It is Time for the Mainstream Media to Talk Religion and Politics

It is indicative of the mainstream media’s myopia that it can talk about the “balancing act” of religion and politics in Islamic countries without addressing the same problems being faced here in America, problems one would think would be of far more concern to Americans than what is taking place in Egypt or Tunisia or Libya. In the same way, we hear a great deal about the threat of freedom-killing “Sharia” law but nothing at all about the threat of freedom-killing Mosaic law.

The media can safely criticize Islamic fundamentalism; it doesn’t offend the very vocal and influential Christian fundamentalists in this country. It’s an easy sell: if an Islamic man murders somebody on our streets, its Jihad-time. If a Christian man murders somebody on our streets, a far more common occurrence, it’s just a murder. The murderer might happen to be a Christian, even a fundamentalist Christian, but nobody seems to want to suggest that religion might have been a motive.

Look at the media reluctance to identify Norwegian mass murderer Anders Breivik as religiously motivated. You wouldn’t have known from mainstream media coverage of the event that not only was Breivik a conservative Christian but that he espoused beliefs identical to those held by conservative Christians in this country and more than that, was actually influenced by dominionists in this country. Or closer to home, remember Bill Maher in July wanting to know why the Fort Hood shooter, Pfc. Naser Jason Abdo, is a “Muslim” terrorist but Anders Breivik in Norway is not a “Christian” terrorist:

“I’m sure the media would have no trouble calling the guy at Ft. Hood a Muslim terrorist, but they refuse to call Anders Breivik a Christian terrorist. But that’s what he was. He is a Christian terrorist. He wanted to start a Christian onslaught against the Muslims. And it reminds me that this is not a problem with the Muslim religion — it’s a problem with religion. And Christianity is perfectly capable of coming out of its dormant phase and once again becoming the violent, blood-lusty religion it was under the Crusades.”

As once we blamed entire Native American tribes for the actions of one tribal member but excused our own, we now blame all of Islam for the actions of a few while excusing our own. And the media is complicit in this injustice. It creates a skewed image of reality, one that, sadly, feeds on misconceptions and fear.

Instead of addressing Christianity and democracy in America, we get Islam and democracy in the Middle East.

Look at a recent article in the New York Times, Tunisia Faces a Balancing Act of Religion and Democracy, by Anthony Shadid.

The insults were furious. “Infidel!” and “Apostate!” the religious protesters shouted at the two men who had come to the courthouse to show their support for a television director on trial on charges of blasphemy.

We see this every day in the United States, insults of this sort directed at the rest of us by our religious fundamentalists. But the media doesn’t report them, let alone hold them up for analysis.

Why in the face of the biggest threat to the Constitution  and the American system of government, not to mention our individual liberties, since the Christian Right began its takeover of the Republican Party half a century ago, is the media silent? A narrow brush with theocracy during the Bush administration went unnoticed. Now every GOP presidential hopeful strives to represent the Christian Right – every single Republican hopeful – and the media is silent.

Ignored are things like Newt Gingrich’s endorsement as one of four religiously acceptable candidates by FAMiLY LEADER, the extremist group that says black “families” were better off as slaves than in a modern liberal democracy, or Rick Perry’s endorsement by anti-government dominionist groups at his prayer fast in Houston. Mark Halperin of Time Magazine satisfied himself by vaguely referring to the event as a “righteous rollout for one of the latest-starting presidential campaigns in recent history.” Nothing about the anti-democracy, pro-theocracy  rhetoric, or the hate. Rachel Maddow alone among the mainstream media was willing to expose what really took place in Houston.

It is true we don’t have charges of blasphemy in our courts, but we once did. Tunisia is at the same formative stage of its democratization as we were in the wake of our revolution, when religion was uncomfortably and unhealthily intermixed with our politics. And that day may be coming again: we have seen Bryan Fischer’s call for profanity and blasphemy to be made illegal, and he is far from alone.

Shadid does briefly mention the West:

Some here hope the contest may eventually strike a balance between religious sensitivity and freedom of expression, an issue as familiar in the West as it is in Muslim countries. Others worry that debates pressed by the most fervent — over the veil, sunbathing on beaches and racy fare in the media — may polarize societies and embroil nascent governments in debates they seem to prefer to avoid.

But you would not get the idea from this that there is any serious problem going on in the West related to religion and what we call First Amendment rights.

And our society is already polarized. The rise of the Christian Right since the 1960s has completely changed the landscape upon which American politics are conducted. We are told that the director in the case discussed “was soon charged with libeling religion and broadcasting information that could “harm public order or good morals.” But this is a charge we are also familiar with, one made on an almost daily basis by pundits and politicians on the right. And it is not for lack of trying that American secularists cannot also be charged.

What Abdelhalim Messaoudi, whom Shadid describes as “a journalist at Nessma”, said of his own country is equally true in ours:

“Certain Islamist factions want to turn identity into their Trojan horse. They use the pretext of protecting their identity as a way to crush what we have achieved as a Tunisian society. They want to crush the pillars of civil society.”

Substitute Christian for Islamist and American for Tunisian and the situations match exactly.

It is a fundamentalist wet dream here – and likely in Tunisia as well – to turn our country into Afghanistan, our capital into Kabul, a grim, lifeless place where religious austerity rules and “quiet, grim, and boring” are the highlights of any printed tour guide. The American media may not have to fear stoning and violence – yet – but they are fooling themselves if they pretend that they are not also being bullied into silence. Even the DHS let itself be bullied into silence when it first issued, then rescinded, a warning about Rght-Wing terrorism being on the rise.

But as supporters of democracy in Islamic countries have realized in the wake of the Arab Spring, if they are silent today out of fear, they will be silent forever, for they have but one chance and one chance only to stand up to the forces of theocracy because the debates allowed in a modern liberal democracy will not be allowed in a theocracy.

Americans must understand that we face the same threat. It is no doubt interesting to talk about how Muslims democracies are going to survive their brush with religious fundamentalism, but I would be far more interested in the question of how we in America will survive our brush with religious fundmanetalism, and that is the last thing the mainstream media wants to talk about.

Photo from the Iowa Republican

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