Beliefnet: Trying to sell fog?

I must confess that my first post about the sale, which included information on the conservative roots of the buyers, ended with a gentle note of snark.

Keep your eyes open and help us watch for mainstream coverage on this. Watch the New York Times, in particular, which I imagine will be tempted to jump on the Religious Right takeover angle.

To which reader H.E. Baber of San Diego responded:

Not. Here’s the NYTimes article.

This is one of those cases in which I am ecstatic to have been wrong. However, instead of a hard-news story, what “Beliefs” columnist Mark Oppenheimer has given us is a interesting look at what the rise and fall and the semi-rise and fall of Beliefnet can tell us about the state of religion on the World Wide Web and, perhaps, in post-doctrinal America. We start, of course, with the bad guy — Rupert Murdoch:

… Mr. Murdoch’s News Corporation sold the pioneering religion Web site to the owners of Affinity4, a company run by evangelical Christians and, according to its Web site, is dedicated to “the sanctity of the family.” It is another owner and another incarnation for Beliefnet, an online magazine that has survived since 1999 by nurturing every aspect of our conflicted spirituality. It has united angels and yoga, monotheism and meditation. Beliefnet has become America.

When Steven Waldman, an alumnus of Washington Monthly and Newsweek magazines, founded Beliefnet in 1999, it was dedicated to journalism and theological conversation; it was a good resource to learn the difference between Sunni and Shiite, or Baptist and Methodist. The Harvard theologian Harvey G. Cox Jr., the evangelical seminary president Richard Mouw and the journalist James Fallows were all early columnists; the books editor was Lauren Winner, now a professor at Duke.

However, that interfaith vision did not sell.

What came next was, well, the rise of a kind of theological shopping channel. So out went the namebrand columnists (for the most part) who were paid at op-ed rates. In came the bloggers who were paid by the traffic they generated for this online community of communities. However:

… (This) was not the community for whom Mr. Waldman had started the magazine. His readers were not looking for investigative news (although they did enjoy commentary about religion in politics; as late as 2008, the site’s “God-o-Meter” analyzed religious discourse during election cycles). Many in the Beliefnet community were not even looking for religion. They wanted spiritual diet advice, depression curatives, tips on the best organic cleaning products.

On the Web, Beliefnet’s editors discovered, the usual mode of magazine courtship was reversed: they could call on the readers every day, rather than wait for the readers to pick them up on a street-corner newsstand. Thus did the Beliefnet newsletters, little bits of inbox flirtation, become its most popular service.

The bottom line: People didn’t want information. They wanted a kind of vague, non-judgmental help — in the form of listservs and prayer circles in which they were communing with people they would almost certainly never meet in a religious context involving doctrine and face-to-face contact. It was niche, digital spirituality, pure and simple.

It says so, so much that the megachurch evangelicals who now own the site are insisting that they will not change its approach to marketing safe, non-threatening fog.

By all means read it all of this essay. Also, please note how well this fits the view of religion in American that is emerging from the statistics generated by the Gallup team, George Barna & Co., the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life and others. Right now, America consists of about 10 percent of dedicated non-believers or true religious liberals on the left, about 10 to 15 percent of dedicated religious traditionalists on the right and, in the middle, is OprahAmerica.

However, please note that there is a flip side of this coin. How well is this vague approach to eternity doing, when it comes to long-term commitments?

The headline on the Times column said: “An Enduring Religious Web Site Is Poised for a Next Phase.” Really? Beliefnet may be an “enduring” site in Internet terms, but, so far, it has certainly not been as enduring as, let’s say, the parachurch organizations of the 1950s (think Campus Crusade for Christ) or even the 1980s (think Focus on the Family). Are there similar groups on the left? I am sure that there are. However, my observation is that the theological fog that defines our age is widespread, but those attempting to build institutions while using this approach find that its impact is far from “enduring.”

Are there stories in the fog? Of course. Are there stories on the dedicated extremes to the left and right? Of course. Good luck at covering all of that.

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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.

  • kristy

    “Good luck at covering all of that.”
    Yes, my thoughts, exactly.
    As spiritual practice becomes less defined with religious institutions, it will get more and more difficult to cover in any meaningful way. As journalism becomes less defined with pulp and salaried reporters, there will be fewer and fewer professionals in a position to do the research and writing that bring it into the public eye.
    I guess, in my opinion, it doesn’t look good.

  • MzEllen

    They’re trying to sell something.

    I’ve been swamped with SPAM from beliefnet.

  • dalea

    tmatt asks:

    Are there similar groups on the left? I am sure that there are.

    Church of All Worlds has been around since the late 50′s. RFD magazine and Circle Sanctuary since the 60′s. Covenant of the Goddess was formed by existing organizations in the 70′s. This is the part of the left I am familiar with.

  • Chris

    I suspect that the 75% of “OprahAmerica” believers were always so–back to antediluvian times! Here’s my theory: about 50-75% of the general public always “go along” with the prevailing ethos–whatever it happens to be. Vague spiritualism was also popular in the early part of the 20th century, and peaked (I think) in the 20′s. Mid-century, the prevailing ethos was a nostalgic, protestant-tinged civic religion. It goes in cycles, and has greater impact and shorter cycle time in societies with greater literacy and disposable income. It is driven by “style-makers” who have something to sell (often themselves)–and who are often political aspirants. This is the kind of religion journalists are really likely to “not get”–because they are likely to be in the 50-75%, don’t recognize the fact, and are not able to be critical of it.

  • H. E. Baber

    As spiritual practice becomes less defined with religious institutions, it will get more and more difficult to cover in any meaningful way.

    Right. There’s a significant chunk of popular culture, the culture of “spirituality” and self-help, whining, smarm and flakiness, that doesn’t get covered because it has no name or classification. It isn’t “religion” though it overlaps with some of what churches do. “Spirituality” is too specific because much of the stuff is thoroughly secular.

    But it’s very influential. Lots of people are involved–self-help books are best sellers. Social critics and journalists need to find a name for this thing and report on it.

  • Rod Dreher

    There is a name for it: Moralistic Therapeutic Deism.