Blind Spot Religion

“It's not often that I let out a whoop of joy when I read a book…this is the book I – and my students – have been waiting for.”

Ari Goldman, Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism

Author of The Search for God at Harvard



- Michael J. Gerson

Part One — Background

Chapter One — God is Winning: Religion in Global Politics
- Tim Shah and Monica Toft

Shah and Toft’s chapter is a longer version of a Foreign Affairs (Summer 2006) cover story. The authors do not attempt to review media coverage but rather to set the stage for the chapters that follow by providing an overview of religion’s influence on world politics in recent decades. They show that global affairs are increasingly marked by what could be called “prophetic politics,” in which voices claiming transcendent authority are filling public spaces and winning key political contests. Of course, some political prophets, like al Qaeda, act through violence; others, like American evangelicals, act through elections; still others, like Hamas and some Indian Hindu revivalists, combine the two. But the overall trend is clear. Whether the field of battle is democratic elections or the more inchoate struggle for global public opinion, religious groups are increasingly competitive, putting secular movements on the defensive. Shah and Toft suggest that “God is on a winning streak” and that the spread of democracy, far from checking the power of religious activists, has often only expanded their reach. In fact, many political prophets have emerged from democratic processes more organized, more popular, and more legitimate—but sometimes no less violent. Democracy is giving the world’s peoples their voice, and many want to talk about God.

Part Two — Case Studies

Chapter Two — Religion and Terrorism: Misreading al Qaeda
- Paul Marshall

Marshall’s chapter describes Osama bin Laden’s and other Islamist terrorists’ developed ideology and view of history which, for them, explains and justifies their brutalities. He then contrasts their stated motives and rationales with press coverage of attacks in Yemen, Bali, Iraq, Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia, demonstrating that both the terrorists’ goals and the identity of their victims are repeatedly misstated. Al Qaeda consistently describes its intended targets in religiously loaded terms—as Christians, Jews, Crusaders, followers of the cross, Hindus, Buddhists, apostates, idolaters, infidels, and polytheists—and will frequently spare people, even Americans, if they are Muslims. Yet many journalists consistently describe al Qaeda strikes as attacks on “Westerners,” “non-Arabs,” or “Americans” and their allies. Marshall shows how, as a result, the connection between Australian and United Nations actions in East Timor, and the bombings in Bali and of the UN compound in Baghdad were missed almost entirely. As a result the nature and goals of Islamist terrorism are frequently described erroneously, to the detriment not only of the press but of all people threatened by terrorism.

Chapter Three — Three Decades of Misreporting Iran and Iraq
- Michael Rubin

Michael Rubin examines press coverage of Iran and Iraq and shows how it has veered from underestimating the political force in Iran of the Ayatollah Khomeini’s heterodox innovations to overestimating the political ambitions of Iraq’s Shiite leaders. He explains how ignorance about Shiite and Sunni beliefs and practices, including the role of Shiite shrines and Sufi brotherhoods, has lead to misreporting major political divisions in Iraq, and even its day-to-day politics. In the process, he provides a marvelous overview of current religious dynamics in both countries. It has become a commonplace that the U.S. administration was insufficiently aware of the religious complexities of Iran and Iraq when it led the invasion of Iraq in 2003. It is less commonly noted that press coverage has suffered from the same problem.

Chapter Four — The Faith-Based Human Rights Quest: Missing the Story
- Allen Hertzke

Hertzke describes what he maintains is the most important human rights story since the end of the cold war—the growth in the US of a broad movement for international human rights which brings together such unlikely allies as evangelicals, Catholics, Jews, Buddhists, Baha’is, African Americans, and feminists. This movement has pushed successfully for legislation and active policy on international religious freedom, Sudan , sexual trafficking, debt forgiveness, AIDS, and North Korea . Yet despite its repeated successes, it has often been ignored by journalists, or else its programs and personnel have been misstated. As a result the broadest coalition in foreign policy is sometimes reduced to the purported politics of the “Christian Right.” The result is that an unprecedented development in U.S. human rights concerns and U.S. foreign policy has been missed or misunderstood.

Chapter Five — “Misunderestimating” Religion in the 2004 Presidential Campaign
- C. Danielle Vinson and James L. Guth

Danielle Vinson and James Guth analyze coverage of religious dimensions of the 2004 presidential election and conclude that journalists consistently “misunderestimated” religion. They illustrate how the labels often used by journalists to categorize religious adherents missed many of the most important political cleavages and overlooked what makes religious voters tick. One result was that Bush’s religious beliefs and appeal were mischaracterized, while Kerry’s religious beliefs were usually ignored. The same pattern held for coverage of evangelical and African American churches. After the election, general ignorance about America ’s religious dynamics led to widespread media surprise that the increased youth and general-voter turnout had helped Bush rather than Kerry.

Chapter Six — The Popes
- Amy Welborn

Amy Welborn describes the coverage of Pope John Paul II’s funeral and the accompanying retrospectives on his life and influence, and the appraisals of the incoming Benedict XVI, formerly Cardinal Ratzinger. She argues that coverage of the occasions themselves was usually very good, especially because experts were drawn in to comment, particularly on television. However, the assessments of the two men, especially in the print media, were frequently askew because journalists knew very little about the history and the authority structure of the Catholic Church, and equally little about current trends within Catholicism. While there was considerable attention to the pope’s role in undercutting Communism, something that journalists felt more at home covering, much of the portrayal remained fixed within a template of “authoritarian popes versus U.S. liberal Catholics.” The extensive criticism that John Paul II received from conservative Catholics was neglected, as was the fact that during his papacy there were in fact very few acts of Church discipline, especially as compared to, say, recent years in the U.S. Episcopal Church, and that the most important disciplinary actions were directed at conservatives. The features of the pope’s career most often noted by Catholics—his theology of the body, the new catechism, and the rapid rise of new ecclesiastical orders—were bypassed entirely.

Chapter Seven — “Jesus Christ, Superstar: The Passion of the Press
- Jeremy Lott

Lott takes a tour of the reporting on and critical coverage of Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ and finds almost no attempt to understand or portray the movie on its own terms. Reporters missed the fact that The Passion was not an effort at a literal portrayal of the gospels but was structured around a very specifically Catholic piety centered on the Stations of the Cross and the Eucharistic sensibility of Christ’s body and blood. Because they did not grasp these liturgical dimensions, the media instead focused on the controversies about the movie’s purported anti-Semitism, its bloodiness, and its supposed literalism. This led to many wrong predictions, including that this movie in Aramaic would bomb at the box office, that “Mad Mel” would lose his fortune, and that the film would ignite a wave of anti-Semitism. Journalists missed a major story—that millions of American evangelicals flocked to and warmly embraced a picture of very Roman Catholic sensibility.

Part Three — Getting it Right

Chapter Eight — Getting Religion in the Newsroom
- Terry Mattingly

Mattingly explores newsroom barriers to covering religion well, and much of the chapter draws on a series of interviews he conducted with journalists and editors generally believed to be doing a good job of connecting religion and journalism. He highlights the need for journalists to examine the religious language and labels that they use; the need for diversity of religious knowledge and awareness in newsrooms; the role of editors in offering better training and resources both to those identified as religion reporters and to others whose work veers into religious territory, and the need to strive to get inside the daily lives and mindset of the people covered.

Chapter Nine — Getting it Right
- Roberta Green Ahmanson

Like Terry Mattingly, Roberta Green Ahmanson also examines the newsroom but with a different focus. She outlines some of the conceptual obstacles that journalists face in covering religion, particularly a common modern assumption, shared by many journalists, that religions cannot be understood as forms of knowledge. She recommends that journalists first strive to understand what religion is, try to take seriously an individual’s faith or lack thereof, take history seriously, question their own assumptions and the assumptions of our time, and consciously seek to avoid “pack journalism.” Finally she points out that in reporting religious affairs, details matter a great deal.


- John J. DiJulio Jr.