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News Seeking: Narcolepsy & The Politics of Religion

February 3, 2009

In the good ol’ days before 9/11, religion and spirituality used to be the very definition of soft news.

Photo by Hamed Saber (Flickr Creative Commons)

Photo by Hamed Saber (Flickr Creative Commons)

As in Zzzzz….

Located near the back of the Saturday paper, the weekly “Religion” section might include a feature of some ‘radical’ clergyman who believed science and faith need not conflict (gasp!). Oh yeah! Plus the addresses and service times for local congregations.

Yawn! Where’s the comics!?!

These days, however, religion is hard-hitting stuff.

This is the age of fundamentalisms, civilization clashes, sexual politics, and weird stories about Holocaust-denying priests. Religion is routinely portrayed as a source of entrenched ideological chasms, battlegrounds where conservative and liberal voices contest claims to institutional and cultural power.

Photo by All About You God (Flickr Creative Commons)

Photo by All About You God (Flickr Creative Commons)

A perfect example of this surrounds Barack Obama’s inauguration, where the very public prayers of Rick Warren and Gene Robinson inspired a truly dizzying array of responses.

But as veteran religion journalist Terry Mattingly points out, the MSM’s (Main Stream Media) obsession with a highly politicized religious world can occasionally run it into difficulties. Mattingly is head contributor to GetReligion.org, the blog of the Oxford Centre for Religion and Public Life.

Mattingly’s brilliant post, “Oh no, a modern patriarch?” examines media coverage of the election of Metropolitan Kirill as the new patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church. A truly soporific story reminiscent of the olden days, yes, but of some significance on the stage of world religions.

Photo by Rinzewind (Flickr Creative Commons)

Photo by Rinzewind (Flickr Creative Commons)

Mattingly compares New York Times, Los Angeles Times, and Associated Press stories, noting the use of political labels like “modernizer” and “politically savvy” in a story not readily built for such terms. As a journalist with his own religious stake in the story (he is Orthodox), Mattingly chides the MSM for its failure to simply report facts around a religious happening:

When in doubt, do not attach political labels to people whose primary role in life is defined by doctrine. We know that this is hard for reporters, since politics is the true religion for them and real religion is often viewed as a totally private hobby with slightly less cultural importance than, oh, reality television.

Mattingly is a little snarky, and perhaps rightly so. The new religion-as-hard-news era comes with an expectation that religion is primarily about influence, even when that influence isn’t readily understood.

To the editors at The Los Angeles Times, for instance, religion becomes newsworthy when it’s about implementing morality on a global scale, or about the extremes one might go to make such changes. Stories are crafted to highlight the political implications of an event and borrow terms from mainstream political discourse.

But in reality, most healthy, functional religious or spiritual convictions indirectly address all aspects of life, not just politics.

But people like Mattingly shouldn’t complain too much. The old religion beat has changed, and the change benefits people like him.

For the few who can pull it off, the religion and spirituality beat (its overblown political stories included) can become one of the most interesting parts of the news. And in an era when pundits are saying local news is key for survival, it may become an indispensable part of the surviving news machine.

For the rest, remember where we were before politics became the true religion and religion part of politics.

Oh yeah. Zzzzzz.

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