One of the most significant implications of the media for religion lies in the media sphere as a frame through which religions are seen and present themselves.  What religious institutions and people want to think about and talk about privately–as it were–doesn’t matter as much in an era when most knowledge is produced and circulated  in the large, public context of “the media.”

And, media figures increasingly position themselves either as critics of religion or as arbiters of normative ideas about religion and the nature of religion.  This is, of course, new.  In the  Twentieth Century, American journalists and other media satraps (you can look it up) were famously reluctant to interfere in religion, considering it to be a private affair.  Largely due to the events of 9/11 and their aftermath, religion is now on the menu, and more and more media voices are weighing in with food reviews.

Two examples surfaced this week, though the first has been festering for some time.  On the right, Glenn Beck has again raised a ruckus, this time by decrying (and I of course use this term advisedly) the social justice orientation of so many churches.   This has resulted in a growing reaction from along the Christian continuum.  The first were Mainliners, but they were soon followed by Evangelicals, Catholics, and even members of Beck’s own Mormon tradition.  All point out that commitment to social justice is a nearly universal value among Christians, meaning that Beck’s call was for a retreat to the margins by his viewers and listeners.

This struggle has received significant media attention, much of it helpfully addressing the root values and challenge here.   So, kudos to many in the press with regard to this story.

The larger picture is important, though, and it suggests that Beck’s notorious confrontationism regarding Islam has now broadened to include any religions with which he disagrees.  And, his aspiration to frame the issues in such bounded, black-and-white terms may well be an emerging function of the media sphere with regard to religion, at least in some corners of the discursive marketplace.

Confrontation with religion is not solely a characteristic of the right, though, and an excellent example appeared this week in a New York Times Column by Maureen Dowd, titled “Pilgrim Non Grata in Mecca.” In it, Dowd recounts in her trademarked cheeky style her efforts during a visit to Saudi Arabia to learn more about Islam.Reporting with pique her failed attempts to attend a mosque and to visit Mecca and Medina.  The latter sites are off-limits to non-Muslims, as she undoubtedly knew at the outset.

Dowd’s column is a better example than Beck’s of a sensibility which invests the media frame with the power and authority to impose normative ideas of “the religions.”  Why, she wonders, can’t Saudi authorities simply brush aside, for the sake of transparency, centuries of Muslim tradition?  She extends her pleading to the question of mosque attendance.  Told by someone at her hotel that non-Muslims cannot enter mosques (which is not true) she proceeds to a laundry list of churches that are open to all.  The moral and normative framing is very clear.  Christians and Jews are open, Muslims are closed.  Christians and Jews are modern and enlightened, Muslims are backward and ignorant.  She forgets, for example, that non-Mormons are restricted in access to Temples, that non-Catholics are denied Eucharist, that some branches of Orthodox Christianity limit access to even their own laity to portions of their churches.  There are other examples.

Admittedly, Saudi Arabia is no paragon of an open society.  There is a great deal to criticize.  And, the particular version of Islam practiced there is not representative.  There is much to criticize.  However, Dowd’s argument here is an easy “mark” on the one hand (she undoubtedly knew before leaving home that she’d not be able to witness the Hajj or visit Mecca) and more than a bit off-target on the other (her assumption that mosques are also off-limits).  The larger issue, though, is the question of what she wanted her column to accomplish.  The intent seems to be r0oted in a desire to use the bully pulpit of international media scrutiny to impose a set of normative ideas about what are appropriate ways for religions to think of themselves as public institutions.   It would have helped for her to be a bit more revealing about what–in her view–those norms are.

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