The press’s animosity towards religious belief is a fundamental tenet of the religious conservative movement. “We’ve seen what we feel is a clear rise in hostility [to religion] among our institutions — political institutions and media institutions,” Craig Parshall of the National Religious Broadcasters said last week in a classic statement of the conceit.
I am puzzled by this conceit, because I have yet to see a news story that subjects core religious belief or practice to anything remotely resembling skeptical questioning. Instead, the media treat every supernatural claim with kid gloves.
The following recent articles from the New York Times and Los Angeles Times on the Mexican cult of the Virgin of Guadalupe are typical. A caption to the Los Angeles Times photo montage reads: “A woman prays at Our Lady Queen of Angels Church in Los Angeles, where the faithful gathered to celebrate what Catholics believe was the Virgin [Mary’s] appearance to native Mexican St. Juan Diego in 1531.”
This caption is actually unusual in using the moderately distancing “what Catholics believe.” But would a story about a recent sighting of Abraham Lincoln at a Los Angeles K-Mart, say, leave the matter with a “what Lincoln fans believe was Lincoln’s appearance to party faithful?” Unlikely. The allegation of Lincoln’s presence would be balanced at the very least by something along the lines of: “There has been little independent verification of this claim, however.”
Now, it is the case that the liberal media are contemptuous of the social stances currently atop the Religious Right’s political docket—opposition to abortion, gay marriage, and stem cell research. But those positions are not inherently religious. There are secular grounds for opposing gay marriage or abortion. Only by making those issues synonymous with religion itself can the claim be sustained that the media is hostile to religion. The Religious Right often seems to make just such a totalizing claim for itself; to my surprise, much of the media and political establishments let it get away with this strategy. They refer to the Religious Right as “values voters,” as if the Religious Right are the only people who possess values and as if abortion and gay marriage are the only salient values.
To be sure, the press also opposes prayer in schools by wide margins. But school prayer is a case of religion making a claim for dominance in the public sphere; one can oppose school prayer on constitutional grounds without casting the slightest doubt on the existence of a benign, listening Deity or on the myriad religious practices which supposedly get the attention of that Diety. On those matters, the press remains assiduously silent. Perhaps such silence is perfectly proper. But it is anything but disrespectful.