From Dr. Pepper to Libya: Empowering the Fanatics

An axiom of human life is that smart people occasionally do stupid things. I desperately want to believe that the editors of both The Huffington Post and Newsweek are smart people who each recently made the same stupid mistake -- and that, in retrospect, they both recognize their error.

Let's start with the The Huffington Post error. It all began with the following quite wonderful and playful Dr. Pepper ad:


Not surprisingly, some Christian fundamentalists found the ad to be blasphemous and complained on the Dr. Pepper Facebook page. The Huffington Post ran a short story and entitled the Facebook link to it "Christians Take Issue with New Dr. Pepper Ad." The headline on the story itself was just a bit more restrained: "Dr. Pepper 'Evolution of Flavor' Ad Sparks Backlash From Christians on Facebook."

The editors at HuffPost certainly are smart enough to know that not all Christians were opposed to the ad. Indeed, they are smart enough to know that most Christians, in fact, are fully on board with evolution.

In his thoughtful 2010 book, "The Prism and the Rainbow," Joel Martin, for example, documents the fact that, denominationally, most Christians support evolution. Similarly, The National Center for Science Education's book, "Voices for Evolution," presents doctrinal statements from a host of Christian denominations demonstrating that each is comfortable with the basic tenets of evolutionary theory.

Furthermore, The Clergy Letter Project has collected more than 12,800 signatures from Christian clergy members in the United States on a letter stating, in part, that "We believe that the theory of evolution is a foundational scientific truth, one that has stood up to rigorous scrutiny and upon which much of human knowledge and achievement rests." Evolution and Christianity, for many, many Christians, go hand in hand.

Many tend to forget that this degree of comfort with evolution is not new for Christians. One example will make my point. When the State of Arkansas, in 1981, passed a law mandating that "creation science" had to be taught in public school science classrooms and laboratories whenever evolution was taught, the law was immediately challenged on constitutional grounds. The main plaintiffs were religious leaders from across the State of Arkansas. As Federal District Judge William R. Overton pointed out in his 1982 decision overturning the law, "The individual plaintiffs include the resident Arkansas Bishops of the United Methodist, Episcopal, Roman Catholic and African Methodist Episcopal Churches, the principal official of the Presbyterian Churches in Arkansas, other United Methodist, Southern Baptist and Presbyterian clergy, as well as several persons who sue as parents and next friends of minor children attending Arkansas public schools."

Despite the headline The Huffington Post ran with, the article about the Dr. Pepper ad actually led with the fact that only a small group of people had a concern: "Controversy has erupted over the latest Dr. Pepper ad dubbed 'The Evolution of Flavor,' with a small, but vocal minority of commenters on Facebook posting complaints about the ad's evolution motif."

Two points are worth making. First, it's journalistically irresponsible to attempt to manufacture a major controversy when no such thing exists. Second, it's socially irresponsible to assume that the members of virtually any group will speak with a single voice and hold a unified position. To claim that "Christians Take Issue with New Dr. Pepper Ad" is as insulting to many (most likely most) Christians as it is simply stupid.

Which brings me to Newsweek. The cover dated Sept. 24, 2012 makes exactly the same mistake that HuffPost made.


Given the stakes, it is even more irresponsible to talk of "Muslim Rage" than it is to claim that Christians took issue with the Dr. Pepper ad. Muslims are no more unified in their opinions than are Christians and to imply otherwise can do nothing but inflame passions of people looking for easy answers.

Were many Muslim's enraged by an anti-Muslim film? Of course. But by painting with such a broad brush, the reality of the situation is ignored. What about the large number of Muslims who were upset with the violent protests? Or what about the protests in Benghazi, Libya that ousted the militia reportedly responsible for the death of Ambassador Christopher Stevens?

Whenever we equate the radical fringe, whether they be Muslim extremists or Christian fundamentalists, with the majority of a particular religion, we empower the fanatics. That might make for great (yellow) journalism, but it makes for atrocious public policy. We deserve better.