Religion Dispatches

By Jeff Sharlet

New on the gods beat: Religion Dispatches, created by two religious studies scholars, Gary Laderman of Emory and Linell Cady of Arizona State, and a journalist, Evan Derkacz, formerly of Alternet. They’re joined by Lisa Webster, a veteran of Tricycle: the Buddhist Review.

And me — I’ll be writing “This is Not a Religion Column,” for them every two weeks, starting with today’s un-religion column, “The Religious Vote of the Future, With a Pickle.”

Religion Dispatches is unabashedly progressive, an attempt by scholars and writers engaged with religion to wrestle public control of the very concept from the Right. That doesn’t make it monolithically liberal, though. Its first week, for instance, features writers ranging from the center to the real left (of liberalism, that is), and some sharply conflicting views. I’ve been arguing that Mike Huckabee’s campaign is a sign that evangelical electoral power remains strong, if not definitive, for instance, but Religion Dispatches contributor Ira Chernus disagrees, arguing instead that Christian conservative power is a media creation. I couldn’t disagree more, but that’s the point of Religion Dispatches, arguments like ours. From the site’s self-description:

In recent years the importance of religion and the role it plays in public life have become more obvious and increasingly significant. However, as the statistics above indicate, the public understanding of religion remains shallow and often one-sided. Into this picture comes ReligionDispatches, co-directed by Gary Laderman of Emory University and Linell Cady of Arizona State University. With funding from the Ford Foundation, we will provide a platform for expert, critical exploration of religion in the contemporary world for a general readership.

The lack of a complex and nuanced understanding of religions and their myriad roles can be seen on a variety of levels. Within the national arena it is demonstrated by the almost total identification in the public imagination of religion and conservative Christian political perspectives. As a result progressive views about religion are all too often labeled as non-religious or anti-religious and dismissed as insufficiently legitimate to merit consideration. Within the global context religious voices and movements are often identified as forms of fundamentalism; dangers to the modern secular West. When associated with Islam, for example, we are left with a highly misleading and destructive “clash of civilizations” narrative.

Conservative groups have been especially effective in shaping public perceptions of religion. Through well-organized and funded institutional structures, including think tanks, foundations, and news organizations, these conservative, often Christian-identified, groups have dictated the terms of the public debate on religion. Unfortunately, there are fewer and less effective media that utilize the resources of the field most directly concerned with religion.

In its opening years, ReligionDispatches will focus special attention on a range of urgent matters, including the relationship between religion and violence; new realities associated with religious pluralism; issues tied to democracy, religion and immigration; and, explorations of religion, HIV/AIDS, and sexuality. We have also begun to establish partnerships with universities across the country and a number of like-minded organizations such as People for the American Way and Center for American Progress, and secured professionals from a wide spectrum of fields to serve on our Advisory Council.
In the coming weeks ReligionDispatches will feature everything from book and film reviews to blogs to sustained reflection on topics of the day, including in-depth coverage of the 2008 election by regular contributors Jeff Sharlet, Lori Alvord, Kim Bobo, Anthony Pinn, Randall Balmer, Mark Jordan, Manuel Vasquez, Dan Ramirez, Kathryn Lofton, S. Brent Plate, David Biale and many more. Special features include: “Dispatches From,” a rotating series of essays by writers commenting from inside the beltway, in the workplace, at the borderlands, and on the body; “Religion 101,” a short summary of a key religious term in the news, part of an expanding archive; and “RD Blog,” a variegated lineup of ReligionDispatches bloggers, including Ira Chernus, Jonathan Walton, Michael Lerner, Shabana Mir, Svend White, Gabriel McKee and more.

Go to Religion Dispatches now to read more.