It has been awhile again (gawd, a month?).  I’m a Professor. This is a busy time of year. The worst. But, I had to write about things I’ve heard in the MSM the last few days.  First, NPR has been running some coverage of the Hutaree Militia.  Yesterday, ATC ran a story about how other militias actually helped bring the Hutaree down.  Then, this morning, ME had an interesting piece about how most militias today are actually “kinder, gentler,” in fact what militia person called “new age” as opposed to “old school.”  Paired with ATC’s very fine piece on March 30 in which they interviewed Mark Potok of the Southern Poverty Law Center, NPR has been giving the story some good, and in-depth coverage.

On problem, though.  The Hutaree and these other militias are not infrequently identified in coverage as “Christian” militias.  Steve Inskeep did it in introducing the ME piece today (the 13th).  Now, this verges in one positive direction, in that it points to the possibility that we might, in our public discourse, come to recognize that there might be a category of “Christian Terrorist,” to stand along side the more commonplace “Muslim Terrorist.”   Well, OK, but that makes it even more important that we understand what is exactly Christian about these groups?    And the press–particularly our flagship press–aren’t helping us with this.

The references to “Christianity” on the part of thees groups is a complex and deeply-layered thing.  It has tendrils that flow in many very interesting–and some quite troubling–directions.  Is it the complexity or the sublety that makes journalists reluctant to go there?  Or, is it potentially controversial in that many of these groups are  linked with more orthodox and mainstream conservative religious movements and groups?

There might be another factor, one that was brought home to me in last night’s Countdown on MSNBC.  Keith Olberman interviewed Ezra Klein of the Washington Post about potential nominees to replace John Paul Stevens on the Supreme Court, noting that there has been some commentary on the fact that this nomination could result in there being no Protestants on the court in a majority Protestant country.  Klein demurred, saying “…I really don’t know what I think about that…” but then went on to reflect on how it might mean something about social acceptance in contemporary America.

What ties this together with the milita stories, it seems to me, is that most reporters, when it comes to religion–that is to the complexities and nuances, and trajectories, and aspirations, and prerogatives, and practices of religion, seem not to know “…what they think about that….”  This is not the fault of journalism alone, but of the broader problem of our public discourses of religion in the United States.  We simply are not used to talking about it, or thinking about it, in ways that would put it under these kinds of lenses.

I think we’ve got to work on that, and yes, journalism has an important responsibility.

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