I am paying more attention to religion news these days.  I’ve written about it before but had turned my attention elsewhere until recently, for obvious reasons.  More and more non-specialists are now writing about religion. That is a good and a bad thing. Good because religion is increasingly covered in news pages (breaking a long tradition of segregating it), bad because they are–well–non specialists and a lot of lacunae then appear.  But some of these lacunae even infect those who concentrate on religion. SCOTUS

I’ll attempt a more comprehensive account of this, but for now, here is an example from this morning’s Religion News Service feed.  In a story titled “Why Catholics and Jews Dominate the Supreme Court?”    Yonat Shimron raises an issue that has been obvious for years but rarely commented on.  With confirmation of Kavanaugh, the Court will have three Jews and six Catholics (depending on how you count Gorsuch who was raised Catholic and attended Jesuit High School).

This is a real concern, not for the 1950s reasons of majority anxiety about “Papism” (remember the Kennedy election?).  We’re past that, fortunately.  No, it is a real concern to me because the Court is dealing with religion cases more frequently, and frequently exhibits a bias, not based on theology, but on its understanding of the nature American religious practice.  Simply put, Catholics (and I supposed Jews) see the nature and location and status of religious practice differently than Protestants do. For the latter, faith infuses everyday life (work, civic action, leisure) with moral purpose.  It is not something that is particularly marked by set-apart ritual.

That is a difference that makes all the difference when the court needs to decide how legitimate certain actions in the private sphere are.  The expected raft of “religious liberty” cases that we can anticipate before the court will surely try to greatly expand the range of private action that falls under the protections of religious expression.  The Masterpiece Cakeshop decision already did this, legitimating a faith-based exception to a public accommodation under the rubric that it was somehow “religious expression.”

What the Catholics and Jews on the Supreme Court may not be prepared for is the dizzying array of things that Protestants may come to seek protection for.  We’ll see.

But back to the story.  Shimron largely fails to adequately answer the question.  Her main explanation? that Catholics favor education, so there are a lot of educated Catholic lawyers out there.  She quotes John Fea, who suddenly is the global expert on American Protestantism, in saying that Evangelicals have stressed education less.

But this commits one of the most glaring fallacies inherent in contemporary journalism and commentary about religion. Exactly who–we might ask–dominated the court before all these Jews and Catholics showed up?  Well, establishment Protestants, that is who.  Did we not notice?  What happened to them?

The easy assumption that Protestantism=Evangelicalism is both lazy and a product of a decades-long campaign by the Evangelical intelligentsia to expunge from history the legacy of what we now call “mainline Protestantism” and replace it with Evangelicalism.  Fea himself is guilty of this in many of his public comments (though not so much in his scholarship).

As Shimron notes in the article, Catholics currently make up around 22% of the U.S. population (and Jews 2%).  She–and Fea–speculate that somehow proportional representation will lead to more Protestants on the Court down the road because 25% or so of the U.S. is Evangelical (a declining percentage, by the way–though these numbers are fungible in a number of ways).  But, according to Pew, 22% of Americans are Non-Evangelical but Protestant. What about them?  How will they be represented?

Shimron does end with a hint at the right answer to her question.  It is about politics, and largely about the politics of abortion.  Reagan and the Bushes both realized that conservative Protestants–the core of the Evangelical vote–could overcome any historical uneasiness about Catholic influence because of their shared focus on “life” issues (not all of those issues–of course–not about capital punishment or war, where the Catholic Bishops have taken a view quite different from conservative Protestants).  Those conservative Protestants and Catholics combined create a sizeable electorate.

That is why there are so many Catholics on the Court, and why we should be a bit worried.

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I’ve been working for years to get more religion on the agenda in my own field (media or communication studies).  A new research project at our Center has given me the opportunity to focus more directly on that project by bringing together scholars from media and scholars from religion in a rich conversation.

We are pursuing that in two ways right at the moment. First, we’re working on developing a platform through which these conversations, along with explorations we are all doing at the intersection of media and religion can be done collaboratively and publicly.

Second, we’ve had some success this year in getting two formal panels on the program of the International Communication Association (ICA) meetings in Prague in May.  ICA is the senior and most substantive of the various academic communication-studies associations.  It is also my “home” association. This is a big and satisfying step, and an accomplishment (that I won’t take full credit for–there are other colleagues who also deserve recognition for making this happen).

As I’ve begun working on my own interventions in these, I’ve started thinking about media and religion in a way that can identify an “object” through which I could investigate and interpret relations between them.  I’m particularly interested in Protestantism, and this has me thinking about the way various religious traditions or sensibilities choose to instrumentalize communication.

More on this later, but I’ve had an insight into one of the vexing problems those of us who want to push theory in media/communication studies ahead as regards religion: the conceptual dead-end provided by James Carey’s classic work on “Ritual” theories of Communication.  I’ve come to realize that the binary he presents is too narrowly drawn (or rather that it is missing a “third” cell).  Carey poses the problem of communication theory being either “instrumental” or “ritual.”  He suggests we must begin thinking about the possibilities of a ritual paradigm.  Good as far as it goes.

It is clear that Carey’s notion of ritual is rooted in religion and specifically in the religion he knows best–his own Catholicism.  For the Catholic imagination, communication could be instrumentalized through some version of closely-circulated and hermetic ritual practice, neatly bounded by moral imaginaries focused on identity and shared meaning.

I may be preparing to argue, though, that this view misses an essential historicist point.   That is that the dominant forms and paradigms of communication in the American experience are Protestant, not Catholic, and that for Protestantism, communication is instrumentalized around a different set of logics.  Thus, a more commodious definition of the place of religion in our theories of public communication would need to move beyond Carey’s simple binary opposing “ritual” and “transportation” models. In fact, what Carey defines as this latter–secular–paradigm could instead be seen as deeply embedded in the dominant religious frame of the American project–Protestantism.

As I said, more on this in due course.

My weekend began with a lecture to the kind of group public scholars love:  well-read, engaged, open to new insights, ready with good, compelling questions.  It was a real shot in the arm for a career that has always had to justify itself and its significance.  My lecture, and a workshop the next day where five of my colleagues presented their work in a wide range of media, contexts, and articulations, all revolving around the mediation of religion in contemporary life, showed how important and increasingly relevant, scholarship can and should be.

Leonard Pitts’s column in today’s Washington Post raised the stakes for scholarship and for education.  Pitts’s concern is about the potential threat posed to American democracy by a future president who shares our current President’s ability to manipulate media discourse but who actually is ideologically focused and competent.  Pitts ends by calling for renewed efforts in education to learn from this experience and head off a future digital-media demagogue with rededication to the classics of philosophy, history, law, etc.

Curiously, but not surprisingly, Pitts neglects something absolutely critical to contemporary education of the kind he points to:  media literacy.  Yes, it is a curricular topic, becoming established at colleges and universities across the country. And, its objective is precisely what Pitts has in mind: to equip citizens with the knowledge and skills they need to exercise their democratic rights–and to cherish and ensure the future of democracy–skills in discernment, practice, politics, social relations, and communication.  These are, of course, the very skills that have always been thought of as essential to democracy (what liberal education at Universities such as mine was supposed to be about).  It’s just that today those skills need to be tempered and honed to articulate into the rapidly-evolving means of communication.

It is not surprising that Pitts, as a journalist, missed “the media” in his curricular desires.  Journalists seem to find it difficult to step outside their own context.

I would like to argue that in addition to these topics, one more is increasingly critical: religion. Religion plays an ever-more important role in contemporary culture and politics, and the way religion is mediated is of increasing importance and demands literacies of its own.  That is why I read another item in today’s news with interest.  My local paper covered–quite unproblematically–on the front of its local section–and with somewhat shameless promotional photo essays online–the services of a new “pop-up church” that our local magachurch unveiled yesterday.  There are two learnings here:  First, that religion can become news when it looks like commerce or does something that reporters and editors find unusual, photogenic, or trendy.

Second, and more important, a signal to those of us who want to think about relations between religion and media:  evolving trends like multi-site churches reveal that scholarship needs to understand marketing, branding, and the economy as powerful mediations of religion in contemporary times.  Many of us have known that all along, but it needs to find its way into our scholarship and into public discourse and public understanding of religion.

I’m going to sound like a crank about NPR.

The purpose of this blog, as it says at the top, is to focus on media, religion, and culture, and specifically at how media cultures articulate “the religious.”  This has become more and more of a fraught task in the past decades.  Think 9/11, Pope Francis, Beyoncé, Religion in the Trump election, etc.

Hulu Handmaid

George Kraychyk/Hulu

The way journalism treats these things is an essential part of the story.  It is not just about journalism as “public information,” though an informed public is of course an important democratic goal.  It is also about how the coverage of religion comes to contribute to the meaning of religion in an era where so much happens in and to “publics.”

By any measure, NPR is a central voice in American journalism.  It is not marginal, but arguably a thought, opinion, and–most important–practice leader.  What it does matters, and monitoring it is important in a number of ways.

So, I’ve devoted two recent posts to NPR coverage, and now am at it again. This time, it’s NPR’s review of the celebrated HULU adaptation of “Handmaid’s Tale.”  By all accounts, it is an impressive production, and an impressive reading of Margaret Atwood’s cautionary 1983 novel.  But, a very fine review in the April 25 Religion Dispatches by Christopher Douglas suggests an important lacuna around race.  Douglas’s argument–the one significant here–is that Atwood’s was a very smart and provocative telling of a tale of gender and race modulated to historic themes in American conservative Christianity.  The series is fairly explicit about gender, but muffs race, to put his argument simply.

His analysis is smart, historically-grounded and sound, and points very directly to important frame religion must hold in the logic of the “Tale” and its significance and meaning today.

So, what was wrong with the NPR review? Well, Eric Deggans somehow manages to review the series without even mentioning religion.

I’m sorry, that is simply not good enough.

 

 

I wrote last time about an NPR story covering a conservative Catholic congregation in Maryland claiming a “religious liberty”-like justification for turning to a proto-monastic congregational style.  NPR Fails to Improve

I criticized the story and the reporter for failing to contextualize such rhetorics.  They had fallen into a common trap for journalists–treating religious claims with deference, and leaving them more-or-less unexamined.  In the case, members of this congregation were portrayed as feeling alienated by the broader culture and choosing to separate themselves, and their claims were treated as authentic and sound in historical and theological terms.  At least that was the tacit message.

The problem is–as I pointed out there–discourses about alienation and “religious liberty” do not refer to long-standing or historic relations but in fact are modern, and the product of particular efforts among conservative Christians that are more political than they are theological or historical.  I found a recent New York Times Piece by Molly Worthen to provide some helpful insights into these things.  Worthen describes in detail the history of conservative and Evangelical strategies to position questions of social truth and meaning in structured contexts of argument and discourse.

By so doing, they craft a theological claim for political meanings (about things like the authority of science).  Journalists who treat such claims with deference, as theological and thus beyond scrutiny, fail to fully cover the sources and meanings of important social movements–rooted in those religions–today.

I’ve written previously about the challenges NPR seems to face in covering religion.  I’ve been too busy to comment regularly, but today’s offering on All Things Considered, prompts a quick reply.  A story by Tom Gjelten titled “Catholics Build ‘Intentional’ Community of Like-Minded Believers” got off to a bad start.  The introduction (and I paraphrase) noted that many religious Americans feel the culture is forcing them to give up their faith or some such.  This is historically tone-deaf.  The “Christian persecution” and “religious liberty” lobbies that are so prominent today are in fact new, contemporary, and addressed at a particular contemporary political moment.  To simply routinize them, as the introduction did, ignores a deep and fraught history.  As does the use of the term ‘intentional” community so un-self-consciously.  In fact many, many Christian (and other) communities have lived intentionally throughout American history.  Not least the Pietists and Anabaptists of Pennsylvania German extraction.  “Intentional Community” is, in fact, a term of art traditionally used to describe that larger movement.  Not the sort of novel group (a suburban Catholic one) covered in the story–and now seeking to appropriate that more generic term.

The actual story was the sort of classic NPR-goes-native religion coverage they are so good at.  A dewy-eyed account of deeply spiritual and committed people (all conservative–even crypto–Catholics).  Yes, they are devout, and yes they are deeply religious. But, they are also taking a deeply political stance at this point in history.  Their separation is separation in rhetorical terms only.  Their symbolic meaning is as a direct confrontation with the social progressivism of the culture and yet another attempt by conservative religious voices to draw a “bright line” between their particular crypto-faiths and a larger culture out of control (which, not incidentally, includes millions of deeply religious people who do not agree that religion necessarily means conservative social values).

To be clear: the actual contrast is not between “deeply religious” people whose faith moves them to step outside “the culture.”  It is not between “religion” and “non-religion,” it is between conservative social values and a culture whose majority does not share them.

The politics were made doubly clear in the story by Gjelten’s tone-deaf (or at least deeply under-contextualized) turn to conservative Evangelical author Rod Dreher for comment.  Dreher seems to be deeply desirous of the credibility of attaching his social message to the authenticity of Catholic monasticism (Dreher also seems never to have heard of the Pietists or Anabaptists).

I’m sorry, NPR, you do not deserve a pass on this. We expect more of a network that should pride itself on some cultural memory.  This time, amnesia.

This will be my fourth entry today.  I want to round out an argument that I have been developing by suggesting how media research and theory is particularly implicated in the events of this week.

Along with many others, presumably, most of us missed what was developing.  We saw the potential of a White, working-class revolt, and saw the evidence of those sentiments in the Sanders and Trump campaigns.  Many observers missed the size of it.

That was in part because we and they missed the extent to which a set of ideas–inflected with religion in general and Protestantism in particular–came to the fore in the call to “Make American Great Again.”  Clearly racial, ethnic, gender, and class resentments are at mixed up in this, but also there is a significant larger framing within the specifically American version of religious culture.  Through that culture, religion legitimates the whole set of claims and loyalties and organizes them.  This was explicit in Trump’s appeal to “religious liberty” but much more subtly there in his appeal to a longed-for 1950s domestic ideal.  That makes sense as a moral project because it has always been made to make sense by the religious/Protestant inflection of American culture.

It is not just the content of that “project.”  More significant is the idea that there should be such a project.  That is part of the essence of the American version of the Bourgeois project.  It has always drawn its justification and its moral architecture from America’s Protestant roots.

Most important to media scholars is the fact that such a moral project is only possible as an imaginary.   It’s grounding in reality is deeply contradictory and is circulations ambivalent.  As a shining moral claim though, it works.   It is a project of cultural construction. In public space, circulated through channels of communication and modern mediation. That is the stuff we work on.

And unless we spend at least part of our time looking for the religious inflection and roots of all this, we’ll have been looking in the wrong places.

I’m reflecting more on my argument that we need to more seriously consider religion as a powerful source of social and political motivation.  This of course grows out of this week’s election.

The events of 11/8 have already  been interpreted by many as a sign of “forgotten” white working-class voters who once again voted against their economic interests in supporting Trump.  This overlooks the possibility that they did, in fact, vote in there “interests” in a certain kind of way.  According to exit polls, they were attracted to Trump’s “Make American Great Again” as an appeal to return to the moral architecture of the 1950s.  Their “interest” was thus more cultural than it was economic, but was nonetheless significant in their voting choice.

This is where religion comes in.  That set of arrangements they think of as “the 50s” was a combination of a public sphere determined in subtle but powerful ways by Protestant moral aspirations and a domestic sphere carefully articulated to that larger reality, again a consequence of the particular Protestant legacy of American culture.  This “Protestant project” makes it possible today for a certain tranche of the electorate to think of something like a lament for that lost, normative past as a matter of “class interest.”

This is supported by data from the election.  Certainly, a portion of Trump’s electorate were people who are truly suffering from the effects of globalization. That group was dwarfed, it seems, by Evangelicals who are not materially suffering in the same way, but see themselves as culturally and morally suffering.

For them, that’s become a “class interest.”

This morning’s New York Times carried another significant analysis, this time by PRRI’s Robert P. Jones.  He implies something that is significant for the work of scholars of media, class, and ideology, something that we perhaps should take on board.

Follow me on this.

There has been a roiling discourse for years about “class interests” in the American electorate.  This has and will continue to be a growing debate in the post 11/8 period.  Why is it that the very people who suffer the most and should have the most to gain from progressive policies vote the way they do?  They are clearly voting against their class interests–in material terms.

Jones’s analysis suggests that perhaps we should start thinking about “class interests” differently. Clearly, in the Trump election, “classes” voted “interests.”  But those classes and interests did not fall neatly along structural/economic lines. They also fell along cultural lines.  Jones’s analysis suggests that “White Christians” should well be thought of as a class, or in class terms.  Now, clearly, “White” and “Christian” as demographic categories do cross significantly with “White” and “working class.”   But not perfectly.

More importantly, what Jones shows is that “White Christians” were the central demographic driving the rhetorical success of Trump’s call to make things great again.  For them, that meant a return to the 1950s.  The resonance of the “50s” clearly has more than just the prospects of waged labor in it.  It is resonant because it was the time when things made the most cultural sense, when a White Protestant moral architecture defined values, behaviors, and public images.

It can then be argued that this longing for a lost moral order, strongly inflected with religion but more importantly with a tacit and implicit Protestant aspiration to perfect the nation and its domestic spaces, was articulated in powerful ways in the Trump election as a “class interest.”

So, I’ll repeat again what I said in my last post: that it is perhaps time for media studies as a discipline, to the extent that it wishes to have something to say about political shifts such as this one, to take religion seriously.

Religion is not limited to belief and behavior around transcendent meaning.  In the American context, religion, specifically Protestant religion, continues to be embedded in–and make certain senses of–class discourses, interests, and politics.

In a very cogent piece in today’s New York Times, Thomas Edsall elaborates what seems to be an emerging consensus. That at least one of the lessons of this week’s election is that Democrats and progressives suffered a loss because they’d overlooked or misunderstood the cultures of “flyover country.”

Let’s leave aside for another time the  argument about whose responsibility it must be to speak for the white voters from those places who powered Trump to victory.  Questions such as: why aren’t they more engaged or informed about their own interests; and why they don’t vote for those interests.  Those are important questions but ones that assume that there are manifest and material interests that are obviously rooted in the structural consequences of economic change.

But the “flyover country” phenomenon has causes and consequences beyond the structural.  There are also cultural, rhetorical, symbolic and imagined causes, each deeply connected with social life, and each a domain that is addressed by–and supposedly understood by–scholarships of various kinds.  In my case, in media studies, there are vibrant theoretical and methodological discourses focused on these domains.

So, the question then comes to us. Scholarship should be responsible to help inform and shape the way various social actors (from elites to individuals and networks on various levels to journalists, to creative communities) conceive of society in terms including politics.  We may not be expected to be predictors of political outcomes, but we know full well that the materials we look at and work with are relevant, not least to the motivations and meanings citizens inhabit when they become voters.

So, time for some introspection?  I’ll do some initial introspection in the form of a critique of my own field, drawn from both superficial and anecdotal evidence and from my own professional specialization.

My field–media, mass communication, cultural studies–has failed to fully account for the cultural politics of “flyover country” because it has lacked a serious, informed, scholarly discourse about religion.  There, I’ve said it.  And I’ll say more about it in due course.

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