The rhetoric of war has become somewhat commonplace in the contemporary American political sphere, used by pundits and journalists to describe everything from the ongoing physical conflict abroad in Afghanistan to contestations over domestic ideology manifested via the War on Christmas. War, it seems, has become the de facto term used to label conflict on a national scale and the casual use of the phrase is rather indicative of the heightened political rhetoric of our time. Noting the prevalence of this existing sentiment, it makes a certain amount of sense that a phrase introduced via Tanya Melich’s The Republican War against Women in 1998 would be resurrected during the 2010 campaign season and popularized during the elections of 2012. Primarily used to describe the deluge of legislation related to women’s healthcare on both national and state levels—for example, restricting or eliminating funding for Planned Parenthood, the institution of “right-to-know” laws and waiting periods for abortions, accessible birth control, and transvaginal ultrasounds—“the war on women” was coined in order to signal a new round in the ongoing efforts of socially conservative politicians to institute control over women’s bodies.
It is against this backdrop that Ann Romney took to the stage during the 2012 Republican National Convention to announce, “I love you women!” Regardless of Romney’s personal feelings on the subject, her declarative statement served as a recuperative effort to address the Democratic Party’s accusations that Republicans were engaged in an assault on women. Described as a “myth” by conservative sources (Merkel, 2012), or alternatively addressed by a tu quoque argument about conditions facing women elsewhere (Van Susteren, 2012), the Republican assertion that the party was women friendly stood in contrast to the very real ways in which Republicans, as a generalized political bloc, had systematically attempted to curb the rights of women in the 20th and 21st centuries. Although novel in their wording, the movements encapsulated by “the war on women” are not radical in their position; best understood in a context of Republican legislation reaching back to the 1970s, the war on women can be seen as an on-going battle. Without diminishing the important potential implications of current bills like House Bill 290 in Ohio, which would deprioritize Planned Parenthood clinics for funding in a manner that effectively eliminates federal support, these acts must be located within a broader socio-historical context in order to gain a fuller understanding of the situation at hand.
In order to help situate the aforementioned war on women, this article will attempt to look at the intersection of conservative politics and religion as they pertain to the discipline and surveillance of the female body. Although an initial correlation can be readily made between these two categories, the relationship is not one of simple causation; rather, it will be argued that a deeper ideology about the body that springs from Protestantism has coevolved with American concerns about the body in order to inform the current legislation that comprises the war on women. Through explorations of issues surrounding recent mentions of rape and abortion, this article hopes to illustrate how ambivalence over the body that arises from a Protestant tradition results in conflicting views over the regulation and management women’s bodies and how the resurgence of the Evangelical movement in America has helped to transmit these ideas to a new generation of Christian youth through the creation of a lifestyle that successfully integrates politics and religion into everyday practices. One important limitation to note in this endeavor, however, is the way in which discussion of groups like women, evangelicals, and politics demonstrates a sensibility that is decidedly white and middle class. Although there are undoubtedly ways in which segments of the populations mentioned in this article reflect an experience that deviates from what is described, these minority positions derive their identities from their oppositional stance to the white male ideology that dominates evangelical Christian culture and, thus, the exploration of this phenomenon through such a lens remains valid if admittedly incomplete in its scope. Additionally, a longer paper would benefit from analysis of different forms of feminism, paying particular attention to the way in which modern American bodies are defined in part through practices of consumption on literal and metaphoric levels. Ultimately, the article aims to argue for feminists to situate events like “the war on women” in a broader socio-historical context that recognizes the importance of deeply-rooted and seemingly unrelated beliefs.
The Rape Thing
The months leading up to the 2012 election seemed to be rife with socially conservative politicians on all levels of government voicing a series of positions on rape that became highly publicized: Linda McMahon’s mention of “emergency rape” (Vigdor, 2012), Ron Paul’s use of “honest rape” (Benen, 2012) and John Koster’s employment of the phrase “the rape thing” (Kaminsky, 2012) all helped to illustrate the various ways in which the issue of rape is understood and deployed in American culture at the present moment. Perhaps the most memorable story from this series of events, however, was Representative Todd Akin’s invocation of the now infamous term “legitimate rape” during a televised interview (Moore, 2012). Although Akin would later claim that he used the word “legitimate” in order to distinguish between true and false reports of rape, the context of the phrase made such a reading rather unlikely. To quote Akin from his appearance on The Jaco Report, “It seems to be, first of all, from what I understand from doctors, it’s really rare. If it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut the whole thing down” (2012).
In response to the outrage that followed his comments, Akin claimed that he “misspoke” in a move that essentially deflected attention away from the ideology underlying the original statement. Suggesting that Akin’s position was not merely a poor choice of words, Orange County Superior Court Judge Derek G. Johnson reportedly made the following statement during the sentencing of a convicted rapist in 2008: “If someone doesn’t want to have sexual intercourse, the body shuts down. The body will not permit that to happen unless a lot of damage in inflicted.” (Goffard & Marble, 2012; Moxley, 2008). Although Johnson did not use the term “legitimate rape,” the choice of language here is eerily similar to that of Akin, replete with the notion that the (female) body somehow “shuts down” in order to prevent unwanted and/or unsanctioned sexual intercourse.
Although the comments of Representative Todd Akin and Judge Derek G. Johnson suggest a way in which science has been commandeered to support inaccurate medical positions, they also raise an important point regarding the way in which rape is popularly conceptualized: rape is something that only happens to women and is perpetuated by men. Before castigating Akin and his conservative colleagues, however, we should consider the way in which this view of rape is enshrined within the American legal system as a whole: according to the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reporting program, “forcible rape” has been defined as “carnal knowledge of a female [emphasis added] forcibly and against her will” since 1927 and was only revised in 2012 to read as “the penetration, no matter how slight, of the vagina or anus with any body part or object, or oral penetration by a sex organ of another person, without the consent of the victim” (Federal Bureau of Investigation, 2011; Federal Bureau of Investigation, 2012). Here, the modifier “forcible” is employed in order to differentiate this particular type of rape from statutory rape, which is, by definition, excluded from this particular category.
Consistent with this differentiation and demonstrating that a firm definition of rape is not just a problem ascribed to socially conservative individuals, Whoopi Goldberg’s asserted on the television talk show The View that director Roman Polanski was guilty of statutory rape, but not “rape rape” (Kennedy, 2009). On some level, viewers of may have understood that Goldberg was trying to differentiate between degrees or types of acts based on use of force or violence but the statement revealed an underlying assumption that a form of “true” rape exists; to put it another way, Goldberg’s phrasing suggests that although “legitimate rape” may not exist, particular categories of rape are indeed legitimized.
Indeed, the issue of rape has only become more confused in recent years with terms like “gray rape” appearing in Cosmoplitan to describe, as the author puts it, “A New Form of Date Rape” (Stepp, 2007). In her article, Stepp points to the apparent gray zone that exists when consent is unclear and effectively introduces a measure of doubt designed to attack the popular understanding of what constitutes rape. Here, it should be noted, Stepp’s words reflect an established position regarding consent given by women that is rendered ambiguous by intoxication and enacted as part of a hookup culture. Encapsulated by individuals like Katie Roiphe (1994)—who suggested in The Morning After: Fear, Sex, and Feminism, “If a woman’s ‘judgment is impaired’ and she has sex, it isn’t necessarily the man’s fault; it isn’t necessarily always rape”—is a stance that remains entrenched in a moralizing and apologist discourse. Yet, aside from reaffirming the notion that rape is something happens solely to women by men, perhaps the most damaging aspect of this article is the way in which Stepp comingles the language of empowerment for women with restrictive gender roles in a manner that garners approval as it avoids blaming the victim even while proffers a solution reminiscent of the arguments that stemmed from the backlash to Second Wave Feminism.
In her article, Stepp tells the story of Alicia who is hesitant to describe her post-hookup experience as rape because Alicia considers herself to be a strong woman and sexually independent (2007). Here, the insistence on understanding the categories of “strong woman” and “rape victim” as mutually exclusive is particularly problematic for individuals as it not only prevents the reporting of a crime but also reinforces a good-bad binary: under this false construction, to declare oneself as a victim of rape is to necessarily disempower oneself. The solution that Stepp provides to this dilemma is decidedly anti-feminist as she states that “A generation ago, it was easier for men and women to understand what constituted rape because the social rules were clearer. Men were supposed to be the ones coming on to women, and women were said to be looking for relationships, not casual sex” (2007). The emphasis on the good-bad girl dichotomy is clear, with a desire for casual sex (as stand-in for poor judgment in general) being associated with negative consequences. Undoubtedly influenced by social conservatism and postfeminism, we see here that Stepp’s clever choice of words asks readers, who are ostensibly women, to align with the perspective of Alicia as independent and sexually powerful person while attributing the root cause of gray rape to the ambiguity that stems from modern gender roles; the paradoxical problem, then, is women as a whole but not women as individuals.
On one level, this debate over rape would appear to be about the issue of consent: what is it, whether it is revocable, and who can give it. While further exploration of this concept is certainly warranted, we can draw upon work by feminists like Catharine MacKinnon and Andrea Dworkin to consider the larger framework in which sexuality and choice are framed. What this discussion ultimately points to is the way in which rape has yet to be singularly defined in American legal and social spheres and this, in turn, stems from varying views on who should be in control of a woman’s body. In contrast, consider that domestic violence, an issue that has historically predominantly affected women, has become utterly abhorrent due in part to the 1994 campaign, “There’s no excuse for domestic violence.” Although the campaign is subject to criticism for its overrepresentation of white middle-class women, the series of public service announcements ardently worked to establish a common definition for what constituted domestic violence (The Ad Council, 2003). Stepp’s elaboration on her article in a panel discussion at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice on the topic of gray rape reinforced apparent themes of vagueness and confusion while opponents responded with the finality of “rape is rape” (Chan, 2007). The note of uncertainty in Stepp’s position and the corresponding desire to find reassurance in retreat is important to note, however, as it speaks to the way that, in a world of ambiguity, the female body is the thing that we return to as that which we can control.
The Cult(ure) of Life
In order to more fully understand the themes of retreat and uncertainty, it is helpful to remember the context in which the discussion of rape was placed during the 2012 election season: in most cases, discussion of rape was nested within a larger ongoing discussion about the Republicans’ positions on abortion, a political issue that becomes almost inseparable from religious beliefs in contemporary debates. Abortion, very much a Catholic concern in 1973 when the Supreme Court decided Roe v. Wade, became an Evangelical issue partially through the work of Francis Schaeffer, who produced a book and film both entitled Whatever Happened to the Human Race? On some level, the idea that religion influences abortion policy seems rather obvious with suppositions made about the pro-life leanings of conservative Christians and indeed, as a rule of thumb, such assumptions may not be incorrect. However, a deeper examination helps to illuminate how elements of Christianity, in addressing questions of ambiguity and uncertainty, support the particular policies that are currently manifesting. In this, it is particularly instructive to situate the current political and religious climate within a larger history of American religious activities.
Awakenings, movements born during times of upheaval and uncertainty, characteristically began with an appeal to traditional values as large numbers of people converted to, or reaffirmed their faith in, Christianity. Although a detailed discussion of America’s Great Awakenings is beyond the scope of this paper, consider that the First Great Awakening occurred roughly between 1730 and 1760 while the Second appeared between approximately 1800 and 1830; both of these movements foreshadowed the most pivotal domestic wars in the history of the United States and were indicative of periods of civil unrest that precipitated conflict on a massive scale. A Third Great Awakening then came at the start of the 20th century as concerns over modernity and industrialization once again introduced ambivalence about the future and man’s place in the world. Understanding that the notion of uncertainty is vital to the appearance of Great Awakenings and we might consider how current developments in science and technology have once again worked to decenter mankind’s position as the center of the universe, causing us to engage in an ongoing renegotiation of our senses of self. In this context, the intellectual retreatism that manifests around issues like climate change and the body makes a certain amount of sense; whether or not we are ready to label the current project as the Fourth Great Awakening, it is difficult to deny that the framework of the Awakening provides a possible lens through which we can attempt to understand the phenomena that we have witnessed in recent history with the late 20th and early 21st centuries playing host to a number of interrelated issues that range from abortion to stem cell research and artificial life support that are united through their exaltation of life.
Popularized by Pope John Paul II in the late 20th century, the “culture of life” was rapidly adopted by American evangelicals in order to connect a set of theological beliefs about life to public policy (1995). The culture of life assumes, in a manner reminiscent of the Great Chain of Being, that life is fundamentally different from inert matter and furthermore that human life is substantially different from all other forms of life. For those who ascribe to this particular philosophy, there is a particular way in which life evidences a measure of agency and self-direction with human life (as opposed to animal life) being distinguished by a unique animating principle. Although this specific view on life descends from a vitalist tradition that may or may not have considered the unique spark to be the soul, the “culture of life” as a product of Catholic theology unapologetically described this essential life essence in terminology that references the soul. Consequentially, the culture of life positions this human exceptionalism as a direct result of divine will, meaning that God has implanted a soul within each individual body. Given that this differentiation between forms of being is what structures the universe, challenges that threaten to upend this order take on increased significance; the fight for any one individual life, then, is a fight to preserve the sanctity of all life.
Exemplifying the attitude of the culture of life in this matter was the case of Terri Schiavo, who was at the center of a protracted legal battle over the ability of Schiavo’s husband, Michael, to remove Schiavo’s feeding tube and thus end her life. Schaivo’s case was notable in that garnered national attention and resulted in the passing of health legislation—the Palm Sunday Compromise—designed solely to benefit a single person. The president at the time, George W. Bush, rushed back to Washington D.C. from a vacation in Texas in order to sign a bill designed to move Schiavo’s case from state to federal court and issued this statement of support: “It should be our goal as a nation to build a culture of life, where all Americans are valued, welcomed, and protected—and that culture of life must extend to individuals with disabilities” (2005). A few months later, President Bush would go on to declare his opposition to embryonic stem cell research while simultaneously supporting an ongoing war in Iraq that is estimated to have killed between tens of thousands and hundreds of thousands of Iraquis (Iraq Body Count, 2012). The culture of life, then, would appear to have an inherent ambivalence about the concept of life, or, at the very least, lives that are of value.
Returning to the larger framework from which the culture of life derives, however, we see that any notion of ambiguity is addressed through the hierarchal structure of life that orders the universe. The underlying structure of a hierarchy—along with the presumption that white American males sit at the top of the heap—legitimates policy that works to support systemic social inequality and would otherwise appear unjust. This drive to fight for life at the expense of lesser forms slides readily into a justification for the domination of everything else under the guise of protection; a worldview informed by the hierarchal nature inherent in the culture of life is reflected in policy that covers everything from universal health care to advanced interrogation techniques and the environment.
The Issue of Women and Their Bodies
One group, in particular, that the culture of life’s hierarchical structure often works to subjugate is women and, in this, the issue of abortion presents a fruitful subject of inquiry as it resides at the nexus of issues regarding theology, politics, gender, and the body. Bodies in general, and women’s bodies in particular, have traditionally represented an additional source of ambivalence and anxiety for socially conservative Christians. In fact, the concept of the body was used throughout early Christianity to reinforce the hierarchy established by constructs like the Great Chain of Being. Church doctrine formalized a gendered hierarchy that designated the man of the house as the “head” as the center of reason and logic while woman was associated with the body. From Ephesians chapter 5, verses 22-24:
Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife even as Christ is the head of the church, his body, and is himself its Savior. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit in everything to their husbands.
For evangelicals, who believe in the inerrancy of the Bible, this particular passage is key as it establishes the basis of female submission and lays groundwork for the belief that men not only have the right but the divine duty to control women and their bodies. This is not to suggest, of course, that this particular passage is cited as justification for legislation designed to restrict women’s health but rather to argue that evangelicalism forms part of an underlying ethic that then serves to inform such policy.
Addressing this very issue, radical feminism argued to point out the way in which women’s identity has been historically defined in relationship to that of men. Here, in contrast to previous iterations of feminism that understood inequality in terms of legal and class systems (i.e., liberal and Marxist feminism), we witness a movement that calls the legitimacy of patriarchy into question and, with it, the primacy of heterosexuality’s influence in society. Radical feminism’s opposition to the ethic of evangelicalism is important to note because strains of thought established by radical feminism are precisely what socially conservative Christian culture continues to battle today. To quote conservative evangelist Pat Robertson, “[feminism] is about a socialist, anti-family political movement that encourages women to leave their husbands, kill their children, practice witchcraft, destroy capitalism and become lesbians” (1992). Admittedly extreme in its view, Robertson’s quote nevertheless speaks to the way in which contemporary forms of feminism are associated with radical feminism and, as such, are subject to an incredible backlash. The danger here is that, the disparaging of radical feminism and its core ideals means that patriarchy further solidifies its hold and works to further entrench the legitimacy of men over women.
But it is not just women as a category that is addressed by Ephesians for the passage also speaks to the subjugation of the body and it is the linking of the two that has historically been a feminist concern. By creating an association with the body and the material—as opposed to the idealism and rationality represented by men—women’s bodies, and women by extension, have historically come to be regarded as objects. Successes from liberal feminism have helped to ensure that women’s bodies are no longer considered property but contemporary forms of feminism continue to struggle with ways in which control and surveillance of women’s bodies has become integrated into culture.
As a site of investigation the body holds particular importance for it was through the body that anxieties about the world and one’s place in it were addressed: early Christianity seized upon the desire for order and used the body to physically manifest notions of morality. The body, following a tradition established throughout medieval practice and ushered into the early modern era via Calvinism, became a barometer for the condition of the soul and fitter bodies indicated fitter souls. For many, efforts to secure salvation were enacted through the disciplining of one’s body as asceticism expanded to guard against excesses of food, sex, and the body. One consequence of this is the rise in Christian fitness culture, a theme that is explored in R. Marie Griffith’s Born Again Bodies. For Griffith (2004), there is a key distinction to be made regarding the way in which the body is configured in American evangelism in that the American disciplining of the body is removed from earlier practices of penitence or identification with Christ’s suffering. The body has become a site of ambivalence as the entity that is responsible for the promulgation of sin while simultaneously acting as the conduit through which one demonstrates devotion to God. For American evangelicals, controlling the body is an end in and of itself.
The Bodies of the Future
Evangelical youth in particular have renewed this effort to avoid excess, with movements ranging from modesty clubs to straight edge culture and participating in programs like The Silver Ring Thing. And, for evangelicalism, popular culture has, in a broad sense, been seized as a medium to transmit the messages and values of the movement and nowhere is this more apparent than among youth. This is not to imply, of course, that evangelicals believe that all instances of pop culture are performing the work of God but rather to suggest that popular culture—as the culture of the people—has been appropriated by evangelical movements and successfully integrated into a lifestyle for its followers. There is a powerful community forming in this next generation of evangelical youth, united by their love for God and increasingly supported through an ever-widening network of rock concerts, skate parks, megachurches, prosperity gospels, and youth ministries that understand the importance of tapping into ethos that is driven by a profound need to belong. It is here that we see how the current movement of Evangelical youth has adopted lessons from the countercultural movements of the 1960s; employing the language of difference feminism for very different ends, young women understand sisterhood as a bond forged through the celebration of traditional social roles as devotion to God.
If radical feminism coined the phrase “the personal is political” in order to argue that the everyday experiences of women were inextricably tied to political processes, the evangelical youth movement, in denying that it is about politics, performs a rather ingenious countermove: it has cast the political as the everyday and thus makes itself more accessible to the next generation of activists. Although they may be hesitant to articulate it as such, politics, in the view of evangelical youth, has become a powerful combination of what you do, what you believe, and who you are. The political, in other words, has become personal.
Even the very process of coalition building, championed by prominent feminist scholars like Bernice Johnson Reagon, has been assimilated into the toolkit of evangelism but unlike the feminist movement, this generation of evangelical activists has not been challenged to critically consider the implications of difference, instead focusing on messages of acceptance and cohesion through God’s love. The formation of cultural identity has become dependent on definition through disidentification with the Other and the incorporation of substantial difference is ignored. In a way movements like Mars Hill Church in Seattle represent the inversion of coalition politics for they champion the very sense of nationalism that Reagon warns is insufficient to survive in a modern world full of diversity (1983).
Looking back to look forward, it is precisely this sense of retreatism that makes evangelical youth a population worth of study for we can study our nation’s history to understand what happens when deep cleavages are allowed to persist. The goal here is not to castigate evangelical youth movements but rather to issue a call to the corresponding members of the next generation of progressive activists: if you are truly interested in forwarding the cause of feminism, remember the words of Bernice Johnson Reagon and push yourselves to see the linkages between seemingly disparate issues. By turning politics into a lifestyle, evangelical youth movements have developed a structure that makes it almost impossible for a believer to be a single-issue voter and although there are assuredly differences between individuals, the sense of collective action that arises from this group remains one of their biggest successes.
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 Here Koster was attempting to elucidate his position on abortion, indicating that he would support an allowance if a mother’s life was in danger but not in cases of incest or rape. According to Koster, incest occurred with such minor frequency that it was not worth including in legislation. Rape, however was referenced repeatedly as “the rape thing,” which at best could be translated as “on the point discussion that is rape” but at worst could be taken as a phrase that indicates a dismissive and casual attitude toward rape.
 Stepp notes that this is a pseudonym, which is understandable given the nature of the incident being reported. There is, however, an interesting discussion to be had regarding the way in which the use of a pseudonym can be used to consider the differences between empowerment as an abstract concept and embodied action.
 As example, it was only in 2008 that the state of Maryland overturned an existing law that prevented an individual from revoking consent once he or she had given it (see Maouloud Baby v. State of Maryland, 2008), meaning that, until that time, individuals could not be convicted for post-penetration rape in Maryland. Here we see rape’s definition tied solely to the initial act of penetration, meaning that once consent was given to enter the body, rape could not happen even if the penetrated party changed his or her mind at a later point in time.
 As a side note, the Third Great Awakening happens to occur before and during World War I but this Awakening does not maintain the same connection to war as its predecessors. Looking at the Revolutionary War (First Great Awakening) and the Civil War (Second Great Awakening), we can see that conflict was the result of an ongoing negotiation over national identity that was not present as a motivation for World War I.
 In a somewhat complicated extended metaphor St. Augustine would go on to suggest that, mirroring the relationship between men and women, all of mankind constituted a type of body to the “head” of God.
 Progressive evangelical feminists have argued for a rereading of Ephesians in light of 5:21 (“Submit yourselves one to another in the fear of God”), suggesting that the passage actually speaks to the humbling of all humans in the face of God and calls for a renewed understanding of submission. Despite the popularity of biblical feminism in the 1970s and 1980s, groups like the Evangelical and Ecumenical Women’s Caucus and the Evangelical Women’s Caucus have declined in stature within the evangelical community, suggesting that progressive evangelical feminist discourse is not currently widely circulated.
 An analog for the Left might be President Obama’s understanding and deployment of social media during his election campaigns as indicative of the way in which politics comingles with the everyday practices of individuals.
In a move long-suspected by many, Texas governor Rick Perry officially declared his intention to seek the office of President this past Saturday. Perry, who garnered national attention with his rally, The Response, once again invokes—or at least should cause one to question—the manner in which religion has been interwoven into a political climate that has, of late, seemed to largely fixate on the economic issues of budgets, debt, and unemployment.
Without diminishing the importance of these topics or their coverage, the recent debates in Iowa suggest that understanding the potential impact of religion in the various GOP campaigns is of value whether one identifies as Republican or not. Beyond the gaffe of news anchor Ainsley Earhardt, and the larger discussion (and negotiation) of Mormonism that it references, religion’s presence seems to have manifested in subtle, but potentially significant, ways throughout this campaign season.
Responding, perhaps, to a recent poll that indicated Americans’ preference for a strongly religious President (despite not being able to correctly identify the specific beliefs of major candidates), Fox News displayed a graphic during the Iowa debates that indicated three pieces of information: religion, marital status, and number of children. Interestingly, this graphic was paired with another image showcasing each individual candidate’s political experience, perhaps suggesting that Fox News considered these two sets of information equally important for viewers.
And, in a way, maybe they are.
During the debates on Thursday, Byron York asked candidate Michele Bachmann about how her religious beliefs—specifically her belief in the virtue of submissiveness—might affect her behavior, citing her prior decision to become a tax lawyer as a result of her understanding of God’s desire as channeled through her husband. Although this inquiry elicited a strong display of displeasure from the audience as extraneous or unfair, the question seemed designed to probe Bachmann’s decision-making process in the past as well as what might shape her choices in the future if she were to become President.
So maybe the relevant concerns aren’t necessarily what religion a person is or isn’t (although this does not excuse the propagation of misinformation), but rather specifically how these beliefs influence a candidate’s perception of the world and the behavioral responses that those filters elicit. Undoubtedly, religion plays a role in shaping our understanding of the world and the range of perceived actions that is available to us at any given moment.
But beliefs aren’t exclusive to the religious community: if the recent skirmishes over the federal debt ceiling have taught us anything, it is that we demonstrate a potential aversion to complexity or are perhaps slightly overwhelmed by the enormity of problems posed by the modern world. Our own response to these looming presences is to streamline the world, tending to engage with our environment in the specific, and limited, ways that align with our mental picture of the world.
So, before we criticize Rick Perry’s drive to ask God to fix America—as tempting it might be for atheists and secularists—we need to examine the human desire to seek out, and ascribe to, simple answers that are readily available in times of crisis. This impulse, which seems to have largely assumed the form of religious rhetoric in the current round of Republican campaigns (and one might even argue that the content itself is not necessarily spiritual in nature if we look at the reverence given to the invocation of Reagan) seems to be the real, and often under-discussed, issue at play. Although a more arduous task, I believe that appreciating the power and presence of religion in this process will afford us a richer understanding of the American people and their relationship to contemporary politics.
Chris Tokuhama is a doctoral student at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism where he studies the relationship of personal identity to the body. Employing lenses that range from Posthumanism (with forays into Early Modern Science and Gothic Horror), the intersection of technological and community in Transhumanism, and the transcendent potential of the body contained in religion, Chris examines how changing bodies portrayed in media reflect or demand a renegotiation in the sense of self, acting as visual shorthand for shared anxieties.
“There are some genuinely bad people who would like to infiltrate our country and we have got to have the guts to stand up and say ‘No.’”
By now, Newt Gingrich’s comments at the first New Hampshire Republican Presidential Debates have made the rounds, spreading across blogs, mainstream news outlets, and, of course, The Daily Show. Positioning Muslims alongside Nazis and Communists as those who would infiltrate our country, Gingrich has once again invoked anti-Muslim sentiment in the name of patriotism.
Although Gingrich’s polemic likely raised a few eyebrows, it was admittedly not all that surprising given his recent stance on the subject; highly visible in a movement that would label American Muslims as forever foreigners, Gingrich seems to have crafted himself into a candidate who is willing to engage with the popular topic of American Muslims. Despite the recent spate of coverage, Justin Elliott notes that the mainstream media has generally shied away from what might very well be the real story: the evolution of this particular brand of rhetoric by Gingrich.
Perhaps the American public is partly at fault as it clamors for briefs primed to incite moral outrage and hungers for stories that whet an appetite for spectacle. Yet, as we know, journalism also has a role to play and it is perhaps neglecting its duties in this regard. An issue larger than a simple lack of coverage, there seems to be a fundamental absence in the training of many journalists who would cover religion.
And yet religion continues to have a large presence in the current state of politics, manifesting concerns separate from the intricacies of traditional voting demographic blocs. With Rick Perry hosting an event for governors named The Response, and Reverend Gaddy of the Interfaith Alliance calling for a reduction in religion’s political presence, it appears as though this upcoming race will see the resurgence of a negotiation between the public and private aspects of religion that was recently highlighted by the Ground Zero mosque.
But it’s not only politicians who struggle to understand how religion figures into the everyday, with salvation to be had at venues unlikely as cowboy church. However, despite the potential collapse of the private/public dichotomy, are we really encouraging people to think about the role that religion plays in both of these spheres? Has our news coverage been affected by an upswing in atheism’s popularity? Religion, faith, and spirituality all bridge the gap, with values formed in private undoubtedly affecting actions displayed in public. Why, then, do we hesitate to engage in meaningful discussion of religion’s potential political impact, focusing more on what a particular individual’s religion is in lieu of an attempt to understand how and why that particular philosophy permeates a candidate’s positions? If we are content to simplify our interest to buzzwords like “pro-life” or “against gay marriage,” never challenging ourselves to understand the root causes of the issues we hold dear, how can we ever hope to convince the other side that we may in fact have a point? We insist that others see it our way and never take the time to talk to them in words that they might actually be receptive to. Rather than avoiding the issue entirely, perhaps we should encourage people to make the discussion of religion a routine practice—and provide them with the information and rhetorical tools they need in order to facilitate intelligent discussion.
Chris Tokuhama is a doctoral student in the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism where he is pursuing media/cultural studies with a concentration in Gothic Horror as an articulator of cultural anxiety. A biologist by training, Chris currently endeavors to understand transformative bodies through lenses as varied as narrative studies, media, and religion, a process that has resulted in an upcoming chapter in The Hunger Games and Philosophy focusing on issues of authenticity in celebrity. Follow his quest to find the perfect cup of coffee on Twitter at @TrojanTopher.
In Bowling Alone, Robert Putnam discusses the impact of prevalent technologies on mass media and explains how particular advancements have allowed for radically different consumption patterns in society. Although the publication date of Bowling Alone does not readily allow for an examination of the Internet, one could argue that new technology has only served to fragment news consumption further. RSS feeds, for example, not only “pull” news (as opposed to content “pushed” by a broadcaster) but filter out unwanted stories. Although this automation is undoubtedly convenient for audiences, it might also have deleterious effects as silos of knowledge begin to spring up.
The United States has continually battled with competing interests—we are seeing a resurgence of this today with a disconnect between urban elites and populist movements—and the schism between left- and right-wing politics demonstrates the danger inherent in fragmentation. At present, the issue plaguing our country does not seem to center around strongly defined (and maintained) positions, but rather the lack of discourse between opposing views. With media figureheads like Rush Limbaugh, Rachel Maddow, Keith Olberman, and Glenn Beck, audiences tend to exist in an echo chamber; arguments by hosts and pundits only serve to further reinforce listeners’ predetermined positions.
As technology allows us to interact with a larger variety of people, we are finding that geopolitical boundaries are becoming less salient (to be sure, though, they are not yet irrelevant); individuals are self-aggregating into communities along dimensions that are of particular importance to them. Our current levels of technology have not allowed us to exclude considerations of our physical space from our lives—as we discussed in class, trucking continues to be the primary transport method of atoms—but one might speculate how teleportation would affect the way that relate to physical boundaries.
Zen and the Art of Journalism
If a tree falls in an empty forest, the inquiry goes, will it make a sound? Budding philosophers and scientists have struggled over this question for years—empirical evidence suggests no reason why a falling tree would not produce a crash, but we can never be positive if we cannot measure the reverberations. While some adults might dismiss this scenario as something suitable for idle chatter or meditation, we can recast the same question in terms of political or social movements: if a group takes a stand but is not witnessed, do they make a sound? Do they have a voice? Do they even matter?
Questions such as these signal the importance of journalism in our political process. As a democracy, we purport that all citizens have the ability and the right to engage in the government’s decision-making process, but the reality is that news outlets play a large role in mediating our ability to be heard. Recognizing that information transmission and journalism have a rather unique (and profound) power to affect the public, authors Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel argue for operational guidelines in their book, The Elements of Journalism.
Soliciting extensive feedback through interviews, meetings, and surveys, Kovach and Rosenstiel began to identify foundational principles that professional journalists deemed central to their craft. The Elements of Journalism represents the summation of the authors’ work and clearly articulates Americans’ long-held, and deep-seeded, beliefs regarding the function of journalism in society. Recent news stories pepper the pages of The Elements of Journalism, vividly demonstrating deficiencies in our current system and urging readers to demand better. However, lest one think that this book represents a publication by journalists for journalists, Kovach and Rosenstiel also include relevant points regarding the role and participation of everyday citizens in the journalistic process.
Free to Be You and Me
The Elements of Journalism opens with the assertion that, in recent years, journalism has lost its way; the latter half of the 20th century has seen a decline in critical analysis regarding the role of journalism in society along with a loss of faith in the profession (CCJ Forum, 1997; CCJ Forum, 1998). Kovach and Rosenstiel argue that although journalists and laypeople continue to recognize the existence of journalism, not many have stopped to question why it exists in the first place.
Building upon an earlier work by Rosenstiel, which suggests that equitable distribution of information forms the foundation of democracy (Rosenstiel, 1990), the authors state, “the primary purpose of journalism is to provide citizens with the information they need to be free and self-governing” (Kovach & Rosenstiel, 2007, p. 12). In practice, this information could range from information that allows individuals to hold elected officials accountable to which roads are closed for repair; in larger and lesser ways, journalism provides the information that people use to formulate their decisions and thusly govern their lives.
Notably, the authors do not argue that journalism represents the only means for obtaining information but limit their position to argue that journalism, as a conduit for information, has a particular responsibility to its constituents in a democratic society. This information, provided by journalists, has the ability to shape citizens’ identities by producing, and defining, a collective conscious/unconscious; to a large degree, journalists are responsible for developing our knowledge of the world outside of our individual experiences. Moreover, in this new era, journalists are not necessarily limited to individuals possessing press credentials—contemporary society has created a number of ways that individuals can participate in the news making process. The once clearly defined boundaries between media and audience have begun to disappear, making the process of standardization even more difficult.
I’ll Be Watching You
Despite the apparent murkiness present in society, Kovach and Rosenstiel suggest a definite desire for journalism to act as an “independent monitor of power,” perpetuating the idea of checks and balances present in our government (Kovach & Rosenstiel, 2007, p. 140). Specifically examining this idea in the realm of politics, the role of media as a watchdog further allows the public to hold their elected officials accountable for their actions; without the press, ordinary citizens would be in jeopardy of becoming even more marginalized in the political process.
In 2004, America faced yet another highly contested race for President; four years earlier, the 2000 election and its infamous “hanging chads” left a sour taste in the mouth of many. Despite the passage of the Help Americans Vote Act of 2002, states around the union continued to experience problems with voting, particularly with electronic voting machines. The months leading up to the 2004 election unearthed numerous accounts from districts that showcased problems with voter records, an inability to audit ballots cast, and missing votes (Anonymous, 2004).
Given this milieu, one would have expected mainstream media to be primed to respond to the aftermath of the 2004 elections, but the days after the event saw no meaningful immediate response from major news outlets. Once again, localities reported issues with voter fraud, voter intimidation, and electronic voting machines but mainstream media refused to entertain the notion that the election was “stolen.” In fact, despite the appearance of a sworn affidavit and testimony by Clint Curtis, a computer programmer and former employee of Yang Enterprises, that indicated his development of software that potentially allowed Congressman Tom Feeny to flip votes, virtually no relevant mention of “Clint Curtis” (or “Clinton Curtis”) appears in the archives of the New York Times or the Washington Post. Compounding the issue, an article by Paul McLeary published in the Columbia Journalism Review states that “no major national publications…have seriously investigated how these very electronic machines were used to help steal the presidential election in Ohio 2004” (2006). Cynics might argue that the press had moved on to more important issues at the time or had no interest in upsetting the status quo, but the questions continued to linger and individual citizens began to step up to address the lack of information.
In what he calls an “exclusive,” Brad Friedman reported the story of Curtis on his website http://www.bradblog.com, complete with an animated picture of a siren to serve as a visual alarm (2004). As the story gained momentum, local papers and Wired began to report on the implications of the software mentioned in Clint Curtis’ affidavit but even these publications did not elicit a response from mainstream media. Although there seemed to be a flurry of discussion in smaller circles, the ramifications of the Curtis story did not seem to transition to the larger stage of national politics.
For some, this incident represents the breakdown of the press’ watchdog function in society—what good is mainstream media if it does not bring situations like Curtis’ to light and frame them in an appropriate context? On the other hand, this case demonstrates individuals’ commitment to upholding the ideal of independent monitoring set forth by Kovach and Rosenstiel.
Power to the People
Indeed, independence seems to be an increasingly difficult quality for mainstream media to maintain as conglomerations begin to absorb media outlets. Giants like AOL-Time Warner and GE/NBC raise some questions about the impartiality of news outlets that reside under the umbrella of corporations with vested interests in various sectors of business. Kovach and Rosenstiel address this conflict of interest by asserting that journalism’s “practitioners must maintain an independence from those they cover” (Kovach & Rosenstiel, 2007, p. 118). Addressing this need are bloggers; while not completely (or necessarily) free of outside influence themselves, bloggers enjoy a degree of independence due to their grassroots nature; individuals do not owe others in the same way that companies do.
Originally stemming from blogging movements in the late 1990s, Citizen Journalism provided a way for the average person to interact with, and analyze, information coming from major outlets. Currently, one can see that a number of traditional news outlets have developed ways to tap into input from a mass market using methods ranging from editors to weighted importance to determine which items are actually newsworthy: iReport, uReport, FirstPerson, and i-Caught all represent outgrowths of “brand name” news sources. Additionally, increased access to information (largely due to the Internet) has resulted in the ability of individual people to check articles’ accuracy and provide informed commentary on a wide variety of subjects, which in turn has helped to engage the public in news. Blogging, and Citizen Journalism, then, reflect an additional guideline created by Kovach and Rosenstiel: “The essence of journalism is a discipline of verification” (Kovach & Rosenstiel, 2007, p. 79).
In some ways, the rigor implied by verification seems lost on some media outlets (both mainstream and independent) today. Advances in technology and expectations by consumers have developed a culture that demands news instantaneously with accuracy being somewhat of a secondary concern. No longer are mainstream outlets competing against each other to avoid being “scooped”—now, the amateur journalist has entered the picture and made competition even fiercer and more frantic.
The rush to publish material has come in conflict with the principle of authentication: verification, after all, takes time. Mark Bowden relates a recent story regarding the news coverage of Judge Sonia Sotomayor’s election to the Supreme Court: in the minutes after her nomination, multiple news channels displayed identical clips of Sotomayor that portrayed her in a less than flattering light (2009). Subsequent opinion polls continued to show the resonating effects of these clips, with individuals specifically citing comments about being a Latina judge or making policy as reasons for disapproval (Pew Research Center, 2009). Had the sound bites come from press conferences or major public speaking engagements, one might have been able to write off the simultaneous broadcast as mere coincidence—the snippets, however, were from rather obscure talks at Duke and Berkeley. Further investigation by Bowden revealed that a single person, Morgen Richmond, was responsible for the packages seen on their air. In and of themselves, there seems to be little wrong with the clips; the segments are not altered and accurately depict a section of a talk given by Judge Sotomayor. Instead, the problem resides in the willingness of major media outlets to air the videos without first fully understanding what they were unleashing onto society.
Building upon ideas outlined by Walter Lippman, Kovach and Rosenstiel articulate some guidelines for the science of reporting that provide a systematic way for journalists to consider their material thoroughly while developing a story (Lippman, 1995; Kovach & Rosenstiel, 2007). Looking at Kovach and Rosenstiel’s list, one finds remarkable similarity to the procedure for a high school laboratory report: journalists are told to list resources, divulge methods such that their efforts can be replicated, do their own work, draw conclusions from their research, and expand upon the importance of their findings. Recalling the purpose of journalism a conduit for providing foundational information, one can easily see that scientific research represents a type of journalism; although daily news certainly experiences additional time constraints, why shouldn’t it employ the same rigorous approach as science?
The authors also note that this practice of verification differs from the similar, and somewhat more sinister, practice of assertion in that verification stresses the idea of transparency. Interestingly, the practice of asserting facts to bolster one’s case seems to have a curious place in society as competitive debate in high schools and colleges often employs the same tactic; the presence of technique caused Kovach and Rosenstiel to write, “barely do people in journalism, even on the opinion end of the craft, market themselves as better arguers, but instead as more accurate” (2007, p. 84). However, as the Sotomayor case has shown, accuracy alone is not always sufficient to tell a story.
Truth Be Told
Fist in the air, a Navy lawyer engages with a witness: “I want the truth!” he shouts. This line, uttered in the 1992 movie, “A Few Good Men,” has managed to etch itself into the minds of a certain generation of people but also seems to voice the desires of many citizens in a democratic society. For Kovach and Rosenstiel, the concept of truth encompasses much more than factual information: “it is a sorting-out process that takes place between the initial story and the interaction among the public, newsmakers, and journalists…This is what journalism is after—a practical or functional form of truth” (2007, pp. 41-42). Indeed, looking once again at the Sotomayor case, we can see that understanding the truth of her words required an appreciation of context and nuance.
Furthering the discussion, Harry Frankfurt argues in his publication, On Truth, that the concept of truth has intrinsic value. According to Frankfurt, “Individuals require truths in order to navigate their way effectively through the thicket of hazards and opportunities that all people invariably confront in going about their lives”—a statement similar in spirit to Kovach and Rosenstiel’s assertion regarding the primary purpose of journalism (Frankfurt, 2006, pp. 34-35). Truth, then, forms the basis for our decision-making process and journalism’s duty is to convey these truths to the public so that they can accomplish this task; in other words, as stated by Kovach and Rosenstiel, “journalism’s first obligation is to the truth” (2007, p. 36).
On occasion, individuals like Jayson Blair or Maureen Dowd will appear, challenging the profession’s responsibility to its citizens and the truth. We might be tempted to dismiss people like Jayson as anomalies—surely we can trust our press to discourage this sort of behavior? What happens, however, when a relative disregard for the truth is institutionalized?
Media Matters for America, a non-profit watch site, released a compilation of records indicating that the “news” provided on Fox News’ broadcasts echoed the opinionated or editorialized rhetoric that has become the channel’s hallmark (Levin, 2009). While this revelation might cause a sense of unease to develop, the real danger resides in a consistent and sanctioned ideology that diminishes the importance of truth in our society. Newspapers have also been found to engage in dishonest acts, which can only serve to call their integrity into question (Project for Excellence in Journalism, 2005). As Kovach and Rosenstiel note, “Oppressive societies tend to belittle literal definitions of truthfulness and accuracy” (2007, p. 37). To make matters worse, a wealth of information and the culture of affirmation have also allowed polarizing argumentation to occur, in effect creating silos of knowledge that attract fragmented communities. Now, instead of weighing all sides to an issue, citizens aim to aggregate as much support as they can, thinking that this somehow makes them more “right.”
This bleak picture seems to underscore the need for individuals and companies to reaffirm their comment toward the ideals of truth. However, while we demand much of our journalists, we should also note that the process of being truthful is not always easy. Sometimes journalists find themselves pitted against entire corporations or industries, as with Mike Wallace and a case involving former Brown & Williamson executive Jeffrey Wigand and tobacco in 1995.
Although Wigand’s name might not seem familiar, many will recognize the incident as the first time that a representative of Big Tobacco admitted knowledge about nicotine’s addictive properties. While Wigand’s actions were seemingly in the public interest—didn’t America deserve to know that tobacco companies were willfully causing their consumers to become addicted to a product that has proven links to detrimental health effects?—Wigand was not unilaterally lauded. Despite some measure of protection afforded to whistleblowers (e.g., the Whistleblower Protection Act), rocking the boat continues to have negative repercussions, possibly resulting in a hostile work environment or harassment (Colby, 2006).
60 Minutes, a televised news program, began to promote a story that it had produced surrounding Wigand but then backed off as fears regarding the release of confidential information started to mount (McLeary, 2005). An article released by CBS reports that management was not afraid that they would get caught in a lie—it seemed as though nobody disputed the truth in Wigand’s statements—but instead was worried that they would be seen as responsible for the breach of a confidentiality contract (Leung, 2005). The truth, Brown & Williamson said, could be told, but for a very steep price. Thus, in addition to highlighting complications inherent in reporting the “truth,” the Wigand story demonstrates a further constraint that limits media’s ability to operate independently: a struggle to reconcile proprietary information with the latitude granted by the First Amendment.
It’s a Start
It seems difficult to argue with the points laid out in Kovach and Rosenstiel’s book—none of their guidelines contained any inherent flaws. However, the book seemed to represent a primer of sorts; Kovach and Rosenstiel managed to give a report on the current shortcomings in journalism for individuals unaware of media’s present state but not much more. The ten elements labeled by the authors represented the thorough investigation of journalism and a deep understanding of the craft. If journalists adhered to the standards set by Kovach and Rosnstiel, and consumers kept them in mind, a new standard for journalism could be set. In particular, the information seemed to be of value for individuals who had not previously spent a significant amount of time thinking about the role and mission of journalism in society (democratic or otherwise). Ultimately, however, it did not seem as though Kovach and Rosenstiel brought any new information to light, but instead served to organize and articulate knowledge held within the journalistic (and, to some extent, general) community. The problem with this lies in the lack of solutions to the problems depicted in the work—to be fair, the book does not purport to offer any—Kovach and Rosenstiel present a Bill of Rights to citizens that might help order their thinking and expectations but do not offer a plan of action to affect meaningful change in journalism or the news media. In particular, the authors indicate the dangers of letting Business interfere with journalistic standards, but do not teach citizens how to stave off this infection or to lessen its impact.
Kovach and Rosenstiel also address the developing cultures of affirmation and infotainment throughout the course of their book, deftly noting their flaws along the way, but do not do anything to cause practitioners to see the value in a more rigorous form of journalism. Although the authors note the deleterious effects of reporting (including the fragmentation of society!), their words do not seem sufficiently persuade others to reform their ways. Entertainment television and gossip magazines fill our collective conscious, and The Elements of Journalism does not address the root causes of our fascination with these, instead focusing solely on their aftereffects. Furthermore, the book does not seem geared toward the consumer in general: it seems as though it would only attract the attention of journalists or those already disgruntled with the current state of journalism. Again, while the book does not purport to be all things to all people, it appears as though the authors missed an opportunity to spread their message further.
In truth, I didn’t know how to describe it. Without warning, I felt as though a part of me had been taken away without my knowledge and I began to feel that our community had lost one of its own. It could have been anyone, really—on some level it didn’t matter who it was, it just mattered that it was someone.
Yesterday, Dr. George Tiller was murdered during a church service in Wichita, Kansas. By all accounts, Dr. Tiller wasn’t anyone particularly extraordinary, so his name shouldn’t sound familiar, but Dr. Tiller did happen to be a physician who performed abortions.
Within hours of the killing, people from all across the nation were discussing the situation and what it meant for the future of abortion in the United States. What were the anti-abortionists’ views? Would there be backlash? Did we all just want to find somebody to blame?
A grandmother in a CNN article said, “What happened to Tiller was justified. He forfeited his life by taking the lives of innocent children.”
Is there some loophole whereby murder is defensible if it prevents the possible death of future beings? How much of that responsibility can you bestow upon yourself?
I freely admit that I do not intimately understand some of the arguments against abortion but I definitely don’t understand how, if life is sacred, killing is ever the solution? I understand disagreements and feeling frustrated with the current situation (Prop. 8, anyone?) but I will never quite understand vigilante justice. Maybe I just buy too much into this system that is supposed to work. I mean, isn’t part of being patriotic believing that America functions on some level? Isn’t part of the beauty of our country believing in the idea that we have the ability to change things through an accepted channel? Perhaps I just haven’t reached the point wherein I feel like I have no other options.
And, in that light, maybe this is a sign that something is seriously wrong. Although one incident can’t speak for the entirety, shouldn’t it be troubling that a segment of the population is resorting to violence to get their message across? Shouldn’t we be worried that people don’t have faith in our governmental processes to hammer these things out? As mad as I am about the whole Prop. 8 thing, for example, I refuse to believe that the solution lies outside the bounds of our established laws. After all, in many ways, doesn’t this situation represent something that Conservatives also decry? Terrorism?
This is not to say that all anti-abortionists are terrorists, of course. But I don’t know how you can argue that killing someone for something that they believe in is not a form of terrorism. Dress it up in all of the religious dogma that you want, and provide yourself with some kind of moral justification so you can sleep at night, but, at the end of the day, when you strip it down, you’ve committed an act of violence that you hoped, on some level, would deter someone else from performing or seeking an abortion. And the sad part is that you probably did your job.
Hell, I went through the same sort of fear when I agreed to take on this assignment. “Were people going to track me down and tell me that I was wrong for supporting this organization? Would I be judged? How much would my personal life be affected by my public life?” And, I suppose that there is always the thought, no longer so unfounded, “What if I were to die as a result of my involvement with Planned Parenthood?”
My teeth scraped over my lip as I thought about what this all meant. “I suppose,” I reasoned, “that if this somehow ended in my demise that at I would have at least died in the pursuit of something worthwhile.”