Religion and Spirit at The Huffington Post

In a recent piece for Religion Nerd (“The Nonpocalypse as Postmodern Ritual”), I mistook Ben Ritz’s snarky Huffington Post satire of the Family Radio preacher, Harold Camping (“Rapture Occurs, But No One Worth Saving”), for actual news coverage. Given the hyperbole of Camping’s May 21, 2011 “End Times” fiasco, discerning fact from fantasy was admittedly rather challenging, and so the (quickly corrected) oversight seems to have been largely forgiven.

Still, this rather embarrassing circumstance has lead me to take a closer look at the categories by which HP divides up and delivers its news world. As is well known to regular visitors to the HP site, sandwiched between the banner and the day’s typically
dramatic cover story (e.g., “Grocery Workers on Hunger Strike”), runs a horizontal
strip of links (often in cool earth-tones and pastels) indicating HP’s editorial taxonomy (below these are represented vertically).

  • FRONT PAGE
  • POLITICS
  • BUSINESS
  • ENTERTAINMENT
  • MEDIA
  • TECH
  • COMEDY
  • STYLE
  • WORLD
  • FOOD
  • HEALTHY LIVING
  • IMPACT
  • MORE
  • LOCAL

RELIGION is notably absent from the first-tier of narrative options, though this is hardly
unique among online news sites. The National Public Radio web page, for instance, offers a wide range of news categories, from Politics, World, Science, and Technology, to All Songs Considered, Talk of the Nation, and Car Talk, but no Religion, which must be manually requested via the NPR search bar.

Nor (as some might expect) is HP’s RELIGION housed within the providential rubrics of WORLD, IMPACT, LOCAL, or even HEALTHY LIVING, but under MORE and at the tail end of EDUCATION, COLLEGE, and DIVORCE. HEALTHY LIVING does in fact offer religiously relevant sub-categories–those of BODY, MIND, and SPIRIT–but the stories offered here have little to do with RELIGION.

RELIGION narratives follow a fairly narrow discursive path, discussing: recent events within well-known institutions (e.g., that Robert Schuller’s Crystal Cathedral mega-church
is up for sale); historical and philosophical issues associated with monolithically construed traditions, BUDDHISM, CHRISTIANITY, ISLAM; pressing social justice issues (such as public acceptance of same-sex marriages), and communities in need of assistance (e.g., following recent storms and tornadoes in the south).

Stories housed under SPIRIT, apparently, may be accessed through RELIGION, though the reverse is not the case. They also move along a different conceptual trajectory. These stories are about inner transformation and spiritual growth, swapping stress for serenity, negative emotions for inner peace and harmony, and achieving personal and professional success. In so far as they appropriate the resources of religious institutions for pragmatic ends (e.g., yoga, meditation, or prayer to escape anxiety), they may also show up in
RELIGION. In short, SPIRIT stories show us how to achieve, and transcendentalize,
the life we want, all the while remaining free of institutional entanglements.

That such a popular site should trade in the “spiritual vs. religious” distinction is
hardly surprising. Still, it is perhaps worthwhile to pause and consider the larger cultural interests served; that is, the forms of cultural work performed by the taxonomy discussed above.

Restricting RELIGION to well-established institutions (as opposed to free-wheeling prophets such as Harold Camping), charity for the suffering, justice for the oppressed, and
philosophizing about the nature of God and cosmos, channels our assumptions and
energies along distinctly liberal Protestant paths. More, it provides a check
upon more sectarian religious resources available at, say, Bob Jones University,
Liberty University, or Regents University. It also offers some initial (if
hardly reliable) ground-rules for the socialization and successful integration
of religious communities originating from quite different cultural circumstances.
Hence the frequent HP stories assuring us that the many different religious cultures coming to America love the prevailing neo-liberal versions of democracy, capitalism, and in fact American social norms, just as “we” do.

Keeping SPIRITUALITY tied to feeling good and personal success likewise speaks to powerful social interests. Not only do a large number of Americans continue to self-identify as spiritual but not religious, flourishing corporate empires are predicated upon this distinction (e.g., Oprah).

In a late-capitalist, neo-liberal society clearly committed to the corporate welfare state, it may well be the case that the careful maintenance of the categories RELIGION and SPIRIT as they are configured here forestalls a challenge to other social, political, and economic priorities and commitments.

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