Race in the News Coverage of Religion

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...a chapter written for The Oxford Handbook of Religion & News

Narratives of race and religion have been intertwined in headlines and the ideals of “a chosen people” and “a chosen nation.” These ideals, of various social groups and countries believing themselves to be selected uniquely by God to prosper, proselytize and lead, generate important questions for news media. Some of these questions are philosophical: How is religion practiced along racial and ethnic lines? Is religion used to justify racism and/or racial privilege? Does religion inherently resist racism? Others are practical: Is it the case that the more devout the religious practitioner, the more extreme the racial pride and/or racism?

Perhaps no news scandal in recent memory reflects the nature of these emergent trends more concretely than the 2008 controversy over Rev. Jeremiah Wright’s sermon “Confusing God and Government,” dubbed by YouTube “God Damn America.” Prior to the controversy Wright developed a reputation for mixing traditional Christian messages with denunciations of the United States as a whole and white people specifically. In a public response entitled “A More Perfect Union,” then-Senator Barack Obama aimed to quell the controversy sparked by YouTube clips of Wright condemning values and actions of the United States government.

Though much has been written to extol and critique Obama’s “race speech,” far less attention has been paid to the racialized religious rhetoric of Wright and the ways in which it was reported and publicized. Arguing that American religious and racial histories are intertwined, I will explore Wright’s message as one example of reporting the reality of racialized religion in the United States that can sometimes make visible the gaps between our ideals and the “realities of our time.” With that frame in place I will discuss the Wright-Obama controversy as an ironic synecdoche—or a part taken for the whole that troubles its own representation.

On a micro level, reporting of the controversy takes one part of the sermon and uses it to represent the totality of Wright’s message. On a meso level, news reporting made Wright a symbol of the black church writ large. This representation flattened out differences within black church life and at the same time raised anxiety levels among many racial groups about all involved. On a macro level, the controversy itself represents one part of a troubled narrative concerned with absolving national sins by overcoming racism. Sadly, this narrative is often foreclosed within the largely racially segregated realities of religious practice and its representation in news media. I will conclude with a brief discussion of how the relationship between race, theology and age are impacting the form and content of American religious life and the way in which it is reported in a “post-racial” and “post-religious” moment.

“Religion and Race,” in Oxford Handbook of Religion and News, ed. Diane Winston (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012).