Speaking of Religion

by James M. Wall

James M. Wall is Senior Contributing Editor of The Christian Century.

The following essay appeared in Hidden Treasures: Searching for God in Modern Culture, by James M. Wall (The Christian Century Press, Chicago: 1997), pp. 87-90. Used by permission.


Media coverage of religion is not biased against religious faith; it is biased in favor of Enlightenment rationality.

Biblical scholars have long debated the historical reliability of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. Though there was not that much new to report on the topic, the three major news-magazines decided anyway to feature Jesus on their Easter week cover and report on recent arguments about whether Jesus actually said what the New Testament says he said. Not surprisingly, the peg for the stories was the Jesus Seminar, which has been attracting media attention for some time. With their cover stories, Time, Newsweek and U.S. News cl’ World Report were able simultaneously to acknowledge the belief of millions of Christians around the world while providing the "news" that the basis of Christian belief is something even Christian scholars disagree about.

No matter what millions of worshipers may celebrate on Easter Sunday, the resurrection of Jesus is still, in media parlance, an "alleged" event. The conflict between religion and scientific rationality is a phenomenon tailor-made for the news media, and it’s the kind of conflict they are used to covering.

Media coverage of religion is not biased against religious faith; it is biased in favor of Enlightenment rationality. Our culture’s embrace of scientific rationality as the ultimate measure of all reality has pushed religious faith over into a corner of irrelevancy. Even religion’s most informed advocates are reluctant to speak of their faith in public settings for fear of rejection by their intellectual peers.

On a special Easter Sunday edition of Meet the Press, several prominent politicians were asked how they could justify being religious and political at the same time. Even former New York Governor Mario Cuomo, one of the most articulate Christian political leaders, seemed uncomfortable as he fielded questions from moderator Tim Russert that hinted there is something nefarious about religious groups receiving government funds for programs that serve the public. Russert repeatedly pressed his concern that public funds in church hands might expose recipients to the danger of conversion. Horrors. Russert should watch Guys and Dolls. A little preaching and a little soup rarely hurts, and it sometimes helps.

Before we leave the Sunday morning talk shows, we might ask why the networks present the programs geared for the more thoughtful segment of the audience during the traditional hours for Sunday worship. Do they assume the intellectual community is staying at home on Sunday morning? The ads for the Sunday morning programs make it clear the corporate sponsors believe that their image-building campaigns are reaching the "thoughtful" community which ponders serious matters on Sunday morning rather than spending time on less important matters, like worship.

Some years ago when President Jimmy Carter was traveling in South Korea he held a lengthy conversation with the South Korean president on the subject of religion. Carter spoke of his Baptist faith, and the South Korean president, nominally a Buddhist, listened with interest. When the news of this discussion leaked out, the New York Times, that staunch defender of secularity, chastised Carter for attempting to "proselytize" the South Korean. The Times editorial implied that there is something wicked about holding a conversation on faith, since it might lead to conversion.

The national opinion-shapers don’t dislike religion. Rather, they’re programmed by a common cultural wisdom that for two centuries has celebrated the intellect over the heart. That conventional wisdom respects religion, in its place, but it does not trust religious commitment as the basis for national thought or as a perspective underlying public discourse. Indeed, to gain intellectual respectability, it is best to avoid discussing religion, especially if that discussion involves what we Methodists refer to as a "witness." One can see the same mind-set at any gathering of the American Academy of Religion, the group of academics who teach religion in public and private colleges and universities. The greatest fear you sense in the corridors, apart from the fear of not landing a job, is that a professor might be suspected of harboring a genuine religious commitment in the midst of all that intellectual conversation.

Or consider Tim Robbins’s comments in speaking to an interviewer at the Berlin Film Festival about a film he directed, Dead Man Walking: "I believe in . . . er . . . that there are . . . er . . . that there are people who are on earth who live highly enlightened lives and who achieve a certain level of spirituality, in connection with a force of goodness. And because these people have walked the earth, I believe that these people have created God." Though his film is an eloquent testimony to the power of a nun’s religious faith, he himself is hesitant to speak about religion as anything more than an offshoot of secular morality. I find more truth in his film than in his testimony to a secularized spirituality.

Or consider the report by Caryn James in the New York Times on the recent Sundance Film Festival, in which she describes the film Care of the Spitfire Grill as "a manipulatively heartwarming story about a young woman just out of prison who finds spiritual redemption." James records that the movie "won the feature film audience award and was sold to Castle Rock Entertainment for $10 million." She goes on: "No one seemed to notice that it was financed by a conservative Mississippi company affiliated with the Roman Catholic Church and founded, as its ‘mission statement’ puts it, to ‘present the values of the Judeo Christian tradition.’ The new company, called Gregory Productions, put up the $6 million for the film, set in a town called Gilead. Gregory is an offshoot of the nonprofit Sacred Heart League, which publishes inspirational literature."

James comments that the film "resembles an ‘after school special’ about forgiveness. But watching it with the Sacred Heart League in mind makes all the biblical imagery seem slightly sinister. When Marcia Gay Harden takes the heroine to mediate in a deserted church, it’s hard to forget where the movie’s money comes from. The director, Lee David Zlotoff, is Jewish and, he says, extremely religious. But the movies’s multidenominational roots—Catholic backers, Protestant characters and a Jewish director—don’t diminish the eerie sense that viewers are being proselytized without their knowledge."

Proselytized? Of the more than 600 movies released in this country each year, a substantial number of them are "guilty" of proselytizing on behalf of a worldview that celebrates greed, trivializes violence and winks at sexual activity among people of all ages at all times. Yet a movie that impressed a secular audience is found guilty of proselytizing because it has a clear religious perspective and origin. Such is the bias among our cultural leaders against religious faith as a basis for rational discourse.