Posted by: Alison | September 2, 2010

Responsible citizenship, religion, and media consumption

There’s been a lot of religion mixing it up with politics lately. I guess that’s not so unusual, but between this whole Park51 debacle (a “controversy” so incontrovertible it hardly merits mentioning) and Glenn Beck practically claiming to be the second coming, I feel kind of obligated to comment. As a community organizer for a faith-based advocacy organization, potentially as a future minister, and as a registered lobbyist (only in the great state of Minnesota), it seems as if I would at least be able to comment on the many different ways that religion and politics intersect.

Thing is, I’ve been puzzling guiltily—especially the past few weeks—about the influence religion has in the public sector. The last thing I want is for my legislators to vote based on what s/he believes the Bible says—so why am I working so hard for a religious perspective to have voice at the (state) capitol? If I consider the beliefs of other people to be so inappropriate because of their grounding in religious morality, so much so that I believe their voice shouldn’t be represented in our legal systems, what business do I have promoting a progressive religious version of the same?

So, I want to add another component to the conversation we’ve been having here (that conversation about our consumption of information through the media and about our confirmation biases): a piece about responsible citizenship.

A “citizen” shouldn’t be so narrow as to limit it to terms of legality or nationality; instead, it should connote a sense of belonging, of contributing to a community, and taking action within community institutions. When we participate in institutions—when we vote, work, attend school, organize meetings, go to church—we’re acting as citizens, and for the most part, we bring our whole selves into that space with us. I think this include our values, our ethics, and/or our beliefs (or lack thereof).

It doesn’t matter whether our values come from the Bible or the Koran or our family or our community or Kant or science. Our sense of ethics accompany all of us into the public world, dictating how we treat one another, what kind of media we choose to consume, what kind of communities we choose to support, which activities we choose to enact, and yes: how we vote.

What troubles me about this model of is that values influence the way we filter information, and good (unbiased) information is what informs us to improve upon our values.

The question for me, I guess, is no longer about whether or not Beck has the right to spew his hateful language across the airwaves (or, for that matter, whether or not I think my work is wrong!). Regardless of how much it gets under my skin, of course he has the right to do so, and it’s the particular promise of democracy that people can speak out of religious conviction—or any other misguided conviction—and not be punished for it, so long as they’re not harming anyone.

No, I’m concerned about how much information one individual is able to consume in one day, and whether or not people are selecting media that will stretch them to consider thinking about the world in a new way. I suspect that hardly anyone chooses to consume much they don’t already agree with. So how do we know which news sources can be trusted? If Fox News is skewed, then isn’t also the Huffington Post?

In a world when everyone is posturing and pitted against one another, who do we turn to for rational, unbiased analysis? How centrist IS centrist, and how can we judge any source if we don’t trust the values by which we judge it? Are news outlets preventing us from being responsible citizens? Do our values inhibit us from personal growth and exploration? How do we know who to trust?

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