When you think of a religious leader, chances are that person is Christian, masculine, politically conservative, willing to jump in front of a camera.
Someone like the Roman Catholic Archbishop of New York Timothy Dolan, for example, or Rick Warren, the pastor of the Southern Baptist megachurch.
Often this man is not the leader of a particular congregation, denomination or faith at all, but simply a member of a conservative group that calls itself religious, such as Ralph Reed and the Christian Coalition. Pat Robertson and the Moral Majority. James Dobson and Focus on the family. Tony Perkins and the Family Research Council.
These media-friendly veteran-quote machines, which have been around for 30, 40, 50 years, have shaped the narrative and turned public perception of “religion” into a deft, well-produced adversary of things like LGBTQ rights and the access to abortion, favorable to Republican politicians and anathema to single women.
But the ubiquity of these men has less to do with their ability to speak on behalf of religious people – there are many religious leaders who would be equally adept at doing so – and more to do with the willingness of the corporate media to give them platforms, notoriety and, above all, the benefit of the doubt as to the sincerity of their faith.
Nowhere was this more evident than during the coverage of the overthrow of Roe vs. Wade. The relegation of abortion access to state governments has been seen as a victory for Christians and, story after story, presumed their opposition to abortion was not rooted in a desire for power or political victory, but in obedience to God.
“As the Catholic Church, as a pro-life movement, generally speaking, we are celebrating the end of roe deer but we also have a lot of work to do in our home state,” said Brittany Vessely, executive director of the Colorado Catholic Conference.
For those who do not support abortion, today is considered a great victory.
“Roe vs. Wade is done,” Vessely said. “Now it’s in the United States and what’s going to be very interesting is we’re going to see a lot of pro-life states start to strengthen and promote the sanctity of life and a lot of pro-life states -abortion like Colorado do just the opposite.”
Journalists took their words about prayers and supposed respect for the sanctity of life at face value, while questioning the real good consequences of various states’ abortion bans.
Non-Christian religions or Christian denominations whose adherents do not oppose abortion have been relegated to “well, not ALL the religious leaders think this is good newsstories that implied that these were exceptions to the rule, aberrations, and that the majority opinion was the most relevant.
The corporate media has followed this formula on countless issues: equality in marriage, trans rights, access to birth control, fairness in any accommodation of faith. “Religion” is presumed to motivate, if not demand, opposition to equality. When the Supreme Court ruled in favor of same-sex unions, the Tampa Bay Weather cited six Christian and two Jewish “leaders”, and seven of the eight sources were against.
Some religious traditions welcome and honor gay and trans people, while other religious traditions say little about sexual mores. Many religions require as strenuous an effort to care for the poor as they do to restrict the role of women, but all of these nuances are often lost in quick coverage that leaves room for a “religious” leader to give a quote.
The economy plays an obvious role here. A general lack of knowledge about religious matters pervades journalism; just last month, major market research found that few newsrooms see specialized reporting on religion as a necessity, and that “digging into” knowledge creates coverage full of stereotypes and misunderstandings about the role that various religious traditions play in public life.
Political propaganda too. The religious right is not a new force in American politics, and the editors and producers working today at the highest levels of corporate journalism were raised in the overwhelming era of think-tank work against the “liberal media” with accusations that all journalists were anti-religious. The religious left – including the Roman Catholic cohort that marched for civil rights and campaigned to end apartheid – all but disappeared from media coverage in the 1980s as abortion rose to prominence in GOP circles as the issue to motivate religious voters.
But none of these forces exempts reporters from reporting on the sources they use and promote. The nature of their work dictates skepticism towards all powerful actors in and on society, including religious actors. Giving the credence that comes with the label of “religious leader” is something news stories do every day without anyone thinking twice. It is high time they started subjecting these same religious figures to the scrutiny they would give to an average politician or left-wing activist.
America’s religious image is far more diverse, ideologically and otherwise, than the average “religion vs. Democrat” story would lead the public to believe. Many different religious traditions promote women to leadership, celebrate same-sex unions, and even among those who don’t, adherents to these traditions are often more liberal than not. A majority of American Roman Catholics believe in abortion should be legal in most cases, and a quarter of American abortion patients are Catholic.
By treating people of faith who promote abortion rights or LGBTQ equality as if they don’t exist, the corporate media creates an image of religion that doesn’t match the experience that most people have faith in others and in their own. The corporate media gives the impression that if you’re a liberal who goes to church or believes in God, there’s no one else like you who opposes the white male leadership that’s making headlines. newspapers.
Pseudo-religious quacks have been around since the dawn of time, making golden calves and suggesting people worship them as gods, but editors should let their calls go to voicemail.
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