Journalists should deal with religion respectfully, of course. But that doesn't mean dismissing the tough questions.
Did you hear about the Protestant minister who said that Haiti "has been in bondage to the devil for four generations"? No, it wasn't Pat Robertson but Chavannes Jeune, a popular Evangelical pastor in Haiti who has long crusaded to cleanse his nation of what he believes is an ancestral voodoo curse. It turns out that more than a few Haitians agree with Jeune and Robertson that their nation's crushing problems are caused by, yes, voodoo.
I know this not because I read it in a newspaper or saw it on TV, but because of a blog. University of Tennessee-Knoxville cultural anthropologist Bertin M. Louis Jr., an expert on Haitian Protestantism, posted an essay exploring this viewpoint on The Immanent Frame, a social scientist group blog devoted to religion, secularism and the public sphere.
Elsewhere on The Immanent Frame, there's a fascinating piece by Wesleyan University religion professor Elizabeth McAlister touching on how the voodoo worldview affects Haiti's cultural and political economy. She writes that the widespread belief that events happen because of secret pacts with gods and spirits perpetuates "the idea that real, causal power operates in a hidden realm, and that invisible powers explain material conditions and events." Though McAlister is largely sympathetic to voodoo practitioners, she acknowledges that any effective attempt to relieve and rebuild Haiti will contend with that social reality.
In a recent New York Times column, religion reporter Samuel G. Freedman rightly lamented the way the American news media have largely ignored voodoo in their Haiti earthquake reporting. But he also chided media commentators (including me) for speculating about voodoo as a harmful cultural force. Freedman quoted academics who praised the Haitian folk religion, and who complained about the ignorance and supposed racism of voodoo skeptics.
This, alas, is all too typical of American media's religion coverage. We journalists ignore or downplay the role religion plays in the everyday life, or we take a naive viewpoint toward exotic religions practiced by people unlike us.
For years, I've watched this instinct show itself in the way most in the mainstream media cover Islam in America. Reporters are eager to find positive stories and often allergic to stories that might, in their minds, give aid and comfort to rednecks, right-wingers and other so-called undesirables. Once I attended a news meeting in which an editor angrily declined to look into substantive evidence that local Muslim institutions were teaching Islamic radicalism to youth by barking, "What about Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson?! We never write about their radicalism!"
As if the Christian televangelists were comparable to Osama bin Laden. As if they were even relevant. The story -- an important one -- never was written. In that case, an editor who knew little about religion interpreted religious data through a partisan culture-war lens. He chose by omission not to give the newspaper's readers a picture of the world as it is, but rather of the world as he wishes it were.
Years of survey data show that U.S. journalists lean strongly to the left, particularly on social issues -- a stance often associated with a secular outlook. As a religious believer and professional journalist for 20 years, time and time again I've seen journalists who fail to get the dictum set down by the indispensable media criticism blog GetReligion.org: "It's impossible for journalists to understand how things work in the real world if they do not take religion seriously."
Here's why. In his influential 1948 book Ideas Have Consequences, Richard Weaver identified a person's "metaphysical dream of the world" -- that is, the way the world works at its most basic level -- as the foundation of one's thoughts and conduct. This is the realm of religion -- or of no religion at all, because scientific materialism offers its own particular view of the structure of reality.
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SOURCE: USA Today
Rod Dreher | Rod Dreher is director of publications at the John Templeton Foundation and blogs at Beliefnet.com.
(In Haiti: Half of its 9 million people are Catholic and a third Protestant; voodoo is pervasive.)