The Pat Robertson media paradox?

By Martin E. Marty
25 Jan 2010

Jeffrey Weiss, who blogs at Politics Daily, sent an e-query to some of us e-columnists, or at least to me, supplementing his blog-list. He raised enough good questions to merit a response.

Revisiting the by-now-over-visited tragicomedy of televangelist Pat Robertson on Haitians and the Devil, Weiss wanted to discuss a “paradox:” “From Jon Stewart (a secular Jew, for goodness sakes, who quoted Bible verses on the Daily Show) to the pastor of First Baptist Dallas in Newsweek to, well, you in Sightings, the range of people who have weighed in is impressive.” Why a paradox?

At home on that range, let me comment. Yes, Stewart is a secular Jew; I’d prefer to call him a “profane” one, in the etymological and other senses, but he is at home with the Bible. Weiss thought that Stewart had nothing to do with religion. Correction: Among many instances of familiarity and interaction with religion, his Daily Show hosted Jim Wallis of Sojourners for a third time last week.

The First Baptist pastor? He was on the spot because Robertson is a fellow-Baptist, but it was not hard for him to distance himself publicly from “Pat.” As for me? I’m in the business of being unsurprised by the many evidences of religion in American culture, and report on some each week. What surprised me is that Weiss, who really knows his religion, was surprised by the attention to religion in this kind of national case.

He asked: “Is it just that Robertson is such an easy target?” Partly. But, adds Weiss, “Would so many people pile on if they didn’t care about the topic? Why bother offering a ‘correction’ if the subject is irrelevant?” Now we are getting to the point. I’d argue that “so many people do care about the topic” of religion.

From the New Atheists through profane and even obscene Comedy Central comics, the Hollywood of today, the United States Supreme Court, and higher academe – where religion is back, and strong – there is noise. So the question becomes, why would Weiss get the impression that few people care? He has some reasons.

As I recall, he won spurs in metropolitan daily newspapers, where City Desk editors often get grumbled about by religion-desk writers, who often have to fight for space and status when the assignment editors are indifferent to or hostile about religion. But as our weekly assessments in a decade and more of Sightings point out, religion shows up in numberless ways.

Once more, then, why is Weiss puzzled over this paradox? He answers clearly: Many of the new polls show American citizens ignoring religious dogma and communion, and then drifting or galloping off to ill-defined, non-institutional religion or “spirituality.” So one might not expect such citizens to care.

That evidence of drift and distancing from informed, intact, and institutional religion tells much about current Americans, but not about the kind of religion that makes news, because news-making religion still impinges on the drifters’ lives.

A few code words will illustrate: religion and militant Islam, the Religious Right, priestly sexual scandals, Haitian relief efforts, ordination of gays and anti-gay activities in denominations, Israel and Zionism, and, for that matter, the popularity of magazines whenever they put anything about about Jesus on the cover.

One wishes – and I think Weiss, as he covers religion, wishes – that there were more attention given to what I just called “informed, intact, and institutional” religion as opposed to Protean and often egregious or violent forms. But when people reacted to Robertson while he was acting egregiously, they were not stepping out of character. One needs no telescopes to discover subjects when doing Sightings on religion.

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(c) Martin E. Marty The author is a leading US commentator on religion. His biography, current projects, upcoming events, publications, and contact information can be found at www.illuminos.com.

With grateful acknowledgements to Sightings, and the Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School, Illinois, USA.

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