2016-06-30
NASHVILLE, Tenn., Nov. 29 (RNS) -- American media have misconstrued the impact of Eastern religions in global politics and conflicts since the days of Vietnam, scholars told the recent annual meeting here of the American Academy 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 to Nashville's Opryland Hotel for the annual joint meeting of the academy and the Society of Biblical Literature. The meeting's 360-page joint program also 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 fared in the United States, examining present and historical media attention to Buddhism and Hinduism. They concluded that such faiths' significance too often is ignored or underestimated.

In the 1960s, when Vietnamese monks immolated themselves to protest the 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 the political arena,'' Winston said. The same misinterpretations held sway 15 years later when Shiite Muslims toppled Iran's goverment and once again in 1993 during the Branch Davidian stand-off with federal agents in Waco, Texas, she said.

Religion seems to get short shrift in television and print reporting unless the context is easy to define, said Christopher Parr of Webster University in St. Louis. Parr told of watching a TV reporter's discomfort when a voter recounted praying for an Al Gore victory. ``If that were coming out of the Bible belt with a Southern accent, I wondered if the reaction would have been different,'' he said.

Media fads tend to disappear almost as quickly as they make headlines, Parr said. Despite a splash of media attention to everything from the Dalai Lama to Hollywood movies about Buddhism, that faith may have 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 Catholic priests, its saffron-robed monks are readily identified, he said.

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

An American shift from conspicuous consumption to simplicity feeds national interest in faiths such as Buddhism that stress self-denial and meditation, added Stephen Prothero of Boston University, another panelist at the session.

Both Hinduism and Buddhism are diverse, ancient traditions long respected in the East, the scholars said. But Hinduism has usually represented abundance in American advertising and reporting, and has yet to be accorded the cultural cache often given Buddhism.

The news media still often view religion as too controversial to tackle, but part of the problem confronted by Asian religions may explain their lack of organized opposition to less-than-serious portrayals. As American religion becomes more pluralistic, newer faith arrivals may prove less willing to suffer such treatment, the scholars suggested.

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

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