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Saturday, November 13, 2004

Public radicals vs. powerful radicals.

Kevin Drum starts out by offering a simple, almost indisputable observation about the mainstream media's difficulty covering conservative American Christianity:

Whether or not the national press has a liberal bias in its actual reporting, it's indisputable that most of the reporters themselves are standard issue social liberals. Thus, while they may or may not approve of, say, radical environmentalists, they write about them anyway. Why? Because they're aware of them. They are, roughly speaking, part of their social circle. They are comprehensible. They make good copy.

For the most part, though, they don't write about radical Bible Belt Christians. Sure, there's an occasional piece when a judge smacks a two-ton monument of the Ten Commandments on his courthouse lawn, but that's about it. Why? I don't think it's so much a conscious decision, as Bob suggests, but rather that most reporters are barely aware they exist. Christian extremists are decidedly not part of their social circle, and writing about them is more akin to anthropology than reporting.

Then he offers what I find to be a terrifically useful insight into how it is that a group most of us hear almost nothing about turns out to be so much more powerful than, well, all the activist groups we do hear about:

But there's a bit more to it than that. Lefty extremists actively crave attention. They organize marches in cities, they chain themselves to redwood trees, they toss buckets of blood on women in fur coats. They want the national press to write about them.

Bible Belt Christians, by contrast, don't. For the most part, they are an insular group, sending their newsletters to each others, attending each others' conferences, and mobilizing voters in their own churches.

The result of all this is that most Americans are well aware of lefty extremism, even though the actual number of lefty extremists is fairly small. And to a lot of people, they look pretty scary.

But most Americans aren't well aware of Christian extremism. Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson occasionally show up on morning chat shows, and sometimes they slip up and say something scary, but not often. Thus, when something like this screed by Frank Pastore shows up in the LA Times, readers are shocked. What they don't realize is that within their own fire and brimstone circles, this kind of talk is commonplace among Bible Belt Christians. And there are way more of them than there are members of the Earth Liberation Front.

Why are there more hard-right Christians than left-wing activists? One group concentrates on building a movement; the other concentrates on attracting the media. (Wait! Haven't I heard a version of this idea before?) Religious liberals and others who want to exert a long-term effect on American society should take note: The real challenge isn't generating a news story every now and then about the "religious left." The challenge is building a base.

Copyright © 2004 by Philocrites | Posted 13 November 2004 at 10:12 PM

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November 14, 2004 04:10 PM | Permalink for this comment

Well, Kevin Drum's observation is simple, but it's hardly indisputable. The idea that journalists, being "standard-issue social liberals" -- talk about an off-handed, meaningless, nearly insulting description -- who move in the same circles as "radical environmentalists" and "lefty extremists" is certainly debatable (note: the Sierra Club and Nature Conservancy are *not* radical, folks, and neither is the ACLU or Democratic Party); having spent most of my adult life in newsrooms, I actually believe it's demonstrably untrue.

I think Drum misses the underlying reason for the media's distance from coverage of religious movements. The scarce coverage is part of a much older, mostly unspoken arrangement among media that news is by definition produced in the secular sphere -- government, the political process, crime, the arts, sports, the social whirl, what have you. There was a defined space in most papers, and even many broadcast outlets, for religious matters. There was something like a division of church and state, an understanding that under ordinary circumstances, discussions of religious belief had their place, and it was not ordinarily in the news columns (there are many exceptions of course, and I can cite two examples from my own family history. Sometimes religion would supply a human-interest story -- such as when my Uncle Dick became the fourth of my mom's brothers to be ordained a Roman Catholic priest; more often, the world of religion would cross into secular territory and get covered, as with stories about "rebellious" liberal clergy -- like my Uncle Bill, a priest in the Chicago archdiocese -- defied their superiors to engage in political activities such as the civil rights and antiwar movements. Actually, when you think about it, the news media have given an extraordinary volume of coverage to religion, but only when it intersects with that secular boundary; the sexual-abuse scandals in the Catholic Church are one example, the struggle over gay ordination in various Protestant sects another. On the right, you can hardly argue that the likes of Falwell, Robertson, Ralph Reed,and their ilk have been spared critical attention from the press.

What the media hasn't done, much, is dissect and criticize their views. Of course, the media doesn't do that much in any sphere. One could argue -- and I think that this is part of the editorial decision-making of the past -- that people's personal religious beliefs are generally off-limits to scrutiny and criticism *except* when the people who hold them make them the basis of a movement or attempt to impose them on others. The ultrafundamentalist, ultraright Christian radicals who are rearing their heads now (or rearing them anew) are starting to get the kind of critical attention they deserve. Witness Ron Suskind's "Faith" piece in the Times magazine before the election and, more in the drive-by mode, Maureen Dowd's column today.

There's another element to this as well. I think most American journalists, like most Americans in general, are confounded by zealotry of any stripe, if not fearful of it outright. So, just as mainstream journalists are uncomfortable with or alarmed by true extremism, such as that espoused by Earth First! or the anarchist trade-treaty protesters, they're nonplussed by rule-by-Bible ultrafundamentalist Christians. It's actually a challenge to figure out how to cover such a movement, but I think the discussion of how to do it is pretty well advanced and you're starting to see the results in print and on the air.


November 16, 2004 12:17 PM | Permalink for this comment

On a related theme: Chutney suggests that protest politics functions for the Left the way revivals function for the evangelical and charismatic Right. "Protests are no longer marches of nonviolent armies hoping to change hearts and minds of their fellow citizens. Now protests are for the protesters. Insofar as the goals of their predecessors are considered, they hope to fail. Anyone trying to accomplish something more than personal expression would find a method more likely to succeed." Read the rest at "Your own. Personal. Protest."

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