CNN attempts to bifurcate Jesus

I was reflecting on the interesting election coverage we experienced over the last year(s) and how the religion angles were handled. After 2008, perhaps we can agree that religion angles were handled better in this cycle. Which is not saying much.

The media have never quite figured out how to handle President Barack Obama’s religion, largely downplaying his religious rhetoric and ignoring his religious outreach. Some folks attempted to smear Mitt Romney for his Mormonism, but even that was restrained. Only conspiracy theorists such as the Daily Beast‘s Andrew Sullivan have engaged in the more notable bigotry. That the Daily Beast publishes him is not to their credit, but most publications were more subtle in their pieces skeptical of Mormonism. Some media outlets even seemed earnestly interested in learning about Mormonism as opposed to going for political point scoring.

But there was something about this CNN piece that a few readers sent in that seriously rubbed me the wrong way, headlined “Do you believe in a red state Jesus or a blue state Jesus?,” it begins:

Here’s a presidential election prediction you can bet on.

Right after the winner is announced, somebody somewhere in America will fall on their knees and pray, “Thank you Jesus.”
And somebody somewhere else will moan, “Help us Jesus.”

But what Jesus will they be praying to: a red state Jesus or a blue state Jesus?

Admittedly this is because of my personal bias as a Christian, but I don’t appreciate media outlets referencing my Lord and Savior in such a trifling manner. I’m not sure if media outlets are aware of how offensive it sounds to some of us. You’re then invited to take a poll where Jesus is bifurcated in weird ways, frequently in ways that this Lutheran wouldn’t feel comfortable with. Such as:

Do you believe Jesus is going to return one day, descending from the clouds with an army of angels to fight the final battle between good and evil? Or are you focused on creating Jesus’ kingdom “on earth as it is heaven” and not too worried about who’s left behind or whether Jesus is coming back — or perhaps never even left?

Then you get to pick whether you’re for the “‘Left-Behind’ Jesus” or the “Never Left Jesus.” Hardy har har! Or how about this one?

Were you inspired by watching Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ” because you thought it showed how much Jesus was willing to suffer to save mankind? Or were you revolted by Gibson’s film and thought its long and bloody depiction of Jesus’ death reflected Gibson’s obsession?

Are you for “Mel Gibson’s Jesus” or “Mel Gibson’s Obsession”? Ooh, good one.

Now, some of the questions were actually fine and interesting, but what is so problematic to me is the inherent politicization of the framework.

Yes, it is true: Some Christians use Jesus to justify progressive political action. And some Christians use Jesus to justify conservative political action. But this framework routinely ignores and marginalizes those of us that don’t view Jesus through a political prism.

If you are going to write about the politicization of Jesus — a great topic, in my view — is it too much to ask that it be done in a less condescending or derisive way? Or, as one commenter put it:

CNN, stop trying to create a false dichotomy. Jesus is indeed the lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world, but this in no way stops him from being the champion of the oppressed, for example.

I’m genuinely curious what you think about the way this topic was handled.

And I’m also thinking today might be a good day to reflect on the larger coverage of religion this year. What do you think were the high points and low points? I have my own thoughts (which, if you’ve read the blog this past year will not surprise you) but I’d like to hear what you thought was handled well and what you thought wasn’t handled well. Were there any big stories that just got missed? Stories that were overhyped? Let us know.

Diverging paths image via Shutterstock.

Top 10 ways BuzzFeed doesn’t get Christianity

Two minor media incidents yesterday made me wonder if some of the problems we see with how religion news is covered relates simply to language differences. The first came about in a panel discussion about whether Hurricane Sandy had any political implications. (By the way, see if you can find any ghosts in this New York Times video “Lights Out In Rockaway” about the rough situation those in Queens continue to face a week after the storm hit. The folks in the video say that FEMA and the Red Cross have been AWOL, but I noticed that some relief workers had shirts indicating they were part of religious relief efforts.)

Anyway, on Meet The Press, “Today” show host Savannah Guthrie was speculating that the hurricane would help President Obama reach out to independent voters as opposed to the base voters he’d previously targeted:

“This is a campaign built to turn out the base of the party. And here was a moment, handed to him seemingly from above, where he could look like that strong, independent, steady in a storm, very appealing to the middle-of-the-road voters. And I might add to unmarried women voters who are going to be very key in this election.”

See? Secular reporters talk about theodicy, too! They just talk about it a little differently. Sandy killed 110 people, left millions without power, destroyed homes and untold property. But God (or, er, something “from above”) can bring good things out of it, too … such as help to President Obama’s re-election campaign. It does make me wonder if or how Guthrie covered the Senate candidate’s comments suggesting that even those lives conceived in rape are valuable to God.

Anyway, the other minor incident I came across was the powerful BuzzFeed editor Ben Smith’s remarks when he linked to a perfectly typical BuzzFeed article (They tend to hype everything for maximum page views. It works. And yes, the headline is a joke about their style.) about religious outreach by the Romney campaign. The relevant portion for our purposes:

Reed emphasized that it was the religious duty of Christians to cast their ballots, saying the “Bible clearly teaches” that there is an obligation to take part in their government.

“We believe being registered to vote, being educated, and going to the polls is part of our witness as believers, because we are dual citizens,” Reed said, referring to the “Kingdom of Heaven” and the United States.

Ben Smith tweeted out a link with the line:

Hard to imagine a rabbi or imam telling his flock, as Ralph Reed does here, that they are “dual citizens”

Well, as you can imagine, his 112,699 followers had a bit of fun with it. For instance:

@SluBlog: Good grief, dude. http://bible.cc/philippians/3-20.htm …

@BrentSirota: It’s Philippians 3:20. Why would a rabbi or imam make reference to that?

Smith retweeted some of the responses he got and further explained:

I guess it struck me in the context of the frequent accusations that Jews have dual loyalties. Not the concept, just the phrase.

And that led to more interaction:

@JayCostTWS: Read Augustine’s City of God.

It is a great suggestion that reporters read City of God if they want to understand this concept. But Smith surprised me by responding:

Went to a hs called Trinity and read City of God in college. No excuse at all :(

I know it’s what we should all do, but it’s nice to see a journalist who is not defensive and takes correction and admits error.

It’s also interesting that one could have some familiarity with these concepts and still forget them while on the politics beat. Just a good reminder for us all that our own obsessions and frameworks might not be universally shared.

Weed is a beautiful gift from God

There is something about writing about marijuana that gets reporters a bit, well, dopey.

You see, they think that marijuana, and its legalization, are just fodder for jokes. Perhaps it’s because I’m a libertarian who believes in a very limited government, but I take discussions about what the government should concern itself with quite seriously. I’m sure marijuana prohibitionists do as well. Editorial pages have not shown a lot of wisdom in how they weigh in on this topic, as Reason magazine has chronicled over the years.

I’ve asked various pastors for their thoughts on weed and will never forget the one guy who told me, “Weed? Weed? Weed is a beautiful gift from God.” He added, immediately, “Of course there are First Article issues for us.” That referred to the First Article of the creed and our obedience and love for all of God’s Law — about which a whole book could be written.

Anyway, I had hoped for a bit more from this Associated Press article headlined “Holy Schism Emerges Over Pot Legalization In Colorado.” It begins:

The stakes in Colorado’s marijuana debate are getting much higher – as in, all the way to heaven.

A vigorous back-and-forth between pot legalization supporters and foes entered the religious arena Wednesday. A slate of pastors called on Coloradans to reject making pot legal without a doctor’s recommendation.

“It’s heading to a path of total destruction,” warned Bishop Acen Phillips, who leads New Birth Temple of Praise Community Baptist Church in Denver.

About 10 pastors spoke at the event organized by the campaign to defeat the Colorado ballot proposal. If approved, the measure would allow adults over 21 to possess small amounts of marijuana for recreational use. Oregon and Washington have similar proposals before voters next month.

Colorado’s legalization supporters responded quickly to the holy war on pot, releasing a list of clergy members who support legalizing the drug and ending criminal penalties for its use. Those ministers argued that religious leaders and parents should guide decisions about marijuana, not the law.

“I do not support smoking pot. I do not like the stuff,” said the Rev. Bill Kirton, a retired Methodist minister in Denver. “But the harm it does is much less than sending more and more people to prison. And I think it’s time to legalize marijuana.”

What you’ll notice is that there’s very little “religion” in this “religious arena.” These people could just as easily be random community leaders as leaders of religious communities. We learn that Kirton chuckled about “supporting an illegal drug as a man of the cloth” — ha ha! — and that he believes most clergy are with him. Then we hear from others who say they’re worried about the problems caused by drug use and that attracting drug dealers is bad for a community.

It almost seems to me that we’re dealing with an economic or cultural divide that may not have as much to do with religion as the headline and copy suggest. A sample of the depth to the piece:

The religious divide over marijuana is the latest arena in which folks are taking sides on Colorado’s pot measure. The pro-marijuana and anti-marijuana groups have in recent weeks gone back and forth over who sides with them.

There’s just not a lot of there there.

It’s also worth noting how this story exemplifies the way that some religious groups are marginalized from news stories. Basically there are the types of churches that believe their doctrine indicates a particular legislative or policy approach. And there are churches that don’t believe that policy prescriptions are within their wheelhouse. We tend to hear far less from the latter because the media love political stories.

I’m pretty sure that my church body would simply say Lutherans have the freedom to use their own reason to vote on this topic. That’s an important viewpoint, too, and one shared by more than just Lutherans. Yet it never appears in these stories about the various political factions in the religious community. And in a state such as Colorado, it might be nice to find out what some less-mainstream religious communities think on this topic. Any Native religious groups weighing in? Any of the Eastern religious communities that have thrived there?

Anyway, I’m still interested in whether there is anything in Scripture — or some other religious norm or framework — that could inform how we vote on these matters. When saying that there is a “holy schism” and that the stakes go so high that it’s all the way “to heaven” — what an overstatement — on this matter, it would be nice to have some actual religious content other than “bishop” or “the Rev.” in the story.

Cannabis image via Shutterstock.


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