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.

 

 

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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.

Donald Trump’s reprehensible insistence on the truth of his false memory of American Muslim celebrations over 9/11 has been roundly contested.  Politifact’s is here.  This is a very dangerous and disappointing turn.  Its implications will be explored by others, but I want to make a brief comment about the mediation of it all.

The years since 9/11 have actually been a time of remarkable restraint on the part of whatever American impulses toward Islamophobia might lurk beneath the surface.  Trump has succeeded in calling them forth, tapping sentiments that can easily constitute some very dark stresses and impulses in American domestic and foreign policy.

This is how the media imaginary works.  It is a “cultural forum” through which things that might not make sense in practical terms can make sense in imagined normative spaces that can exist unmoored from reality.  And, rhetorics such as Trump’s must at the same time refer to media and mediation for “evidence.”  Did Trump see what he says he saw?  He would have to have seen it on television. Yet, no evidence, no tape, no reporting, no cultural memory exists.  And yet a cultural memory does exist, or rather can be fabricated and can take on vivid reality because it “..just makes sense…” to the manichean worldview Trump inhabits.

And it is calling this fabricated memory into being for his followers, too, according to this Morning’s NPR coverage of the issue.

And it is Trump’s confidence, in the face of truth or reality, that is his most endearing quality, apparently.  Being confident about something that makes cultural sense is a dangerous quality in political affairs.

ISIS continues to roil American public and political discourse.  It is a challenge, too, for those of us who work on relations between religion and media, because it is a fascinating modern expression of their interaction.  I’ll obviously have more to say, but for now I thought I’d pretend that I’m a presidential candidate in one of the debates answering one of those insipid “lightning round” of questions:

  1. Is ISIS an existential threat to the US?  No
  2. Is ISIS a threat to our “way of life?” Only if we let it be
  3. Is ISIS a threat to our foreign policy goals in the Middle East and Beyond? Yes
  4. Does ISIS undermine our carefully-crafted-decades-long balance-of-power approach in that region?  Yes
  5. Is ISIS a religious movement?  Yes and No
  6. Is ISIS a media phenomenon?  Yes, in a number of different ways
  7. Would ground combat in the region, directly or indirectly involving the US, complicate matters? Yes
  8. Can Israel help in any major way?  No
  9. Can Iran help in any major way? Maybe, but….
  10. Is getting the Kurds more involved a simple solution to the problem?  No
  11. Should Turkey be doing more about this? Yes
  12. Would portraying this as a global struggle between “Islam” and “the West” benefit US or ISIS?  ISIS
  13. Does stigmatizing Muslim refugees aid ISIS? Yes
  14. Do some of our own actions in the past and some of our supposed “friends” in the region share the blame for the rise of ISIS?  Yes
  15. Is there a hidden lever of power somewhere in the Oval Office that, if grasped, will solve foreign policy dilemmas like ISIS?  Only presidential candidates seem to know of its existence
  16. Has ISIS completed the undoing of the traditional bipartisan approach to foreign policy in the US, making it instead subject to the whims of election-year politics?  Yes
  17. Is there any vital interest of the US that ISIS has succeeded in destroying?  See # 16

Stay tuned.

I’ve been working for some time now on the question of how contemporary moral struggles emerge in public media.

A piece in today’s New York Times about the “anger” Germans are feeling toward Greece brought some things into focus.  As I thought about that “anger” (and when did it become appropriate for reporters to accept–and report on–“anger” as a valid political position?) of Germans contemplating supposedly profligate Greeks, Spaniards, Portuguese, and Italians, I also thought about the so-called “anger” that many in the US seem to feel regarding recent social evolution here.

As a scholar of media and religion, I am particularly curious about how religion relates to such struggles in modern, developed societies such as those in Europe and North America.  Fortunately for me, some contemporary examples have emerged for me to study.  I’ll be doing a longer blog post on our Center Blog presently, but here I’d like to link two discussions:

1. the Eurozone Crisis–particularly focused on the PIIGS (Portugal, Ireland, Italy, Greece and Spain) countries–lately focused on the Greek situation, and

2. the fallout from the recent SCOTUIS decision on gay marriage.

Each of these invokes a category that deserves much more attention: the “social imaginary.”  Many will be familiar with this concept from Benedict Anderson’s book in Imagined Communities.  The basic idea is that cultures and nations are knitted together not only by material realities of geography, kinship, economy, state, etc., but by commonly-accepted (but also negotiated) “imaginaries.”  they are imagined communities as much as they are real.  In fact they are made real through their collective imagination.

Cultural scholars are starting to use the term “imaginary” (as a noun) to describe these collective products.  There is a lot that could be said, of course, but let me focus on one dimension of this: the fact that imaginaries can be particularly compelling because they can imagine literally anything and they can also imagine perfection. That is, regardless of the harsh realities of class and social structure and economic struggles, “imaginaries” can be places of halcyon perfection, where values and moral behaviors are clear and confirmed, and where boundaries are also clear.

In both the Eurozone crisis and in the SCOTUS fallout, there is clear evidence of the functioning social imaginaries which invoke religion.  In Europe, this has been articulated in terms of a historic divide between “Protestant” Northern Europe and “Catholic” (and Orthodox) Southern Europe.  The Protestant north is sober, industrieous, thrifty, and “responsible” (all dimensions of Protestant Culture as defined by Max Weber) the non-Protestant south is a place where debts are forgiven and sins can be remedied through indulgences.  Here are accounts of this from Corriere della sera in Italy, News Lattitude, an online journal, Dagens Nyheter in Sweden, and a study released by the European Commission itself.

Two learnings here.  First, that religion enters such imaginaries as a powerful marker and constituent (not necessarily a source) of them.  It is a marker in that it seems to be able to coalesce a wide range of social images and cultural values under an umbrella of (often “remembered”) consensus.  It is not a matter of doctrine or theology so much as it is a looser (“Imagined”) set of connections and beliefs and commmitments.

Second, the mediated public sphere is increasingly (as modernity progresses) the place where these imaginaries are articulated, struggled over, or negotiated.  Its capacities of fluidity, fungible boundaries, embodied sensation, and invocation of tastes and sensibilities, makes the the media sphere particularly implicated in the functioning of contemporary struggles over these imaginaries.

This is a very powerful way in which “religion” and “media” come together in contemporary life.

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