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So often, when religious leftists object to criticisms of religion as inherently conservative, we hear in response, so why aren't you doing anything?  Which is odd to our ears because we've been doing things for a long time, in organizations such as the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice, the National Religious Campaign Against Torture, or the Interfaith Alliance.  It seems we do our thing, say what we need to say, and our action is dismissed as statistically insignificant at best, or enabling at worst.

Although I published this diary a year ago, the situation hasn't really budged, so I'm reposting.

While reading Elizabeth Eisenstein's The Printing Press as an Agent of Change, it hit me that part of the reason for the invisibility of the religious left is that we never "got" television.  One of the points in Eisenstein's book is that the Protestant Reformation was successful because Protestants understood print, while Catholics did not.  Similarly, conservative Christians in the 70s and 80s used television very effectively, while liberal religious groups poo-pooed it, a trend discussed a bit in Building a Protestant Left: Christianity and Crisis Magazine, 1941-1993.  This, I believe, was a serious strategic error.

However, another problem is that reporters seem to have very fixed frames, or more bluntly, stubborn preconceptions, about what is at stake in the dynamics of religious politics.  Two articles show very clearly how religious liberals try to communicate with the media, only to have what they have to say erased in favor of simplistic narratives of a battle between the Religious Right and Secular Liberalism.

The first essay, by Mark Jordan, 'Traditional'Christianity vs. 'Liberals'? It's Not That Simple, states,

Most reporting of religious debates over sexuality, whether in the Times or on the wire services, assumes the same division...  When self-proclaimed "traditional" voices are quoted against same-sex marriage, they are allowed to claim scriptural evidence, church history, and even the name "Christian." When other Christian clergy or believers are quoted in support of same-sex marriage, they become "activists" who are allowed only to speak about civil rights or fairness or—sometimes—wispy Christian principles, but not about scripture or church history or faith itself.

I used to think that this was the fault of progressives—that we reverted too often to the bland language of fairness, toleration, or rights. So I tried always to give reporters scriptural and historical arguments. They rarely found their way into print...  So I began to experiment with saying very traditional religious things in interviews.

"I support ordaining openly lesbian and gay candidates because that’s where I’m led when I study scripture and pray."

"My belief in incarnation pushes me toward the blessing of same-sex unions."

The reaction was mostly awkward silence. I could hear the typing stop at the other end of the line.

Rosemary Radford Ruether described the same dynamic fifteen years ago, in her discussion of what it means for her to be a religious socialist feminist, Bridging the Gap:

The assumption that religion is normatively conservative is not confined to the secular left; it pervades the American secular media. I am on the list of people whom journalists regularly call for background information on religious issues. Their typical line of questioning demonstrates both their ignorance of religion and their operating assumption that conservative religion is "normative" religion. Because I am a religious feminist, they assume I am on the "fringe" and sometimes they try to entrap me into making some "fringe" remark -- like "God is female." When I try to explain that God is not a corporeal being of any kind and thus does not have gender, male or female, they are confused or impatient. This is not what they want to hear.

One especially unpleasant experience with such entrapment came from a major news magazine proposing a story on women in theological seminaries. The editor said he was sending a photographer to take pictures of me and the seminary for a cover story. Both a photographer and a woman journalist did show up. But after the journalist attended a number of classes and sat in on women's groups on campus, I heard nothing more.

Eventually the journalist told me that the story had been dropped. She explained with embarrassment that the editor had gotten the impression that Christian theological seminaries had become bastions of "militant lesbians" who were driving the men out of the schools. He thought this would be a hot story. When it became clear that this was not the case, the editor lost interest.

So, a huge task for religious liberals, and for secular folk who may be sympathetic with religious liberalism, in this day and age is to make a point to call media outlets out on their biases when we see them.  I had a letter published in The American Prospect in 2003, when I caught the dynamic at work.  What was interesting about that instance was that I made very clear to include examples from non-Christian religious activism to make my point.  All the non-Christian examples were dropped in the version The American Prospect published.  I was able to intervene in my small way to slow the perpetuation of a narrative that religous/secular maps directly onto conservative/liberal.  In the same stroke, my attempt to bring to the general consciousness that religion is more than Christianity was silenced.  We do what we can, and if it doesn't work, we take up the task again another day.

Update: See Philoguy's response.

Originally posted to dirkster42 on Fri Feb 11, 2011 at 08:32 AM PST.


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