As promised, here are some more developed thoughts on the roiling debates following the Supreme Court’s June decisions.

As I suspected last week, the decisions supporting Obamacare and gay marriage are being met by an emerging opposition that is choosing to argue their case as a question of “religious liberty.” As this discourse develops, it seems to me that it will be important to keep track of two important vectors.

First, it is critical that we unpack and get to the roots of these claims, claims that have sources in American religious(specifically Protestant) history and more importantly in the history of the way Protestant and other religious authority have been and will be articulated in American public culture. This claim about religious liberty is by no means as innocuous nor as simple as it seems. Invoking what seem to be unproblematic understandings of First Amendment principles, this claim—or these claims—in fact rest on some commonplaces and assumptions that must be unpacked. They must be understood in terms of their historical roots and in terms of their history of circulation in the American “common culture.”

Second, it is critical to keep an eye on how the press, reporters, journalists of various kinds, the (excuse the hackneyed expression) “mainstream media,” the public common cultural conversation that is today constituted by the circulation of stories, claims and narratives by various forms of media and mediation treat these ongoing developments.

As an observer of religion and media, I have some things to say about each of these vectors, and I intend to follow the course of this discourse, both for what it might do in contemporary politics and for what it tells us about the way media are integrated into the generation of religion as well as the public understanding of religion today.

It should go without saying that I consider the claim that “religious liberty” is somehow threatened by these decisions to be specious. I hope that my unpacking of its sources and its meanings will help me make this point more substantively as I go along. But I’ll re-state what I wrote last time, that the easiest way to test the claim is to engage in the thought experiment of asking these claimants precisely how such and such a trend or decision or whatever actually affects their practice of their religion. What does this mean?

As I said there, specific claims in this direction vary in their plausibility. The fear that pastors would be forced to perform gay weddings or that congregations would be forced to accept gay members is preposterous on its face. Conversely, there could be challenges to rules at faith-based colleges and other institutions that choose to accept Federal money, and businesses that provide public services or public accommodation could find themselves facing discrimination charges.

But, to consider these latter cases to be cases of religious exercise should be subjected to scrutiny before it would be accepted as fact.

How, exactly, these are issues of media and religion should become clearer as look at the active forces in the ongoing discourse. They includes such thing as the globally-circulated (and heavily mediated) “Christian persecution” movement. They include the public advocacy of organizations such as The Little Sisters of the Poor, the Catholic health agency that wishes to make a public (again mediated) case for how ACA requirements on contraception coverage infringe on their “practice” of their religion. Importantly, they include media voices at the boundary between journalism and public religious discourse (New York Times columnists David Brooks and Ross Douthat are examples, as are the “neo-atheists” Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris) who hold singular authority in “the media” as definers of contemporary religion, religious authenticity, the boundary between “private” and “public” religion, etc. They include loud and prominent voices of conservative social values (under the imprimatur of religion) in the heavily-mediated Evangelical and (often media-obsessed) Catholic realms. They also include less-prominent and less-mediated voices from other religions, such as those who welcomed and supported the SCOTUS decisions. Finally, there are historians of religion and of American public discourse (such as the Berkeley Historian David Hollinger) who have recently begun to unpack the warp and woof of the public religious culture of the last century, specifically the meaning and implications of the fall of the former Protestant Establishment.

You see, I am convinced that this must all be seen in the context of this latter history—that we need to understand how the mediated public cultures of American religions and their rising and falling prospects explain better what is going on than some claim about “Christian-“ or “religious persecution.”

This all is about the “public imagination of religion” as much as it is about real material things or real legal or political possibilities. And that—the public imaginary—is a media matter.

To be continued.

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