Back in 2008, I was part of the editorial team that produced a book called "Blind Spot: When Journalists Don't Get Religion" for Oxford University Press. The whole idea was to look at a number of big national and international news stories and demonstrate that journalists could not do an accurate, informed, balanced job covering them without taking religion seriously.
I know. That wasn't a shocking thesis for a project linked to this website. What is shocking, nearly a decade later, is that most of the book's case studies remain amazingly relevant.
Hang in there with me on this. I'm providing background on the discussion that host Todd Wilken and I had during this week's "Crossroads" podcast (click here to tune that in). This was recorded soon after the declaration by Secretary of State John Kerry that, yes, the Islamic State was committing "genocide" in its slaughter of Christians, Yazidis, Shiite Muslims and other religious minority groups. This followed a 393-0 vote on a U.S. House of Representatives resolution on this topic.
As you would expect, mainstream news coverage focused on the politics that framed this issue. This story was all about Republicans trying to hurt Democrats in an election year, "conservative" religious groups trying to embarrass the White House, etc., etc.
Same old, same old. Politics is real, while religion is not all that important. For example, why not talk to the leaders -- here in America -- of churches that are directly linked to the flocks being massacred in Iraq and Syria? For Christians from the Middle East, there is more to this tragedy than election-year politics.
As I noted in a GetReligion post on this topic -- " 'Aides said' is the key: Why it was so hard to say ISIS is guilty of 'genocide' against Christians" -- the Kerry announcement received very low-key coverage, which is probably what the U.S. State Department wanted. The story then vanished from the mainstream press, while coverage in religious-market outlets continued.
This is, you see, a "conservative" news story that gets covered at places like Fox News. But why is that? Human rights used to be a liberal cause. Correct?
This brings me back to the "Blind Spot" book and its chapter by political scientist Allen Hertzke of the University of Oklahoma focusing on the broad coalition of religious groups -- left and right -- that in the 1990s became a driving force on human-rights issues around the world. Did the press notice this? Every now and then. Sort of.
Hertzke spoke at a conference linked to the "Blind Spot" book, held at the University of California, Berkeley -- a rather symbolic location for discussions of human rights. I wrote an "On Religion" column about his presentation. Ironically, that column is sadly relevant to the current genocide discussion. Here's two key chunks of that:
BERKELEY, Calif. -- The interfaith coalition that formed in the 1990s to lobby for religious liberty in China was so large and so diverse that even the New York Times noticed it.
One petition included two Catholic cardinals and a dozen bishops, Evangelical broadcasters, Eastern Orthodox bishops, Muslims, Tibetan Buddhists, Baha'is, Orthodox and liberal rabbis, Scientologists and Protestant clergy of a various and sundry races and traditions. One Times article noted that these were signatures that "rarely appear on the same page."
But there's the rub. This was already old news.
Many of these religious leaders had already been working for a year or more on what became the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998, landmark legislation that made religious freedom a "core objective" in all U.S. foreign policy, noted political scientist Allen Hertzke of the University of Oklahoma, speaking at a conference called "The Politics of Faith -- Religion in America."
This bill, he said, was the opening act in "broader, faith-based quest" to weave moral content into the fabric of American policies around the world, while liberating religious liberty from its status as the "forgotten stepchild of human rights."
President Bill Clinton signed the International Religious Freedom Act on Oct. 27, 1998, and in the decade that followed this same interfaith coalition backed the Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000, the Sudan Peace Act of 2002 and the North Korean Human Rights Act of 2004.
This coalition was "made up of groups that usually fought like cats and dogs on other issues, but would join together to work for religious freedom," said Hertzke. ...
These leaders would work on religious-liberty issues over morning coffee and bagels, before returning to their offices where they usually found themselves in total opposition to one another on abortion, gay rights, public education and a host of other church-state issues. Nevertheless, their coordinated labors on foreign-policy projects "produced trust and relationships that had never existed before," he said.
The question, of course, is whether that left-right coalition could be reunited today -- on any issue. Are American culture wars playing a destructive role in debates about the persecution of Christians, and other religious minorities, on the other side of the world?
As one human-rights activist told me in the late 1990s: The problem is that persecuted Christians around the world have the wrong political allies here in America.
This also affects the work of the mainstream press, of course. Back to Hertzke:
One reason this interfaith coalition never received much credit for its successes, he said, is that journalists usually focused on the efforts of conservative Christians to oppose the rising global tide of persecution of other Christians. This media preoccupation with the "Christian Right" often warped news coverage of broad, interfaith projects to protect the rights of all religious minorities.
In many cases, the results were inaccurate, biased and patronizing.
"Thus, abusive treatment of Christians abroad was labeled 'persecution' -- in quotation marks." Expressing similar grammatical doubts, a "grassroots group was described as gathering to pray for 'what it calls' Christian martyrs," noted Hertzke, in his chapter in "Blind Spot: When Journalists Don't Get Religion." ...
In one New York Times article, he noted, Christian activists seeking the release of prisoners were described as writing letters to countries "whose names they cannot pronounce." Another article described efforts to end the civil war in Sudan as a "pet cause of many religious conservatives."
This was a strange way to describe a movement that, at its best, combined the social-networking skills of evangelical megachurches with the pro-justice chutzpah of Jewish groups, the global reach of Catholic holy orders and the charisma of Buddhist activists in Hollywood.
"What we found out was that human rights are part of one package," said Hertzke. "If you pull out the pin of religious freedom, it's hard to support freedom of speech, freedom of association and other crucial human rights. ... Religious freedom is a rich and strategic human right."
So there is the big question: For elite journalists, and their anonymous sources in the State Department, is religious freedom -- in this case, the genocide of ancient religious communities in the Holy Land -- still seen as a "pet cause" for ignorant, naive "religious conservatives"?