Has religion’s media image gotten better or worse?

Has religion’s media image gotten better or worse? March 19, 2018


Is the picture of religion in the media generally better or worse (or both) than it was 25 – 30 years ago?


Unquestionably worse. To begin, let’s acknowledge that the media inevitably report more about the bad than the good news. We take for granted countless acts of charity quietly performed by religious agencies and individuals while the scandals hit page one. The following comes from an American viewpoint, though affected by circumstances in world religions.

Sadly, there’s gradually increasing suspicion in the U.S. not only toward “organized religion” but the other institutions whose authority and credibility sustain society. The Gallup Poll is the go-to source because it has asked consistent questions for decades about regard for institutions and vocational groups, not precisely Ken’s topic but relevant.

A Gallup survey of U.S. adults last June found 23 percent expressed “a great deal” of confidence in “the church or organized religion” plus another 18 percent with “quite a lot,” totaling 41 percent. That was a better showing than (in descending order) the Supreme Court, medical system, public schools, U.S. presidency, organized labor, news media, big business, and Congress. Religion was exceeded only by the military (72 percent) and police (57 percent).

Not bad. But that was the worst esteem for religion since Gallup first asked this question in 1973, and a notable drop from the 60 percent as recently as 2001.

The same pattern occurred last December with Gallup’s perennial question about rating “the honesty and ethical standards” of different vocational groups. With 42 percent expressing “very high” or “high” regard for the clergy, they were outranked by eight other vocations, the worst number since the first such poll in 1977 and a drop from 64 percent in 2001.

The broadest status scenario came in 2014 from political scientist Tobin Grant at Southern Illinois University. He compiled 60 years of data from 400 U.S. surveys on things like church membership, worship attendance, personal belief and prayer, and attitudes toward religion. Grant’s graph at https://www.religionnews.com/2014/01/27/great-decline-religion-united-states-one-graph shows what he calls “the great decline.” This index shows a gradual slide beginning in 1960 that bottomed out in 1980 – 2000 (note Gallup’s esteem numbers for 2001) but a steady plummet since.

Why? Do religious events worsen the media image, or do media treatments worsen religion’s image? The Religion Guy proposes that both shape perceptions.

For certain, the media, always alert to scandal and controversy, have since the 1960s become less reverential toward churches and the clergy, amid growing skepticism about all public institutions. The “new atheists” with derision toward religious faiths and religious people, and intellectuals’ debunking of religious traditions, have been given ample publicity. (With the increasing population of “nones” who shun religious involvement there’s more indifference than outright hostility.)

The Religion Guy candidly observes that internal dynamics within religions have damaged their public image more than assaults from the outside (except in lands still controlled by atheistic Communism).

Begin with Islam. The vast majority of believers continue their faith’s generally moderate mainstream tradition. But a relatively small faction persists in slaughter of the innocents — fellow Muslims included — and preaches that this mayhem is God’s mandate for planet Earth. In modern times, no major religion has suffered such a disastrous public image as Islam the past four decades.

One instance of what world civilization is dealing with. A “New York Times” report on refugees in Canada from the small Yazidi religion said the Islamic State committed such horrendous atrocities that therapists who work to overcome their trauma need to undergo therapy themselves.

Leaders of mainstream Islamic religious entities and governments have thus far been unable to suppress a bloodthirsty movement that reaches across all continents. It may take a century to erase the negative impact. Islam’s problem undoubtedly filters into general public suspicions that all forms of devout faith are potentially diseased.

The Muslim militants cite inspiration from words and deeds in early Islamic history. There are, of course, examples of ancient religious warfare in the Hebrew Bible, not to mention Europe’s Catholic-Protestant combat (ended 1648) or Northern Ireland’s “troubles,” largely settled by the 1998 Good Friday Agreement. But Jewish and Christian authorities have not sanctioned terror against innocent non-combatants.

Buddhism provides a striking example. This heritage upholds high ethical principles under the Five Precepts and teaches non-violence toward not just humans but all living things (ahimsa). Yet when nationalism and politics are involved, Buddhist cultures have recently visited mayhem upon Hindus and Muslims in Sri Lanka and Muslims in Myanmar. Hindus have given Muslims some rough treatment in India.

In fairness, The Guy should acknowledge that whatever religious guilt for oppression or death, the human race has without question suffered far worse when atheists rather than believers exercise political power.

Christianity’s image has been damaged not by war and terror but controversial political engagement that turns more troublesome in the Trump era. With Catholicism, the hierarchy has stumbled for decades amid unending scandals about priests molesting underaged children. In this #MeToo moment, Protestants share in the shame over misconduct.

Meanwhile, churches must cope with a sexual revolution that has undermined age-old moral tenets. On the gay issue in particular, religious liberals who accommodate the new sexual culture can appear to surrender their principles of the recent past due to cultural pressure, and their churches have declined. Conservatives who defend traditional morals have an image of being behind the times or, worse, intolerant bigots who deserve intolerance in return.






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