Religious caricature double standard?

washpocartoon thumb 01Just as Young Man Pulliam said last week, Deborah Howell devoted her most recent ombudsman column to the controversy over Pat Oliphant’s anti-Pentecostal cartoon that was published on WashingtonPost.com. Howell had noted in an earlier column that readers were right to complain over the cartoon. This weekend, she ran a lengthier piece about political cartooning in general.

More than 750 readers from around the country — more than I heard from about the financial crisis — told me they were mightily offended. Many were Pentecostals, whose worship can include speaking in tongues; complaints also came from mainline Christians and from Charles Martin, a Buddhist in Boulder, Colo., who said “it offends me.”

McCain and Palin are certainly fair game, but most of those offended by the cartoon felt it mocked all Pentecostals. Most cartoonists don’t go out of their way to lambaste religion. But the pope is a frequent editorial cartoon character, as are God and St. Peter at the Pearly Gates.

Of course, I think offense is what Oliphant was going for. What Howell neglected to mention in her lengthy column was that Oliphant was so ignorant of Palin’s religious views that he didn’t even know that she is no longer Pentecostal. Yes, she was Pentecostal or, at least, attended a congregation with Pentecostal roots. No, there is no evidence she ever had the “gift of tongues.” But what do facts matter when we’re journalists talking about Palin, eh?

Much of the article deals with the fact that most political cartoonists are liberal and the politics of cartooning, which is interesting but mostly tangential to this post. She also discussed the fact that the Palin cartoon did not appear in print, just online through an automatic feed:

I showed it to several Post editors. While it was clever in some ways, most editors — including me — would not have run it. The Post has a policy against defaming or perpetuating racial, religious or ethnic stereotypes. That was why The Post did not run the Danish cartoons about the prophet Muhammad.

Oliphant wasn’t surprised that it didn’t run in print. “Many publications are too timid” to run some of his work, he said, but “the Web is giving us more of a solid venue.”

What’s weird is that The Post has different standards for its print and online editions. I have absolutely no problem with this cartoon running in print or online, but why in the world is it not okay to defame or perpetuate racial, religious or ethnic stereotypes in print but it’s totally awesome to defame or perpetuate racial, religious or ethnic stereotypes online?

The cartoon is still proudly up on the Washington Post site. It’s not like it ran one early morning via the automatic feed and then was quickly removed when the editors realized it violated policy.

The website’s executive editor says that the paper is all for showing as many cartoons as possible online and allowing the readers to express their own opposition to them. Which doesn’t quite explain why they didn’t run those Mohammed cartoons last year. Seems like that would have been the consistent thing to do. And it looks like the Buddhist from Colorado is making the same point. He’s asked Howell to explain the discrepancy. Hopefully she’ll get back to him and enlighten us all.

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  • Daniel

    Mollie,

    There might not be direct evidence that she had the “gift of tongues” insofar as there’s no Youtube video of it. But…

    While I was growing up I spent as much time moonlighting at an AG church in Fargo, ND as I did going to my Lutheran Brethren church across the river in tiny Moorhead. I know that not all Pentecostal churches are the same, but My experience was that the “gift of tongues” was a pretty commonly-received gift among the assembled. And by common, I mean that if you were there you weren’t likely NOT to have received “the gift.”

    So we might not have evidence beyond a reasonable doubt, but if we take her religious beliefs seriously and at their own word, then we have to imagine her as any other good-faith worshiper at a Pentecostal church. I think a journalist who gets her religious practice is probably right to assume that she spoke in tongues, since it usually comes with the territory among good-faith practicing Pentecostals. It is certainly more likely than not that she “received the gift.”

  • Julia

    why in the world is it not okay to defame or perpetuate racial, religious or ethnic stereotypes in print but it’s totally awesome to defame or perpetuate racial, religious or ethnic stereotypes online?

    Very simple.

    The more controversial a post is or a cartoon is – the greater the traffic on-line. This blog is supported by an organization and has no advertisements. A newspaper blog, on the other hand, makes more money from advertisers depending on the number of hits it gets. If the objectionable cartoon goes viral, that’s gold in the till.
    It causes people to go to the site specifically to see the offending post/cartoon, to fill the combox or send complaining e-mails and increases revenue commensurate with the hits recorded.

    When a reader of a print newpapers writes a disapproving letter to the editor or makes a phone call to complain or even sends a complaining e-mail, no advertising revenue is generated.

    So – there is an incentive for a newspaper to be more provocative on-line.

    IMHO

  • Tom Stanton

    Mollie wrote: “What Howell neglected to mention in her lengthy column was that Oliphant was so ignorant of Palin’s religious views that he didn’t even know that she is no longer Pentecostal. Yes, she was Pentecostal. No, there is no evidence she ever had the “gift of tongues.””

    I don’t mean to nit-pick, well maybe, but I think the doctrinal point here is important. In the Assemblies of God, the gift of tongues which someone may be given by God, is distinct from the baptism in the Holy Spirit with the initial physical evidence of tongue’s speech (glossalalia). While the gift of tongues is given only by God and ought to be / usually is accompanied by an interpretation, the initial physical evidence of the baptism in the H.S. is usually a simple personal prayer language.

    Granted, the cartoons is clearly depicting public tongues, i.e. the gift of tongues. And these are fairly technical doctrinal nuances that I think even some pastors in the AG might not be fully able to articulate. But I think these are good continuing examples of how difficult it is to get religion when your writing / drawing about esoteric doctrines (can I use that word without it being perjorative?).

    Lastly – and this is where it gets really tough for reporters and you’d have to have SERIOUS experience in the AG to get it right – each church is totally run by the pastor. That means the degree of pentacostalism in each church is totally dependent on the leadership of each pastor – I’ve been to more AG churches than you can imagine where you’d have a tough time knowing that they were pentecostal if not for the names on the door.

    I don’t have any idea how all but the most specialized reporters would be able to really understand and convey this without LOADS of footwork.

  • http://suburbanbanshee.wordpress.com Maureen

    I seem to recall reading that the Assembly of God pastor of her childhood wasn’t into the gift of tongues. Unsure of its doctrinal validity or something. Tongues did not manifest much in his church.

    And yeah, that’s pretty odd for Assembly of God; but it’s nothing that hasn’t happened in other churches.

  • FW Ken

    My question has been whether the people all over Palin’s religion were the same people who were Shocked and Dismayed over questions about Romney and Mormonism. So what about Oliphant? I’ve been googling, and finding references to a Mormon/Romney cartoon, but I can’t find the cartoon itself.

  • Martha

    I do find it strange that they say the online cartoons are not selected; they just automatically get posted from a feed.

    Truly, nobody has a quick gander at content to say “Oh, sugar – we can’t put that up! We’ll be sued into oblivion”?

    So… the internet is much freer or less regulated? That’s interesting.

    I agree on the point about speaking in tongues and not checking what church Palin belongs to – that’s as clumsy an error as having the Pope, say, waving a copy of the Koran about.

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    “Timid??” Oliphant says. How about not wanting to be a party to spewing bigotry?
    There is a huge charismatic movement in the Catholic Church–approved and supported by the past 2 popes. And Catholics in this movement talk in tongues. are slain in the spirit, etc.
    So why doesn’t Oliphant ridicule Sen. Biden for being a member of a church where talking in tongues can be part of the Faith experience.
    Also, so what if that is part of someone’s Faith!! Shall we ridicule Biden for believing that the bread and wine consecrated at Mass become the Body and Blood of Our Lord. Atheists consider this even more ridiculous than talking in tongues.

  • http://explorations.chasrmartin.com/2008/09/23/72-palin-required-rape-victims-to-pay-for-their-own-rape-kits/ Charlie (Colorado)

    Well, as the famous Colorado Buddhist, I still think the real telling question is whether the Post Online published the famous Mohammad cartoons. Or is it okay to defame peoples’s religions in print only if they won’t blow crap up?

  • http://explorations.chasrmartin.com/2008/09/23/72-palin-required-rape-victims-to-pay-for-their-own-rape-kits/ Charlie (Colorado)

    Oh, sorry, thanks for the link, too!

  • FW Ken

    Martha -

    Was the pope-with-a-Koran a bit of inside Catholic humor?
    ;-)

  • Paul

    Daniel, I am an Assemblies of God denominational official. Best estimates of which I’m aware is that appx. 40% of Assemblies of God adults claim to have ever spoken in tongues.

    I believe Mollie’s point is well taken (even if one is just going with raw percentages), as well as most of the others here.

  • Tim J.

    While people are reporting on this, and especially if they’re mocking it, they should also tackle the related question: why does it matter? A person’s religious views on homosexuality or abortion have policy ramifications, so I agree that those are important to discuss. Tongues, on the other hand, has no impact on public policy at all.

    The only reason I can see to bring it up as more than an interesting background fact, is to use it as a way to demonize the Other. Indeed, everybody I have seen bring it up so far has used it for exactly that purpose.

  • Dave G.

    But what do facts matter when we’re journalists talking about Palin

    I think that says it all.

  • Socrates

    First of all, Oliphant’s main target is Palin’s incoherence. I get that you’ll still be offended, but he’s really making fun of Palin’s incoherence in interviews.

    Next, why is religion special? Why is it wrong to criticize religious ideas and beliefs?

    I see that “The Post has a policy against defaming or perpetuating racial, religious or ethnic stereotypes”.

    Why?

    Race and ethnicity (and gender and sexual orientation) are innate, not ideas or beliefs. People are these things, period. We don’t choose these. We can’t change these things. Therefore we consider attacks against these things to be unfair.

    But religious ideas and beliefs are things that people choose, freely, like political ideas and beliefs. We are each responsible for the ideas we hold and the consequences that follow.

    What makes religious beliefs and ideas worthy of special protection? Why should religious beliefs and ideas have more protection than political or scientific beliefs and ideas? Or more protection than secular moral beliefs and ideas?

    Or do you think it wrong to criticize any ideas or beliefs?

    Or do you only think it wrong to criticize religious ideas?

    Or only religious ideas that you don’t approve of?

    After all, there are a lot of very dangerous, very bad religious ideas out there, wouldn’t you agree?

    We can or can’t mock these?

    Who decides?

  • Grupetti

    Socrates says:

    First of all, Oliphant’s main target is Palin’s incoherence.

    It’s not remotely clear. He did an appallingly poor job of it.

    I get that you’ll still be offended, but he’s really making fun of Palin’s incoherence in interviews.

    Tina Fey owns that mockery niche.

  • FW Ken

    there are a lot of very dangerous, very bad religious ideas out there, wouldn’t you agree?

    Interesting that someone styling themselves “Socrates” would be concerned about the dangerousness of ideas. Hemlock, hemlock, who’s got the hemlock!

    On topic, though: in the United States, we outlaw behaviors, not ideas, which is, of course, the basis for a free press. Naturally, religious ideas, like all ideas (such as the notion that same-sex attractions are innate), can be examined for veracity, though the people holding them should be given the same respect due to all people.

    We don’t impose a religious test for public office. If we want to elect a snake handler, we can do so.

  • Brian Walden

    First of all, Oliphant’s main target is Palin’s incoherence. I get that you’ll still be offended, but he’s really making fun of Palin’s incoherence in interviews.

    The cartoon clearly states: “She’s a Pentecostal and speaks in tongues and only God can understand what she’s saying.” If this is about her public speaking ability, Oliphant has a weird way of showing it. Plus the sheer ignorance of the cartoon makes it seem like it’s only purpose is to mock people who speak in tongues. Palin stopped attending an Assemblies of God church years ago and as far as I know she nor anyone else at that church has ever claimed that she spoke in tongues.

    Next, why is religion special? Why is it wrong to criticize religious ideas and beliefs?

    It’s not per se wrong to criticize beliefs.

    I see that “The Post has a policy against defaming or perpetuating racial, religious or ethnic stereotypes”.

    Why?

    Well you shouldn’t defame anyone – unless you’re using a different definition of the word than the common meaning of attacking a person’s good name through slander or libel. Same goes for perpetuating stereotypes.

    Race and ethnicity (and gender and sexual orientation) are innate, not ideas or beliefs. People are these things, period. We don’t choose these. We can’t change these things. Therefore we consider attacks against these things to be unfair.

    Do you make fun of people’s culture? That’s not innate; people can choose follow a different cultural tradition. Yet common sense tells most people not to mock other people’s culture.

    But religious ideas and beliefs are things that people choose, freely, like political ideas and beliefs. We are each responsible for the ideas we hold and the consequences that follow.

    I beg to differ. Your analysis may seem true on the surface, but on a deeper level theological beliefs are true or false. Either man was created to live by a universal moral code or he wasn’t, either man has an immortal soul or he doesn’t, etc. Theology comes down to discovering the truth and accepting it. Political ideas are about prudence; there are no true answers only better and worse ones for a given situation. What may be the best political answer in one culture at one time in history may be the worst for another culture in another time.

    Religion is a bit larger than theology, it brings in cultural and social aspects in addition to theological beliefs. It makes for a delicate situation. I personally think that theological beliefs should be critically examined – they deal with truth. But I generally think it’s a bad idea to mock religious practices, especially when those practices are done privately within the group like speaking in tongues.

    What makes religious beliefs and ideas worthy of special protection? Why should religious beliefs and ideas have more protection than political or scientific beliefs and ideas? Or more protection than secular moral beliefs and ideas?

    I don’t think this particular situation is so much about theological ideas, this cartoon is more akin to making fun of someone’s culture. This is how a group of people practice their devotion to God. It’s like making fun of Native Americans who preserve some of their traditional cultural practices. Tim J. in comment #12 put it well. What does speaking in tongues matter? It doesn’t have any impact on the policies of the McCain/Palin ticket.

    Or do you think it wrong to criticize any ideas or beliefs?

    no

    Or do you only think it wrong to criticize religious ideas?

    no

    Or only religious ideas that you don’t approve of?

    no

    After all, there are a lot of very dangerous, very bad religious ideas out there, wouldn’t you agree?

    yes

    We can or can’t mock these?

    go right ahead

    Who decides?

    Prudence and politeness and common sense. It’s like the old tradition of not talking politics or religion in mixed company. Another similar American tradition is that what someone does privately to worship God is none of our business.

    My personal line is I try to sift out the pure theology from the religious practices. I think criticizing theological ideas and how those ideas influence a person’s public life is acceptable, and if done ecumenically can be a very good thing. But for the rest of religion – a person’s devotional practices and the other cultural aspects of a religion – treat it the same way you would persons national or familial traditions.

  • Socrates

    The more I think about this, the less I understand.

    Are you saying that ALL religious ideas and beliefs are not to be mocked or criticized?

    Or only your religious ideas?

    Or only your religious beliefs and other religious beliefs and ideas that you like or approve of?

    Because, let’s face it, there are some very odd or even dangerous religious ideas out there.

    These cannot be mocked? That seems like the only defensible intellectual position that you can take.

    If you don’t, then the question becomes, which religious ideas and beliefs can be mocked, and which cannot?

    “Speaking in tongues” seems a lot on the crazy side to me. But it all depends upon your perspective, doesn’t it?

    I bet there are a LOT of religious ideas, from other religions that you probably don’t approve of, that seem very crazy to you.

    Are these to be protected from criticism and mockery?

    Who will decide what criticism constitutes blashphemy or “bigotry”, and what criticism is considered to be fair or even necessary?

    I have the distinct impression that people who are offended by Oliphant’s commentary are saying “I will decide these things.”

    Do I have that wrong? If you think I do, then who decides?

  • Dave G.

    I see that “The Post has a policy against defaming or perpetuating racial, religious or ethnic stereotypes”.

    Why?

    I can’t speak for the Post, but historically, little good has come from using stereotypes.

  • Dave

    Socrates wrote:

    “Speaking in tongues” seems a lot on the crazy side to me. But it all depends upon your perspective, doesn’t it?

    Speaking in tongues, as a religious tradition, signifies being seized by the spirit. I’ve had the experience of being seized by the spirit, but not in that form. My typical form is that I am suddenly (occasionally roughly) made aware of what the content of my next ritual should be. That is, it leads to a worship experience rather than being part of a worship experience. But that’s a personal and probably cultural difference. I’ve also had the experience during a ritual, but only when I was practicing as a solitary.

    I would not expect a MSM reporter to understand my experiences, so my suspicion is that they would not understand Pentacostal experiences either. I find it likely that most such reporters have never been seized by the spirit, at least as adults, and have no reference points from which to write about it, so all they look at is the surface behavior.

    So, in answer to your question, Socrates, if you’ve never had such an experience, it probably does seem on the crazy side to you. And, yes, it depends on perspective; the perspective of someone who has had such an experience is likely to be more understanding.

  • Socrates

    Here’s a simpler version:

    Why is it wrong to be “anti-Pentecostal”?

    What’s wrong with that?

    My own moral view would be:

    It’s wrong to hate a person.

    It’s perfectly defensible to mock a person’s idea or belief that I consider dangerous or crazy.

    And when that person aspires to leadership, this becomes vital and necessary.

  • Socrates

    Who decides?

    Prudence and politeness and common sense.

    Whose prudence and politeness and common sense? Yours?

    I am guessing mine are very different from yours.

    I think you can use your versions of these things to guide your own commentary.

    But why should your versions guide my commentary? Or Oliphant’s?

  • Dave G.

    Why is it wrong to be “anti-Pentecostal”?

    I suppose as long as you don’t object to folks replacing anti-Pentecostal with any other anti-[fill in the blank]. At least that would be consistent.

  • http://www.getreligion.org Mollie

    Socrates,

    Our commenting policy requires a real e-mail address. Please provide your real e-dress.

    Thanks.

  • Socrates

    Why is it wrong to be “anti-Pentecostal”?

    I suppose as long as you don’t object to folks replacing anti-Pentecostal with any other anti-[fill in the blank]. At least that would be consistent.

    I don’t agree with this at all.

    Replace “Pentecostal” with any ideology and that’s your right as far as I am concerned.

    But it’s not okay (in my opinion) to place just anything after the “anti” part.

    I hope people would not be anti-gay, anti-black, anti-white, anti-Irish, anti-women, etc.

    You have this right too, of course. You are free to take these positions as well.

    But I consider this “bigotry”.

    To me, this is an entirely different thing. You would be criticizing innate qualities that people cannot change about themselves. People are not “responsible” for these things, are they?

    But we do believe that people are responsible for their ideas, yes?

    I do not consider “anti-Pentecostalism” to be bigotry. That’s a potent word and it needs to mean something more than “you don’t like or don’t respect my ideas or beliefs”.

    After all, there must be a lot of beliefs and ideas that YOU don’t like and don’t respect, right?

    But does that make you a bigot?

    Not to me.

    And so to really get back to the heart of the debate, are religious ideas somehow special and not to be attacked?

    All relious ideas, everywhere, or only your approved list of protected religious ideas?

    Saying that no religious ideas should be attacked presents us with a pretty serious problem, don’t you think?

    And yet, if you don’t believe this, then who gets to decide which religious ideas are protected, and which are not?

    When your ideas are challenged, say by Oliphant, I would say your task is either to win the debate, or to ignore the challenge (perhaps you find it trivial.)

    Calling Oliphant a “bigot” or demanding an apology is only an attempt to get him to stop. It is not a defense of your beliefs, in my opinion.

    I think we look weak when we say “stop that” instead of “here’s why you’re wrong about my ideas” or “here’s why it’s great to be a Pentecostal.”

  • FW Ken

    Arguably, Oliphant’s cartoon didn’t challenge an idea, but ridiculed a religion.

    Socrates seems to use “challenge”, “criticize”, “question”, ‘mock”, and “attack” more or less interchangeably. The first three invite discourse. The latter two say more about the person mocking and attacking than about those who he attacks. They bespeak a smug, self-righteous narcissism which dehumanizes and degrades the community, inhibiting discussion.

    Which should the press, including Pat Oliphant, promote? Discussion? Or insult?

  • Dave G.

    To me, this is an entirely different thing.

    Yeah, I figured that is what you would say. For my part, I think the beef here is that folks believe the cartoon went beyond ‘criticizing of ideals’ and straight to ‘mocking those idiots who hold them.’ You may disagree, but you are forced to accept that many, including folks who aren’t part of that tradition, see it otherwise. That’s usually enough for me to take a step back and concede that maybe, just maybe, someone went overboard trying to make a point. You can make the point after all, but sometimes it’s not what you say, but how you say it that makes a world of difference.

  • Socrates

    For my part, I think the beef here is that folks believe the cartoon went beyond ‘criticizing of ideals’ and straight to ‘mocking those idiots who hold them.’

    I think you must be saying one of two things:

    1) It is wrong to mock people for ANY of their religious ideas. All people should be protected from all mockery that is focused on their religious ideas.

    2) It is wrong to mock people if they hold religious ideas that I like or approve of. Go ahead and mock the people with religious ideas I don’t like.

    Either of these seems untenable to me.

    Is there another possibility?

    Or are you saying that mockery is always wrong, whatever the reason?

    That’s a tenable position, but I think very few people feel or act this way. Heck, we’d have to rewrite Shakespeare.

  • http://www.getreligion.org Mollie

    Comments should be focused on mainstream media coverage of religion news, not whatever ideas are floating around in our heads right now.

    All further off-topic comments will be deleted.


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