Religion and Media in America

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Anthony Hatcher
  • New York, NY: 
    Lexington Books
    , May
     2018.
     296 pages.
     $110.00.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9781498514446.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Anthony Hatcher’s ambitious title points to an emerging need, and an emerging scholarship, focused on the way that media and religion are entangled in contemporary American life. Religion and Media in America is not the comprehensive account promised by the title, but does begin with a fairly thorough review of scholarly work on religion in the media age, concentrating on the North American context. His introduction identifies the rise of evangelicalism as a central actor in the evolution of religion in recent decades, and indirectly points to the role that evangelical media played in that rise. Without a clearly critical view of the relations between the various contexts of religion, Hatcher presents the broad valences, from religion in entertainment media to religion in journalism. His introduction is well-sourced and referenced, as is the entire book.

Instead of a broad view, Hatcher devotes most of the book to six case studies under the three headings “Civil Religion,” “Religion and Entertainment,” and “Sacred and Profane Media.” As with the overall title of the book, these headings promise more breadth than the actual chapters deliver. At the same time, the case studies themselves are substantive in their own terms. Under “Civil Religion,” Hatcher delves into a contemporary case—the “Moral Monday” movement and its particular expression in North Carolina. Here, one can see traces of the affordances of digital technology, but that is not the primary focus of the study. The other “Civil Religion” case is more historical: the inclusion of the phrase “under God” in the US Pledge of Allegiance. Again, media are clearly involved, but we are left wondering what more we might learn from each of these cases about how the particular realities of the media age and the digital age either brought about or afforded these developments.

Section 2 of the book introduces one of the most interesting challenges: the way that media and religion have struggled in the evolution of the American entertainment industry. Religion has, at best, an ambiguous view of contemporary media, and entertainment is an area where this ambiguity is most obvious. Entertainment media carry with them the potential to challenge fundamental religious values, or at least so it is thought. The ambiguities of this are in full display in Hatcher’s chapter, looking at one of the entertainment-industry groups composed of Christians who hope to work from the “inside” to change things. A second chapter under “Entertainment” looks at a specific film, The Way, produced with the intention to use cinema as a tool of faith—in this case, Catholic faith. Both are thoughtful, historical accounts of these cases.

Section 3 presents cases that raise the question of how, and under what circumstances, religion has always been implicated in—or entangled with—the commercial institutions and structures of the media. One of these chapters presents the interesting (and widely chronicled) history of the Bible as a commercial media product. The final case study looks at religion’s presence in media comedy and satire. This last section confirms, in a way, the notion that religion and media exist as binary social forces. They seem necessarily linked and co-implicated, but at the same time look at each other across gulfs of misunderstanding. 

Hatcher’s book provides ample evidence of these misunderstandings. While he does not explicitly say it, we must assume that settled religious and clerical authority must feel deep challenges from media systems that can, among other things, investigate them at will (journalism), provide powerful counter-narratives (entertainment media), and provide platforms for “civil” religious practices that exist within the culture. Hatcher’s ambitious case studies provide important and compelling evidence, but we are left asking the larger, framing questions. It seems, from evidence within Religion and Media in America, that Hatcher once wanted to point to digital media in the title of the book. This is a telling impulse. Surely, we must begin to think about how the more conventional relations of media and religion, as described in his case studies, are accelerated, deepened, or challenged by this newer media platform.

Yet to do so, we would need some theory that frames these accounts in a larger narrative. Here again, the evidence is present in Hatcher’s exhaustive accounts. For example, one major question has to do with Protestantism. Hatcher broadly conflates “Christianity” and “Protestantism”—only one chapter looks closely at Catholicism—and, clearly due to the role that evangelical media have played, he also conflates “Christianity” and “evangelicalism.” A deeper, historically informed framing could be drawn out of tracing the particular roles of Protestantism and evangelicalism in these relations. The book tends to read its cases through their representation in the media, without actually thinking about how media might be involved in generating the social or cultural forces of the media age. Media conditions are obvious across his cases (for example, the forces of the media market that are so obvious in his last section), but we might want to have those conditions described in theoretical—or at least historical—terms. Couldn’t we also have been challenged to think about how the media age itself is responsible for the turn to spirituality, the materialism, and marketplace orientation of contemporary religion, all forces present in his case studies?

Hatcher gets to some historicism in his concluding chapter, where he argues, with some success, that a focus on Christianity is justified in such a study as Christianity—and I would add “Protestantism” or “evangelicalism”—is a central organizing structure of these media trends and forces. He is right to address his focus on Christianity instead of all religions. The book is also, of course, focused on the North American context, when a broader framing perspective might draw on—and help explain—the increasingly global nature of these things in the digital age. 

In spite of these gaps, Religion and the Media in America is a valuable contribution to our understanding of how media and religion have always been linked, and are present in generating social, cultural, and political forces today.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Stewart M. Hoover is Professor of Media Studies and Religious Studies at the University of Colorado, Boulder.

Date of Review: 
July 18, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Anthony Hatcher is Associate Professor of Communications at Elon University.

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