In this post from a few weeks back, I registered some thoughts about the current media interest in taking religion seriously. That post was about the rather low probability that media attention to a candidate’s references to religion, or about how a religious tradition has shaped the candidate’s political judgment, will enhance the voting public’s understanding of the candidate and his or her views. Much more probable, I claimed, was that religion would be used strategically by the journalist or media member in a clownish fashion simply to reaffirm and harden the author’s pre-existing political views and opinions, or those of her audience.
I noted that one often hears two kinds of response to this claim, which I called Response One and Response Two. Response One is to blame the candidate — the door was opened by the candidate, and the media and the rest of us went through. In the rough and tumble of politics, religion can be either the candidate’s rhetorical armor or the sharp stick with which he can be gleefully gored by his opponents. Response Two had to do with good faith and searching engagement with the candidate’s religious views to understand his political outlook. Response One, I argued, far better represented the profound shallowness of our current political culture (with honorable exceptions, to be sure).
I know that citations to Maureen Dowd’s work are generally met with dyspepsia, but she does write for the leading newspaper in the nation, and this column about Mitt Romney and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints seems to me to be an exemplar of Response One engagement with religion. Note, first, the opening-the-door move at the end of the piece — that the candidate is fair game for the media hunter loaded for bear: “Republicans are the ones who made faith part of the presidential test. Now we’ll see if Mitt can pass it.” And the entire point of the column is to ridicule, to laugh, to dismiss, to giggle, to smear, and to lampoon — all in the service of scoring cheap and shallow political points. What else? That’s simply the nature of the game.
The surprising thing is not, of course, that Dowd would write a column like this. Nor is it that Response One discourse is far and away the dominant form of public engagement with religion — in the nation’s leading newspaper perhaps even more than anywhere else. The surprising thing is that we academics would ever think otherwise, that we would imagine that because Response Two sometimes (though not always) can be found in the academy, that it must also have traction in today’s political climate. The surprise is that we would delude ourselves that Response Two might someday supplant Response One, or at least that we might eventually get more of Response Two engagement if we let loose the Response One dogs. What we will get is what we largely always get from political speech-making and the media’s political reaction to it, whether religion gets sprinkled in or not: low-grade chatter. — MOD