Tone-Deaf on Religion–UPDATED

“Sikhism is a religion that originated about 500 years ago in Italy [sic].”

~ CBS This Morning reporter on the shootings at a Wisconsin Sikh temple

I’ve been bemoaning the media’s inability to get Catholicism right for a very long time, but it struck me this morning that maybe there really isn’t a specifically anti-Catholic bias out there in journalism land. The media’s talent for being tone-deaf on religion appears to be wide-ranging and indiscriminate.

The reporting on the tragic shootings at a Sikh temple in Oak Creek, Wisconsin yesterday make this tone-deafness very clear. Most news outlets managed to insult two religious traditions at once in their ham-handed attempts to describe the event. Few were as far off base as the CBS reporter who placed Sikhism’s origins in Italy instead of India (one of them-there I-countries being pretty much the same as any other when you’re talking about religion, I guess), but most provided no insight into the faith of the victims beyond the details that Sikh men wear colorful turbans and do not shave their beards, while many Sikh women wear head coverings—like, well, the YouKnowWhoiban. Wading into their mouths with both feet, nearly every reporter or writer quickly went on to make the point that Sikhs practice a peaceful religion. They’re not, in other words (or even in these exact words, which many reports used), “Muslims or other terrorists.”

It is true, and tragic, that Sikhs in the United States have been the victims of prejudice and even violent attack in the wake of the September 11 attacks, as have Hindu men who may also wear turbans, Arabic Christians, and anyone else who looks “Other” in the way Americans have chosen to define it. The alleged shooter in the Oak Creek attack, who was killed in a shootout with law enforcement, has been said to have associations with white supremacist groups, as well as to be a military veteran with a less than honorable discharge. (The Crazy Vet meme is another card the media likes to play, to the detriment of the thousands of veterans struggling with psychological war wounds, but that’s another post.) He may have nourished a hatred for those he saw as enemies of America.

What the shooter’s motives were may never be determined. But the media is quick to remind us that the tragedy of Oak Creek is that these people weren’t Muslims—as if it would have been less tragic, more understandable, less criminal to shoot up a mosque than a temple, to kill Muslims than Sikhs. As if Islam is not also a religion of salaam, of peace. As if the actions of a small group of real terrorists—who did not, on the day they blew planes out of the sky, wear turbans or long beards or “look like Muslims”—justify distrust of or violence against all who fit a caricature associated with a particular faith tradition.

It’s understandable, sadly, that this kind of unnuanced ignorance gets perpetuated. The media is a religion-free zone far more than it is a spin-free zone, and American reporters—like most Americans—are uncomfortable speaking any language with which they are unfamiliar. I’m not talking here about deliberately anti-religious opinion like the outrageously offensive piece in Salon this weekend mocking Olympic gold medal gymnast Gabby Douglas for her spontaneous expressions of faith. (The piece was by Mary Elizabeth Williams, who identifies herself as a Christian–“albeit one of those really freaky papist kinds.” Shame, Mary Elizabeth, shame. This freaky papist is appalled.) It’s more the awkwardness, the kind of news equivalent of a non-native speaker’s poor pronunciation and syntactical errors, with which reporters and writers talk of believers and beliefs. If it can be so (and it is) with the majority Judeo-Christian traditions that permeate US culture even though though go mostly unrecognized by secular eyes, how much more tone-deaf is the media toward the s0-called “minority religions”!

Once I started thinking about the subject of the media’s inability to speak clearly or informatively or naturally about religion and people’s religious views, I started seeing examples everywhere. These are just from CBS This Morning (which had been taking the high ground morning newswise, or higher ground anyway, until the recent inexcusable dumping of co-anchor Erica Hill, who had kept loose cannons Charlie Rose and Gayle King on task), this morning:

—During a discussion of US hurdler Lolo Jones’s very effective use of social media for self-promotion, Gayle King seemed absolutely bewildered by Jones’s public profession that she’s a virgin and intends on remaining one until marriage. “I guess that makes all the guys want her even more,” King said, shaking her head. No mention was made of Jones’s also-public profession of her Evangelical Christian faith, which is the ground of her vow of virginity. For King, apparently, no one “that beautiful” could possibly choose to  reserve sexual activity for marriage unless it were a PR tease.

—In a conversation with correspondent and historian Douglas Brinkley about recent news stories concerning the Kennedy family, Charlie Rose asked why the Kennedys continue to have such strong appeal for Americans. Brinkley replied with the usual “They’re American royalty,” but then added, “You have to remember that 1 out 4 Americans are Catholic,” implying that Catholics worship the Kennedys. Oh, please. Yes, that’s in the Catechism: You must worship the Kennedys. Not. “In Catholic countries like Italy [Italy again!] and Argentina,” he added, “when the Kennedys show up, people fall all over them.” Sort of like they do the Jersey Shore crowd, I guess. Oh, wait, they’re Catholic, too!

—Finishing a HealthWatch segment on the value of yoga for reducing inflammation, Dr Holly Phillips closed with a breezy “Namaste!—as they say in yoga classes,” as though Namaste were the fitness equivalent of Ciao or Bye-bye. And while this may be true in practice, in secular America as throughout the Indian subcontinent where it originated, the spoken greeting—and more properly the mudra, or gesture, to which the word is an occasional accompaniment—is a religious ritual. Namaste is translated variously as “I worship you (as a spark of the Divine)” or “I salute God within you.” Yoga itself, of course, originated as a Hindu devotional practice, but we can’t go dragging all that into a 60-second health bite.

We are a diverse nation—under God—and a very big part of that diversity is religious. It’s just tiresome to have so vital and inextricable a part of the national conversation be moderated by people who are tone-deaf to its notes and harmonies and even its deliberate dissonances. I’m not saying journalists should be forcibly converted. But is it too much to ask that they be required to pass courses in Religion as a Second Language?

UPDATES: More questions as time passes, from Mollie Ziegler at Get Religion. And here’s an exception to the rule: a sensitive piece from my local Dayton NBC affiliate. Southern Ohio has a large South Asian population, and it was good to see the interfaith (including Catholic) support for local Sikhs at the memorial service.

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