Teletubbies and ... Islam?

Tali_TubbyWhy, oh why, must all religion stories be told through the prism of politics? It really gets tiring. For instance, there was this Washington Post piece last Sunday about how Pat Robertson had said something intemperate (I know! Stop the presses!) about Islam that reflected poorly on Virginia Governor-elect Bob McDonnell. Robertson hadn't made the comments with McDonnell or at a McDonnell event or in McDonnell campaign literature or anything like that. But he was a big donor to McDonnell's campaign and McDonnell attended a graduate school affiliated with Robertson and so the Post argued that he might have to respond to the remarks.

The story was published in another context, which is that the Post worked hard during the campaign to tarnish McDonnell, a Republican, as a particularly bad social conservative. Unfortunately for them, he won in an 18-point landslide over his Democratic opponent. But if the Post is going to start paying attention to the controversial affiliations of politicians, it's a good thing for everyone.

Okay, so CNN now picks up the story and we get this update, headlined "McDonnell won't disavow Robertson's Islam remarks":

Virginia Gov.-elect Bob McDonnell on Wednesday would not disavow Christian broadcaster Pat Robertson's recent claim that Islam is not a religion, but "a violent political system."

So McDonnell agrees with Robertson? Or, at the very least, doesn't disagree with him that Islam is not a religion but a violent political system? Well, not exactly. Here are the final two paragraphs of the story:

When asked if he believes Islam is "a violent political system," McDonnell said no, but he did not condemn Robertson.

"I think that there are people in various religions that do some violent things and they should be judged according to their acts," he explained. "But I have believed that there are people of all the great religions, that can be enormously helpful in our multicultural Virginia to help them to benefit us in the state."

To disavow means to claim no knowledge of, no connection to or no responsibility for something. Or it can mean to disown something or someone. Precisely no one attributed the remark to McDonnell or said he had responsibility for it or that he owned Robertson. To disavow can also mean to repudiate. When asked about his view of Robertson's remarks, McDonnell did repudiate them as untrue.

So I think that what the author of the story is going for is in that next to last paragraph: McDonnell didn't condemn Robertson. Which is true. But the headline and lede to this story are sensational rather than informative.

It might also be worthwhile, I suppose, to look into Robertson's comments in context. He really does say some unbelievably stupid and offensive things (to my ears, at least), but he's also frequently taken out of context. I liken it to the 1999 Falwell Teletubby issue. Remember how Jerry Falwell was roundly condemned for supposedly saying that Tinky Winky was gay? He never said it, although a journal published by his ministry did contain an article alleging that the character had become a gay role model. But for the previous two years, the same claim had been made everywhere from CNN to the Washington Post to the Village Voice. But rather than have a discussion about how some members of the gay community had embraced Tinky Winky as a role model, or, I suppose, to point out that Falwell's group had gotten the idea from the media, instead everyone mocked Falwell.

Likewise, rather than have a real discussion about Robertson's views of Islam or its violence, instead the media use his remarks as a cudgel to attack McDonnell.

Now, Robertson's comments about Islam not being a religion are offensive and untrue. And I think it's somewhat ironic that Robertson, of all people, might accuse a religion of being a political system without considering how much his own doctrinal approach emphasizes politics. But there is a real discussion to be had about the violence associated with some groups and movements within Islam and the political systems that arise in Muslim-dominated countries and how these things compare with Christianity and Christian-dominated countries.

That conversation is not being had in the mainstream media. In fact, it almost seems to be suppressed. Of course, it does take some courage to have these discussions and you can't do it as well when you're playing gotcha with politicians.

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