Religion and Media a Never-Ending Field of Study

Rick Clifton Moore, Boise State University

One of the invigorating aspects of studying religion and media is that there is an endless supply of subject matter. Each day new “case studies” (so to speak) avail themselves. Indeed, a rewarding element that occurs in reviewing papers for RMIG–and, of course, attending presentations at the conference–is hearing about religion/media cases that one was unaware of.

With that in mind, I thought I would use the newsletter as a place to share what I think are some of the more intriguing places where faith and mass communication interfaced within the last year. These seven are, obviously, manifestations that I was aware of, and found interesting. I’m hoping some are new and/or intriguing to you as well.

Donald Trump and Religious Belief. The average member of the public is most likely reminded very often of the strong differences of opinion that exist in regard to the U.S. President, but not the varied attitudes American religious leaders have toward him. The disparate views are especially evident (unbeknownst to many) within the American “evangelical” community, where leaders such as Franklin Graham and Pat Robertson have shown tremendous support for the chief of state, while others such as Max Lucado and Russell Moore have expressed significant doubts about him. How these various leaders have expressed themselves in the media, and how mainstream journalists have reported about the various attitudes toward the U.S. President can make for fascinating discussion.

Growth of Islam. Though it is not a single news story, and has been in development for several years, the fact that data indicate the Muslim faith may become the majority world faith this century has recently gained media traction. The Pew Research Center has been studying this for a long time, and has released numerous reports over the years. News outlets such as CNN and the BBC gave it ample coverage in 2017.

Passing of Cardinal Law. Bernard Law was a Roman Catholic priest and  a fascinating figure. He gained accolades for his courageous support of African Americans when he served in the Diocese of Natchez-Jackson Mississippi in the 1960s. Indeed, media scholars might find it fascinating that he edited a diocesan newspaper at the time and won a national award from the Catholic Press Association. Little of that is remembered, though, as he later faced ignominy for his role in covering up sexual abuse among clergy in Boston. (There is a good deal of reference to him in Tom McCarthy’s 2015 film Spotlight.) Law passed away in December and was interred at the Vatican, with little comment from the church about his role in protecting pedophiles within the priesthood.

Why Buddhism is True. Journalist/Professor Robert Wright may be known to some readers for his earlier work The Evolution of God. In 2016, he released Why Buddhism is True, which earned a high level of critical praise and (more importantly, perhaps, for scholars of media and religion) rose to the top five in the New York Times Best Sellers list. Admittedly, Wright’s vision of “Buddhism” is highly scientific and secular, tending to ignore issues such as spiritual reincarnation. Wright treats Buddhism in a rather instrumental fashion, seeing it as a technique for overcoming problems resulting from our odd evolutionary origins. A number of traditional media outlets helped promote the book’s success. NPR, for example, devoted two segments to the publication.

Family Christian Stores Shuttered. Originally founded by the Zondervan family (publishers of Bibles and Christian books), the chain eventually expanded to have outlets in 36 states. The retailer had developed a niche by attracting Christians by way of products not readily available in large chain stores. It was also critiqued for stocking its shelves with books that were theologically shallow, and for peddling home decor that acerbic detractors referred to as “Jesus junk.” Of course, a key question remains. To what extent is the shuttering of these stores related to decreasing interest in their products, and to what extent is it related to the rise of online sales of those very same products?

Jewish Community Center Bomb Threats/Rising Anti-Semitism. Early in 2017 over one hundred bomb threats were phoned into Jewish Community Centers around the U.S. In March of the year, two individuals were arrested in connection with some of these acts. A “unite the right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia that included neo-Nazi elements gained national news attention, but less discussion has been devoted to the possibility of increasing anti-Jewish sentiment among western nations in general. The Guardian has reported that anti-Semitism increased significantly in 2017, citing the Community Security Trust whose data suggest such incidents were the highest since the charity began keeping records. Forbes magazine and The New York Times recently ran stories about the large number of Jews in France who are wondering if they should move to another country.

Tim Keller and Princeton Seminary. The average newsreader has no conception of who Timothy Keller is. That same individual probably only hears about “Princeton” when the university’s basketball team is in the NCAA basketball tournament bracket. Many RMIG members might be aware that Keller is a Presbyterian (Presbyterian Church in America, more specifically) pastor who developed a small 1980s “house church” into one of the most visible religious organizations in New York City, now with four congregations and total membership in the thousands.  Princeton Seminary–historically connected to, but distinct from the famed university–had announced plans to grant a major award to Keller, but received significant pushback, based on the pastor’s views on issues of gender and sexuality.  The seminary’s president, in conjunction with Keller, decided to withhold granting of the award for the year. This decision led to further protests from a different coalition. The story appears to have not received widespread national news coverage, suggesting that most of the discussion of the event took place via smaller news outlets and social media. “Google News,” where many of us start the process of determining how much coverage an event has received, shows only five entries if one searches under “Timothy Keller and Princeton.” As Google often does, it has a “View All” button below the initial list of stories. In this case, however, the button links to a page that says, “Sorry, there is no additional coverage at this time.”

These are just a few of the stories from the last year or so that I have found stimulating. Don’t hesitate to use the RMIG newsletter as an outlet for making colleagues aware of other ways in which religion and media have recently intersected.