Some religious denigration is better than others

Back when the Obama administration was still claiming that they believed the assassination of the United States ambassador to Libya was in response to a YouTube video, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said:

"The United States deplores any intentional effort to denigrate the religious beliefs of others. Our commitment to religious tolerance goes back to the very beginning of our nation. But let me be clear: There is never any justification for violent acts of this kind."

In President Obama's statement on Stevens' murder, he used this line:

"While the United States rejects efforts to denigrate the religious beliefs of others, we must all unequivocally oppose the kind of senseless violence that took the lives of these public servants."

The media seemed oddly incurious about the idea that our leaders were saying that the U.S. rejects efforts to denigrate religious beliefs (and they were only mildly more interested in this claim back during the early days of Terry Jones' media stunts or when similar statements were made during the previous administration). Media outlets more or less printed the claims and didn't even realize that many Americans believe that the First Amendment means the government has no business rejecting efforts to denigrate the religious beliefs of others. Even more, they believe the First Amendment protects Americans' right to do just that. Free country and all that. You can stand on the corner and distribute your poorly written anti-Calvinist tracts all you want.

What was particularly odd about the coverage was that, for instance, the Associated Press previously reported that Clinton had been in a crowd that had given a standing ovation to the "Book of Mormon" play. The same play that won a Tony for Best Musical, I believe. Do we reject efforts to denigrate the religious beliefs of others! Or do we give these efforts standing ovations and awards? I'm so confused! (And I'm not even going to get into any of the other religious liberty battles being fought against government entities.)

All this to say that I was intrigued by media coverage of just the latest effort to denigrate the religious beliefs of others. Here's how the Inquisitr covered it:

In the clip for American Horror Story: Asylum, Jessica Lange appears as a sinister nun at particularly dark and dreary mental institution during the 60s. “Here you will repent for your sins to the only judge that matters,” she says while leaning over a patient strapped to hospital bed. If the embedded promo is any indication of things to come, then this season looks to increase the sex and violence by several intense notches...

If you want to see more of Jessica Lange as a sadistic nun at a very creepy mental institution, be sure to tune into the American Horror Story: Asylum premiere on October 17.

Entertainment Weekly is so excited about the premier that it ran on the cover of the magazine.

But I haven't seen any questioning of the anti-Catholic bigotry in this TV show in the mainstream media. Just in this piece in America magazine by James Martin, S.J. He goes through his enjoyment of EW prior to reading its article on the show and adds:

Anti-Catholicism (especially in grotesque portraits of sisters and nuns) has a long history, is alive and well, but is often overstated by some sensitive Catholics.  And of course it's quite subjective.  One person's good-natured ribbing is another person's offensive stereotype.  But it’s always a good thought experiment to imagine the lines about, say, Lange's sadism rendered with another religious or ethnic group.  Instead of nuns, substitute “rabbis” or “imams,” or “Muslims” or “Jews,” or “African-Americans” or “gay men,” in that sentence.  So reread those lines about the spanking with those groups in mind.  Go ahead.  I’ll wait.

How does that sound?  Do you think it would make it past many network execs or the editors at EW?  Well, maybe, but should it?

Of course Hollywood is an equal opportunity offender.  A new movie called “The Good Doctor,” opened this weekend, starring Orlando Bloom as a wicked physician who poisons his patients.  (Bad Legolas.)  So Catholic sisters aren’t the only vocations to have their reputations besmirched.  It's as fair for filmmakers and TV producers to feature the occasional mean priest, bad bishop, and silly sister as it is to feature crooked cops, devious lawyers and messed-up parents.  And Hollywood even turns on its own: check out the brilliant "Episodes" starring Matt LeBlanc as an addled, well, Matt LeBlanc.

But that a sadistic, slutty, screwed-up Catholic sister is the centerpiece of a show's entire season on a mainstream network is depressingly retrograde, especially when real sisters are trying hard to be seen as women worthy of dignity and respect.  It’s a lazy trope and an offensive one, too.  And I’m always amazed that editors and writers and producers and screenwriters and photographers don’t see that.

Father Martin's piece is all an interesting critique I'm more interested in the media's curious decisions to avoid talking about the fact that we denigrate religious beliefs -- sometimes in incredibly high-profile ways -- all the time in this country. There's been a general problem with the media coverage of what happened in Benghazi, Libya, but most of that is political or relates to approaching that story politically. But there are, of course, some overlap issues with religion news.

I think the only mainstream outlet article I saw that even critiqued the administration's line on free speech in recent weeks came from the New York Times, and while it was certainly good, it didn't get into the religion angle.

Protecting the rights of atheists, skeptics, and believers to criticize and denigrate the religious beliefs of others is a huge issue in this country. While we've seen some hypocrisy in how denigration of religious beliefs has been covered, have you seen any good articles exploring this vital First Amendment issue? If so, please pass them along.

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