When Minnesota Governor Jesse Ventura dismissed religion as a "sham" and a crutch for weak-minded people, the pundits pounced. Ridiculing Ventura, commentators like E.J. Dionne hastened to praise religious belief and the strong-minded leaders it produced, like Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. The governor's approval ratings declined; he repented and vowed to behave: "I'm not going to offer my personal opinions on anything," Ventura groused.
Does anyone still believe that media elites are hostile to religion? Ventura's categorical dismissal of religious people (the vast majority of Americans) was refreshing precisely because it violated norms of religious correctness, even though it was rather facile. Of course, there are intelligent strong-minded people who believe in God; that's what makes religious belief interesting. But defenders of religion routinely make equally thoughtless generalizations about the unmitigated virtues of belief and the inevitable vices of disbelief; and pundits nod in pious unison.
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Consider the claptrap that immediately followed last spring's mass shootings at Columbine High School. In their rush to find reasons, commentators and politicians instantly cited impiety. Presidential candidate Gary Bauer said that we shouldn't be surprised by such violence; it is the natural consequence of not teaching kids about God. Weekly Standard editor Fred Barnes blamed paganism. Undeterred by a lack of information about the upbringing of the two mass murderers, Barnes suggested on the FOX News Network that if the shooters had been schooled in Christianity and urged to read the Bible, they would not have turned to violence.
The statement was stunning in its stupidity. You don't have to be familiar with the history of religious warfare to know that Bible reading and belief in God sometimes sanctify horrific violence. You only have to remember the bombing of the World Trade Center, the murders of several abortion doctors, or the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin--perpetrated by Muslim, Christian, and Jewish fundamentalists, respectively, who believed they were serving God.
I'm not suggesting that religion causes murder and mayhem. It is, of course, a source of virtue and benevolence as well as deadly fanaticism. I am simply stressing the obvious point that is lost in our reflexive hosannas to godliness: Religious faith is an exceedingly complex and variable phenomenon that affects different people differently--like pornography--although pundits treat it like a feel-good Spielberg movie. It makes little sense to talk about "religion" in the singular, John Dewey observed. We can only talk about "religions," plural.
These days we praise America's established religions relentlessly. Pundits predictably assert that our preoccupation with godliness reflects concern about declining moral values and the aging of the baby boomers. We shouldn't dismiss this analysis simply because it's banal. But religion and pop spirituality movements have been ascendant for at least 10 to 20 years, in part because of the approach of the year 2000, and in part because culture is like real estate--it's cyclical.
Whether the media lead or follow cultural trends, they rarely, if ever, challenge them. The mass media cover religious belief faithfully, in accordance with conventional wisdom about its virtues. Mark Silk, author of Unsecular Media, observes that print coverage of religion "tends to be softball" because "a lot of readers go to church" and, in general, "newspapers and newsweeklies are not in the business of offending their readers."
Coverage of religion has increased significantly in the past four or five years, partly in response to criticism of the press for neglecting it. According to the Religious Newswriters Association, over 400 reporters are assigned to the religion beat at secular newspapers and magazines. ABC, CBS, NBC, PBS, and NPR employ religion reporters. In 1998 some 65 American journalists seeking enlightenment or maybe redemption journeyed to Rome to hear the pope at a conference entitled Media and Religion 2000. "I came out of the conference convinced we have to do a better job of helping our readers in their spiritual search," Tim McGuire, editor of the Minneapolis Star Tribune, reported. The focus on increased coverage of religion seems reflective, in part, of the drive to provide readers with news they can use.
"Religion is one of the favorite cover subjects of Time, Newsweek, and U.S. News and World Report," a 1999 survey by Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR) attested. (Reporting on the religion and media conference, McGuire noted that newsmagazines "have found they really connect with audiences" when they offer stories that address the "what's it all about" questions.) In its review of national newsweeklies, FAIR did not find the hostility toward religion of which conservative critics complain; instead it detected "an element of pandering ... in the newsweekly's frequent return to cover stories like Time's 'The Search for Jesus' and U.S. News' 'In Search of Jesus.' Often religious topics are handled with kid gloves to avoid offending the believers who are likely to buy such issues at the newsstands. Perhaps that's why Time's 'Does Heaven Exist?' cover article (3/24/97) doesn't include a single source who says no."
I've been following media coverage of religion for the past several years, and FAIR's report was no surprise to me. Reading mass market national magazines--women's magazines as well as the newsweeklies--or watching TV, you find generally uncritical, unquestioning stories about the efficacy of prayer, the existence of angels, the resurgent spirituality of baby boomers (and its attendant virtues), the likelihood that at least some Bible stories are true, and the marriage of science and religion ("Science Finds God," Newsweek trumpeted in a 1998 cover story). You'll find many similarly unskeptical stories about faith healing, various psychic phenomena, or communications with the dead.
What you won't find is an equivalent number of articles promoting atheism or, at least, presenting it sympathetically. My own unscientific Internet search for magazines and newspapers (in 1998 and 1999) yielded only a handful of uncritical stories about atheism or secular humanism. These included the occasional op-ed piece in defense of godlessness, by a beleaguered atheist or agnostic.
My own experience writing and speaking critically or irreverently about religious faith has only confirmed my belief that the mainstream media are unduly fearful of offending the faithful. Individual members of the clergy or religious institutions do sometimes come under attack, especially when they're exposed as hypocrites. But traditional religious beliefs are sacrosanct. In deference to them, a 1996 op-ed piece that I wrote for The New York Times in 1994 on New Age practices was purged by an editor of any expressions of irreverence toward established religion. I had been invited to write disparagingly about Hillary Clinton's interest in New Age and her imaginary conversations with Eleanor Roosevelt but had been warned against even mentioning established religious beliefs. So when I observed that Hillary's conversations with Eleanor didn't seem particularly weird when you considered that millions of Americans regularly talk to Jesus (who's been dead a lot longer than Mrs. Roosevelt), I was chastised for being "offensive." You can't say that; we'd get angry letters, my editor explained.
Letters to the Times, however, are also subject to rules against irreverence, a recent item in The Nation by Daniel Radosh suggests. On October 25 of this year, the Times published a letter from Radosh responding to attacks on the Harry Potter books. His published letter observed that the Bible contains much material that some would consider harmful to children. It did not, however, include a reference to biblical "sorcery," because that was excised by anxious editors: "The entire affair is presided over by an all-powerful magical being," Radosh's original letter observed. The editors also cut a flip suggestion that we might "owe it to the kids" to ban the Bible. These editorial changes "were not for length or clarity," Radosh remarks. "Rather the editors felt that the readers might 'misunderstand' my point, even after I assured them that I meant to say precisely what they were afraid people might think I was saying."
It's not clear to me why you need to be afraid of saying anything if you're The New York Times. I suspect that my editor and Radosh's editors were simply reacting reflexively, not in fear but out of unthinking respect for social norms. Irreverence, let alone criticism directed at established Western religions, is dismissed by the moderates who dominate the media as gratuitously rude or offensive; like racist speech, it's not considered part of civil discourse. Many adhere to the usually (but not always) unspoken rule that "people shouldn't criticize religion." Others explain that faith is "a private matter." Tell that to the women in Afghanistan.
I'm not arguing that the media should make a practice of attacking religious beliefs as mindlessly as it promotes them, airing the invectives of militant atheists along with the pieties of believers. I am suggesting that "nothing sacred" is a good motto for critics and journalists. It doesn't imply cynicism or nihilism, but rather a purposeful skepticism--a willingness to interrogate our most passionate beliefs and assumptions. Religions exert immense social and political power; how can we abdicate our responsibility to critique them? Religions are collections of ideas about God, and ideas should be subject to hazing. ¤