Why the Religion Beat? Reporting on Faith Can Protect Our Democracy

A stained glass window in the Mundelein Auditorium on the campus of Loyola University in Chicago. Photo: Sarah Swetlik/RFA Corps member for AL.com
A stained glass window in the Mundelein Auditorium on the campus of Loyola University in Chicago. Photo: Sarah Swetlik/RFA Corps member for AL.com

I’ve been asked the same question for a few months now. It goes something like this: 

“Why the religion beat?”

That’s usually followed by: “I’ve never heard of religion as a journalism beat.”

This question came up a lot earlier this summer during Report For America’s national gathering in Chicago. Several hundred of my fellow corps members and I met at Loyola University, a Jesuit college campus that borders Lake Michigan.

We spent most of our time in Mundelein Auditorium, a stunning art-deco building that, from the outside, looks a bit like a smaller version of the Empire State building in New York City. 

But one wall of the auditorium felt more like a cathedral. Several rows of stained glass windows added an ambience to the space that made me feel – well – like I was in church. 

My fellow corps members took out their phones, snapping photos of the windows which  cast shards of pastel-colored light across the room. 

Then my eyes settled on an image: a Jesuit priest standing, face snow-white, framed by a golden halo cast his eyes downward. At his feet, two Native Americans kneeled, clad only in colorful loincloths. One man looked up to the priest, chains around his wrists; it looked like he was begging for freedom. 

Freedom, no doubt, from his “pagan” beliefs, which the priest would provide (through Jesus, of course). 

America’s discontent enshrined in stained glass. 

Like many Appalachian families, mine moved around a lot growing up in pursuit of good employment. Because of that, my religious experience was a hodge-podge of mainline Protestant denominations. Sometimes, we were American Baptists (the quiet Baptists, someone told me recently); sometimes Lutheran. Then, I wound up marrying a United Methodist pastor.

For 8 years, I was the director of communications for the United Methodist Annual Conference in West Virginia. I had a front row seat to many of the trends mainline denominations are grappling with: declining church membership; the rise of the “nones” – those who say they are unaffiliated with organized religion; and internal fissures on culture war issues, like abortion and same-sex marriage. 

I came into this job reporting on religion at 100 Days feeling like I had a good handle on religion, especially Christianity. 

But I quickly realized I had a lot to learn. 

As I began my first story earlier this summer, an exploration of how two interpretations of Christianity and the cultural organizing groups attached to them intersect with our politics, I realized there was so much about faith and culture and power I didn’t yet understand. 

For one thing, I did not yet grasp the way some harmful, religious-tinged rhetoric has woven itself into American political life under the guise of Christianity. And I’m not alone. Many of the mainline clergy I have spoken to in the past few weeks hadn’t either.

But that has changed this summer so I wanted to share with you what I’ve learned as a way to answer that always present question: Why the religion beat? 

1. White Christian Nationalism is much more embedded (and insidious) in the U.S. than I thought. 

Frederick Clarkson, who works for Political Research Associates based in Boston, introduced me to the concept of dominionism – a theology that really is an ideology.   As a belief system, dominionism unifies the religious right. 

Dominionism, sometimes called Seven Mountains Dominionism, or 7M, is about the transformation of society. A country where Christians and Christianity hold power over seven spheres of society – government, religion, family, education, media, arts & entertainment, and business. “Dominionists celebrate Christian nationalism, in that they believe that the United States once was, and should once again be, a Christian nation” Clarkson said. “In this way, they deny the Enlightenment roots of American democracy.”

What resonated with me as I reported on dominionism was the way it interacted with Christian Nationalism – in particular the way “soft” dominionist rhetoric has seeped into the discourse of a mainline Protestant denomination. Often, without realizing it, the words and phrases used in extremist religious spaces have become normalized in non-extremist ones. 

We saw these “soft” dominionist ideas after 9/11: “America is a Christan nation.” 

I’ve heard conservative Methodists use that phrase. In fact, George W. Bush, who is a United Methodist, believed his presidency was ordained by God. 

Thanks to the Congressional Hearings on the January 6 insurrection, we’ve all spent the summer hearing more and more of this language in mainstream media.

Let me be clear, I’m not casting American Methodism as dominionist and, therefore, Christian Nationalist, but the normalization of the language of the extremist -right through religious spaces, it’s something that will guide my reporting over the next year.

2. Nuance and clarity matter when it comes to describing the religious landscape. So does history. 

Not all Evangelicals are white Christian Nationalists. Dominionist rhetoric may feel like it is everywhere, but many conservative Christians believe in the separation of church and state, but when those two ideals intersect or overlap, we must point them out and give context. 

“You can be white and Evangelical and oppose white Christian Nationalism,” Samuel Perry, an associate professor of sociology at the University of Oklahoma and co-author of “The Flag and the Cross: White Christian Nationalism and the Threat to American Democracy,” told the New Yorker’s Michael Luo

While Perry acknowledged there is “significant overlap” between white Evangelicals and white Christian Nationalists, he explained that white Christian Nationalism is an ideology that ultimately seeks a white ethno-state. 

And the idea has roots in colonial America. 

Seventeenth century Puritan clergy such as Cotton Mather compared Puritans with the tribes of Israel, who conquered the Amalekites in order to settle the land promised to them by God in the Old Testament. Puritans saw Native Americans as the Amalekites of the New World.

Evangelicalism is a bit more difficult to pin down in a single blog post, though. 

The idea of personal conversion and salvation through a relationship with Jesus is probably the most familiar Evangelical concept for most people. Many evangelicals are politically conservative, and vote according to those values, but it is important not to lump all Evangelicals as having white Christian Nationalist beliefs, according to Perry. 

3. White Christian Nationalists have a completely different worldview than other Christians. 

For a long time, Christian leaders from right of center to progressive on the theological spectrum found ways to work together. There was a sense of shared values that cut across the Christian faiths, particularly among mainline Protestants and the Catholic Church.

It reminds me of a different time in our country, when Republicans and Democrats passed legislation across political differences, like the Clean Air Act of 1970.

But white Christian Nationalists aren’t interested in democratic compromises like this one. They are pretty open about their vision for theocratic society, with straight white men at the top of their version of a biblical government. And they are willing to use violence to achieve that end, something demonstrated in the January 6, 2021, Insurrection at the nation’s capital. 

That is a completely different worldview than the mainline Protestant denominations I grew up in. 

What this means for my reporting

In 2016, Dianne Moore, who directs the Center for Religion and Public Life at Harvard University told the Harvard Gazette that there are four assumptions journalists have historically made in their coverage of religion. 

The first assumption equivocates a single source, like a pastor, imam, or rabbi, as representative of an entire group. 

“We often conflate a religious belief with the universalization of that belief,” she said. 

But Moore points out religion is a diverse experience within and across individual faith communities and religions themselves are not static – they evolve over time. 

She also describes the separation of religion from our social and political life as an “arbitrary distinction” that is not based in reality. “Religion is embedded in all dimensions of human experience,” Moore said.

As a journalist, I want to tell stories about the richness and depth of the religious experience and the complexity of how it shows up in the lives of Appalachians just like Moore explained. That means reporting on all faiths in Appalachia and on the various interpretations of Christitanity, Judaism, Islam, atheism, but white Christian Nationalism too. 

It means looking at the work religious organizations are doing to protect and expand democracy and to make life better for Appalachians, but what they’re doing to tear it and us down too. Ultimately, the depth and breadth of religion as human experience is not just part of the story of the region, it plays a major role in the story of the country. 

Because religion is not dying in Appalachia, or in the U.S. either.

Yes, Pew polls tell us that fewer people are physically in religious buildings, and much ink has been spilled over the secularization of our country. But that is only a sliver of the story. 

American journalism has relegated religious stories to what I call potlucks or emergencies. Lists of shrove Tuesday pancake dinners or major emergencies (Catholic sex scandals; Islamic fundamentalism) have dominated coverage of religion for decades. But there is so much more tell. 

So, why the religion beat? Because religion is infused in every part of the Appalachian and American experience.

When we ignore the complicated nature of our varied religious experiences, we run the risk of unnecessarily dividing ourselves from allies of faith who care deeply about democracy. And we also allow extremist rhetoric to define terms like “Christianity” for us. 

And that puts our democracy –  and our country – at risk. 

Laura Harbert Allen is a Report for America corps member covering religion for 100 Days in Appalachia. Click here to help support her reporting through the Ground Truth Project.

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