"Christianity Is for Rubes; Buddhism Is for Actors": U.S. Media Representations of Buddhism in the Wake of the Tiger Woods' Scandal

By Mitchell, Scott A. | Journal of Global Buddhism, January 1, 2012 | Go to article overview

"Christianity Is for Rubes; Buddhism Is for Actors": U.S. Media Representations of Buddhism in the Wake of the Tiger Woods' Scandal


Mitchell, Scott A., Journal of Global Buddhism


Abstract

Critical analysis of U.S. media representations of Buddhists and Buddhism can reveal American attitudes toward this minority religion as well as how Buddhism is being spread in Western, non-Buddhist cultures. This paper examines such representations in the wake of revelations of Tiger Woods' sexual scandal, a time when Buddhism was much in the news. I argue that Buddhism was here deployed in the service of a pre-existing narrative of conflict between conservatives and liberals and, by making appeals to secular scholars to define Buddhism, Buddhist voices were obscured or ignored. Finally, despite having their own media outlets, U.S. Buddhists were unable to effectively counter such representations either by perpetuating pre-existing media narratives or by ignoring them altogether.

Introduction

In late 2009, professional golfer Tiger Woods' numerous extramarital affairs became the subject of tabloids and late-night talk shows. In the familiar pattern of other celebrities, politicians and public figures, Woods would eventually hold a press conference, apologize to his family, fans, and sponsors, vow to enter rehab, and turn to religion to set his life straight. Unlike other publically shamed celebrities, however, the religion Woods turned to was not Christianity but Buddhism. And so it was that for a brief moment in the early months of 2010, "Tiger Woods' Buddhism" seemed to be everywhere in the mainstream media. Whereas the bulk of this coverage focused on Woods, his private life, and the consequences of his actions on his golf game, the media did spend a good deal of time discussing Buddhism directly, representing it in specific ways. Whether as a religion that was capable of competing with Christianity as a panacea for a troubled celebrity, or as a religion that had effectively transformed itself from the alternative spirituality of hippies and Beatniks into a "down-to-earth, family guy" faith (Stephenson, 2010), the media struggled with how best to represent Buddhism and its relevance to the ongoing narrative of Tiger Woods' fall from grace. Newsman and Evangelical Christian Brit Hume stated on Fox News that, as far as he knew, Buddhism did not offer the type of forgiveness or redemption Woods needed; therefore, he should convert to Christianity to turn his life around. Former CNN anchor Rick Sanchez went looking for answers in a televised interview with a Buddhist meditation teacher and, later, the CNN Twitter feed. And Bill Maher joked, "if I was a golfer, I'd go with Jesus-because he's a Trinity, so when you walk with him, you've got a foursome. Christianity is for rubes. Buddhism is for actors" (Maher 2010).

Sarcastic late-night diatribes aside, such media representations of Buddhism and Buddhists can reveal much about how Buddhism is transmitted into traditionally non-Buddhist cultures. Whereas it is difficult to determine the exact number of practicing Buddhists in the United States-indeed it is seemingly impossible to arrive at a consensus of who should be counted as a Buddhist in the first place-most surveys put the number at around one per cent.1 Despite the low numbers, however, Americans seem to have had significant contact with and feel generally positive about Buddhists and Buddhism. A 2003 study suggests that 55% of Americans have had some contact with Buddhists or Buddhism and that more than half of respondents associate words such as "tolerant" or "peace loving" with Buddhism (Wuthnow and Cadge, 2004: 204). The low number of self-identified Buddhists combined with the widespread positive exposure Buddhism seems to enjoy in the United States led Thomas Tweed to rightly ask "Why are Buddhists so nice?" in his comparison of U.S. media representations of Buddhists and Muslims (Tweed, 2008). Wuthnow's 2005 study on American religious diversity further suggests that media representations of Buddhism are reinforcing the stereotype that all Buddhists meditate, forcing Buddhist communities that do not emphasize this practice to adapt to newcomers' expectations (Wuthnow, 2005: 92-93). …

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