This morning’s New York Times brought fresh evidence of a theme that I’ve been pursuing here for quite some time.  That is, that my colleagues in the fields of media, mass communication, and cultural studies have yet to take on the most important challenge of the age:

The challenge of religion

…or more specifically the challenge of integrating substantive, critical scholarship of religion into the field(s).  This is a problem for the social sciences in general, but it is particularly acute in the field of media studies, as David Morgan of Duke University observed in a 2013 piece in Critical Research in Religion.

The Times item in question is by Ross Douthat, and it considers the state of contemporary American conservatism, particularly around a contretemps that has recently erupted there between more traditionalis, and more Trump-friendly Conservatives and Republicans.  I’ll let readers delve into the intricacies of this debate by reading Douthat directly.

However, I want to make the point that, once again (and increasingly) contemporary politics is defined by religion.

I don’t yet have a satisfying explanation for why my colleagues maintain religion as a glaring, festering, throbbing, exploding “blind spot.”  That is for another day.  One explanation (and one suggested by Morgan) is a widespread commitment in the field to the now rather quaint idea that people vote their “interests,” and that those interests are best understood in terms of (as Nicholas Garnham famously put it) “…the prospects of waged labor….”  Let’s call those material interests for sake of argument.

Well, what the field misses is that there are also “cultural interests” that can also motivate action and even politics.  Here is an anecdote I shared last week at the International Communication Association meeting in Washington.  A reporter finds a farmer in Iowa who has been harmed by Trump’s trade policy. He admits that Trump is screwing him economically.  When asked if he intends to vote differently because of it, he replies,

“…well if I vote Democratic, I get Ilan Omar….”

That kind of says it all.  The layered nuanced, confusing, contradictory, and discordant registers within which religion is articulated to contemporary social and political processes (one example of which is in Douthat’s piece (and don’t get me started on him as a voice of a certain kind of seductive theocratic aspiration) deserves careful scholarly scrutiny.

That is our job. We–particularly those of us who call ourselves culturalist media scholars–ought to be all about unpacking things like this.

That we have not is a failure of imagination or of will. Whichever it is, it is way past time we correct it.


The tragic fire at Notre Dame de Paris this week involved many emotions.  The most interesting ones from a media and religion point of view were those that involved media framings of the event (of course).  Many were convenient and conventional interpretations, based in the Cathedral’s assumed centrality to a once-Catholic Europe and France.

George Weigel, the (ironically since he’s a conservative) opined to Brian Williams that he wondered whether this might re-ignite Catholic piety in secular Europe, that people might find themselves once again enthralled by the mystery and mastery.  I’m skeptical, of course.

Way on the other side is something that stands in a kind of mirror relief to Weigel’s desire.  My colleague Kevan Feshami (a fellow of our Center) tells me that the white nationalist discourses he monitors were all over the Notre Dame fire.  They portrayed it as an example of the inability of the Western liberal institutions to actually be guardians of their own cultural treasures.  This piece from the Washington post points to this discourse.

This is somewhat contradictory to the overall view of religion among these groups.  Most are irreligious or even anti-religious, at least with regard to institutional religious authority.  Their commonplace spirituality is of an esoteric kind. They see religion as a marker or an index of “white-ness” “European-ness” or “American-ness,” while at the same time circulating a theology that looks beyond modernist categories of religion–including Christianity–to a pre-modern, more authentic, past.

That they now turn to a Christian symbol is a measure of the utility and flexibility of imaginaries of religion in contemporary media circulations.

A third voice I’ll mention in passing. Vladimir Putin.  Like the white-nationalists, he portrayed the Notre Dame fire as a measure of the ineffectuality of the liberal West.  Only strong, Christianity-centered civilization is up to the task of stabilizing modern life.  And of course, Russia is uniquely placed to be able to do this.

Regular readers know that my main thing is exploring and explaining how deeply interconnected media and religion are. The problem is that they interact with each other in different domains and different registers. It is not just about how religions use media or media use or cover religion. It is not just about how secular media disadvantage religion or promote religion. It is not just about how journalists cover religion. It is not just about how religion channels represent or shape or promote religion. It is not just about how the media have usurped religions’ abilities to control their own symbols or their own messages. It is not just about how supposedly secular media have become places where important religious work is done in areas like ritual or effervescence or enchantment. It is not just about how and where media become platforms of power or struggle over religious truth or religious resources. It is not just about how media “imaginaries” allow the construction of worlds and geographies that are impossible, yet deeply attractive or salient or motivating. It is not just about how religion channels and networks (online and offline) come to be “infrastructures of affect” through which real cultural and political work is done.

It is about all of these things, and more. And it is deeply troubling to me that influential voices, from journalism to the academy don’t get it, and don’t talk about media when they are talking about religion or vice versa. That is a problem for the public understanding of religion. And it is a particular failing of my professional field: media or mass communication studies.

One of the most exciting new discourses in cultural studies is the one that has developed around decoloniality.  My most recent exposure to it is not in its Latin American context but rather in Africa.  It is a project that attempts to disconnect from the colonial project and its contemporary legacies, to deconstruct the ways that knowledge is produced in a broader critique of the Colonial project’s (to quote the Wikipedia entry)  “…social constructions, imaginaries, practices, hierarchies, and violence….”

It is a broad project that crosses an increasing number of literatures.  I’m most interested here in the way that social understandings and imaginaries underlie our thinking, and specifically the role that academic and scholarly discourses play.

At a recent symposium on “Social Imaginaries, Social Inclusion, and Decoloniality,” held at the University of the Free State in South Africa, the emerging and compelling African perspective was at the center.  One of the most powerful voices was that of William Mpofu of the University of Witwatersrand.  What I took from his talk was the idea that decoloniality scholarship recognizes the role that scholarship itself, and the academy played in the colonial project and that a broad re-thinking and critique of some very fundamental things are necessary.  In Africa, perhaps more than elsewhere in the world, it is obvious that one of the most profound acts of intellectual control exercised by the colonial university was its secularism.

The distribution of the Western university model to Africa insisted that African spiritualities be excluded from scholarly attention, that they were beneath serious academic scrutiny.

If Decolonial theory is right, we are all living and working in colonial universities. The entire academic infrastructure of the West is rooted in that time and in those traditions.  This got me thinking about my own field and about how it has so definitively excluded the category of religion from its agenda.  This continues to today.

So perhaps what is needed is to focus the decolonial lens on the field, its research, and its curricula, with this lacuna in mind.

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.

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.

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