Shameless plug for, well, GetReligion

Yes, your GetReligionistas did see that highly provocative piece in USA Today by Rod “friend of this blog” Dreher, the essay that began with this double-deck statement:

Studying voodoo isn’t a judgment

Journalists should deal with religion respectfully, of course. But that doesn’t mean dismissing the tough questions.

As you can tell by that headline, this article has two purposes.

It starts off with a discussion of how mainstream reporters have been afraid to tiptoe through the minefield that is religion in Haiti, a land in which the status of voodoo is an explosive issue between emerging Protestant churches and the mainstream traditions that blend elements of Catholicism and symbols, rites and beliefs from voodoo. As GetReligion readers know, there are also tensions about voodoo inside the Catholic establishment.

Thus, Dreher asks the following question — in order to open the door to the issue that is at the heart of his essay:

Did you hear about the Protestant minister who said that Haiti “has been in bondage to the devil for four generations”? No, it wasn’t Pat Robertson but Chavannes Jeune, a popular Evangelical pastor in Haiti who has long crusaded to cleanse his nation of what he believes is an ancestral voodoo curse. It turns out that more than a few Haitians agree with Jeune and Robertson that their nation’s crushing problems are caused by, yes, voodoo.

I know this not because I read it in a newspaper or saw it on TV, but because of a blog. University of Tennessee-Knoxville cultural anthropologist Bertin M. Louis Jr., an expert on Haitian Protestantism, posted an essay exploring this viewpoint on The Immanent Frame, a social scientist group blog devoted to religion, secularism and the public sphere.

So what is the larger issue here? Why did reporters ignore or shun this perfectly valid story about tensions inside Haiti, leaving it up to academia to dig into this topic that is closely linked to debates about the troubled land’s future?

That’s where, literally, GetReligion enters the picture. You see, Dreher is openly singing our song and he knows it (and says so):

As a religious believer and professional journalist for 20 years, time and time again I’ve seen journalists who fail to get the dictum set down by the indispensable media criticism blog GetReligion.org: “It’s impossible for journalists to understand how things work in the real world if they do not take religion seriously.”

Here’s why. In his influential 1948 book Ideas Have Consequences, Richard Weaver identified a person’s “metaphysical dream of the world” — that is, the way the world works at its most basic level — as the foundation of one’s thoughts and conduct. This is the realm of religion — or of no religion at all, because scientific materialism offers its own particular view of the structure of reality.

A culture’s metaphysical dream tells us a lot about its strengths and weaknesses. One is not required to make a theological judgment about voodoo — or any other religion — to explore the connection between its metaphysical tenets and the world it has made among its believers. A world in which most people believe that reality is governed by the occult caprice of the gods will be a very different place than a world in which people believe events can be explained according to either a Christian or a scientific materialist metaphysic.

We didn’t pay him to say that, or even plead for him to do so, but we’re glad that this concept was aired in a place where mainstream readers and journalists have a chance to read about it and, perhaps, even debate it.

Let’s do the same. Please consider this an open thread on Dreher’s piece, but let’s place the emphasis on debating his argument about religion and the news — not the role of voodoo in Haiti. Stay on the subject at hand, which is, of course, the entire reason that this weblog exists (and we said that on Day 1).

By the way, Dreher is no longer at the Dallas Morning News. He is now director of publications at the John Templeton Foundation, while continuing to run a tweaked version of his old weblog at Beliefnet.com.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • http://www.wildhunt.org/blog/ Jason Pitzl-Waters

    I addressed Dreher’s column at my blog yesterday.

    As for the “friend of this blog” and his column, it is deeply flawed. For instance, he talks about how “studying Voodoo isn’t a judgment”, but then refrains from referencing any mainstream journalism that engaged in this critical “study”, instead referencing two essays by academics that he (in my opinion mistakenly) believes bolsters the criticisms made by several conservative-leaning mainstream columnists. What of those columns? They all try to make the case that Haiti’s ongoing problems are tied to Vodou, not crippling debt, corrupt leadership, and generations of punishment for having the audacity to free themselves.

    Here’s a sample of Dreher’s “study” of Vodou:

    “The kind of religion one practices makes a huge difference in how the community lives — for better or for worse. I suppose it’s at least arguable that the Haitians would be better off at the Church of Christopher Hitchens rather than as followers of voodoo.“

    It’s also telling that Dreher references two essays that he believes bolsters the criticisms folks like David Brooks, and himself, have been making but fails to mention the several other academic essays that plainly state that Vodou isn’t the thing holding Haiti back from progress. He then ends his column with what can only be subtle praise for his work, and the work of other columnists “studying” Vodou.

    Ironically, intelligent critics of voodoo show more respect for the religion than do its would-be media protectors, simply by taking voodoo seriously enough to fault it.“

    Yes, what irony. You see, Rod really respects the religion when he says stuff like “I think it’s a mistake to see vodou as benign or positive…”. What a farce. This isn’t a column in praise of Get Religion, it’s a column that tries to re-cast biased opinion as thoughtful “study” of a faith they know almost nothing about.

  • Roberto Rivera

    So what is the larger issue here? Why did reporters ignore or shun this perfectly valid story about tensions inside Haiti, leaving it up to academia to dig into this topic that is closely linked to debates about the troubled land’s future?

    With all due respect to Rod, here’s a guess: maybe 200,000 corpses had something to do with the reluctance. Maybe the literal stench of death hanging over Haiti made some saying something like “you, know Haitians’ beliefs are pretty screwed up” seem a bit — I don’t know — unkind. Maybe they thought that burying the bodies, feeding the hungry, housing the homeless were buried and the enormous challenges associated with these things, which every Get Religion reader takes for granted, were more deserving of coverage than a game of worldview “gotcha!”

    Voodoo didn’t kill 200,000+ Haitians, collapsing buildings did. And, as the New York Times recently pointed out, there are plenty of cities around the world where the seismically-related death toll could approach or even succeed that of Haiti and not one of them has been shaped by voodoo. What they do have in common is, one, a fault zone and, two, explosive unregulated urban growth as former residents of the countryside moved into cities in a haphazard unplanned way, much as American cities expanded during their period of explosive growth.

  • Jon in the Nati

    For instance, he talks about how “studying Voodoo isn’t a judgment”, but then refrains from referencing any mainstream journalism that engaged in this critical “study”, instead referencing two essays by academics that he…

    I think that is pretty much his point. He doesn’t point to any mainstream journalism that engaged in this inquiry because it has not happened. As I understand it, he is saying that the mainstream journalistic establishment is so afraid of demonizing an oft-misunderstood minority religion that, collectively speaking, they are afraid to ask the question. But, as he is so fond of saying, ideas do have consequences, and even if a religion (or all of them) is a complete farce, they still influence events in the real world. No one, least of all journalists, should be afraid to ask the question.

  • http://www.wildhunt.org/blog/ Jason Pitzl-Waters

    Jon,

    “He doesn’t point to any mainstream journalism that engaged in this inquiry because it has not happened.”

    Then who, exactly, is he referencing when he talks of “intelligent critics of voodoo”? Why won’t he single out these brave critics who are furthering the journalistic “study” of Vodou? I know for a fact he’s read David Brooks’ high-profile criticism since he echoed it at his own blog.

    As for why “hard news” journalists, as opposed to opinion columnists, haven’t been criticizing Vodou, I’d like to echo Roberto’s comments.

    Maybe they thought that burying the bodies, feeding the hungry, housing the homeless were buried and the enormous challenges associated with these things, which every Get Religion reader takes for granted, were more deserving of coverage than a game of worldview “gotcha!”

    Of course, Rod, Brooks, and other opinion-writers weren’t so engaged, so they had plenty of time to opine concerning the hypothetical harm Vodou was doing to Haitian society.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    Folks:

    The main point of Dreher’s remarks about voodoo is that the role and effects of voodoo are debated IN HAITI, especially when Haitians argue about the causes of the quake and the lingering problems of their nation. He is not arguing that Americans force the topic into discussion. He is saying that it is already there, in the tensions between Protestants and the religious old guard.

    RR:

    Again, it is not Dreher who is saying Haitians are pretty screwed up. It’s not the academics, either. It’s Haitians who are arguing about that topic.

  • Jerry

    It’s Haitians who are arguing about that topic.

    Of course, in a blog posting, Dreher can make any sort of value judgments he wishes whether directly or in passing as he did here. Someone can always find people to argue various sides of any question, so the fact that Haitians are arguing is as expected as the sun coming up. What the background of those people are, how many of them there are etc is part of what I want to see mentioned. The phrase “more than a few” does not cut it in my book.

  • http://www.wildhunt.org/blog/ Jason Pitzl-Waters

    tmatt,

    “The main point of Dreher’s remarks about voodoo is that the role and effects of voodoo are debated IN HAITI, especially when Haitians argue about the causes of the quake and the lingering problems of their nation.”

    That’s a pretty selective/generous reading of Dreher’s column. Seriously. I won’t start quoting the large swathes of the column that have nothing to do with giving Haitian perspectives on Haiti’s religious conflicts a voice in the mainstream media, but I do urge you to re-read the darn thing.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    JASON:

    Come on. The purpose of his article is to praise an ACADEMIC piece about the views of the growing Protestant communities in Haiti.

    I have read the essay several times. He wants to know why the MSM is afraid to cover the debates in Haiti among Haitians.

    Read the lede. Follow the link to the article that drove him to write the piece.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    JERRY:

    So you basically are writing off the rising numbers of Pentecostal Christians and other Protestants in Haiti? That’s your bottom line? You see no evidence that they play a major role in post-quake stories in other ways?

  • http://www.wildhunt.org/blog/ Jason Pitzl-Waters

    TMATT

    “Read the lede. Follow the link to the article that drove him to write the piece.”

    I did. In fact, I read that essay back when if first emerged. I’ve read a lot of essays about religious life in Haiti from academics, visitors, and natives concerning the religious picture in that country.

    If Dreher’s column has been about bringing forth native voices into the MSM regarding the growing tensions between Protestant Christianity and Vodou I’d be lining up to praise it. My contention is that he quickly veers off course, and the the column became about something else. I speculate that he couldn’t keep his ego and pride out of what was a good idea for a column, and finished up talking about the “occult caprice of the gods” and “intelligent critics of voodoo” instead of calling for reporters to LISTEN to native Haitians concerning their faith struggles.


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