Struggle for acceptance: Media visibility and minority religion
By Stephanie Whiteside / current.com/ @stephgwhiteside
When it comes to religious diversity in the United States, the most common gathering includes a few Christian perspectives, a Jewish viewpoint and an Islamic voice. Yet the religious landscape of America includes many other voices, which often remain invisible to the general public. For adherents of minority faiths, the lack of information can raise roadblocks to acceptance and misinformation can fuel misunderstanding.
Religion reporting has declined in the U.S. in recent years. A 2011 Pew Study found that news stories about religion accounted for 0.7 percent of mainstream media coverage in 2011, down from 2 percent in 2010. Islam was the primary focus, and the majority of news stories about religion were tied to specific events, including the so-called radical Islam hearings in Congress and stories about anti-Muslim sentiment in the U.S.
The general theme of beliefs and practices received a nearly equal amount of coverage, as religious extremism.
Ann Neumann, editor of The Revealer, a publication of the Center for Religion and Media at New York University, doesn't believe the focus on extreme voices is a new trend.
"We see a lot of focus because of these extremes," she said. "It catches attention, it gets ratings and eyeballs."
Neumann also notes that a level of subtlety is required when reporting on faith, drawing a distinction between the positions of institutional bodies and the actual beliefs and practices of individuals of faith.
"Doctrine and theology can be, and often is, very far from lived religion," she said.
Yet minority faiths find that the rare times when they are mentioned in the media come as a result of extremism or tragic events.
Sunday's Sikh temple shooting in Wisconsin is one example of a religious minority that is little known and rarely discussed outside of tragic incidents. Post-9/11, the Sikh community experienced an increase in targeted abuse because Sikhs happened to fit the stereotype targeted by extremists.
"Journalistic coverage of minority faiths has huge impacts on how we are perceived and accepted by the mainstream," said Jason Pitzl-Waters, author of pagan news blog The Wild Hunt at Patheos and co-founder of the Pagan Newswire Collective. "Every minority religion has gone through this crucible of being demonized in the media or willfully misunderstood, and having to create their own media and become proactive before they're able to shift discussions."
For some faiths, the primary exposure comes not just from lack of information, but from misinformation and Hollywood sensationalism. Voodoo and Santeria are two faiths that are particularly linked to sensationalist news stories, even when there is no concrete evidence that events are linked to those groups.
"Let's say there's a killing in a town that may or may not have ritualistic elements to it. One police officer, who might be at the lower end of the chain, says to a reporter in an offhand manner that it may be a ritual killing," said Yeshe Rabbit Matthews, presiding high priestess and founder of Come As You Are Coven, an eclectic pagan group. "It gets reported and then multiple reporters start citing that story without critical analysis and checking facts. Even if months later, the FBI sends in an expert and says, this was not a ritualistic killing, it was staged to steer them in the wrong direction, no one ever corrects that. Months, even years later, they're referred to, erroneously, after the fact."
Matt Deos, also known as Bozanfè Bon Oungon, is a practitioner of Haitian Voodoo. He has been involved for seven years and has been an initiate with the Sosyete Nago, a Voodoo house in Boston, for three-and-a-half years. He points to sensationalist reports like the "Voodoo sex fire" story in New York as examples of how Voodoo is frequently portrayed in the media and says that he often runs into people who are seeking Hollywood versions of the religion rather than the real thing. He also attributes some of the tension to a discomfort with the demographic makeup of the religion.
"Our religion tends to also have a disconnect with where the Hollywood folks want to come in," he said. "It tends to be a largely white crowd, and when you're dealing with a religion that's largely a religion of black people, it's a problem with the American psyche. They don't want to talk to the real practitioners because they have a problem with who those practitioners are."
Practices like animal sacrifice are also played up by the media for tantalizing headlines. Voodoo and related faiths, like Santeria and Hoodoo, are called into question when a dead animal is found or a seemingly ritualistic crime is committed. Yet, Deos notes, the use of animals in Voodoo is very rare, and when it does occur, it is in the context of a ritual of thanksgiving, and the animal is cooked and consumed by the community as a meal.
Outside of extraordinary events and misconceptions, many faiths receive little to no attention in the media. Interfaith reports and gatherings often consist of several Christian denominations, a Jewish perspective and an Islamic point of view; smaller faiths are rarely included.
"To basically be shown by the media again and again that there are very few actual flavors of spiritual or religious experience ultimately makes those of us who are in some kind of alternative practice invisible," Matthews said. "I find there to be a great danger in rendering these perspectives invisible."
The lack of visibility of minority faiths can create obstacles for individuals and groups seeking to practice their faith or take advantage of protections offered to religious organizations.
"If you have a structure, a cultural and religious structure where the idea of religion is a fixed idea — and within America it's very much been fixed on the idea of Judeo-Christian monotheism and has been since the Second World War — anything that falls outside of that is immediately suspect in legal or social frameworks," Pitzl-Waters said. "Even though under the Constitution we're all given the same rights, it doesn't happen because people can't process our faith as valid because it doesn't line up."
Pitzl-Waters cites cases where legal protections or advantages have been denied to pagan individuals or groups. Pagan veterans and their families, for example, fought a 10-year battle to get the Wiccan pentacle inscribed on tombstones of pagan veterans. The military recognizes seven pagan faiths, including Wicca, which soldiers are allowed to list as their official religious affiliation. But the Veterans Administration resisted allowing the pentacle because it interpreted former President George W. Bush's opinion that witchcraft is not a religion as evidence the pentacle should not be included as a religious symbol.
He also points to a recent court decision where the town of Catskill, N.Y., denied tax-exempt status to the Matreum of Cybele, Magna Mater, a goddess-centered pagan group, on the basis that its use of the building did not meet the standards of religious use, despite the probability that a Christian group using the building for the same purpose would not have to face the same legal battle.
"I have to begin from a place of destabilizing their suspicions about me," Matthews said of her experiences as a public leader of a pagan group. "Someone who was in a mainstream religion might not have that same problem, and because they're in a mainstream religion, goodwill on their part is assumed."
The imbalance also makes it difficult to address the influence the three major Abrahamic faiths have on American culture.
"It is an unfortunate denial of existing power structures," Neumann said. "We don't really live in a secular culture. Our ideas, for better or worse, come from a Christian background. We may call it secular, but that prevents us from acknowledging the very Christian ideas we are surrounded by."
It is possible for some groups to break through the barriers and become accepted into the mainstream. Mormonism, once viewed as a cult by much of the mainstream, has leaped in acceptance partially due to the power base and financial success the faith has achieved, Pitzl-Waters said.
The visibility of Mormons in politics, like GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney, has also helped. Pitzl-Waters sees potential for other faiths to gain recognition in similar ways, pointing to New York congressional candidate Dan Halloran, an openly Heathen Republican who could become the first pagan member of Congress.
"Success is one of those things that eventually wins everybody over," Pitzl-Waters said. "The more successful your religion is, the more people are forced to accept that you're there."
The lack of information on minority faiths leaves practitioners struggling to find acceptance in mainstream culture and creates stumbling blocks for groups whose faiths don't fit the Judeo-Christian, monotheistic mold.
"All these voices of various spiritualities have their places in the great parade of belief systems, philosophies and human experiences that shape our contemporary culture," Matthews said. "When we're only given very few choices, we stop looking for the other choices and allow ourselves to be pigeonholed or rendered invisible to the large scope of human discourse."