Last week’s Supreme Court Decisions on the Affordable Care Act, and (to a greater extent) Marriage open a serious set of questions.  Questions about which I plan a longer post or series of posts. But for now, there’s a central and timely issue.

Opponents of these decisions (and in the case of the ACA the relevant opposition focuses on requirements for reproductive-health coverage) emerged quickly today in a remarkably consistent set of talking points, whether at the national or state level or local level.  These talking points are articulated around the question of “religious liberty.”

For a media scholar, the immediate frame here is how American journalism rises to the occasion of analyzing this essentially political debate where “religion” is invoked.   The record is not a strong one. Aside from the relatively consistent record of competence among religion reporters at the metro dailies, American reporters and editors have shown a pretty dismal record of understanding and covering religion.

And, unfortunately, so far, their performance in the emerging discourse here has not been reassuring.

I will argue here and elsewhere that the question of “religious liberty” in relation to the marriage decision is in fact a canard, a fallacious misdirection of the issues away from the central questions which have to do with the place of religion in the modern secular state.  And, because it is about “religion,” reporters seem prone to abandon their normal standards of skepticism. And we will all suffer for this.

I’m convinced that this “religious liberty” discourse rests on a mis-reading and mis-understanding of American Protestant history.  It is not actually about religious practice, but about generalized sentiments in American public moral culture.  That culture used to be the province of a Protestant Establishment (at least before the 1960s).  Aspirants to that level of moral authority today (in the case of this week’s discussions–mostly Protestant Evangelicals and the Catholic Bishops) want to re-create a time that either did not exist, or did not work in the way they imagine it did.  I’ll write more about this, but Protestant culture, for all of its influence on American culture, did not effectively guarantee a moral atmosphere in a way that can be reproduced today (something that these aspirants seem to want).  The Protestant Establishment in fact realized that it could no longer assume that role, and may have chosen actually to abandon it–a matter for historians to unpack.

What this means is that it will not be possible to have a culture “diversity of religious liberties” of the kind they imagine.  Reporters need to understand that these claims about “religious liberty” are not as straightforward and  innocuous as they seem, they involve some clear–and controversial–assumptions about what religious cultures imagine they should be able to do.

As opponents were interviewed in the early hours of these two decisions, their concerns were articulated in two ways that are quite telling. First, it has been said again and again that they fear that federal law will impose on conservative pastors a requirement to preside  at gay marriages or that congregations will be forced to accept gay couples as members.

I could go into detail (but won’t take the time) about how preposterous a scenario this is.

The second concern articulated around these decisions is the opprobrium that supposedly will be heaped on people who–for religious reasons–do not wish to support gay marriage (wedding-cake makers and florists are mentioned).  This is also a fascinating scenario, but one that reveals just how much this debate is about moral sentiment and atmosphere–an atmosphere that may never have actually existed.

At the basis of all this is a real lament, a lament that traces back 60 years or more–at least to the School Prayer decision.  These voices and forces see the world in those terms, that that moral culture has been in decline for over half a century and is what is under assault today.

Reporters need to understand and reveal through their reporting that the issue is less about “religious liberty” than it is about this lost moral culture.

Instead, through these early hours and days, in interview after interview (and yes, NPR and PBS, you have been as guilty as anyone) reporters have let the claim that this is about “religious liberty” just hang there.  I’d encourage them to think in terms of a follow-up question that would begin to reveal the issues in ways that would be actually relevant to the political and constitutional issues here.

The question would be something like this: “…tell me exactly how does this decision affects your exercise of your religion?”   And then to evaluate the answers with the same level of skepticism and critique they apply when interviewing a business or political leader.  This would be enlightening and actually push the discourse forward.

And, another issue of journalistic competence:  again and again “religion” has been defined only as Conservative Protestantism and the Catholic Bishops.  The New York Times slipped through (thank you Laurie Goodstein!) a story about a liberal Protestant denomination–the United Church of Christ–which supports the Court’s decision on marriage (a story that I now see has evaporated and is undiscoverable on the Times website).  But aside from that, by and large, the American news audience could be excused for assuming that the only religious voices that matter are the Conservative ones.

We’ll see how things develop from here….

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