Lazy Pat Robertson disease lives on

Right up front, let me note that voodoo simply has to be one of the most confusing, complex and loaded subjects in the wide, wide, wide world of religion news.

For starters, there is no such thing as a formalized, doctrinaire form of voodoo. There is no voodoo canon or hierarchy to which reporters can turn to settle issues of fact, history and interpretation. There is no orthodoxy in this syncretistic, melting pot faith. The voices inside voodoo are legion.

At the same time, the faith’s many critics rarely agree with one another. A traditional Catholic’s criticisms of voodoo will be different than those made by a Pentecostal Christian and a Pentecostal Catholic’s point of view may be different, on top of that. Oh, and there are strategic divisions inside those other camps on how to relate to the intense, foundational role that voodoo plays in a land such as Haiti.

So this brings us to a New York Times report on the renewed interest in voodoo in Haitian communities in New York City after last year’s tragic earthquakes in Haiti.

Like I said, this is a complex subject and it appears that the Times tried really, really, hard to get half of this story right. Here is a crucial chunk of copy early on:

In New York, where there are roughly 300,000 people who were born in Haiti or are of Haitian descent — the largest concentration in the United States — richly painted basement voodoo temples are sprinkled around Harlem and in parts of Brooklyn and Queens. Mambos, or voodoo priestesses, say they can barely keep up with “demann,” or prayer requests; spiritual love recipes to lure recalcitrant lovers are the most popular. Voodoo prayer circles in which practitioners meet to commiserate have also proliferated, with a notable intensity in the months since the earthquake.

But the world of voodoo has fallen under an unwelcome spotlight in recent weeks as a result of two episodes in which the authorities say voodoo played a central role — a fatal five-alarm fire in Brooklyn and the coming trial in Queens of a woman accused of severely burning her daughter.

The hot spotlight, we are told, is causing some voodoo believers to head underground, which can only make it harder for police and other civic authorities to understand this faith and, yes, to monitor those on its wild fringes.

When it comes to content, a key voice of authority in the Times story is Dowoti Desir, a Haitian-American expert who, readers are told, has a voodoo temple in her Harlem home:

Ms. Desir, a former professor in the Africana studies department at Brooklyn College, says voodoo has been vilified by Western culture going back to 1791, when a voodoo ceremony helped inspire slaves to rebel against their French colonial oppressors, sparking the Haitian Revolution.

Voodoo’s reputation inside and outside Haiti also suffered during the regime of François Duvalier, known as Papa Doc, who ruled Haiti from 1957 to 1971 and whose ruthless security force, the Tonton Macoutes, misused the religion as a means of repression. Mr. Duvalier even modeled himself after the Baron Samedi, the voodoo spirit of death, affecting a low nasal voice and wearing dark sunglasses to hide his eyes and instill fear and devotion.

After last year’s earthquake, some evangelical preachers, including Pat Robertson in the United States, said the catastrophe was related to Haiti’s “pact with the devil.”

This passage raises all kinds of questions.

For example, what authorities are being quoted as saying that the faith advocated by the Tonton Macoutes represents a misuse of the religion “as a means of repression”? This implies that there is good voodoo and bad voodoo. What is the difference, in terms of rites and beliefs? By the way, who is the doctrinal authority that made this good-bad ruling? Is the Times quoting this voodoo scholar (one voice out of thousands on this topic) or did someone in the Times newsroom get to pass judgment on this?

Readers literally have no clue. This is bad.

Also, Pat Robertson — last time I checked — was a Pentecostal leader, not an evangelical, which is important distinction to make when one is dealing with Haiti and its growing Protestant churches.

Also, out of all of the critics of voodoo in the Christian world, how does Robertson rise, once again, to the top of the list? Why is an American from TV land the authority on this complex and emotional subject, as opposed to Haitian Pentecostals or Catholics who are actually involved in these debates in Haiti and in Haitian communities in North America?

Cynics will say that the answer is simply: Robertson is a straw man, beloved by lazy journalists.

This journalistic sin of commission and omission is important since this long story includes literally no other references to experts who are critical of voodoo and its role in Haitian culture. Click here for a sample of one such voice — a calm and solid one — speaking out on one of the hottest of hot topics, which is that voodoo event at the heart of Haitian history.

The story features plenty of voices on one side and — oh joy — Robertson on the other.

This is not a fair journalistic fight. Once again I have to ask: “Where are the Haitian voices on the other side of this issue? Where is the rest of this story?”

Photo: Yes, the second photo is of a Pat Robertson voodoo doll.

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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.

  • Jason Pitzl-Waters

    “Where is the rest of this story?”

    I often think that every time a Christian is profiled and no one calls me up to get my opinion on their faith. Believe me, I’ve got plenty to say!

    I do think it’s unfortunate that they over-focused on Robertson since plenty of folks took pot-shots at Vodou in the wake of the earthquake there. Including conservative “moderates” like Brooks and Dreher. Indeed, I would argue that there’s been far more negative coverage of Vodou lately, or just poor coverage, than positive. I don’t think one can criticize the “fairness” here without placing it within a larger spectrum of Vodou coverage. To my eyes, this largely positive article is breath of fresh air from the usual editorializing and sensationalism.

    Finally, on a style note, Vodou (or Voodoo) is an actual real-live proper religion with adherents and everything. Isn’t it time we start capitalizing it when directly discussing the faith?

  • tmatt

    The issue, in this case, is a story about conflicts surrounding the faith. It helps to quote Haitians on both sides of the existing conflict. It would be like writing a story about how Pentecostal Christians oppose Wicca, yet not quoting in actual Wiccan believers.

  • Rod Dreher

    What makes you think I took “pot shots” at voodoo? A “pot shot” is a lazy swipe. I criticized voodoo in a USA Today article, but my criticism had substance. I wrote, in part:

    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. It’s as legitimate to ask what role voodoo plays in Haiti’s fathomless social troubles as it is to ask the same question about fundamentalist Islam in the Middle East, conservative Christianity in the Bible Belt, or militant atheism in the land of academia. And it’s as necessary.

    Jason, you surely don’t believe any criticism of voodoo amounts to a “pot shot” — do you? If so, then you are being patronizing by not taking voodoo seriously enough to subject it to criticism. I am a Christian, and I can tell the difference between substantive criticism of the Christian faith, however harsh, and pot shots. I would like to know where you draw the line between legitimate critical commentary about voodoo, and pot shots.

    Personally, I would rather have nothing written about my own faith at all than the condescending paternalism of writers who felt obliged to write only complimentary things.

  • Jerry

    Rod, your failure to capitalize Vodou but to capitalize Christianity (and Islam) is, in itself, a statement that I take as ipso facto bias. It tends to override, at least to me, the text of your comment.

  • Hector_St_Clare

    Can we, actually, spell the name of the religion the proper way? It’s ‘Vodou’. Just the way we are ‘Christians’, not ‘Christers’, and Muslims are not ‘Mussulmen’, and Hindus are not ‘Brahmanists’.

    FTR, I used to comment on Rod’s old blog, and I don’t believe he has a racist/bigoted bone in his body. I think he could be more sensitive towards Vodou, but I don’t think this is reason to call him biased. We all have our areas where we could be more sensitive. Certainly I have mine.

  • Temwani

    Are you saying Pentecostals are not evangelicals? Are you also saying Pat Robertson cannot and should not comment on such issues are you are writing about here?

  • Rod Dreher

    Rod, your failure to capitalize Vodou but to capitalize Christianity (and Islam) is, in itself, a statement that I take as ipso facto bias. It tends to override, at least to me, the text of your comment.

    I followed the NYT style. You are engaged in ad hominem nitpicking, and ignoring the substance of my comment. I think voodoo is an evil religion. Christopher Hitchens thinks the same of Christianity. We may both be wrong, but that doesn’t mean our observations about the content of these particular religions are without merit. One doesn’t have to like a phenomenon to have something meaningful to say about it.

  • Ray Ingles

    Rod Dreher –

    militant atheism in the land of academia

    I’ve noted a few times before that there’s a double-standard in the use of the word ‘militant’.

    When applied to believers, it means ‘someone who actually pulls out a gun’ – “militant Islamist”, “militant Christian” (last time I saw that phrase in the news was the Hutarees). When applied to atheists, it seems to mean ‘someone who advocates atheism’, or sometimes, ‘someone who says they are atheist’.

    Are people really using AK-47s to settle academic debates? That’s a story I’d be interested in hearing more about…

  • Rod Dreher

    There’s no double standard. Unless it’s clearly in context of a war, “militant” anybody means someone who aggressively advocates for their ideas or interests. The connotative difference between “militant” and “passionate” has to do with the militant’s unwillingness to grant that others may have an equally valid point of view. A passionate atheist may defend atheism with gusto and conviction, but a militant atheist takes it further, to the point of wanting to deny those who disagree the moral right to be heard, and sometimes even a platform to be heard.

  • Will

    But besides this, there is the term “Church Militant”, which is constantly misinterpreted as meaning the use of some sort of military force by TheChurch, whereas it simply refers to the Church on earth, as opposed to the Church Triumphant in Heaven and the Church Expectant in Purgatory

  • Will

    In all fairness, reporters probably don’t have a bunch of houngans in the proverbial rolodex, and most of them probably wouldn’t talk to the press if they did.
    When the Times covered Pope John Paul’s address in Cotonou, they interviewed a local priest and a temple snake-keeper (who insisted he was both vodoun and Catholic.)

  • Rod Dreher

    I don’t think TMatt was complaining about the Times interviewing voodoo practitioners for the report in question, but rather that they didn’t balance the report by talking to people, Haitian and otherwise, who criticize voodoo, if only to hear what their complaints against it were. It would have been equally unsatisfying if the Times reporter had only interviewed voodoo critics without speaking to practitioners and defenders of the religion.

    This NYT story was more advocacy journalism than journalism, in my view.

  • Hector_St_Clare

    Re: In all fairness, reporters probably don’t have a bunch of houngans in the proverbial rolodex, and most of them probably wouldn’t talk to the press if they did.

    Actually, if you live in Boston, New York, or Miami (and possibly DC too), I would imagine you can find a houngan (or at least, Haitians who believe in Vodou) without too much difficulty.

    Re: When the Times covered Pope John Paul’s address in Cotonou, they interviewed a local priest and a temple snake-keeper (who insisted he was both vodoun and Catholic.)

    Well, hey, if Frances Kissling can claim to be Catholic, I guess so can the snake-keeper. …

  • Cliff Pearce

    The second picture is not a voodoo doll, it’s Mr. Sluggo from the old Saturday Night Live “Mr. Bill” shows. He’s gonna be mean to you!