This will be my fourth entry today.  I want to round out an argument that I have been developing by suggesting how media research and theory is particularly implicated in the events of this week.

Along with many others, presumably, most of us missed what was developing.  We saw the potential of a White, working-class revolt, and saw the evidence of those sentiments in the Sanders and Trump campaigns.  Many observers missed the size of it.

That was in part because we and they missed the extent to which a set of ideas–inflected with religion in general and Protestantism in particular–came to the fore in the call to “Make American Great Again.”  Clearly racial, ethnic, gender, and class resentments are at mixed up in this, but also there is a significant larger framing within the specifically American version of religious culture.  Through that culture, religion legitimates the whole set of claims and loyalties and organizes them.  This was explicit in Trump’s appeal to “religious liberty” but much more subtly there in his appeal to a longed-for 1950s domestic ideal.  That makes sense as a moral project because it has always been made to make sense by the religious/Protestant inflection of American culture.

It is not just the content of that “project.”  More significant is the idea that there should be such a project.  That is part of the essence of the American version of the Bourgeois project.  It has always drawn its justification and its moral architecture from America’s Protestant roots.

Most important to media scholars is the fact that such a moral project is only possible as an imaginary.   It’s grounding in reality is deeply contradictory and is circulations ambivalent.  As a shining moral claim though, it works.   It is a project of cultural construction. In public space, circulated through channels of communication and modern mediation. That is the stuff we work on.

And unless we spend at least part of our time looking for the religious inflection and roots of all this, we’ll have been looking in the wrong places.


I’m reflecting more on my argument that we need to more seriously consider religion as a powerful source of social and political motivation.  This of course grows out of this week’s election.

The events of 11/8 have already  been interpreted by many as a sign of “forgotten” white working-class voters who once again voted against their economic interests in supporting Trump.  This overlooks the possibility that they did, in fact, vote in there “interests” in a certain kind of way.  According to exit polls, they were attracted to Trump’s “Make American Great Again” as an appeal to return to the moral architecture of the 1950s.  Their “interest” was thus more cultural than it was economic, but was nonetheless significant in their voting choice.

This is where religion comes in.  That set of arrangements they think of as “the 50s” was a combination of a public sphere determined in subtle but powerful ways by Protestant moral aspirations and a domestic sphere carefully articulated to that larger reality, again a consequence of the particular Protestant legacy of American culture.  This “Protestant project” makes it possible today for a certain tranche of the electorate to think of something like a lament for that lost, normative past as a matter of “class interest.”

This is supported by data from the election.  Certainly, a portion of Trump’s electorate were people who are truly suffering from the effects of globalization. That group was dwarfed, it seems, by Evangelicals who are not materially suffering in the same way, but see themselves as culturally and morally suffering.

For them, that’s become a “class interest.”

This morning’s New York Times carried another significant analysis, this time by PRRI’s Robert P. Jones.  He implies something that is significant for the work of scholars of media, class, and ideology, something that we perhaps should take on board.

Follow me on this.

There has been a roiling discourse for years about “class interests” in the American electorate.  This has and will continue to be a growing debate in the post 11/8 period.  Why is it that the very people who suffer the most and should have the most to gain from progressive policies vote the way they do?  They are clearly voting against their class interests–in material terms.

Jones’s analysis suggests that perhaps we should start thinking about “class interests” differently. Clearly, in the Trump election, “classes” voted “interests.”  But those classes and interests did not fall neatly along structural/economic lines. They also fell along cultural lines.  Jones’s analysis suggests that “White Christians” should well be thought of as a class, or in class terms.  Now, clearly, “White” and “Christian” as demographic categories do cross significantly with “White” and “working class.”   But not perfectly.

More importantly, what Jones shows is that “White Christians” were the central demographic driving the rhetorical success of Trump’s call to make things great again.  For them, that meant a return to the 1950s.  The resonance of the “50s” clearly has more than just the prospects of waged labor in it.  It is resonant because it was the time when things made the most cultural sense, when a White Protestant moral architecture defined values, behaviors, and public images.

It can then be argued that this longing for a lost moral order, strongly inflected with religion but more importantly with a tacit and implicit Protestant aspiration to perfect the nation and its domestic spaces, was articulated in powerful ways in the Trump election as a “class interest.”

So, I’ll repeat again what I said in my last post: that it is perhaps time for media studies as a discipline, to the extent that it wishes to have something to say about political shifts such as this one, to take religion seriously.

Religion is not limited to belief and behavior around transcendent meaning.  In the American context, religion, specifically Protestant religion, continues to be embedded in–and make certain senses of–class discourses, interests, and politics.

In a very cogent piece in today’s New York Times, Thomas Edsall elaborates what seems to be an emerging consensus. That at least one of the lessons of this week’s election is that Democrats and progressives suffered a loss because they’d overlooked or misunderstood the cultures of “flyover country.”

Let’s leave aside for another time the  argument about whose responsibility it must be to speak for the white voters from those places who powered Trump to victory.  Questions such as: why aren’t they more engaged or informed about their own interests; and why they don’t vote for those interests.  Those are important questions but ones that assume that there are manifest and material interests that are obviously rooted in the structural consequences of economic change.

But the “flyover country” phenomenon has causes and consequences beyond the structural.  There are also cultural, rhetorical, symbolic and imagined causes, each deeply connected with social life, and each a domain that is addressed by–and supposedly understood by–scholarships of various kinds.  In my case, in media studies, there are vibrant theoretical and methodological discourses focused on these domains.

So, the question then comes to us. Scholarship should be responsible to help inform and shape the way various social actors (from elites to individuals and networks on various levels to journalists, to creative communities) conceive of society in terms including politics.  We may not be expected to be predictors of political outcomes, but we know full well that the materials we look at and work with are relevant, not least to the motivations and meanings citizens inhabit when they become voters.

So, time for some introspection?  I’ll do some initial introspection in the form of a critique of my own field, drawn from both superficial and anecdotal evidence and from my own professional specialization.

My field–media, mass communication, cultural studies–has failed to fully account for the cultural politics of “flyover country” because it has lacked a serious, informed, scholarly discourse about religion.  There, I’ve said it.  And I’ll say more about it in due course.

Donald Trump’s reprehensible insistence on the truth of his false memory of American Muslim celebrations over 9/11 has been roundly contested.  Politifact’s is here.  This is a very dangerous and disappointing turn.  Its implications will be explored by others, but I want to make a brief comment about the mediation of it all.

The years since 9/11 have actually been a time of remarkable restraint on the part of whatever American impulses toward Islamophobia might lurk beneath the surface.  Trump has succeeded in calling them forth, tapping sentiments that can easily constitute some very dark stresses and impulses in American domestic and foreign policy.

This is how the media imaginary works.  It is a “cultural forum” through which things that might not make sense in practical terms can make sense in imagined normative spaces that can exist unmoored from reality.  And, rhetorics such as Trump’s must at the same time refer to media and mediation for “evidence.”  Did Trump see what he says he saw?  He would have to have seen it on television. Yet, no evidence, no tape, no reporting, no cultural memory exists.  And yet a cultural memory does exist, or rather can be fabricated and can take on vivid reality because it “..just makes sense…” to the manichean worldview Trump inhabits.

And it is calling this fabricated memory into being for his followers, too, according to this Morning’s NPR coverage of the issue.

And it is Trump’s confidence, in the face of truth or reality, that is his most endearing quality, apparently.  Being confident about something that makes cultural sense is a dangerous quality in political affairs.

ISIS continues to roil American public and political discourse.  It is a challenge, too, for those of us who work on relations between religion and media, because it is a fascinating modern expression of their interaction.  I’ll obviously have more to say, but for now I thought I’d pretend that I’m a presidential candidate in one of the debates answering one of those insipid “lightning round” of questions:

  1. Is ISIS an existential threat to the US?  No
  2. Is ISIS a threat to our “way of life?” Only if we let it be
  3. Is ISIS a threat to our foreign policy goals in the Middle East and Beyond? Yes
  4. Does ISIS undermine our carefully-crafted-decades-long balance-of-power approach in that region?  Yes
  5. Is ISIS a religious movement?  Yes and No
  6. Is ISIS a media phenomenon?  Yes, in a number of different ways
  7. Would ground combat in the region, directly or indirectly involving the US, complicate matters? Yes
  8. Can Israel help in any major way?  No
  9. Can Iran help in any major way? Maybe, but….
  10. Is getting the Kurds more involved a simple solution to the problem?  No
  11. Should Turkey be doing more about this? Yes
  12. Would portraying this as a global struggle between “Islam” and “the West” benefit US or ISIS?  ISIS
  13. Does stigmatizing Muslim refugees aid ISIS? Yes
  14. Do some of our own actions in the past and some of our supposed “friends” in the region share the blame for the rise of ISIS?  Yes
  15. Is there a hidden lever of power somewhere in the Oval Office that, if grasped, will solve foreign policy dilemmas like ISIS?  Only presidential candidates seem to know of its existence
  16. Has ISIS completed the undoing of the traditional bipartisan approach to foreign policy in the US, making it instead subject to the whims of election-year politics?  Yes
  17. Is there any vital interest of the US that ISIS has succeeded in destroying?  See # 16

Stay tuned.

I’ve been working for some time now on the question of how contemporary moral struggles emerge in public media.

A piece in today’s New York Times about the “anger” Germans are feeling toward Greece brought some things into focus.  As I thought about that “anger” (and when did it become appropriate for reporters to accept–and report on–“anger” as a valid political position?) of Germans contemplating supposedly profligate Greeks, Spaniards, Portuguese, and Italians, I also thought about the so-called “anger” that many in the US seem to feel regarding recent social evolution here.

As a scholar of media and religion, I am particularly curious about how religion relates to such struggles in modern, developed societies such as those in Europe and North America.  Fortunately for me, some contemporary examples have emerged for me to study.  I’ll be doing a longer blog post on our Center Blog presently, but here I’d like to link two discussions:

1. the Eurozone Crisis–particularly focused on the PIIGS (Portugal, Ireland, Italy, Greece and Spain) countries–lately focused on the Greek situation, and

2. the fallout from the recent SCOTUIS decision on gay marriage.

Each of these invokes a category that deserves much more attention: the “social imaginary.”  Many will be familiar with this concept from Benedict Anderson’s book in Imagined Communities.  The basic idea is that cultures and nations are knitted together not only by material realities of geography, kinship, economy, state, etc., but by commonly-accepted (but also negotiated) “imaginaries.”  they are imagined communities as much as they are real.  In fact they are made real through their collective imagination.

Cultural scholars are starting to use the term “imaginary” (as a noun) to describe these collective products.  There is a lot that could be said, of course, but let me focus on one dimension of this: the fact that imaginaries can be particularly compelling because they can imagine literally anything and they can also imagine perfection. That is, regardless of the harsh realities of class and social structure and economic struggles, “imaginaries” can be places of halcyon perfection, where values and moral behaviors are clear and confirmed, and where boundaries are also clear.

In both the Eurozone crisis and in the SCOTUS fallout, there is clear evidence of the functioning social imaginaries which invoke religion.  In Europe, this has been articulated in terms of a historic divide between “Protestant” Northern Europe and “Catholic” (and Orthodox) Southern Europe.  The Protestant north is sober, industrieous, thrifty, and “responsible” (all dimensions of Protestant Culture as defined by Max Weber) the non-Protestant south is a place where debts are forgiven and sins can be remedied through indulgences.  Here are accounts of this from Corriere della sera in Italy, News Lattitude, an online journal, Dagens Nyheter in Sweden, and a study released by the European Commission itself.

Two learnings here.  First, that religion enters such imaginaries as a powerful marker and constituent (not necessarily a source) of them.  It is a marker in that it seems to be able to coalesce a wide range of social images and cultural values under an umbrella of (often “remembered”) consensus.  It is not a matter of doctrine or theology so much as it is a looser (“Imagined”) set of connections and beliefs and commmitments.

Second, the mediated public sphere is increasingly (as modernity progresses) the place where these imaginaries are articulated, struggled over, or negotiated.  Its capacities of fluidity, fungible boundaries, embodied sensation, and invocation of tastes and sensibilities, makes the the media sphere particularly implicated in the functioning of contemporary struggles over these imaginaries.

This is a very powerful way in which “religion” and “media” come together in contemporary life.

This morning brought a fresh round of discussion of religion and American moral culture, most notably a piece in the Times by David Brooks, and piece he references, in Time, by Rod Dreher. These add to the accumulating formation of a conversation about the prospects of American religion post-2015.

Brooks and Dreher like to call this a major marker the “Post-Christian” era, where a long-term decline in the force and significance of Christianity in American culture has become more obvious.

I’d like to respond to two claims in Brooks’s piece that deserve elaboration. First, Brooks sees the decline of Christianity entirely in terms of its waning influence on social values. What Dreher calls “Orthodox” Christianity (and by this he does not mean Eastern Orthodoxy, of course) no longer rules.

There are two parts to this. First, it is mistaken to conflate all of Christianity under one banner when considering this period of “decline.” In fact, Protestantism and Catholicism have distinct histories in this period of change and it obscures much to think of them together. And, I might add, a lot of ideology is wrapped up in exactly what period we have in mind? Do we mean across the whole of the 20th-Century (from the rise of the Fundamentalist movement onward)? Do we mean from mid-Century (where the role of the Neo-Evangelical movement comes to the fore)? Do we mean from the 80s onward (when Catholic conservatives began to come into full alliance with pro-Life Protestants)? Each of these “eras” binds you to a different version of the history, of authority, of the equities involved, and of the political and civic consequences.

Second, Brooks’s argument that “decline” must be seen entirely in moral terms is also debatable. Much of the language about “decline” speaks not to the influence of religious authority on the practice of social values but instead to the location of religious authority in public moral discourse, in the civic spaces where the consensual values of the culture are negotiated. In fact, religious authority lost its ability to direct social practice long ago, probably around the time that divorce rates in the US began their inexorable climb.

No, this whole argument is about something other than “values” per se, it is about who has the right to say–and where. Will “religion” ever again be able to be a singular voice in the culture in the way it once was?

But was it?

This is where it gets very complicated. We need to remember that for most of its history, this has been a nation defined, religiously, as Protestant, and defined by Protestant principles and by the authority of a Protestant Establishment. The era when that was the case (when was that exactly?). Certainly well before the 60s (about that I can agree with David Brooks). And when that authority was in that position—historians tell us—it was already itself needing to accommodate to religious change and religious diversity.

In fact, the reaction of the Establishment churches to the 60s evidenced this confrontation. That is what they are now excoriated for by conservatives like Brooks and Ross Douthat. In their view, Liberal Protestantism lost its way when it failed to “confront” the social revolution that roiled the North Atlantic West in the 60s.  This is a profound mis-reading of what the Protestant Establishment could have done and might have done and what might be possible for pretenders to that mantle (Orthodox Christians?) today.

There is a lot more that could be said, but I’ll again revert to my role as a scholar of religion and the media to point out how much of this is actually about media and mediation. The media in fact are the geography on which these battles were and are fought out, and it is articulation of the symbolic meaning of religious authority or ascendancy in public (and therefore its mediated presence) that is the motive force in all this. And, authority itself through much of this period of change has been media authority. Brooks himself, in the piece that occasioned my writing here, points to figures like Jerry Falwell as examples of a possible Conservative “dead-ender” reaction to all this change.

In the mid-20th Century, media changed everything for religion, including creating a space or a context for struggle over the symbolic meaning of which religions are “up” and which are “down” and how we even define things like “Christian Orthodoxy.” Why search for answers in supposedly concrete and material spheres like “social values” when we should be understanding this as a debate over various imaginations of religion?

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.

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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