Making the American Religious Fringe: Exotics, Subversives, and Journalists, 1955-1993

By Hollander, Barry | Journalism History, Spring 2004 | Go to article overview

Making the American Religious Fringe: Exotics, Subversives, and Journalists, 1955-1993


Hollander, Barry, Journalism History


McCloud, Sean. Making the American Religious Fringe: Exotics, Subversives, and Journalists, 19551993. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2004. 288 pp. $19.95.

Few stories challenge journalists more than religion. War, politics, and the workings of government are the mainstays of news coverage, and journalists are generally good at explaining what is happening and what it means. When religious beliefs and practices become the story, however, the results are often less than satisfying.

Magazines particularly have long struggled to keep stones about faith and valvies in context and to avoid overplaying, or oversimplifying, complex beliefs without preying on the fears of their readers. Indeed, the magazines one reads can often be as telling as any personality test, so it stands to reason that the stories magazines choose to tell-and how they tell them-will say a great deal about where society draws its social boundaries of what is acceptable and what lurks out there on the fraying edges of acceptability. Scan McCloud turns a critical and historical eye not merely at how magazines covered religion over nearly forty years but how such coverage established some faiths as mainstream and others as existing just beyond the norm.

In Making the American Religious Fringe, McCloud is less interested in fringe religions than "the characteristics that many of the largest and most influential magazines attributed to groups that they labeled fringe." I Ie casts a wide net, seeking out portrayals of various religions from 1955 to 1993 to argue that magazines pushed to the margins those religious movements that tended to attract individuals often viewed as living outside mainstream America, primarily the working class and ethnic minorities. Journalists encouraged this sense of the "fringe" by concentrating on a number of factors inherent in certain religious movements: the expressions of emotion, the geographic location of where movements could be found (particularly in the South and in California), and die socioeconomic status of those fueling such movements (particularly among the poor). Even more interesting and important, he underscores how fluid this Une became as scandals emerged in so-called "mainstream" religions.

While this book is an important addition to the sociology of religion, there is little here to surprise media scholars familiar with the classic work of Herbert Gans, who long ago noted that among the shared values of journalists are a suspicion of those with extreme beliefs and a preference for maintaining social order. McCloud argues often, and compellingly, that magazines portrayed new religious movements in a skeptical, if not antagonistic, manner as a response to the perception that these movements threatened mainstream America. Magazines used labels such as "cult" and stones on brainwashing, despite scant evidence that such incidents occurred, to push certain emerging movements to the fringe.

McCloud provides ample evidence of negative coverage of the Nation of Islam and then dips into the Louisiana Legislative Committee on Un-American Activities and its interest in that group in the 1960s. While he concedes the report is a state government document and not a magazine article, he concludes that the similarities between the government's position and that of many general-interest magazines is suggestive of "shared ideological commitments" during the Cold War.

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