TV ignores America when it ignores religion

Sunday, August 10, 1997

How strange that most textbooks used in American public schools largely ignore religion. Stranger still, prime-time TV barely mentions the subject, and there's almost no coverage of religion on network news broadcasts.

Religion is an important part of life for 79% of the American people, according to a recent survey by the Angus Reid Group. Each week 71% of Americans pray, 40% attend religious services, and 43% read the Bible, according to the same poll.

This high level of religious commitment sets the United States apart from all other Western democracies. A Gallup poll conducted some years ago found that 57% of Americans say they are affiliated with a religious organization, compared to only 4% of the French and 13% of all West Germans.

But despite Americans' professed interest in religion, our public institutions—our schools and our media especially—are mostly silent on the subject. Last spring, an organization called the Media Research Center issued a report that actually tabulated the number of times religion was covered by network news from 1993 through 1996. Out of 72,000 evening news stories, 955 were devoted to religion (1.3%). Only 830 of 104,000 morning news segments covered the topic (0.8%).

The rest of prime-time TV isn't much better. Touched by an Angel and a few other shows deal with religious faith, but religion simply doesn't exist on the vast majority of shows.

Public school textbooks also convey the impression that issues of faith don't much matter to the American people. U.S. history reads as though religion hasn't been important since colonial America and the Puritans. Students get the impression from most textbooks that once we gained religious freedom in 1791, we were free from religion! Actually, if the full story were told, religion has played a central role in most developments in our history, in everything from immigration to social reform to the civil-rights movement.

According to the American Textbook Council, recent social-studies textbooks at least mention religion more often than their predecessors. But in-depth discussion of the role of religion in history remains very rare. The late Justice Robert Jackson had a point when he wrote in a 1948 Supreme Court opinion: “One can hardly respect a system of education that would leave the student wholly ignorant of the currents of religious thought that have moved the world society for a part in which he is being prepared.”

If religion is so important, why is it largely ignored by the media and the schools? That's too big a question to tackle here. The answer has much to do with the complex changes in America during the 20th century. The more religiously diverse we've become as a people and the more secular as a society, the more religion has been viewed by many as a purely private matter-not to be discussed in polite company.

The answer may also partly lie in a fear of controversy. Textbook publishers and television producers may see religious issues as bad for business. Whose religion will be included? And how will the deep differences within religious groups and between various religious traditions be handled? Will we be able to sell our booksprograms?

Despite the problems and the potential for controversy, giving religion a higher profile in our public institutions is important for at least two reasons. First, it is only fair. Ignoring religion on television and in schools excludes many Americans and gives the false impression that religious faith doesn't matter to people. Second, not to do so endangers the health of our nation. As we grow increasingly diverse, how will we live with one another and work together for a better society if we don't understand one another?

Network TV is likely to remain tone-deaf to religion. Public schools, however, are starting to get the message. Slowly but surely, curriculum guidelines in some states — most notably California — are beginning to recommend more study of religion in history and literature. It remains to be seen whether textbooks will go beyond “mentioning” and begin to take religion seriously. If they do, it will be good for education and good for the American experiment in religious liberty.