrom the Dalai Lama to Hollywood movies about Buddhism, that faith mayhave resisted media exploitation, Parr said.

Another faith of Eastern origin, Hinduism, has not fared as well.

Buddhism may be treated with more seriousness because, like Catholicpriests, its saffron-robed monks are readily identified, he said.

The crux of the matter may be America's tendency to define itself asa ``culture of images,'' said Stewart M. Hoover of the University ofColorado at Boulder. Because they still seem exotic in a nationdominated by Christians and Jews, Asian religions tend to becharacterized as ancient and tribal, Hoover said.

An American shift from conspicuous consumption to simplicity feedsnational interest in faiths such as Buddhism that stress self-denial andmeditation, added Stephen Prothero of Boston University, another panelistat the session.

Both Hinduism and Buddhism are diverse, ancient traditions longrespected in the East, the scholars said. But Hinduism has usuallyrepresented abundance in American advertising and reporting, and has yetto be accorded the cultural cache often given Buddhism.

The news media still often view religion as too controversial totackle, but part of the problem confronted by Asian religions mayexplain their lack of organized opposition to less-than-seriousportrayals. As American religion becomes more pluralistic, newer faitharrivals may prove less willing to suffer such treatment, the scholarssuggested.

``It's possible that, in 20 years, we'll think it as odd to useBuddha as Jesus to sell an appliance,'' Prothero said.

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