Conflict Sells, Especially Religious Conflict

Conflict sells. Religious conflict has been a consistent way to frame religion by major media in the U.S. and globally for the past decade, and it’s sold magazines and newspapers and created an image of religious faith as a battleground.

There was a time when media were virtually clueless about religion. Sometimes I think they are still. Today you can’t pick up a publication or watch a news show without reference to religion. But often it’s treated superficially and without historical understanding. And even more often it’s framed by major media into a narrative of conflict. Conflict sells, but it doesn’t provide understanding, and often is inaccurate and misleading.

Robert Navarrette writing in the San Diego Union-Tribune says coverage of Mitt Romney’s descent and Mike Huckabee’s rise in Iowa is attributed by Newsweek to religion. As Newsweek frames the story, Iowans are rejecting Romney because of his Mormanism. Huckabee, on the other hand, is capturing the hearts of evangelical conservatives who are more comfortable with this faith perspective, according to the magazine. The story is framed as conflict between competing views of faith, another version of the religious wars.

But Navarette points out this is inconsistent with what voters are saying. The Iowa Poll conducted by the Des Moines Register indicates Romney’s descent is attributed to his flip-floppping on issues. Huckabee is viewed as the more principled social conservative among the Republican pack.

Navarette has harsh words about the conflict framing. Noting it’s often used to frame stories about people in the U.S., dividing us by race, class and education, he writes it’s “dangerous, insulting and likely untrue.”

It’s insulting because it paints Iowans as religious bigots when they are more open-minded than they are given credit by national pundits. My experience in the heartland is that people living there are as complicated and diverse of opinion as other regions of the country, and certainly at least as moderate and fair-minded, if not more so, than folks I’ve worked with on either coast. The heartland is a more nuanced and complicated region than this simplistic conflict framing reveals.

To come to the story with conflict pre-determined risks missing the point altogether. And that’s what Navarette contends Newsweek’s coverage has done. His conclusion is that Romney’s problems with Iowans have more to do with their belief that he lacks principles than that he holds to Morman principles. Huckabee, if nothing else, has been consistent in his positions, even bucking the crowd on immigration and his controversial pardons for criminals when it isn’t popular to do so.

These differences are more nuanced than the holy war frame can contain. In fact, in this instance, I think it masks the factors that affect the voter’s assessment of Romney. They are less concerned about his religion than about his consistency to principles he has claimed in the past but seems to have abandoned today. This has little to do with Morman religion and more to do with political expediency.

Besides giving us an inaccurate interpretation, this narrative has also contributed to a definition of religion that is distorted and unnecessarily divisive. I’ve long contended that coverage of religion lacking historical context and theological depth is harmful because it’s incomplete. Religion is about meaning and nuance. It isn’t about short headlines and telegraphed catch-phrases such as “holy war.” What, exactly is that?

Even the use of this phrase characterizes religious debate in violent terms. More of us don’t engage in name-calling and rhetorical flourishes but moderation doesn’t grab attention. So religion has taken on an image of contentiousness that isn’t a fair representation of the vast majority of religious people.

Yet, for some media coverage provides legitimation. Far too often in recent years this has meant that extreme voices, not necessarily representative of time-honored and tested religious thought, have even been elevated to national stature. The more intemperate and divisive, the more likely to be covered.

But many of these media-elevated voices are not representative of the faith traditions with which they are associated. On my worst days I think some journalists don’t care and on my good days I think some are oblivious to the nuances. Of course there are those who cover the religion beat who have the formal education, experience and familiarity to cover religion substantively.

But I don’t hold much hope that coverage will get better anytime soon. I do think moderates are about to be discovered. Hiding in the alcoves of the mainline for the past decade they’re about to come out into the daylight like ancient monks emerging from their caves.

But I don’t look for a change in the frame. Take a gander at Newsweek‘s most recent report on religion–Moderates Storm the Religious Battlefield–and you see why.

Oh well, at least they interviewed some of the best teachers and thinkers. That’s a start, I suppose.

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