Fox News: Keeping the faith

For Fox News, religion is easy: Christianity is right and good and must be defended from its relentless persecutors, and other faiths are dangerous, inadequate, or funny.

Religion is ... tough.

The collected spiritual teachings of the world's various deities, messiahs, prophets, monks, yogis, gurus, and shamans are so deeply ingrained in human culture and consciousness that they essentially tell the history of mankind. Their cosmological and philosophical differences have proved to be stubbornly intractable and provided the impetus for many of humanity's more brutal conflicts. The greatest minds of the ancient, medieval, and modern worlds have devoted entire lifetimes delving into the deepest questions that face mankind.

But for Fox News, religion is easy: Christianity is right and good and must be defended from its relentless persecutors, and other faiths are dangerous, inadequate, or funny.

Viewers of this past weekend's Fox News Sunday were treated to an especially stark example of the network's affection for Christendom when Fox News analyst and putative paragon of “straight news” Brit Hume counseled Tiger Woods to ditch Buddhism in favor of Christianity as his best hope for a “total recovery” from the scandal surrounding his marital infidelities. According to Hume: “I don't think that faith [Buddhism] offers the kind of forgiveness and redemption that is offered by the Christian faith.” Hume appeared on The O'Reilly Factor the next day to deny that he was “proselytizing,” explaining that Woods “needs something that Christianity especially provides and gives and offers, and that is redemption and forgiveness.” To attempt to explain how that makes sense is way beyond my pay grade.

But proselytizing it was, and it was met with resounding hosannas from Fox News colleagues Fred Barnes and Tucker Carlson, who couldn't quite grasp why it is unseemly for a news personality to declare one religious faith superior to another. People who actually know a thing or two about religion, however, were less enthusiastic about Hume's evangelical turn. Writing on Newsweek's “On Faith” blog, Baptist minister Welton Gaddy commented: “First, a news program should deal with news, not evangelism, whatever religion is involved. ... Second, the implication of Mr. Hume's suggestion to Mr. Woods is utilitarian -- you will get a better deal related to forgiveness in Christianity than you can get in Buddhism. Christianity is not a means to an end; it is a holistic faith to be embraced and lived.” USA Today religion reporter Cathy Lynn Grossman dryly noted that Buddhists across the internet were uniting in forgiveness of Hume.

In a way, Hume's appeal for Woods' salvation was a fitting coda to Fox News' annual winter exercise in manufactured outrage on behalf of the supposedly beleaguered Christian community -- the increasingly ridiculous "War on Christmas." Despite the fact that Christianity is by a long way the world's predominant and, arguably, most influential faith, Fox News continues to insist every year that the entire religion is threatened by an evil coalition of atheists and other militant “secularists” who want to “abolish” Christmas by forcing department store clerks to say “Happy Holidays.” And if that weren't stupid enough, Fox stepped on its own ridiculous message by running commercials this year wishing viewers “Happy Holidays.”

The “War on Christmas” is part and parcel of Fox News' attitude toward matters of faith -- “religion” equals “Christian.” On April 29, 2009, Bill O'Reilly asked Fox & Friends anchor Gretchen Carlson if she thought “the media is anti-religion.” Carlson responded: “I do, because it's not cool to be Christian.” Fox News' media criticism program, Fox News Watch, devoted an April 12 segment to a Newsweek cover story proclaiming: “The Decline and Fall of Christian America.” Host Bill Hemmer said of the cover: “The timing doesn't seem to be a coincidence. It's holy week for Christians and Passover for Jews. And it's also not the first time the mainstream media has weighed in with a negative message on God and religion.”

The flip side to Fox News' embrace of Christianity is the distrustful eye it casts toward Islam, which the network treats less as a religion and more as a national security threat. Following the fatal shootings at Fort Hood by Maj. Nidal Malik Hassan, Fox News Watch demanded that the media identify Hassan as a Muslim, and link his faith to the attack. Host Jon Scott introduced a November 14 segment saying: “Details about the suspect were quick to surface, but most in the media were hesitant to link Major Nidal Malik Hasan, his Muslim faith, and the murders as a terrorist act.” Fox & Friends host Brian Kilmeade announced that he wanted to see “special debriefings” of Muslim military officers, and frequent Fox News guest Ralph Peters said of the Ft. Hood shootings on The O'Reilly Factor: “It's clear that the problem is Islam.”

On October 14, Special Report host Bret Baier credulously reported the ludicrous allegations of a few conspiracy-minded House Republicans that the Council on American-Islamic Relations was “infiltrating” Congress by “placing interns in key positions.” To close out the New Year, Fox twice hosted Ann Coulter to resurrect the long-since debunked lie that President Obama was educated in a madrassa. (This is the same Ann Coulter who wrote of the Muslim world after 9-11: “We should invade their countries, kill their leaders and convert them to Christianity.”)

When not actively denigrating non-Christian faiths on its own, Fox News functions as a home and megaphone for religious bigots of all stripes. During the 2008 campaign, Sean Hannity played host to Andy Martin, whose outrageous invective against then-candidate Obama was outshined only by his venomous attacks on Jews -- he once called a judge who ruled against him a “crooked, slimy Jew, who has a history of lying and thieving common to members of his race.” And then there's Jerome Corsi, another Hannity regular during 2008, who laid the foundation for his career of bigoted skullduggery with a series of postings that smeared Muslims as “ragheads” and Catholics for "[b]oy buggering."

Of course, the idea that Fox News would take a clear side on any particular issue isn't exactly new -- they do a better job getting across Republican talking points than the other more official organs of the GOP. But there is something uniquely wrong about what ostensibly is a news organization taking sides on questions of faith, recruiting new members on the air, and proclaiming other faiths to be inadequate and a “problem.”