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.

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