Don’t Blame Secularism: Reading Blind Spot: When Journalists Don’t Get Religion

One of the crankier complaints heard during George W. Bush’s presidency was the grouse about ‘secularism’ being a threat to American society. Unfortunately, it seems this beef will be sticking with us for a while as we transition to the newest phase of the culture war.

Is it true, though? Does America—or the world, for that matter—suffer in any noticeable way from an overzealous, institutionally entrenched, and otherwise unchecked worldview based on Enlightenment notions of progress rather than faith in a supreme being? The easy answer is: no. Or, as one anonymous source put it to me the other day: “Are you kidding? Of course not.”

In this case, however, the easy answer fails to get at the larger issue driving the critique of secularism that we so often heard during, and now after, the Bush era. Indeed, this may be one of those cultural puzzles your cultural anthropology professor always talked about where the best answer should be another question: Why, after eight years of George W. Bush as president, do so many Americans complain about ‘secularism’ run amok?

In his introduction to the edited volume Blind Spot: When Journalists Don’t Get Religion (Oxford University Press, 2009), for example, author Paul Marshall gives us a good example of what this kind of concern for secularism looks like in action. Speculating that American journalism suffers from certain deficiencies caused by ‘secularism,’ Marshall explains the reason for publishing the volume:

The purpose of this book is not to make journalists or others into believers, or to convince them or anyone else that religion is good… Our concern is to emphasize that religion is important even in secular news, so that it is vital for journalists to take religion seriously and to know about it in order to properly report the news.

Marshall describes a journalism that habitually ‘misunderstands’ the world it describes to the public due to a serious and long-held ignorance of all things religious, resulting in a culture of journalism that remains deficient in both its descriptions of and its explanations for key political and social events in a rapidly changing, often dangerous world. The three-pronged moral of the story: (1) you can’t understand the world if (2) you don’t know religion, and (3) most journalists don’t know anything about religion.

As far as compiled books about the state of American journalism go, Blind Spot is not half bad. The book includes a dazzling chapter by Middle East scholar Michael Rubin on the value of knowing a thing or two about post-1970s Iraqi and Iranian Sh’ia Islam (“Three Decades of Misreporting Iran and Iraq”), which should make any reader wonder how things have not gone exponentially worse for the United States in Iraq. There is also a valuable insider look at human rights initiatives launched by Christian groups during George W. Bush’s presidency, as told by a former higher-up in the Faith Based Initiatives Office, Allen Hertzke. Amy Welborn’s chapter skillfully reminds us how much we miss when journalists who lack a basic awareness of Catholic theological debates attempt to write about the passing or passing through of a pontiff. The reading is fascinating, and well worth tossing a few bills onto the Oxford University Press donation plate.

Seeing Truth vs. Building a Fact Base

Yet, as interesting as the individual chapters are, it is difficult to get past Marshall’s opening claim that contemporary journalism is ‘secular’ and that this is somehow a problem for journalists and non-journalists alike. When did journalism become secular, anyway? Moreover, if ‘religion’ is the real issue at stake here, why is it that books like Blind Spot always seem to include chapters on evangelical Protestantism, Roman Catholicism, and Central Asian Islam with only a few references to anti-Semitism and Hindu nationalism tossed into the mix for color?

The fact is, there are very few situations that a reporter would get absolutely wrong if she did not know enough about a given religious system. Which is to say: newsrooms are not aiming for absolute truth, but for a factual base of current events built up from multiple perspectives divided roughly among news departments. Each news department is incomplete, but taken as a whole the news organization assembles a foundation of information that is broad and accurate enough to help the public understand events and make decisions. Should there be a religion department adding to this fact base in every newspaper? I imagine most editors would want there to be—in an ideal world where parent corporations were not seeing the devil in their balance sheets.

When held up to the light, in other words, Marshall’s framing argument in Blind Spot reveals the larger issue at stake, which is not the negative effects of secularism on journalism, but a pitch to give experts on evangelicalism, Catholicism, and Islam a more influential voice in American civil society. As Marshall himself suggests, influential journalists like the executive editor of the New York Times, Bil Keller, seem to agree.

The Rovian Rift

Admittedly, complaints about secularism are more than just the product of ‘religion’ experts vying for a seat at the table in the public sphere.

For the most part, cries against secularism in America these days come from key portions of evangelical Protestantism that were organized, mobilized, and—some would say—radicalized by the political machine that elected and reelected George W. Bush. A political investment of the Republican Party resulted in the transformation of a modest cultural divide into a deep and bitter schism which, despite the election of Barack Obama, the country still suffers from.

The divide that resulted from the Karl Rove strategy of mobilizing the evangelical base had real consequences in elections. Bush won—twice—as did many candidates cut from the same cloth. It was also a total sham, as David Kuo pointed out in his devastating account of Bush’s Office of Faith Based Initiatives, Tempting Faith (2007). Fraud or no fraud, Rove’s strategy did affect how evangelicals talked about their relationship to politics and government. Whereas Jerry Falwell’s early alliance with the Republican Party had resulted in widespread critiques of liberalism as ‘immoral,’ Rovian politics led evangelicals to voice their concern at what they perceived as a threat to the Constitutional fabric of the nation by secular radicals. While Bush never openly endorsed this view, his tacit agreement was enough to turn this internal evangelical criticism of secular American government into an open, nationwide debate. It also led political leaders like James Dobson, John Hagee, and Pat Robertson to talk explicitly about reframing the Constitution with biblical literalism.

All of this came to a head following the reelection of George W. Bush, when Democratic leadership wondered how to deal with ‘religious’ voters while evangelical leaders—never in history more powerful politically than they were the morning of November 3, 2004—speculated with increasing urgency about the threat of secularism to America’s future. Both sides completely missed the boat on what they were actually arguing about, which was not the corrosive influence of religion or secularism, but the deep division created by electoral college rainmakers seeking to leverage evangelical passion on certain issues for short-term gain. Two years later, large numbers of evangelical voters had already shaken off Rovianism and were openly embracing supposedly ‘secular’ issues (e.g. poverty, environmentalism), while large numbers of Democrats were openly embracing supposedly ‘religious’ issues (e.g. faith, family values).

Cold War 2.0: American Ignorance of Central Asia

‘Secularism,’ as Marshall’s Blind Spot argues, however, suffers from an ignorance of far more than just which types of Christianity dominate the United States. The ignorance of Islam is in many ways worse. As Michael Rubin notes:

The General rule for Western correspondents in the Muslim world…is to report violence and political intrigue, but to ignore underlying religious tensions. This is especially true when disagreements involve doctrinal disputes within sects rather than fighting between sects or religions.

One would have to be well into a fifth of whiskey to argue against Rubin’s opening position—to argue that most Americans are anything but ignorant of the “doctrinal disputes within sects” of Islam. I am not embarrassed to admit that while I had many descriptions of Sunni and Sh’ia Islam ready, and had learned about the distinctions within Iranian and Iraqi Shiism, I did not fully grasp the meaning of the ‘hidden imam’ prior to reading Rubin’s chapter. Nor did I have the ability to explain its role in Central Asian political upheavals over the past 30 years. American scholars of Islam and some Muslim-American laypeople could probably have done much better than me.

My point is not to dismiss the value of knowing the theological, historical, and geographical particulars that divide one path of Islam from another as a precondition for accurate description and analysis of politics, but simply to refocus on the much broader question: Why have Americans in general—Muslim-Americans and scholars of Islam aside—remained ignorant for so long of a world religion with such vast social and political relevance in contemporary American life? The answer is not ‘secularism.’

In thinking about that question, I find myself returning to memories of my school days in the 1970s, and to the image of those colorful world maps that sat on the wall at the head of the classroom. Anybody over the age of 40 remembers this classroom setup. While most countries were divided up into states and territories, a huge chunk of real estate was occupied by a big swath of pink, enigmatically labeled ‘U.S.S.R.’ By the time I got to my grade school homeroom, institutionalized ignorance of the Soviet Union was not just a problem, it was a tradition. Far worse than not understanding the details of the various histories, cultures, and religious groups that made up the vast ‘Evil Empire,’ most Americans in the 1970s did not even realize they were ignorant.

What is striking about Cold War-era ignorance of all things Soviet was not just its depth, but its breadth. Schoolchildren and their teachers alike were cloaked by it. If you knew anything about the Soviet Union prior to the 1980s, chances are you were either from there or you had an advanced degree that made you an expert, or both.

The analogy of Cold War ignorance of the Soviet Union to American ignorance of Central Asian Islam is striking. Relative to the timeline of the Cold War, I would say American knowledge of Central Asian religion puts us, by comparison, at about 1971. Most Americans learn a thing or two about Islam in school in a class called ‘Religion.’ We know it is out there because we read a chapter about it in a book. Maybe we even took a test. But then we just went about our business. The basics about Central Asia are kept in an educational black box, today, similar to the one that contained knowledge of the Soviet Union from the end of WWII to the fall of the Berlin Wall. And most Americans—be they schoolchildren, teachers, or journalists—do not open the box. They do not even know the box exists.

As Rubin’s analysis shows us, we would all be better off if we just opened the darned box and got up to speed on the basics of Islam globally, as well as some specifics about Islam in those parts of the world germane to our lives today. American attitudes towards Iran and Iraq, not to mention our foreign policy choices, would be much more sound if we spent some time learning how to distinguish between Sunni, Shi’a, and Sufi Islam, and about which political movements in Iran and Iraq believe Muslim clerics should run the government versus those that do not. If we had understood those distinctions in the 1970s, our actions in response to the unfolding Iranian Revolution might have been different, and we might not find ourselves in such a precarious and saber-rattling relationship with Iran today.

It is not pleasant for anyone to face up to the structural ignorance that results from government policies having been translated into our lives, as well as the lives of our parents and children. Americans have long held that we are different from our enemies because we live in a ‘free’ society where people think for themselves. But the fact remains that what we know about the world—and what we do not know—is connected to our politics.

Closing the Divide on Two Fronts

None of these distinctions should stop anyone from seeing a simple fact about human nature: some people simply hate the idea of religion, while others cannot tolerate secular society. But the larger problem we face in America is not the challenge of school secularism or the urgency of reining in religion. What we must do as a country is narrow the gulf opened up by the cynical politics of the late 1990s, and shake off the structural ignorance we inherited uncritically for decades from our foreign policy.

As John Dewey often argued, the longterm danger of not forcing ourselves to wrestle with the full details of knowledge is not just an ignorance of religion or science, but an oversimplifying of the idea of democracy. When evangelical Christians do not push themselves to understand the moral underpinnings of secular culture, when secular leaders block scripture or theology from the conversation in the public sphere, and when all of us pass up the opportunity to learn the details of Iraqi and Iranian Islamic traditions—it is our understanding of democracy that suffers.

As these problems are ongoing, so too will be their solutions, which are not hard to imagine. We need to get started with listening and learning. After that, all that remains is finding the will to keep it going.