Some religious denigration is better than others

Back when the Obama administration was still claiming that they believed the assassination of the United States ambassador to Libya was in response to a YouTube video, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said:

“The United States deplores any intentional effort to denigrate the religious beliefs of others. Our commitment to religious tolerance goes back to the very beginning of our nation. But let me be clear: There is never any justification for violent acts of this kind.”

In President Obama’s statement on Stevens’ murder, he used this line:

“While the United States rejects efforts to denigrate the religious beliefs of others, we must all unequivocally oppose the kind of senseless violence that took the lives of these public servants.”

The media seemed oddly incurious about the idea that our leaders were saying that the U.S. rejects efforts to denigrate religious beliefs (and they were only mildly more interested in this claim back during the early days of Terry Jones’ media stunts or when similar statements were made during the previous administration). Media outlets more or less printed the claims and didn’t even realize that many Americans believe that the First Amendment means the government has no business rejecting efforts to denigrate the religious beliefs of others. Even more, they believe the First Amendment protects Americans’ right to do just that. Free country and all that. You can stand on the corner and distribute your poorly written anti-Calvinist tracts all you want.

What was particularly odd about the coverage was that, for instance, the Associated Press previously reported that Clinton had been in a crowd that had given a standing ovation to the “Book of Mormon” play. The same play that won a Tony for Best Musical, I believe. Do we reject efforts to denigrate the religious beliefs of others! Or do we give these efforts standing ovations and awards? I’m so confused! (And I’m not even going to get into any of the other religious liberty battles being fought against government entities.)

All this to say that I was intrigued by media coverage of just the latest effort to denigrate the religious beliefs of others. Here’s how the Inquisitr covered it:

In the clip for American Horror Story: Asylum, Jessica Lange appears as a sinister nun at particularly dark and dreary mental institution during the 60s. “Here you will repent for your sins to the only judge that matters,” she says while leaning over a patient strapped to hospital bed. If the embedded promo is any indication of things to come, then this season looks to increase the sex and violence by several intense notches…

If you want to see more of Jessica Lange as a sadistic nun at a very creepy mental institution, be sure to tune into the American Horror Story: Asylum premiere on October 17.

Entertainment Weekly is so excited about the premier that it ran on the cover of the magazine.

But I haven’t seen any questioning of the anti-Catholic bigotry in this TV show in the mainstream media. Just in this piece in America magazine by James Martin, S.J. He goes through his enjoyment of EW prior to reading its article on the show and adds:

Anti-Catholicism (especially in grotesque portraits of sisters and nuns) has a long history, is alive and well, but is often overstated by some sensitive Catholics.  And of course it’s quite subjective.  One person’s good-natured ribbing is another person’s offensive stereotype.  But it’s always a good thought experiment to imagine the lines about, say, Lange’s sadism rendered with another religious or ethnic group.  Instead of nuns, substitute “rabbis” or “imams,” or “Muslims” or “Jews,” or “African-Americans” or “gay men,” in that sentence.  So reread those lines about the spanking with those groups in mind.  Go ahead.  I’ll wait.

How does that sound?  Do you think it would make it past many network execs or the editors at EW?  Well, maybe, but should it?

Of course Hollywood is an equal opportunity offender.  A new movie called “The Good Doctor,” opened this weekend, starring Orlando Bloom as a wicked physician who poisons his patients.  (Bad Legolas.)  So Catholic sisters aren’t the only vocations to have their reputations besmirched.  It’s as fair for filmmakers and TV producers to feature the occasional mean priest, bad bishop, and silly sister as it is to feature crooked cops, devious lawyers and messed-up parents.  And Hollywood even turns on its own: check out the brilliant “Episodes” starring Matt LeBlanc as an addled, well, Matt LeBlanc.

But that a sadistic, slutty, screwed-up Catholic sister is the centerpiece of a show’s entire season on a mainstream network is depressingly retrograde, especially when real sisters are trying hard to be seen as women worthy of dignity and respect.  It’s a lazy trope and an offensive one, too.  And I’m always amazed that editors and writers and producers and screenwriters and photographers don’t see that.

Father Martin’s piece is all an interesting critique I’m more interested in the media’s curious decisions to avoid talking about the fact that we denigrate religious beliefs — sometimes in incredibly high-profile ways — all the time in this country. There’s been a general problem with the media coverage of what happened in Benghazi, Libya, but most of that is political or relates to approaching that story politically. But there are, of course, some overlap issues with religion news.

I think the only mainstream outlet article I saw that even critiqued the administration’s line on free speech in recent weeks came from the New York Times, and while it was certainly good, it didn’t get into the religion angle.

Protecting the rights of atheists, skeptics, and believers to criticize and denigrate the religious beliefs of others is a huge issue in this country. While we’ve seen some hypocrisy in how denigration of religious beliefs has been covered, have you seen any good articles exploring this vital First Amendment issue? If so, please pass them along.

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  • Sarah

    I think that you’ve touched upon a very complicated issue here that includes many shades of “denigration,” as you (and Sec of State Clinton) put it. It is a very different thing to satirize Catholics than to satirize Muslims in the United States. The first reason for this is population numbers–Catholics comprise a large percentage of all believers in the United States, while Muslims, I believe, make up less than 1%. This means that Catholics wield quite significant power here while Muslims do not. One of our most popular presidents (JFK) was Catholic and most of the Supreme Court Justices are Catholic. Often I find that criticisms or parodies of Catholicism in the U.S. were written by lapsed Catholics themselves. That offensive video about Islam was not made by a Muslim.

    Another reason that there is a difference in less-than-respectful portrayals of Catholics and Muslims is because of the race issue. Quite a lot of U.S. Catholics are white. Most U.S. Muslims are not. This race (and sometimes clothing) disparity places Muslims in several minority categories–add 9/11 to the mix and most U.S. Muslims find themselves under uncomfortable scrutiny in all sort of public places, especially airports.

    The final, most important difference is that the U.S. has a pretty decent relationship with a lot of Catholic countries, especially those in Europe, while our relationships with Muslim countries are much more strained. That is why, for the sake of international relations, both the President and the Secretary of State had to publicly state that they are against denigrating Islam, because so many Americans are vocally NOT against denigrating Islam, and Muslims in these countries know that and that’s why many Muslims demonstrated against the U.S.

    • Thomas A. Szyszkiewicz


      Re points 1 & 2) So denigration of a religion is OK as long as that religion is a relative majority of the population and the majority of that relative majority is white? I thought denigration of religion was wrong all the way around, this being a country of everyone being equal before the law and all that, but I guess I’m wrong.

      3) Catholic countries? What Catholic countries? Oh, you must mean Vatican City State, the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg, the Principality of Lichtenstein and the Republic of Malta. Yep, heavily influential those nations are with a combined population of 917,832. Seriously, to think that Europe or South America has countries that can be considered “Catholic” like Arab countries and Indonesia can be considered Muslim is seriously misguided.

      • I thought denigration of religion was wrong all the way around, this being a country of everyone being equal before the law

        I thought the gist of the statements was that denigration wasn’t against the law? Where does ‘equal before the law’ come into it?

    • Tim H

      The Muslims rioting over the video are not Muslims in America, where as you pointed out they are in the minority, but rather the rioters are in Libya and the Middle East where they are the religious and ethnic majority.

    • Will

      Then anti-semitism was nothing to worry about as long as Kissinger, Goldberg and Ed Koch (or Lieberman, for that matter) were prominent office-holders, and politicians and pundits worried about “the Jewish vote”?

      And anti-Catholicism became OK AFTER Kennedy won the election? You seem to have forgotten that letting one of THEM into the White House was not so popular during the campaign… the current wave of assertions that President Romney would take orders from the prophet is a strong parallel.

      This is the pernicious attitude that only official Oppressed Minorities can be the object of prejudice, leading in turn to struggle and scramble by more and more “identity” groups to claim the mantle of “oppressed” status. And to nauseating contests of “my martyrs have suffered more than your martyrs.” In my more cynical moments, I wonder if this is behind the “pagan revival”, allowing whit e gentiles to claim the coveted credentials.

      “I am a full-blooded gypsy — which means I am entitled to 1300 years of retroactive persecution.” — M0rocc
      (And before anyone asks, the source for that is my lying ears.)

  • Sarah

    Hi Thomas,
    Thank you for sharing your thoughts. I was not trying to say that insulting any religion is a positive act but instead attempted to share my thoughts on the possible reasons for President Obama and Sec. Clinton speaking publicly against this particular video tape as opposed to coming out publicly against an insulting TV show created for U.S. audiences, like in Mollie’s example. My point was that U.S. Muslims don’t really possess the loud “voice,” so to speak, that U.S. Catholics, and white Catholics in particular, can use to express their positions on various issues. So other, more prominent people, needed to discuss the U.S. perspective on the incident with the international community.
    3) By Catholic countries, I did not mean Catholic theocracies but rather countries with a majority population that considers itself either practicing, lapsed, or culturally Catholic. So that would include Italy, France, Poland, Ireland, etc. The reason I referred to these countries is because those are the sort of people who might take offense with our U.S. media behaving disrespectfully to the tradition of Catholicism. And yes, as you point out, they experience a religious majority in a different governmental way than Egypt, Turkey, Morocco, and Indonesia…but I don’t believe that that precludes feelings of offense by individuals. After all, the U.S. is not a Catholic theocracy, but clearly Catholics in the U.S. take offense to insults against Catholicism enacted in other countries.

    • Will

      Worse and worse. So Luxembourg, Liechtenstein and Malta are “Catholic theocracies”? Look up “theocracy” in the dictionary. (The Prince of Liechtenstein would be very surprised after recent legislative events.)

  • Mike

    What exactly would a story that links a diplomatic gesture after an international incident and attending a Broadway play without staging a walkout look like?

    • mollie

      It would probably just look like a story about the administration’s rhetoric and personal/professional actions. Perhaps with a Constitutional scholar or two thrown into the mix. The NYT public editor piece above used that general framework — comparing the rhetoric about the First Amendment to the actions of the administration.

  • There is a long tradition of Catholic-bashing in the US. There is no principle discouraging denigration of any religion in either American culture or in our Constitution. It is a great nuance to pick up on, Mollie, and you are dead right that it is something that the president and secretary of state should be asked about. But the MSM are not interested in equal treatment of religions. They fear Islam and hate Catholicism (and Christianity more broadly), and it shows in the content of their stories. Another factor is that they are very reluctant to make the president and his administration look bad right now, and such questions have a way of doing that.

  • Darren Blair

    One of the many allegations that Gary Aldrich makes against the Clintons in the book “Unlimited Access” is that they were religious bigots; in particular, the Clintons used the term “Mormon” as a slur to describe any White House staffer who held to protocol rather than play things as fast and loose as everyone else.

    In that sense, Hillary’s applauding the play but denouncing the video takes on a whole new light.

  • Julia

    ” a majority population that considers itself either practicing, lapsed, or culturally Catholic.”

    Catholicism is not the same as an ethnicity. Lapsed or cultural Catholics are not (practicing) Catholics. Why would they be offended at the entertainment world denigrating Catholics? In fact, they would probably cheer it on. France has a Catholic background, but is most certainly not majority Catholic these days and is virulently secular.

    “Although 64% of the French population (41.6 million people, out of about 65 million inhabitants) are defined as Roman Catholic, only 4.5% (about 1.9 million people) are practicing Catholics, according to the French Institute of Public Opinion (IFOP).” The Wikipedia entry on religion in France also had the statistic that 17% of those who say they are Catholic also say they don’t believe in God!

    “Often I find that criticisms or parodies of Catholicism in the U.S. were written by lapsed Catholics themselves.”

    Bill Keller considers himself a collapsed Catholics – the “collapsed” laugh at what Catholics believe even harder than the “lapsed”.

    • Interesting phrase – “virulently secular”. Could someone be ‘virulently Catholic’ or ‘virulently Mormon’ or ‘virulently Muslim’? Did you perhaps mean ‘vehemently’?

      • Darren Blair

        When used in a religious context, it means “so hardcore that it impacts their relationship with others not of their own belief system”.

        • I’m familiar with the term ‘virulent’ in a biological context – that’s why I asked. It would seem the usage in a religious context would be – er – more than a little subjective. That usage is also not supported by the page you linked to.

        • Another thought. Assuming that usage is accepted – “impacts their relationship with others not of their own belief system” – would it be correct to characterize Haredi Judaism (for example) as “virulent Judaism”?

          To bring it around to journalism – I suppose one could use a term like, say, “virulent Buddhist” in an op-ed, but should a reporter use it in an article (if they aren’t quoting a source)?

          • Darren Blair

            Generally, when the term’s used it carries a connotation similar to “rabid”.

            Look at it that way.

  • FW Ken

    Bill Donoghue did what Bill Donoghue does, but with a somewhat surprising result.

  • The Old Bill

    So Hollywood makes a movie based on “The Awful Disclosures of Maria Monk.” With lipstick and nail polish. I’m shocked. How brave of them.

    How many reporters have had contact with nuns? I mean other than Whoopi Goldberg. I had them in grammar school back in the Dark Ages, and they were the most dedicated group of women I’ve ever come across. And I’ve been around long enough to come across a lot. By and large, the press has nice things to say about nuns only when they’re in some sort of tussle with the hierarchy.

  • Thinkling

    Not a week goes by when I don’t see evidence that in a hundred years from now, Philip Jenkins’ opus The Last Acceptable Prejudice will be considered a classic, and required reading for every informed citizen.

    How we get to that point however, a hundred years from now, I am not sure I wish to find out.

  • Sarah

    @Julia, you are absolutely correct that Catholicism is not an ethnicity, but it is a form of identity. If you are not a fully observant Catholic but your mother or your grandmother or ancestors were, then you probably don’t appreciate people from other religions insulting Catholicism. I doubt the French would welcome an anti-Catholic video promoted by Yemeni Muslims. Or French Muslims, for that matter.

    Re: Muslims vs. Catholics
    I was trying to point out that you can’t necessarily treat people or religions “equally” when they are not in equal positions in society. There is no point in giving men more bathroom breaks while their wives are pregnant. While there has been a long history of oppression of both Catholics and Jews in the United States, these days those two groups are hardly suffering an equivalent oppression to the kind experienced daily by American Muslims, both practicing and secular. When the government or private groups do infringe on the rights of Catholics or Jews, prominent organizations like the Anti-Defamation League or the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops leap to their defense and can successfully apply political pressure at even the federal level. What prominent group of U.S. Muslims has access to the mainstream media or the president of the United States? How many Muslims serve in Congress or on the Supreme Court? Is there the slightest chance of a Muslims becoming president? Muslims in this country are few in number and do not wield enough power to defend themselves as a group from infringements on their rights. That is my entire point.

    • Why does this discussion remind me of the Tar Baby?

    • Jenny

      Sarah, I’d be curious as to why you feel that Muslims are being oppressed so much more than Catholics or Jews in the US today. With all due respect, do you have the evidence to actually back up such a claim, rather than a general belief that Muslims are oppressed? They are not being denied the freedom to worship. You may argue about their freedom to practice, as with things such as wearing the hijab at work or being unable to work in mixed sex environments, but for every story you pull up, I could probably pull up an equivalent in Mollie’s archives about Catholics being sued for refusing birth control or service to gays. Muslims are free to sue for discrimination and they are not being segregated (if anything, evidence is that they self-segregate).

      @doubt the French would welcome an anti-Catholic video promoted by Yemeni Muslims. Or French Muslims, for that matter.

      Taking offense is 1 issue. Having people bend over backwards to try to pacify a certain group while ignoring other is another.

      @What prominent group of U.S. Muslims has access to the mainstream media or the president of the United States? How many Muslims serve in Congress or on the Supreme Court? Is there the slightest chance of a Muslims becoming president? Muslims in this country are few in number and do not wield enough power to defend themselves as a group from infringements on their rights. That is my entire point.

      Take the entire passage of yours and replace “Muslim” with “Amish.” Yet, no such concessions have been made towards the Amish. There have been several books, films and TV shows denigrating and insulting the Amish lifestyle, yet I have not seen anyone taking up arms on behalf of the Amish and their rights. Amish are still required to pay property taxes, even if they do not necessarily use roads or public facilities such as schools.

      Does this have more to do with respecting true minority groups or more with the squeaky wheel getting the grease?

    • mnemos

      Did you ever hear of CAIR? They are well placed and make up with money what they lack in population. Muslims in this country are well able to defend themselves from insults real or imagined – although the problem in Canada is an order of magnitude worse.

  • SK

    The administration commented on an international incident/event. The above mentioned program is for an American audience by an American broadcaster on an American network. The Administration’s statement serves the purpose of distinguishing official Government views from that of the producers. It was to remind the rioting regions that America has free speech but the administration is not complicit in every exercise of it. Free speech is not a Libyan or Egyptian right that it is going to be respected or accepted in those regions. However in America I am pretty sure neither the religious nor the networks need to be made aware of that.

  • Jeffrey Weiss

    Not to get *too* far from the theme here, but I’d like to weigh on on the Book Of Mormon. Full admission: I’ve not spent the myriad ducats to see the play. But I’ve listened repeatedly to the cast album and sought out summaries of the story lines. And, ahem, its purpose is *not* to denigrate the LDS church. At least, not in any way parallel to the anti-Muslim video that set this thread off. Far as I can tell, it is remarkably faithful to LDS theology and history. With only a few exceptions, what it puts forward as church doctrine is pretty close to to church doctrine. (Notable exception: “Spooky Mormon Hell.” Mormon theology doesn’t have Hell, so much.) And Mormons, as a whole, come off pretty well as good-hearted people whose motives are positive even if their strategies are sometimes not so much. Not to go “some of my best friends,” but it’s pretty easy to find positive reviews of the play from people who say they are believing Mormons:’s-new-book-of-mormon-musical.html (I am NOT saying that there aren’t Mormons mightily offended. Only that it’s not a slam-dunk.)

    The target of the joke of the play is *all* religion and religious belief. LDS theology is used as a particular exemplar. But as the authors have said, the angle they took could have been done with pretty much any other faith. (My two line summary of the major themes: Every religion is crazy, by definition, to a non-believer. And how faiths are born may not be as self-evidently God-touched as it seems in the later retellings…)

    Compare that with the anti-Muslim YouTube-ry that portrays Muhammad as a fraud and womanizer. It is an attack on the fundamental religious claims of Islam — not a spoof on its followers. And — and I think it matters — is a really terrible film. Art earns license. What is art? How much license? Good questions.

    But as a matter of journalism, to compare Clinton (or anyone) applauding the Book of Mormon to the reaction to the YouTube-ry seems not to be as parallel as Mollie and others would like to paint it. To do it properly would require a ton ‘o nuance.

    As for the nasty nun in American Horror Story. Are you suggesting that *any* negative portrayal of *anybody* who is recognizably religious is per se denigration of the entire faith? Thinking not.

    I’m about as likely to watch American Horror Story as I am to tune in to Honey Boo Boo. Not my cuppa. But let’s be clear: One nun is not necessarily to be understood as a stand-in for all Catholicism (unless it is). And it’s not as if there are no irrefutably true stories about nasty nuns that such a concept could be borrowing from. And yup, I’d be saying that if the main character were wearing a yarmulke, kufi, sacred underwear, kirpan, or any other specific token of a particular faith. There is no faith whose followers (or leaders) don’t include some about whom one could tell awful and true tales. Using such as grist for drama is not per se denigration, even though there will be people who are offended.

    And journalists are not obligated to go into this argument in depth every time someone wants to raise it.

  • FW Ken

    Oddly enough I just read how Muslims are really fitting into America:

  • Sarah

    @Jenny, I agree with you that Muslims are not generally oppressed by governmental policies or laws, although for a year or two after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, one of my Pakistani friends told me that Pakistani men (not American citizens) he knew of were being quietly rounded up and ejected from the country. Indeed, Muslims are doing much better legally here than in various European countries. Rather, Muslims are oppressed by the fear of everyday American citizens because after the 9/11 attacks, many Americans associate Muslims with terrorism. One of my Muslims friends in Massachusetts festooned her business with American flags the day after the attacks but didn’t go into work for two weeks for fear of violence. In addition, there are several blogs of Muslim American women supporting each other wearing garb (like the niqab) that identifies them as practicing Muslims because of how much harassment they receive from ordinary citizens.

    Then there are news articles like this:
    FOX News: US Agents Harassing Muslims at Border : Operation Save America to Harass Muslims Across the Nation
    MinnesotaPublicRadio.Org: Most U.S. Muslims Feel Targeted by Terror Policies, Harassment
    A quote from the last article:
    “In all, 52 percent of Muslim-Americans surveyed said their group is singled out by government for terrorist surveillance. Almost as many – 43 percent – reported they had personally experienced harassment in the past year, according to the poll released Tuesday.
    That 43 percent share of people reporting harassment is up from 40 percent in 2007, the first time Pew polled Muslim-Americans. Asked to identify in what ways they felt bias, about 28 percent said they had been treated or viewed with suspicion by people, while 22 percent said they were called offensive names. About 21 percent said they were singled out by airport security because they were Muslim, while another 13 percent said they were targeted by other law enforcement officials. Roughly 6 percent said they had been physically threatened or attacked.”