Review: Religion and Media in America

Dan Wells

Dan Wells is Adjunct Instructor of Religion at Florida State University.

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Dan Wells, "Review: Religion and Media in America," Journal of Southern Religion (22) (2020):

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Anthony Hatcher. Religion and Media in America. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books. 296pp. 1-498514-448.

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On January 28, 2019 President Donald J. Trump summoned the rhetoric of white conservative evangelicals and their longstanding effort to “put the Bible back in schools.” Trump tweeted, “Numerous states introducing Bible Literacy classes, giving students the option of studying the Bible. Starting to make a turn back? Great!”  As with most of the President’s tweets, whether threatening a foreign leader or defending himself against the “constant negative press covfefe,” a digital storm of responses and subtweets ensued. Franklin Graham of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association confirmed his unwavering evangelical support of the President. Graham wrote, “Thank you Mr. President. The Bible is the best-selling, most widely read, most translated, most quoted, and most influential book ever written.” North Carolina activist Rev. Dr. William Barber responded, marking out the boundaries of a Christian ethic in opposition to Trump and his evangelical pandering. Barber wrote, “Before @realDonaldTrump celebrates #BiblicalLiteracy, he should read the more than 2000 Scriptures on how governments & politicians are called to treat the poor, immigrants, the sick, women & children. B/c his policies are not in line with the call of love & justice in the Bible.” As Trump ignited a digital debate on the role of Christianity in the public sphere, he provided yet another example of how and other media platforms have transformed public dialogue surrounding American politics and religion. In Religion and Media in America, Anthony Hatcher, Associate Professor of Communications at Elon University, attempts to analyze the mechanisms that make this dialogue a reality and investigates the various ways media facilitates Christianity’s relationship with American popular and civic culture.

Equating “religion” with “Christianity,” Hatcher argues that religion continually adapts to and is affected by new media forms in the United States. Organized in three sections, Hatcher provides six case studies that demonstrate the ways media facilitates Christianity’s participation in American culture.

While Hatcher achieves his goal, the volume leaves much to be desired. To begin with, the lack of distinction between religion and Christianity, even while acknowledged, reinforces a “Christian-centric” study of religion. Hatcher’s equation of Christianity with religion constructs “non-Christian” religious traditions through the lens of Christianity and erases their presence in the academic study of religion.

Beyond this broad critique, Hatcher’s introduction presents a part-theoretical, part-historiographical survey that wades into longstanding debates in the field. While a necessary foundation, the discussion distracts from the contribution of the text. Through a barrage of block quotes devoid of Hatcher’s voice and drawn from a limited historiographical and theoretical scope, the introduction offers definitions of “religion,” “evangelicalism,” “spirituality,” the “secular,” “nones,” and "others." Instead of thinking about Hatcher’s contribution to the study of Christianity and media, the reader might approach each chapter questioning Hatcher’s use of these terms or other problematic areas that Hatcher acknowledges but fails to situate in the context of his work and the broader, more recent scholarship. Hatcher provides no clear explanation of how he will use these terms. For example, his use of the “secular” varies throughout, particularly in the final section “Sacred and Profane Media,” without proper acknowledgment. He switches back and forth between a definition that understands the secular as the “absence of religion” and other interpretations that understand the secular as the commodification of religion. In the context of Christianity’s use of media, Hatcher fails to recognize how his subjects produce and police the category “religion,” the “secular,” and its neighboring concepts in order to render, manage, and silence various populations, especially people of color. Hatcher’s use of the term “evangelicalism,” most notably in the context of the American South, is also problematic. He defines evangelicalism through the classic “Bebbington quadrilateral,” offering a privileged role to belief. Though Hatcher recognizes the problems of defining evangelicalism, the volume settles for a definition espoused by Frances FitzGerald’s 2017 The Evangelicals, which understands the history of evangelicalism as an attempt to guard doctrine and shape American culture. This formulation ignores the racialized dynamics of evangelicalism and reinforces the interests of white conservative evangelicals.

In Chapter 2, “Moral Mondays in the South,” Hatcher argues that Rev. Dr. William Barber is the heir to Martin Luther King, Jr.’s brand of Christian civil disobedience. But Hatcher analyzes Barber’s Moral Mondays and progressive evangelicalism through the lens of conservative white evangelicals, giving Barber a voice only in reaction to white evangelicalism. Less than two pages address the black social gospel and liberation theology that inform Barber and his efforts to champion Christian social justice. Meanwhile, Hatcher richly details white evangelical’s history of political involvement and use of popular media. Finally, Hatcher’s chapter on Moral Mondays in the South ignores critical inquiry of the religio-racial dynamics of the American South. Without acknowledgement of the co-constitutive nature of religion and race in the South, one cannot properly understand why MLK and Rev. Barber emerged in their specific contexts, or why white evangelicals might champion the Bible in public schools and seek to silence programs of racial reconciliation. Throughout the volume, the role of race is largely ignored, especially in the context of the American South.

These quibbles aside, Hatcher does a fine job at providing six case studies that convincingly demonstrate the intimate relationship between Christianity and media. Most importantly, Hatcher offers a glimpse into the ever-changing mechanisms that make possible the conditions for a nation to debate #BiblicalLiteracy with the President of the United States on a social media platform.