by Diane Winston
Just another day in the news: Chief Justice John Roberts casts the deciding vote in the Supreme Court's verdict on Obamacare, Egypt's new first lady is introduced to the American public and Steven Soderbergh's film about a male stripper garners mixed reviews.
But here's the interesting part—religion is significant in all three stories. Whether or how that angle is covered highlights Americans' ambivalence about religion as well as the news industry's attempts to shape our points of view.
Taking care of the sick? A major must in most traditions. Yet, most mainstream coverage didn't include a religion angle on the health care debate. Some online sites did report grassroots reaction. But the Washington Post's “On God” blog took note, parsing the political ramifications of potential religious infighting over the law. Still, like many mainstream news outlets, the Post assumes religion is a subset of politics rather than a broader grouping of beliefs, behaviors, ethics and spirituality.
The New York Times has a more capacious view, casting religion as a cultural force for good among friends and allies—and not so good among those it distrusts. Historically, the Times distrusts true believers, those who place scriptures over Style. As recently as the 1980s, evangelicals were depicted as quaint, and the Religious Right as politically naïve. Today, Western faiths like Judaism and Christianity typically get a pass—reported on as fascinating phenomena—but Islam is subtly denigrated, frequently through descriptions of its “oppression” of women.
Many Muslim women are victims of oppression, but their mistreatment often owes as much to culture as it does to religion. Child brides, marital rape, wife beating and honor killings occur in Muslim countries, but Islamic law does not sanction them. Neither does Islam seek to repress women through dress; in many countries head-to-toe female coverings are cultural not religious traditions, and in other places women choose to wear them as statements of religious commitment or Islamic solidarity.
But the Times sees the hijab as a red flag. If it's not an outright indicator of repression, then surely it telegraphs close-minded parochialism. Read Thursday's profile of Naglaa Ali Mahmoud, the wife of Egypt's new president, as an example of the paper's flair for gracious deprecation. In the very first graf, Ms. Mahmoud is cast as backward, uneducated and unenlightened—in the nicest language imaginable.
Just for comparison, see last Friday's article on another group of religious women who wear concealing garments. But modesty among New York's Hasidic Jews isn't cause for righteous outrage or concern about repressive gender roles. The only question posed about these religiously-dictated fashion statements is how wearers cope with the heat. Cute, but in its own way a subtle take-down of religious commitment.
Over the past five years, contributors to the Scoop have had fun challenging the Times and the Post and other new outlets on why they perpetuate bad religion coverage–or giving them kudos when they get it right. We've explored how world religions are depicted; wondered why background and contextualization of religious traditions are minimized or missing; analyzed the ideological reasons for news and entertainment constructions of religion and religious folks; and called for fuller and richer probing of manifestations of belief in everyday life.
Now we're moving on to something new. A retooled Trans/Missions will be unveiled in 2013, but for the rest of the year, we're redesigning the site to feature religion coverage done right. Later this summer, we'll make it easier than ever to see KCMR-supported reporting on religion in the U.S. and overseas. We'll also keep links to the Scoop–check out the archive. We have five years' worth of savvy commentary on coverage of everything from Asian-American “model minorities” to The Wire.
And what of “Magic Mike“? Much to be written about religion and the objectification of the male body, analyses that plumb challenges to family values (especially male authority), the rise of female spectatorship and the conundrum of male commodification. Sounds yummy, right?
Looking forward to your post.