Burning Jesus: Religion in the Shadow of American Society

A combination of ignorance and righteousness is just as much a danger to American society as the corruption of power in business and government. But for the last half century it is only the latter that has garnered the attention of investigative journalism, in both legacy and new media. The inexorable consequences for this eschewing, this recoiling, this turning away from laying down the historical record of American spiritual life has been playing out over the summer and into the fall of 2010, in the uproar over the Islamic Center near Ground Zero and in the intention of the pastor of a nondenominational church to burn copies of the Quran on the ninth anniversary of 9/11. The book burning has been averted (hopefully) only now, long past the point when a tiny congregation, through the combustion of ignorance and righteousness, has roiled the world.

Media has inundated us with stories about the proposed book burning, but always within legal and political frameworks: the constitutional protections for both freedom of speech and freedom of religious practice; the uproar in the Muslim world; the fallout for our troops and other Americans abroad. The heart of the matter, however, is religious belief: what the pastor and many other Americans of all persuasions think about the Bible and the Quran. Significantly, it has taken a dialogue between religious leaders, the pastor and Imam Feisal of the proposed New York Islamic Center, to defuse the situation. Why did the media, with all its coverage, fail to do the same thing first? What happened to the powerful effect of shining the light of knowledge?

The problem here is that religious belief, even though it is a prime mover of humanity, has become an area of knowledge and experience where media fears to tread. What exactly was the Christian pastor's objection to the Quran? Was it something about the book itself, or was his action meant only as a reminder of the men who created 9/11? The consumers of the recent book stories have had to work this out for themselves. Perhaps, however, this situation would never have arisen if American Christians were familiar with the Quran -- if men like the Florida pastor knew that much of the Quran is a retelling of the Bible, of the stories of Abraham, Moses, Mary and Jesus. "When Jesus came with Clear Signs, he said: 'Now I have come to you with Wisdom, and in order to make clear to you some of what you dispute. Therefore, fear God and obey me. God, He is my Lord and your Lord, so worship Him.'" So says the Quran 43. If the Florida pastor had burned the book, he would have been burning Jesus. Did anyone in media confront him here?

Through its pusillanimity, the media has similarly failed us on the subject of Barack Obama's religious beliefs. Only feebly have news outlets shone the light of knowledge. And so the delusion that Obama is a Muslim persists. There has been no vigorous conversation about the nuances and possibilities for faith in a man raised in a nonreligious household, with a Muslim heritage and childhood experiences, who chose as an adult to be a Christian. Purely as a point of inquiry, for example, can a person be both a Muslim and a Christian at the same time? We are more likely to find in our daily paper or online articles about the intricacies of sexual practice than explorations of religious consciousness.

The sources of knowledge upon which we as a society have long depended--and here I include with media our education system, which I will explore in turn -- have let us down. For religious topics, there are, of course, silo media: internet sites like Sojourners and Beliefnet, magazines such as First Things. As the Obama myth and the other Muslim stories show, however, we need a larger place in the public discourse for religious belief. One of the roles of popular, widely-shared media is contextualizing experience. To use again the example of sex, over time the media (from TV sitcoms to documentaries to health articles to investigative reporting) has helped Americans to understand, and some to grow comfortable with and to accept, homosexuality. Media has done this in part by bringing the specifics of sexual practice into the national conversation. In a way, media has given Americans permission to seek questions and answers in an area of experience foreign to most of us and has provided the context in which to do so.

What could have been the platform for facts and thoughtfulness on the collisions of the Florida pastor, 9/11, the Bible and the Quran? What could be even now for reportage of the president's religious practice? There is none -- not on the major cable news channels, not in big metropolitan dailies, not on the trafficked internet news sites. This has not always been true, however. Likely it will surprise many to learn that until the middle of the last century the New York Times regularly covered what was happening at the big Catholic and Protestant churches (and occasionally Jewish synagogues) in the five boroughs (if mostly Manhattan). This was quotidian reportage: church fairs, holiday events, outreach and volunteer efforts, the social doings of society pastors. However, the Times also published every Saturday weekly sermon excerpts from local church leaders. And the opinions of bishops and divines were regularly sought and printed on subjects of local and national interest. Reading the back issues of the Times from the 1920s and 1930s is a window (if a narrow one) on religious practice in New York and the ways it threaded itself through the rest of public life.

How does the New York Times cover religious life today? With a short Saturday column called "Beliefs," which, since it moves from place to place in each weekly print edition, a reader must be determined to read in order to find. This is more than just the ghetto-ization of religion. It is the use of a lens filter for the subject, since the columnist presents via the various strategies of academic discourse, book review, whimsy, humor. The column for September 4, for example, reported on the Onion-like conservative-Christian-parody website ChristWire.

By contrast, I give you the Houston Chronicle, and its weekly (Friday) "Belief" section, twelve pages of articles, color photos and church/religious event announcements. For August 27, "Belief" included stories on the Boy Scouts ("Faith-based organizations see a natural affinity between their beliefs and the core values of the Boy Scouts"), celebrating Krishna's birthday in Houston, Evangelicals in the workplace, volunteerism and layoffs, Dallas pastor T.D. Jakes and his movie "Jumping the Broom," the choices faced by infertile Muslim parents, the Christian rock group Children 18:3 and the woman now leading the Crystal Cathedral in Garden Grove, California ("After public family feud, another Schuller steps in").
Every day of the week, furthermore, the Chronicle prints three verses, chosen from among the holy texts of the world's major religions, that echo one another, sometimes in provocative ways.

All told, this is not the kind of reportage that is going to win Pulitzer prizes. This is the laying down of the historical record of the humdrum in religious life; the articles are usually less eye-catching than the obituaries. I dare say most Chronicle readers skim the "Belief" section, if they pick it up at all. But here is the important thing: it is always there. By its very presence, "Belief" gives Houstonians a sense of the religious diversity of their city. No Christian Houstonian is going to wake up some day and freak out: "OH MY GOD there is a Hindu temple going up in the Woodlands!" In fact, two of the largest Hindu congregations in America are located in the Houston suburbs, and the Chronicle chronicles them regularly. After New York, Houston is the most multi-cultural city in the United States. The media coverage (including video from local TV) helps Houstonians to place the religious goings-on of their neighbors in the context of daily life.

We can but wonder if the New York Times regularly recorded the quotidian life of the city's mosques, the way the Chronicle does in Houston, if New Yorkers (and other Americans by extension), since they long would have been aware of the Muslim congregations in Lower Manhattan, would have been more accepting of the new center. The contrast between the Times and the Chronicle shows that what is needed for a platform is not a high board, the better to jump right into the thorniest of religious debates, but day-by-day, week-by-week, small event reportage, for it is through these encounters that people come to accept difference and variety in religious practice.

Since big media has not provided context for and incremental reportage of religious life, we Americans have given ourselves permission to glean and winnow for it. Given the state of our education system (and not just in the public schools, for elite universities are struggling with teaching students the meaning of "fact" and the use of source material), it is not surprising that many of us are looking for information in all the wrong places. Why are schools remiss in teaching deductive and inductive reasoning? the difference between fact and interpretation? One answer lies in the very concept of "answer." Sometimes one answer is clearly right; another is clearly wrong. Right and wrong. For the last half century, however, American pedagogy has emphasized growing the self-esteem of the student over mastering the tools of reason, a process that involves learning, by fits and starts, through failure and difficult choices, after storing, often through the tediousness of memorization, enough material in the mind upon which to work and experiment. The nurture of the wonderfulness of the individual over the hard exercise of the brain, however, has brought us to the point where we feel entitled to own our own facts. Praise School, as I call it, has led to the anatomization of what used to be a body of knowledge, enriched as much by argument and debate over it as by passing it on to the next generation.

This sorry state of affairs is the substratum of the "Obama is a Muslim" delusion. My Southern friends feel entitled to their own facts about the president. Moreover, they do not know how to judge the quality of information. What they read in viral emails carries as much weight as an article in the newspaper. For good reasons, however, they have lost faith in mainstream media. When members of the Tea Party movement, for example, read that they are not only racists but also unwitting tools of powerful Republican interests -- both sweeping untruths -- they do not trust the established and powerful news outlets. They are no longer persuadable by what they see there. And the dysfunction is circular and self-sustaining. The media report poorly on the Tea Party movement precisely because so many journalists and commentators are not accustomed to including religious life in reportage and do so, at best, awkwardly. (I rest my case here with the journalism on the Glenn Beck rally at the Lincoln Memorial.)

Perhaps more important is the underlying relationship between press and people. Although there are exceptions, of course, the dynamic is condescension. Tea Partiers could not possibly be organizing on their own -- they must be unwitting tools. White Southerners are conservatives because they are at heart bigots -- they are no more complicated than that. Coping strategies for the condescended-to include passive-aggressiveness and inarticulateness. Here are the bulwarks for the "Obama is a Muslim" delusion. Persisting in the belief is a form of resistance against more powerful forces (media elites, Washington government). Naming "Muslim" is a summing up of a complicated array of perceptions; laying them out in public would require exposing the self to these hostile forces. Better to retreat into the inarticulateness of "he is a Muslim."

What can be done here? Will the "Obama is a Muslim" delusion die out? Probably not as long as he is president. For all the reasons I have laid out over the past two days, the myth has a powerful hold on many of our fellow Americans. But the delusion should be a wake-up call: social studies and history classes need to be rigorous; more media should be devoted to covering what is an increasingly important part of American life. To continue to tiptoe around religious faith puts not only marginalizes journalism but also puts all of us at risk.

There is always a time and a place for new beginnings. Next week the New York Times and the Carter Journalism Institute at New York University together will launch a hyperlocal news site (internet-only) for the East Village in Manhattan. The Times already has such a site in Brooklyn; recently it closed its hyperlocal experiment in New Jersey. I am very much looking forward to the LEV, as it will be called. However, even as an occasional visitor, I feel like I know where to eat and to shop in the East Village. How about a regular religion beat? Even better, how about a hyperlocal Times site for the meld of world religions that is called Queens?

As for Barack Obama, the media could do a much better job of chronicling how faith shapes his world and ours. Several months ago, for example, the president made a few remarks at a post-Easter prayer breakfast, largely unexamined, which offer a series of insights about our enigmatic president. On the Tuesday after Easter, Obama shared these thoughts:

"Of all the stories passed down through the gospels, this one in particular speaks to me during this season. And I think of hanging -- watching Christ hang from the cross, ending the final seconds of His passion. He summoned what remained of His strength to utter a few last words before He breathed His last breath. 'Father,' He said, 'into your hands I commit my spirit.' Father, into your hands I commit my spirit. These words were spoken by our Lord and Savior, but they can just as truly be spoken by every one of us here today."

This confessional nugget is both astonishing and slightly disturbing. At a time, the days from Easter Sunday on, when most Christians are for a week or so feeling just about the most joy and elation of the religious year and looking forward to Pentecost, Barack Obama is still back at the Cross. Death and suffering, the dwelling upon hanging ("hanging" -- "hang"), the personal identification with Christ and martyrdom and above all the evocation of loneliness -- here is a private glimpse of the man and the leader. Obama's comments open a door to a realm of possibilities for the hows and whys of his executive decision-making. As for his Christianity, they tell us all we really need to know.

Tomorrow join me at my website www.mayhillfowler.com in order to share in reminiscences on the ninth anniversary of 9/11.