Saturday, July 21, 2012

Religion and Morality: A Strained Relationship

The following proposition seems to me in a high degree probable – namely, that any animal whatever, endowed with well-marked social instincts, the parental and filial affections being here included, would inevitably acquire a moral sense or conscience, as soon as its intellectual powers had become as well, or nearly as well developed, as in man.~ Charles Darwin [1]

Excellence is an art won by training and habituation: we do not act rightly because we have virtue or excellence, but we rather have these because we have acted rightly . . . we are what we repeatedly do.~ Will Durant [2]

Early in April 2007, a seventeen year-old Kurdish girl named Du’a Khalil Aswad was violently executed in northern Iraq by the members of the extremist Yazidi religious community she belonged to [3]. Her capital offense was become romantically involved with a young man from another religion, a Sunni Muslim boy, with whom she had stayed out all night away from her home [4]. Aswad was literally stoned to death; rocks were physically thrown at her by a crowd of eight or nine men until she died, about thirty minutes into the stoning.

Regardless of what their religious beliefs might be, the vast majority of Americans would look at a story like this and rightly denounce it as an utterly evil and despicable occurrence, and be reminded of how thankful they should be that we are much more civilized than that. However, many of these same Americans (80 percent of whom identify as Christian) do not recognize that what happened to Aswad in the town of Bashiqa, Iraq is precisely what is prescribed in the holy book a great many of them claim to follow and revere as the morally-correct solution to the problem of teenage waywardness and rebellion against parental authority. Just because most Christians in America have graduated away from these barbaric customs does nothing to change the fact that the Judeo-Christian religion they adhere to demands such customs.

It is therefore highly ironic to me that, in my own experience, morality seems to be the last bastion of argumentation religious theists present in their debates with me. When it is explained to them that there are several evolutionary explanations for and accounts of morality, a typical response from the theist is to ask where the sense of obligation to be moral comes from, given a naturalistic origin. This line of argumentation is not limited to the lay believer. Many trained theologians have attempted to argue that our sense of moral obligation itself constitutes proof of the existence of God. Christian apologist William Lane Craig goes so far as to propose that, “We cannot . . . truly be good without God; but if we can in some measure be good, then it follows that God exists [5].”

I say we should examine this claim scientifically. Let us treat as a hypothesis the assertion that God is the source of morals and values, and then proceed to evaluate the consequences that should obtain given that hypothesis. If by “morality” we mean the behaviors which allow sentient, rational beings to live together in peace and harmony (all other things being equal), then there are objective behaviors that promote that end and objective behaviors that detract from it, and this is why we are justified in treating the moral claim of the theists as a scientific proposition to be scrutinized [6].

There are a number of consequences one would expect to see if it is true that our morals and values derive from the kind of God most theists believe in and worship. Most importantly, religious people should behave better; that is, they should commit fewer crimes, engage in child abuse less often, abuse their wives less often, etc. But across the board, there is no evidence that any difference exists between the religious and the nonreligious. In fact, as Michael Shermer reports in his important book The Science of Good and Evil, “Not only is there no evidence that a lack of religiosity leads to less moral behavior, a number of studies actually support the opposite conclusion [7].” While there is no need to belabor this particular point here, it is abundantly clear that there is no sign that people who are god-fearing are any better morally than nonbelievers. Even Christian publications, such as George Barna’s Index of Leading Spiritual Indicators, Relevant magazine and World magazine (among others), have acknowledged and commented on this fact. Surveys conducted by religious pollsters among their own fellow believers have found, for example, that Christian teenagers are just as much involved in premarital sex as their non-Christian counterparts [8] and that born-again Christians are much more likely to get divorced than are non-Christians [9]. This is understandably troubling to the writers and editors of the Christian publications who fully admit and report on this finding, since they believe they are doing their best to teach and instill morality in the younger generation.

Indeed, religion and morality have experienced very strained relations throughout history. This undeniable observation constitutes a good reason why human beings are rationally justified in objecting to so-called “religious morality.” A great deal of what religionists deem to be moral are things that most of the non-religious world immediately and intuitively recognizes as immoral. For example, when the head of the Catholic Church does not allow condoms to be distributed among impoverished Africans [10], many of whom then contract AIDS as a result, in what way has the Catholic Church acted morally? To be sure, the African is certainly being more religious by not using a condom, but this is irrelevant; institutions and individuals introduce more suffering into the world when they make decisions on a religious basis, rather than on a sensible and rational evaluation of what is best for humanity as a whole.

It has been objectively and indisputably shown that parents who refuse to vaccinate their children are endangering not only their own children’s lives, but also the lives of other children with whom the unvaccinated children interact in the classroom and on the playground [11]. Here again is an example of an unfortunate situation that clearly works against the benefit of most people. Why does this situation exist? It exists because of the religious belief held by many people that our divinely created bodies are not to be modified by any medical technology. This is the kind of irrational thinking process that all genuinely moral people must object to. By the same token, it is moral to strongly object to the global “gag rule,” by which government agencies not only seek to limit what can be talked about in women’s clinics around the world, but also threaten to cease funding to clinics whose staff even mentions abortion or condoms or safe sex [12].

Non-religious and freethinking people who actively object to these things have unwittingly helped give rise to the persistent myth of the “militant atheist” or the “fundamentalist atheist.” These are pejorative labels that most of the so-called “new atheists” such as Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris have been tagged with [13]. I myself have often been labeled as a fundamentalist atheist. My response is this: I would prefer that religious people not hold to their religious beliefs, simply because I prefer to live in a world where everybody acts rationally (which I assume I am). But I am not objecting in principle to people holding whatever private beliefs they might have. My objections are directed toward what they do on behalf of those beliefs when, for example, they attempt to impose them upon other people in the interests of forcing everybody else to live according to the dictates of their particular “God-given morality.”

The Classical Greek philosopher Plato showed over two millennia ago that the concept of a “God-given morality” is not even a meaningful concept. The famous Euthyphro dilemma [14], found in Plato’s Euthyphro dialogue, asks the question: Are morally good acts willed by God because they are good, or are they morally good because they are willed by God? At the heart of this question is an unsolvable conundrum for the theist: If God wills us to engage in morally good acts because such acts are really morally good, this implies that God is subject to a standard higher than himself. On the other hand, if the decrees and commands of God are moral merely because it is God who wills them, then we are not dealing with objective and authentic morality but rather a morality by fiat that proceeds arbitrarily (see figure below).

(Image retrieved from John Danaher's blog Philosophical Disquisitions [15])

Francis Collins on Morality

A great many books have described in detail the social problems associated with religion, and I do not presume to add anything to the fine body of work on the subject. But there is an argument persistently put forth by theologians that I am compelled to address in my own way. Some of these theologians also happen to be scientists. My case in point is geneticist and evangelical Christian apologist Francis Collins, current director of the National Institutes of Health and former head of the successful and groundbreaking Human Genome Project. In his bestselling 2006 book The Language of God, Collins simplistically and naively argues that his belief in a personal God is confirmed by his own inner sense of morality, his inner intuition of what is good and what is bad. Collins does not see how that inner sense could have arisen without God in the picture. After quoting at length the theistic argument from human morality as presented by the early twentieth-century Christian apologist C.S. Lewis, Collins writes,

Encountering this argument at the age of twenty-six, I was stunned by its logic. Here, hiding in my own heart as familiar as anything in daily experience, but now emerging for the first time as a clarifying principle, this Moral Law shone its bright white light into the recesses of my childish atheism, and demanded a serious consideration of its origin. Was this God looking back at me?

And if that were so, what kind of God would this be? Would this be a deist God, who invented physics and mathematics and started the universe in motion about 14 billion years ago, then wandered off to deal with other, more important matters, as Einstein thought? No, this God, if I was perceiving Him at all, must be a theist God, who desires some kind of relationship with those special creatures called human beings, and has therefore instilled this special glimpse of Himself into each one of us. This might be the God of Abraham, but it was certainly not the God of Einstein [16].

One need not be a scientist to see the fallacy in Collins’ viewpoint. All one must do is look at the facts of history. Morality developed long before any religion did; before humans ever invented religion or gods, primitive humanity had a keen sense of morality that allowed them to survive, a sense perhaps far more sensitive and pronounced than in the present day. And the moral sense is not confined to just humans, as if we were endowed from above with a special trait that sets us apart on a higher plane. It has been clearly demonstrated that many animal species exhibit a distinct kind of proto-morality [17]. “Our moral sentiments,” writes Shermer, “evolved out of premoral feelings of our hominid, primate, and mammalian ancestors, the remnants of which can be found in modern apes, monkeys, and other big-brained mammals [18].” After surveying a small sampling of the hundreds of examples of lower animal proto-morality in the scientific literature, Shermer concludes,
The following characteristics appear to be shared by humans and other mammals, including and especially the apes, monkeys, dolphins, and whales: attachment and bonding, cooperation and mutual aid, sympathy and empathy, direct and indirect reciprocity, altruism and reciprocal altruism, conflict resolution and peacemaking, deception and deception detection, community concern and caring about what others think about you, and awareness of and response to the social rules of the group [19].
Collins disputes this, writing, “Though other animals may at times appear to show glimmerings of a moral sense, they are certainly not widespread, and in many instances other species’ behavior seems to be in dramatic contrast to any sense of universal rightness [20].” Sam Harris offers this thorough and hard-hitting rebuttal, which I will not attempt to improve upon:
One wonders if the author has ever read a newspaper. The behavior of humans offers no such “dramatic contrast.” How badly must human beings behave to put this “sense of universal rightness” in doubt? And just how widespread must “glimmerings” of morality be among other animals before Collins—who, after all, knows a thing or two about genes—begins to wonder whether our moral sense has evolutionary precursors in the natural world? What if mice showed greater distress at the suffering of familiar mice than unfamiliar ones? (They do.) What if monkeys will starve themselves to prevent their cage-mates from receiving painful shocks? (They will.) What if chimps have a demonstrable sense of fairness when receiving food rewards? (They have.) Wouldn’t these be precisely the sorts of findings one would expect if our morality were the product of evolution? [21]

Biblical Morality

So, does the morality of humans and of the lower animals come from God? In addressing this question, let us start with examining the sources people cite when arguing the affirmative. The sources used are usually holy scriptures. For example, one often hears Christians claiming that the New Testament is the greatest document of moral teaching ever penned. And yet the New Testament contains not a single original moral teaching.

Furthermore, there are many teachings and principles in the Bible that most people, including Christians, certainly regard as immoral in any other context. For example, the Bible clearly supports slavery in no uncertain terms and even regulates its practice:

When you buy a Hebrew slave, he shall serve six years, and in the seventh he shall go out free, for nothing. If he comes in single, he shall go out single; if he comes in married, then his wife shall go out with him. If his master gives him a wife and she bears him sons or daughters, the wife and her children shall be her master’s and he shall go out alone. But if the slave plainly says, ‘I love my master, my wife, and my children; I will not go out free,’ then his master shall bring him to God, and he shall bring him to the door or the doorpost; and his master shall bore his ear through with an awl; and he shall serve him for life.

When a man sells his daughter as a slave, she shall not go out as the male slaves do.

(Exodus 21:2-7, Revised Standard Version).

This is a clear instance, not only of biblical support and endorsement of human slavery, but also of the treatment of women as property whose value is less than that of men. Support for the subjugation of women is elsewhere evident throughout the Bible. According to Genesis 2:23, woman is a subsequent and inferior creation to man: “Then the man said, ‘This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called Woman, because she was taken out of Man’” (RSV). This verse is invoked by St. Paul in the New Testament in support of his view of women as inferior beings subject to men’s control:
But I want you to understand that the head of every man is Christ, the head of a woman is her husband, and the head of Christ is God. Any man who prays or prophesies with his head covered dishonors his head, but any woman who prays or prophesies with her head unveiled dishonors her head--it is the same as if her head were shaven. For if a woman will not veil herself, then she should cut off her hair; but if it is disgraceful for a woman to be shorn or shaven, let her wear a veil. For a man ought not to cover his head, since he is the image and glory of God; but woman is the glory of man. (For man was not made from woman, but woman from man. Neither was man created for woman, but woman for man.)

(I Corinthians 11:3-9, RSV)

The subjugation of women is a common and recurring theme throughout both the Old and New Testament. Following is merely a small sampling:
[T]he women should keep silence in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak, but should be subordinate, as even the law says. If there is anything they desire to know, let them ask their husbands at home. For it is shameful for a woman to speak in church (I Corinthians 14:34-35, RSV).

Wives, be subject to your husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, and is himself its Savior. As the church is subject to Christ, so let wives also be subject in everything to their husbands (Ephesians 5:22-24, RSV).

Let a woman learn in silence with all submissiveness. I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over men; she is to keep silent. For Adam was formed first, then Eve; and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor (I Timothy 2:11-14, RSV).

Biblical Relativism

People who claim that they use the Bible as a source of their morality are being highly disingenuous, whether consciously or unconsciously. Fortunately, very few people actually base their morality on the Bible. If they did, they would be in full support of a number of other social ills we find fully endorsed and even commanded in the pages of the Bible, among them slavery and the subjugation of women, as we have already seen. But thankfully, most modern-day Bible believers do not support these evils. What they have done instead is to decide for themselves what is right and what is wrong, in just the same way atheists and all other non-Christians do. Bible believers routinely pick-and-choose aspects of the Bible to incorporate into their moral framework; wherever the Bible happens to say something they perceive to be morally proper, they jump on that and claim that they acquired that piece of moral literacy from the Bible. But in reality they did nothing of the sort. They inculcated what they perceive to be properly moral from their own personal sense of right and wrong. The vast majority of Christians today certainly do not support slavery. Why not? The Bible certainly does not tell them to stand against slavery. They oppose slavery because they themselves have decided that slavery is bad and not conducive to the functioning of a progressive, healthy society.

Christians who claim they are basing their morality on the Bible are simply not thinking back far enough. Consider: even if a believer were to base his entire moral compass straight from the Bible (one shudders to think of it), he himself has still made the initial decision in the first place that the Bible is a good guidebook. The believer has used his own moral judgment to determine that what he reads in the Bible is actually good. Otherwise, no believer would be able to objectively discern any qualitative difference between God and the Devil [22]. Sure, the Christian Biblicist believes in both of them, and one can find information in the book concerning both personages. But Christian Biblicists have made a personal decision, based on their own subjective morality, that God is the one who is good and not the Devil. Thus, that which Christians often denounce and condemn as “moral relativism” is exactly what the very same Christians are committing when they autonomously choose the Bible as their guide.

But, to be as conciliatory as possible, I am not willing to go so far as to charge Bible believers with moral relativism, as they often do to us nonbelievers. They have simply and legitimately used their own free will to decide what is right and what is wrong. Contrary to the prevailing postmodern viewpoint, an “absolute morality” (for lack of a better term) does exist, in a certain carefully-defined sense. That is, there are a number of moral propositions that we as human beings uniformly believe to be the case. For instance, with the exception of confirmed sociopaths, humans uniformly believe that telling the truth is good. What kind of society would we find ourselves in if people very rarely spoke the truth? Nobody could believe what anybody said [23]. Or what if everybody murdered other people on a regular basis? [24]

In either of these hypothetical cases, a functioning society would obviously not be possible to maintain, and humanity would very soon go extinct as a consequence. As a species, we humans have adopted certain uniform moral precepts based upon our own need to live and thrive together in a productive society. Atheists get their sense of morality from the same source as people who falsely believe they receive it from the Bible. The only difference is that we atheists understand where morality actually comes from: morality emerges naturally out of hundreds of thousands of years of human societal evolution [25].

The only people to whom this naturalistic understanding of morality is not self-evident are those who have simply not bothered to take the time to really think about the issue. Most people, especially the devoutly religious, are far more willing to take the easy path of avoiding deep scrutiny of their beliefs. They are more willing to content themselves with the comforting but apathetic thought that all their moral reasoning comes from a single book dictated by their God, who has done all their moral reasoning for them.

The Sermon on the Mount, the Ten Commandments, and Biblical Illiteracy

The general lack of scrutiny and critical thinking described above is perhaps best evidenced by the impressions and interpretations with which most Christians in this country comprehend and approach the “Golden Rule.” Most Christians tell us that the Golden Rule is the most preeminent and brilliant moral idea, and that it originated in the teachings of Jesus Christ. Where might they have heard such a notion? They certainly did not read it in the Bible. The most common place they hear it propagated is straight from the pulpit, spoken disingenuously by preachers who must know better. Those few churchgoers and average believers who actually read and study the Bible for themselves will find that Jesus does not take any credit for what has come to be known as the Golden Rule, but instead attributes the idea to the prophets of old: “So, whatever you wish that men would do to you, do so to them; for this is the law of the prophets” (Matthew 7:12, RSV).

But the Golden Rule is older even than the ancient Hebrews who penned Leviticus, where the phrase “love thy neighbor as thyself” first appears a thousand years before Christ (Leviticus 19:18). A search through the annals of history shows that virtually every culture that has ever existed featured a Golden Rule in some form:

Confucius (551-479 BCE) taught a Golden Rule philosophy in his work The Doctrine of the Mean, written about 500 BCE: “Do not impose on others what you yourself do not desire” (13.3).

Confucius was hardly breaking new ground; virtually every major moral figure in history, including those who lacked any obvious association with religion, had already established the principle. Before Confucius, the third century biographer Diogenes Laërtius attributed to Thales of Miletus the teaching, “Refrain from doing what we blame in others for doing” (Lives and Opinions of the Eminent Philosophers I,39).

In approximately the year 375 BCE, Isocrates said, “Do not do to others what would anger you if done to you by others [26].”

An Egyptian papyrus dating from the Late Period (640-323 BCE) exhorts, “That which you hate to be done to you, do not do to another [27].”

The Hindu Mahabharata, written around 150 BCE, exhorts its devotees to “deal with others as thou wouldst thyself be dealt with” (5:1517).

Many more instances of the Golden Rule abound throughout history [28].

This is hardly a surprising phenomenon. The Golden Rule philosophy is a very rudimentary and common-sense idea; it should naturally be among the first notions that enter the mind of anybody who even begins to think about how other people should be treated. I reiterate: the Golden Rule is an excellent example of common sense, and we do not require the help of a divine being or a god-man to come up with the idea.

Taken as a whole, the New Testament’s “Sermon on the Mount” is almost always approached uncritically and unreflectively by Christians of all denominations. Over and over again, Christians are heard saying that even people who are not Christians must admit that the teachings and sayings of Jesus were very good and wise ideas. This is not the case. Sure, some of the sayings attributed to Jesus are worthy of being considered items of good moral wisdom. But there are also a number of highly unintelligent and naïve teachings attributed to Jesus as well, particularly in the Sermon on the Mount.

This observation inspired Matt Dillahunty, current president of the Atheist Community of Austin in Texas, to write a detailed and thorough point-by-point deconstruction of the Sermon on the Mount for the Iron Chariots counter-apologetics wiki website. In this excellent deconstruction (which I think should be published in pamphlet form and distributed in every church), Dillahunty unsparingly points out the parts of the Sermon in which Jesus gives downright bad advice as well as the parts in which patently false claims about reality are made [29].

Critical evaluations of the Sermon on the Mount reveal the absurdity of the often-repeated claim that the Sermon is “the greatest speech ever delivered in human history,” simply because it may have tugged at peoples’ heartstrings for two thousand years. But the Sermon on the Mount is not the greatest speech anybody has ever given. Not only does it contain plenty of bad advice, but it also conspicuously lacks any really good advice that most civilized people would consider essential, such as “Do not enslave your fellow man.” Would it not be fitting for Jesus, supposedly the “greatest moral teacher who ever lived,” to have denounced slavery as a bad thing to be avoided by healthy societies and individuals? But Jesus is never reported to have condemned slavery, though he had plenty of opportunity and occasion to do so. Indeed, later in the New Testament, St. Paul positively expresses his support of human slavery very strongly [30]. This will hardly come as a shock to those who have actually read and studied the Bible without the blinders or preset assumptions of pious belief [31].

Fundamentalist Christians in the United States even go so far as to suggest that the American legal system is based on the Ten Commandments, which is ludicrous even by the fundamentalists’ standards of biblical interpretation. Only three of the Ten Commandments are a part of any moral system today. Even this is being generous, since one of these three is a prohibition against the minor societal offense of adultery. While adultery is considered immoral by most people, secular and religious alike, it is not generally illegal in any modern, industrialized country. The remaining two laws, “Thou shalt not kill” and “Thou shalt not steal,” are common-sense laws that certainly predate the early Hebrew culture and was hardly originated by them. The remaining seven laws in the Ten Commandments all consist of Yahweh’s demands that his people worship him and no other deity.

Where in the Ten Commandments (or in the entire Bible, for that matter), do we ever find the concept of democracy or liberty endorsed or even mentioned? It is nowhere to be found, and this should come as no surprise to any reasonable person. Even the concept of the Trinity, a central tenet of Christian dogma, is never actually addressed or even mentioned anywhere in the Bible [32]. Much less so the foundations of American law!

Nevertheless, theists often insist on resorting to the circular and non-falsifiable route of claiming that basic common-sense morality, which naturally manifests itself in almost every culture through teachings like the Golden Rule and laws against murder and theft, is itself an indication of the existence and influence of God. Collins, for example, asserts that our most basic moral instincts constitute “an inkling of what lies beyond, a signpost placed deep within the human spirit pointing toward something much grander than ourselves . . . [33]” The idea here, when expressed in less theological and sentimental language, is that morality is hardwired into humans by a spiritual conduit through the hundreds of thousands of years of our history.

How might a rational skeptic argue with this kind of bland assertion? In the face of all we know about the science of human behavior, this assertion becomes little more than an unnecessary ancillary hypothesis. Why must a supernatural power be posited to explain the hardwiring of morality into human behavior? Natural evolution is already more than capable of providing an explanation that is not only more simple and economical, but also far more plausible and evidence-based [34]. In responding to this theistic rationale, physicist and philosopher Victor Stenger writes, “Okay, so the Abrahamic God could have planted these ideas in people’s minds from the beginning. However, the truth is that we cannot point to the scriptures of Jews, Christians, and Muslims as the unique origin of the Golden Rule. More likely, thoughtful human beings reasoned it out in their own minds as a useful principle that humans could live by to make a better society for all [35].”

Where Do We Go from Here?

Francis Collins demonstrates in his book that his reasons for believing in and committing his life to a personal god who created the universe are not science-based or evidence-derived. Rather, he was convinced to become a theist based on the provably flawed argumentation of a pious children’s author. Moreover, near the end of his book, Collins relates a subjective experience that finally drove him to not just believe in the Christian God, but also to pray to this entity and surrender his life to it:

Lewis was right. I had to make a choice. A full year had passed since I decided to believe in some sort of God, and now I was being called to account. On a beautiful fall day, as I was hiking in the Cascade Mountains during my first trip west of the Mississippi, the majesty and beauty of God’s creation overwhelmed my resistance. As I rounded a corner and saw a beautiful and unexpected frozen waterfall, hundreds of feet high, I knew the search was over. The next morning, I knelt in the dewy grass as the sun rose and surrendered to Jesus Christ [36].
According to a Time magazine profile on Collins [37], the most compelling aspect of the waterfall he stumbled upon during his hike (that which made it so “unexpected”) was that it had frozen into three separate streams. This natural formation powerfully reminded Collins of the Trinity and further cemented his desire to devote himself to Christianity. The fact that this labile self-deception comes from a highly trained scientist is why neuroscientist Sam Harris calls The Language of God “a genuinely astonishing book” and states that those who read it will “witness nothing less than an intellectual suicide [38].” I suggest that a far more accurate subtitle for Collins’s book would be A C.S. Lewis Admirer Presents Emotional Reasons for Belief, for he effectively reduces human morality to subjective feeling and an excuse for credulity throughout.

What I find most disturbing about the Moral Argument for God’s Existence is that the people who promote the argument do so from such a tremendous position of ignorance. Instead of examining the history of moral development in human culture and the sources of modern law, they are content to theorize using very bad philosophy. “I cannot conceive of any way that we can be good, except with the help of a God,” they routinely say. Why not?

Herein is seen the importance of the so-called “New Atheist” movement of the last decade [39]. The goal of the New Atheists, which we are accomplishing little by little as time goes on, is (1) to encourage people from all walks of life to start asking tough questions about beliefs that our culture at large takes for granted, (2) to oblige theistic apologists to think through their arguments more carefully and hold them to a higher standard of critical reasoning and (3) to teach our children to not simply rely on authority (either their own or that of anybody else), but to think for themselves. When and if this goal is realized to a noticeable degree, the world will be a much better place than it is now, when religion dominates.


1. Charles Darwin, The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex Second Edition (New York: D. Appleton & Co., 1901), p. 99.

2. Will Durant (1926), The Story of Philosophy: The Lives and Opinions of the World’s Greatest Philosophers from Plato to John Dewey (New York: Pocket Books, 2006), p. 98.

3. Daily Mail, “The Moment a Teenage Girl Was Stoned to Death for Loving the Wrong Boy,” Daily Mail Online 3 May 2007, (accessed 21 July 2012).

4. Amnesty International, “Iraq: ‘Honour Killing’ of Teenage Girl Condemned as Abhorrent,” 2 May 2007, (accessed 21 July 2012).

5. William Lane Craig, “The Indispensability of Theological Meta-ethical Foundations for Morality,” Foundations 5 (1997): 9-12.

6. Sam Harris, The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values (New York: Free Press, 2010).

7. Michael Shermer, The Science of Good and Evil: Why People Cheat, Gossip, Care, Share, and Follow the Golden Rule (New York: Times Books, 2004), p. 235.

8. Tyler Charles, “(Almost) Everyone’s Doing It,” Relevant September/October 2011, pp. 65-66; Gene Edward Veith, “Sex and the Evangelical Teen,” World August 11, 2007, available online at (accessed 21 July 2012).

9. George Barna, The Index of Leading Spiritual Indicators (Dallas, TX: Word Publishing, 1996).

10. BBC News, “Pope Rejects Condoms for Africa,” BBC News 10 June 2005, (accessed 21 July 2012);, “Pope Visits Africa, Reaffirms Ban on Condoms,” CNN 18 March 2009, (accessed 21 July 2012); Anna Clark, “The Pope is Still Sidestepping the Issue of Contraception and AIDS,” The Guardian 23 November 2011, (accessed 21 July 2012).

11. Paul A. Offit, M.D., Deadly Choices: How the Anti-Vaccine Movement Threatens Us All (New York: Basic Books, 2010); Michael Specter, Denialism: How Irrational Thinking Hinders Scientific Progress, Harms the Planet, and Threatens Our Lives (New York: Penguin Press, 2009), pp. 57-102; Steven Novella, “The Anti-Vaccination Movement,” in Kendrick Frazier, ed., Science Under Siege: Defending Science, Exposing Pseudoscience (Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 2009), 185-194; Richard G. Judelsohn, “Vaccine Safety: Vaccines Are One of Public Health’s Great Accomplishments,” in Frazier, ed., Science Under Siege, pp. 195-6.

12. Sean Faircloth, Attack of the Theocrats: How the Religious Right Harms Us All – and What We Can Do About It (Charlottesville, VA: Pitchstone Publishing, 2012), pp. 45-47.

13. See, for example, Alister McGrath, The Dawkins Delusion: Atheist Fundamentalism and the Denial of the Divine (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2007) and Chris Hedges, When Atheism Becomes Religion: America’s New Fundamentalists (New York: Free Press, 2008).

14. The original formulation of this dilemma is found in Plato’s Euthyphro dialogue (10a): “Is the pious being loved by the gods because it is pious, or is it pious because it is being loved by the gods?” (This is G.M.A. Grube’s translation in Plato: Five Dialogues Second Edition [Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing Company, 2002], p. 12).

15. John Danaher, “God and Morality (Part 2): Owing Duties and the Euthyphro Dilemma,” Philosophical Disquisitions: Things Hid and Barr’d from Common Sense (blog), January 2, 2010, (accessed 21 July 2012).

16. Francis S. Collins, The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief (New York: Free Press, 2006), p. 29.

17. Matt Ridley, The Origins of Virtue: Human Instincts and the Evolution of Cooperation (New York: Viking, 1997); Christopher Boehm, Hierarchy in the Forest: The Evolution of Egalitarian Behavior (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999); Nicholas Wade, “Scientist Finds the Beginnings of Morality in Primate Behavior,” The New York Times March 20, 2007, (accessed 21 July 2012); John Noble Wilford, “Chimpanzees: Almost Human, and Sometimes Smarter,” The New York Times April 17, 2007, (accessed 21 July 2012).

18. Shermer, The Science of Good and Evil, pp. 26-27.

19. Ibid., p. 31.

20. Collins, The Language of God, p. 23.

21. Sam Harris, “The Language of Ignorance,” Truthdig: Drilling Beneath the Headlines 15 August 2006, (accessed 21 July 2012).

22. Indeed, nonbelievers who read and study the Bible have often challenged believers to explain why it is that the supposedly all-powerful God described in the Bible never takes it upon himself to stop Satan from corrupting the world and wreaking havoc on humanity. Unbeknownst to the vast majority of Bible believers, higher biblical criticism has shown that God and Satan, far from being understood as archenemies, were portrayed by the ancients as allies working toward the same ends, at least temporarily. See Nathan Dickey, “Why Does God Not Stop Satan? A Response to Lavern,” The Journeyman Heretic (blog) 6 June 2010, (accessed 21 July 2012) and references therein.

23. Sam Harris, Lying (published as an e-book by, 2011).

24. Steven Pinker, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined (New York: Viking, 2011).

25. There has been an enormous development in recent years of studies on the evolution of morality, with numerous books and articles available at both the scholarly and popular level. See, for example, Robert Axelrod, The Evolution of Cooperation (New York: Basic Books, 1984); Richard D. Alexander, The Biology of Moral Systems (Hawthorne, NY: Aldine de Gruyter, 1987); Robert Wright, The Moral Animal: Why We Are the Way We Are: The New Science of Evolutionary Psychology (New York: Vintage Books, 1994); Frans B.M. de Waal, Good Natured: The Origins of Right and Wrong in Humans and Other Animals (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1996); Matt Ridley, The Origins of Virtue; Larry Arnhart, Darwinian Natural Right: The Biological Ethics of Human Nature (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1998); Elliott Sober and David Sloan Wilson, Unto Others: The Evolution and Psychology of Unselfish Behavior (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1998); Leonard D. Katz, ed., Evolutionary Origins of Morality: Cross-Disciplinary Perspectives (Bowling Green, OH: Imprint Academic, 2000); Jessica C. Flack and Frans B.M. de Waal, “’Any Animal Whatever’: Darwinian Building Blocks of Morality in Monkeys and Apes,” Journal of Consciousness Studies 7, nos. 1-2 (2000): 1-29; Donald M. Broom, The Evolution of Morality and Religion (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003); Shermer, The Science of Good and Evil; M. Rutherford, “The Evolution of Morality,” Groundings 1 (2007); Christopher Boehm, Moral Origins: The Evolution of Virtue, Altruism, and Shame (New York: Basic Books, 2012).

26. Quoted in William F. Loomis, Life As It Is: Biology for the Public Sphere (Berkeley and Los Angeles, CA: University of California Press, 2008), p. 170.

27. Richard Jasnow, A Late Period Hieratic Wisdom Text: P. Brooklyn P. 47.218.135 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992), p. 85.

28. Shermer, The Science of Good and Evil, pp. 25-26.

29. Matt Dillahunty, “Sermon on the Mount,” Iron Chariots: The Counter-Apologetics Wiki n.d. (last updated December 14, 2011), (accessed 20 July 2012).

30. Chapman Cohen, Christianity, Slavery and Labour Third Edition (London: Pioneer Press, 1931), p. 10.

31. Dan Barker, Godless: How an Evangelical Preacher Became One of America’s Leading Atheists (Berkeley, CA: Ulysses Press, 2008), pp. 171-184.

32. Bart D. Ehrman, Jesus, Interrupted: Revealing the Hidden Contradictions in the Bible (and Why We Don’t Know about Them) (New York: HarperOne, 2009), pp. 254-60.

33. Collins, The Language of God, pp. 36-37.

34. For information and references relating to the evolution of morality via naturalistic processes, see Douglas Allchin’s website “The Evolution of Morality,” (accessed 21 July 2012).

35. Victor J. Stenger, God and the Folly of Faith: The Incompatibility of Science and Religion (Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 2012), p. 254.

36. Collins, The Language of God, p. 225.

37. David Van Biema, “Reconciling God and Science,” Time 10 July 2006,,9171,1211593-1,00.html (accessed 21 July 2012). See also Steve Paulson, “The Believer,” Salon 7 August 2006, (accessed 21 July 2012).

38. Harris, The Moral Landscape, p. 160.

39. Victor J. Stenger, The New Atheism: Taking a Stand for Science and Reason (Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 2009).

Monday, July 16, 2012

Religion in American Popular Culture (Part 6): Conclusion

Part 1: Introduction

Part 2: Secular vs. Religious Uses of Mass Media

Part 3: Contemporary Christian Music

Part 4: Christian Novels

Part 5: Biblical Epics and Evangelistic Filmmaking

The grip that the modern mass media maintains on all aspects of social life is strong, and it has evolved over the centuries to become an entity through which our understanding of the world and of our interactions with it is filtered. But the mass media is also a mirror, reflecting the values that society at large places on the issues that affect us most, from politics to economics to religion. This is why religion, which has shaped and transformed the lives of individuals and societies, figures so prominently in popular culture and mass media. But the merging of religion with mainstream popular culture is in many ways a bewildering and, for that reason, fascinating paradox, a paradox that is immediately inherent in the very concept of a higher being communicating with lowly humanity, the transference of infinite wisdom to finite and deficient understanding prone to error and distortion. The biggest challenge faced by evangelical religion in the world of popular culture is to simultaneously offer products that transcend materialistic market philosophies and also reach the masses and meet them where they are by imitating secular forms and styles. Evangelical religion, especially in America, has faced this challenge head-on; popular culture is Christianity’s largest and most treaded missionary field.

But religion has only seen partial success in the mission field of popular culture. As Moore writes, “[W]ellness does not carry with it transformative power. The paradigm-busters are nowhere in view. Those people who wait in these times for the numerically impressive organizations of American religion to coalesce into a powerful redemptive force are bound to find the present circumstances profoundly unsatisfying [1].” Although religion has certainly not diminished in the face of growing secularization (and in some respects has been enriched by it), the increasingly blurred between the sacred and the profane has rendered the ideals taught by religion a performance to be participated in by the masses through consumer culture, and not through rigorous ecclesiastical codes of conduct and ritual. According to Stewart Hoover, “[D]espite its intentions and pretensions, the electronic church holds out promise mainly for those who are most easily convinced, not for a broader society in need of some sort of hope [2].” If the “hope” that Hoover mentions here is a reference to something beyond the material, American Christianity certainly cannot offer that. “[M]aterial consumption,” writes James Twitchell, is “an expression of belief. Before we are spiritualists, we are materialists . . . No major religion compares with Christianity for its inventory of totemic stuff [3].”

Religion is every bit as much a performance as is gender or race. Indeed, it must be in order to maintain any semblance of relevancy. This makes evangelical religion a cultural commodity among many others, as there is little relevancy or appeal in cloistered, cult-like messages that promote a stifling sectarian outlook on life. This sectarian outlook is present in the Christian products that have been trapped within the confines of a particular subculture separated from the broader culture. Instead of merging with secular culture seamlessly, religion has been too transparent that what it is often engaging in is imitation, and the secular, diverse world of consumers can see this all too clearly. “That it [the modern church] fails to reach many aside from those who already are adherents suggests that its cultural appeal is very limited, indeed [4].”

To the extent that secularization of the sacred has actually enriched American religion, it has done so by universalizing its message, not by making a narrow, fundamentalist worldview appealing to the masses. This universalization has effectively diluted the “narrow path to salvation” philosophy that Christianity advocated for centuries. Further research can and should be conducted on how popular culture was one force among many that dragged a religion rooted in ancient tradition and medieval philosophy into the modern age that obliged it to conform to a more healthy humanism and progressive morality, since most research in this area focuses on the role and influence of science and civil philosophy in this regard.


1. R. Laurence Moore, Selling God: American Religion in the Marketplace of Culture (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994), pp. 275-276.

2. Stewart M. Hoover, Mass Media Religion: The Social Sources of the Electronic Church (Newbury Park, CA: Sage Publications, 1988), p. 245.

3. James B. Twitchell, Shopping for God: How Christianity Went From In Your Heart to In Your Face (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2007), pp. 61-62.

4. Hoover, Mass Media Religion, p. 245.

Religion in American Popular Culture (Part 5): Biblical Epics and Evangelistic Filmmaking

But he could laugh and cough, couldn’t he? He’s always depicted as so solemn, walking slowly, with his hands held like this . . .” [1]

The Public, bless ‘em, must have a pretty face to look at . . . Well, isn't there any romance or adventure in the world without having a flapper in it?” ~ Carl Denham, from the movie King Kong (1933)

When Mel Gibson’s movie The Passion of the Christ hit theaters in February of 2004, both the filmmakers and some segments of the general public were taken aback by the resounding success and popularity it achieved. It was not anticipated that a movie whose source inspiration was a medieval book of esoteric Passion visions penned in the 19th century by an Augustinian stigmatic nun [2], and which was dubbed entirely in the dead language of Aramaic, would make much of an impact on the modern movie-going public [3].

Hollywood veteran Mel Gibson fully realized the financial risks accompanying a bold venture such as this. But contrary to modest expectations and tentative, awkward steps in initial marketing and release that was unconventional almost by necessity, The Passion of the Christ did indeed make a resounding impact. According to an online poll conducted by (answered by approximately twelve thousand people and sponsored by Zondervan, the world’s largest publisher of Bibles), 62 percent were reading the Bible more as a result of seeing the movie. The poll also found that 41 percent of respondents had a more positive view of the Bible after seeing the movie, while 75 percent indicated when asked that the movie portrayed events “very close” to the Bible’s account of Jesus’ death [4].

This last statistic is of particular interest; it is no secret that images are rapidly replacing texts as a primary vehicle for information of all kinds, especially entertainment. This unseating of textual mediums means that, in a country for whose citizens religion is a deeply-embedded preoccupation, visual media is an obvious direction for communication of a distinctly religious (and especially evangelistic) bent to venture down. Religious themes have found their way into the medium of film almost from its very inception. As Robert Johnston points out in his book Reel Spirituality, religious subjects were prominent in many early films, many of which were made by religious people, and as the relationship between the church and the movie industry grew and matured, so did the quality of the way in which religion and the Bible were presented [5].

Midrash at the Movies

The ubiquity of this growth and maturation is evidenced by the fact that the version of the Old Testament with which a wide swath of the American public is most familiar is that of Cecil B. DeMille’s 1956 epic film The Ten Commandments. Because of this well-known cultural blockbuster, which highly sanitizes the biblical life of Moses, a surprising number of people who revere the Bible are not even aware that the Moses character is depicted in the Book of Exodus as a sneaky murderer who goes on to lead a massive, ideologically-motivated slaughter of over 3,000 of his own people whom he initially freed from Egypt (Exodus 32).

The “cinematic redactors” (as I like to call them) were aided in their Midrashic process by their liberal use of sources. In crafting the script, the writers of The Ten Commandments drew not only from the Old Testament’s Book of Exodus, but also from the writings of Philo of Alexandria [6] and Josephus [7], both of whom added several creative details to the story. In addition to these sources, the film writers incorporated material from three fiction novels about Moses written between the mid-to-late nineteenth century and the middle of the twentieth century [8].

The New Testament’s Gospels are similarly cinematic and dramatized in the minds of most of the American public, more so than anciently textual. In addition to Mel Gibson’s wildly popular Passion of the Christ, other successful cinematic ventures have included Franco Zeffirelli’s equally-Catholicizing but much-cleaner 1977 miniseries Jesus of Nazareth and Norman Jewison’s Jesus Christ Superstar, the 1973 film adaptation of the Andrew Lloyd Webber/Tim Rice rock opera of the same name. More recent offerings include Catherine Hardwicke’s 2006 American film The Nativity Story and the BBC’s 2010 miniseries The Nativity in the UK (written by Tony Jordan and directed by Coky Giedroyc).

Movies like The Ten Commandments have become the new definitive version of the Old Testament’s legendary tales, the Book of Exodus having been relegated to the stack of raw material. On a general level, this is not a new trend. It is the modern incarnation of the homiletic Midrashim method of interpretation, applied in ancient times to biblical texts to fill in gaps left in the scriptural narratives. It is also essentially the same process indulged in by the Aramaic Targum, which popularized paraphrases and etiological expansions of the Jewish scriptures in the common language of the people near the end of the last century before the Christian Era. Even in Josephus’s classic historical work Antiquities of the Jews (composed near the end of the first century CE), Josephus promises his readers at the outset that to give only the most accurate details of the historical events, not adding or subtracting anything:

And now I exhort all those that peruse these books, to apply their minds to God; and to examine the mind of our legislator [Moses], whether he hath not understood his nature in a manner worthy of him; and hath not ever ascribed to him such operations as become his power, and hath not preserved his writings from those indecent fables which others have framed, although, by the great distance of time when he lived, he might have securely forged such lies; for he [Moses] lived two thousand years ago; at which vast distance of ages the poets themselves have not been so hardy as to fix even the generations of their gods, much less the actions of their men, or their own laws. As I proceed, therefore, I shall accurately describe what is contained in our records, in the order of time that belongs to them; for I have already promised so to do throughout this undertaking; and this without adding any thing to what is therein contained, or taking away any thing therefrom [9].
However, one finds upon reading the Antiquities that all manner of changes and imaginative additions crept their way in. For instance, consider Josephus’s explanation as to why Pharaoh tries to kill all the male infants and toddlers of the Hebrews; Josephus would have us know that Pharaoh does not undertake this campaign because he is afraid of the Hebrews for any particular reason, but rather because he is fearful of a single prophesied deliverer of his Hebrew minions:
[T]here was this occasion offered itself to the Egyptians, which made them more solicitous for the extinction of our nation. One of those sacred scribes, who are very sagacious in foretelling future events truly, told the king, that about this time there would a child be born to the Israelites, who, if he were reared, would bring the Egyptian dominion low, and would raise the Israelites; that he would excel all men in virtue, and obtain a glory that would be remembered through all ages. Which thing was so feared by the king, that, according to this man's opinion, he commanded that they should cast every male child, which was born to the Israelites, into the river, and destroy it; that besides this, the Egyptian midwives should watch the labors of the Hebrew women, and observe what is born, for those were the women who were enjoined to do the office of midwives to them; and by reason of their relation to the king, would not transgress his commands. He enjoined also, that if any parents should disobey him, and venture to save their male children alive, they and their families should be destroyed [10].
This premise is clearly ahistorical as well as extra-biblical (it is nowhere to be found in Exodus), but most people recognize it immediately, and erroneously believe it to be in the Bible, due to its inclusion in DeMille’s The Ten Commandments.


In addition to their etiological and harmonizing function, films that depict sacred narratives serve an actualizing function. That is, they are visual tools designed, whether consciously or subconsciously, to aid the faithful in visualizing the ancient accounts that form the basis of their worldview. This differs in kind from the enhancing powers of the written word of fiction novels, because visual media presents a ready-made vision to the viewer over which his or her imagination has no altering power, whereas the narratives of fiction novels are conformed to the subjective visions of different readers. In many ways this visual kind of experience is far more compelling to people than text; after all, a great many people would love nothing less than to jump into a time machine and travel back to first-century Palestine to meet Jesus face to face, like Michael Moorcock’s character Karl Glogauer in his science-fiction novel Behold the Man [11], or to be whisked away back in time by some ancient magic to witness firsthand the major stories and events related in the Bible, as in Hanna-Barbera’s animated series The Greatest Adventure.

Of particular importance in interpreting the function of these films in this way is the concept of defamiliarization, the technique of enhancing the familiar by compelling audiences to view things that are commonly recognizable by the audience in an unfamiliar or groundbreaking way that is cathartic or refreshing to the imagination. The Christ narratives certainly fall within the category of the universally familiar. “Like the narratives of Greek tragedy, the Christ narratives dramatise a familiar story, the rudiments of which we are familiar with, even if we may not be believers, perhaps even more so than with those of other biopics, a genre to which in significant ways the Christ narratives belong [12].” Bible scholar Robert M. Price elaborates on this function quite eloquently:

Because the gospel events are extraordinary, superhuman, we have elevated them to the status of religious myth and dogma. And, ironically, these we take for granted! Once one has heard them embedded in dull sermons for years, clubbed to death by a decade of pedantic Sunday School teachers, the shocking mandates of the Sermon on the Mount come to seem as familiar as the words of a TV commercial . . . And so, if the tale is to strike us again, it must be defamiliarized. And the only way to defamiliarize it is to make it sound mundane, profane [13].
However, the concept of defamiliarization constituted a double-edged sword for Christians interested in spreading their gospel via the silver screen. When applied to such a revered figure as Jesus Christ, defamiliarization has the potential to strike many devout believers as subversive or heretical. As Gerald Forshey observes, “Jesus presented quite a different problem [than DeMille’s Moses] because he was the object of faith [14].” It is interesting to note that none of the major Jesus films that came from Hollywood in the twentieth century were produced by explicitly-branded Christian writers or studios, with the sole exception of Barnet Bain’s Jesus (1979). Although Cecil B. DeMille is mostly remembered for his biblical epics, most of his films were not biblically-based or inspired. His 1927 silent film The King of Kings builds up to a great defamiliarizing finale, in which the final sight given of Jesus as he ascends to heaven following his resurrection is above a vision of an urban cityscape in which modernistic architecture combines with belching factory-smoke. The intertitle “Lo, I am with you always” appears, as the music of the well-known hymn “Rock of Ages” plays in the background. Babington and Evans offer the interesting interpretation that this final scene “turns the crisis of evolution (rocks, geological strata, the evidence of the existence of life forms outside the scope of biblical explanation) back, even as we remember that the film was made only two years after the Dayton evolution or ‘Monkey’ trial of 1925, into images of comfort, solidity and refuge [15].”

On the other hand, enterprising evangelists soon realized that adapting their religious message to a secular movie-going audience, who would much rather immerse themselves in a good film than sit through a sermon, meant that they too would have to translate the sacred into the “profane,” to defamiliarize the sacred. But filmmaking of an explicitly Christian brand did not fully mature until the early 1970s. While evangelicals have historically not been fearful of technology and innovation, “it is certainly true that evangelicals were slow in catching on to the evangelistic possibilities of motion pictures, due at least in part to lingering doubts about Hollywood morality and its ‘communist’ sympathies [16].”

Thus, it makes sense that one of the first successful evangelical films to be made, spearheaded by Russell S. Doughten and Donald W. Thompson, featured a plot that explicitly depicted Communist tendencies in government as evil and even Satanic. The use of film media to further evangelistic ends was largely pioneered by Doughten and Thompson. Their claim to fame was the 1972 sleeper hit film A Thief in the Night, an end-times thriller in which a young woman awakes to finds herself alone in the world after her husband disappears in the “Rapture” (in Christian Dispensationalist theology, a term for the divine snatching away of the righteous from the earth at the end of time). The film follows her struggle to cope with a nightmarish world in which a one-world government emerges almost instantly after the worldwide disappearances and local authorities hunt her down with the intent to mark her as a loyal citizen upon pain of death.

Despite the relatively impactful nature of A Thief in the Night and its three sequels within the Christian subculture, Christian evangelical filmmaking slowly dwindled in originality and production quality over the next decades, due to its sequestered position within a narrow evangelical niche that saw little or no infusions of large funds enjoyed by big budget Hollywood fares. Hollywood business is rightfully very wary of films that explicitly promote a sectarian worldview, since they know such films will only appeal to a very small portion of the population. Witness, for example, the box-office failure of films that unsubtly and unambiguously promote specific religions and worldviews, such as 2000’s Battlefield Earth (Scientology), 2003's The Book of Mormon Movie, Volume 1: The Journey (Mormonism), or 2011’s Atlas Shrugged: Part 1 (Randian Objectivism). By the time Left Behind: World at War (the third installment in the Left Behind movie series) came along in 2005, it became the first in film history to be released exclusively in churches instead of a theater.


1. La Voie lactée, directed by Luis Buñuel (1969; New York City, NY: The Criterion Collection, 2007).

2. Anne Catherine Emmerich, The Dolorous Passion of Our Lord Jesus Christ (New York, NY: Cosimo Books, 1923).

3. For my critical review of the movie, see Nathan Dickey, “The Golgotha Chainsaw Massacre: A Rambling Commentary on ‘The Passion of the Christ’,” The Journeyman Heretic (blog) 13 June 2012, (accessed 16 July 2012).

4., “Poll Finds ‘The Passion of the Christ’ Boosts People's Bible-Reading Habits; More Than 12,000 People Take Zondervan/ Poll,” PR Newswire 31 March 2004, (accessed 16 July 2012).

5. Robert K. Johnston, Reel Spirituality: Theology and Film in Dialogue (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2006), 31-37.

6. Philo, On the Life of Moses, in Philo Volume VI: On the Life of Moses, ed. G.P. Goold; trans. F.H. Colson (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1994). In broad outline, Philo’s Life of Moses is to DeMille’s Ten Commandments what Emmerich’s The Dolorous Passion of Our Lord Jesus Christ is to Gibson’s Passion of the Christ.

7. See especially Josephus, Against Apion, in Josephus Volume I: Against Apion, trans. H.St.J. Thackeray (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1966).

8. Dorothy Clarke Wilson, Prince of Egypt (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1949); Arthur E. Southon, On Eagle’s Wings (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1939); J.H. Ingraham, The Pillar of Fire, or Israel in Bondage (Philadelphia: G.G. Evans, 1860). Also, a novelization based directly on the earlier 1923 silent version of DeMille's movie itself was written by Jeanie MacPherson and Henry MacMahon (New York: Grosset & Dunlap, 1924). See also Melanie J. Wright, Moses in America: The Cultural Uses of Biblical Narrative (Oxford, UK and New York: Oxford University Press, 2003) and Brian Britt, Rewriting Moses: The Narrative Eclipse of the Text (London and New York: T&T Clark International, 2004).

9. Flavius Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews Preface, in William Whiston, A.M. (trans.), The Complete Works of Flavius Josephus, the Celebrated Jewish Historian (Chicago: Thompson & Thomas, 1900).

10. Ibid., Antiquities Book II, Chapter 9.

11. Michael Moorcock, Behold the Man (London: Allison & Busby, 1969).

12. Bruce Babington and Peter William Evans, Biblical Epics: Sacred Narrative in the Hollywood Cinema (Manchester and New York: Manchester University Press, 1993), p. 127.

13. Robert M. Price, Jesus Christ Superstar: The Making of a Modern Gospel (Published in eBook format by, 2011), p. 16.

14. Gerald E. Forshey, American Religious and Biblical Spectaculars (Westport, CT: Praeger Publishers, 1992), p. 84.

15. Babington and Evans, Biblical Epics, p. 126.

16. Randall Balmer, Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory: A Journey Into the Evangelical Subculture in America (Oxford, UK; New York: Oxford University Press, 1989), p. 65.

Friday, July 6, 2012

The Ethics of Undercover Journalism (Part 3): The Ron Schiller Video Sting


One of the most-discussed news stories in March 2011 was a hidden-camera video released to the national news media by controversial filmmaker, conservative activist and self-described “journalist” James O’Keefe. This video, as we will see, carried weighty implications for National Public Radio (NPR), not least because it went public during the momentous time when the news organization was dealing with stressful funding issues at Capitol Hill. Starting in June 2010, Republicans on Capitol Hill and in the House of Representatives began to push for a bill that would strip public broadcasting of all federal funding, which they eventually succeeded in doing.

In fact, on March 7 - ironically just the day before the O’Keefe video was released - NPR chief executive and CEO Vivian Schiller spoke to the National Press Club at a Washington, D.C. conference to present (or plead) her case for continued public support for their organization. In that talk, she addressed and rebuffed accusations of liberal bias, emphasizing NPR’s commitment to transparency and its openness to being told by listeners when specific bias is perceived so that such complaints can be investigated and resolved. As Schiller put it, “For those that do criticize us for being liberal, you know, I ask them when I get that personally . . . to point to specific stories, and when they do, we take those very seriously. Have we erred? Absolutely we have erred in the past. But we make corrections and we always strive to do better [1].”

The undercover video has become a signature style of O’Keefe, whose favored technique is to create fictitious personas acting within fictitious events as a way to encourage subjects to make statements O’Keefe hopes is negatively revealing. This raises a number of questions. What is revealed by the people who are the unwitting subjects of hidden camera tactics? Were any ethical guidelines followed in the execution of an undercover project? And what role does the actual process of editing footage pieces from a hidden camera play in terms of ethical practice? If an undercover researcher is in possession of two hours of tape to present to the media, what is cut out in editing and what is retained? And how might that editing job affect the public’s interpretation or perception of a given story?

To O’Keefe’s credit, he has not kept secret the full two hours of nearly-raw video he collected, which was made available in its entirety on his “Project Veritas” web site. The more popularized and well-known version, however, is the heavily-edited and sensationally-dramatized 11-minute piece that was released to the media and around which a great deal of interest seemed to swarm [2].

The scenario was as follows: On February 22, 2011, two of O’Keefe’s citizen journalists posing as wealthy Muslim donors approached NPR, offering to make a generous donation to the organization. To discuss this donation, the men meet with two of the organization’s top senior executives, Ron Schiller (no relation to Vivian Schiller), president of the NPR Foundation, and Betsy Liley, Senior Vice President of Development for NPR and Director of NPR’s Institutional Giving. The two reporters said their names were Amir Malik and Ibrahim Kasaam, members of the fictional Muslim Education Action Center (MEAC), represented as a Muslim Brotherhood front group. According to the web site of the made-up organization, its members sought to “spread [the] acceptance of Sharia across the world [3].”

The four met at Georgetown’s Cafe Milano in Washington, D.C., where the reporters posing as Muslims explained that they were interested in making a five million dollar donation to publicly-run media outlets. “So we have set aside I believe something like five million, partly out of concern for the defunding process that the Republicans are trying to engage in,” claimed Ibrahim Kasaam [4].

The Muslim Brotherhood front group provided a stretch limo to the NPR senior executives as transportation, and while Malik and Kasaam further explained their connection to the Muslim Brotherhood, Ron Schiller proceeded to talk about why he personally felt NPR would be better off in the long run without federal funding. During the nearly two-hour conversation, Schiller also talked, at key points disparagingly, about the Tea Party movement, Christians, uneducated Americans, and even about the Juan Williams controversy. It was these disparaging statements that created a public relations nightmare for NPR when the tape of the lunch conversation was released, and which ultimately cost Schiller his job.


The day O’Keefe’s damning video was made public, NPR put out a brief, formal statement from its communications and external relations department, saying,

The fraudulent organization represented in this video repeatedly pressed us to accept a $5 million check, with no strings attached, which we repeatedly refused to accept. We are appalled by the comments made by Ron Schiller in the video, which are contrary to what NPR stands for. Mr. Schiller announced last week that he is leaving NPR for another job [5].
But more heads at NPR were yet to roll as a result of this drama before the organization felt fully confident they had saved some face. On the morning of March 9, NPR’s Media Correspondent David Folkenflik publicized a surprising development in the story on his Twitter account:
BREAKING: The board for NPR NEWS has just ousted CEO Vivian Schiller in the wake of video sting by conservative activist of a top exec [6].

Later that day, Folkenflik was interviewed by Renee Montagne, co-host of NPR’s radio news program Morning Edition, to “sort this all out” as Montagne put it. According to Folkenflik, “[T]he board of directors of NPR have put out a statement saying they accepted Vivian Schiller's resignation. I'm told by sources that she was forced out — that this was, I guess, the final shoe dropping, you could say.” Going on to provide some contextual background to explain the rationale behind the ousting, Folkenflik said, “NPR executives including [Vivian] Schiller but also then-Senior Vice President for News Ellen Weiss, forced out Juan [Williams] as an analyst . . . it was one in a series of events in which he was making inappropriate comments. Uh, that blew up, as you may recall. It ultimately cost Ellen Weiss her job [7].”

In other words, while Vivian Schiller (unlike Weiss) managed to survive the Juan Williams debacle of October 2010, she was not able to survive the Ron Schiller episode. Ron Schiller was to Vivian Schiller as Juan Williams was to Ellen Weiss: a career-debilitating factor. As conservative blogger Jeff Dunetz put it, “Ms Schiller has been in the press too much lately, not only firing Juan Williams, but the way she fired him and the follow up comments about seeing a psychiatrist and the James O' Keefe sting video coming the day after her challenge to find incidents of bias was just the straw that broke the camel's back [8].”

Later that afternoon, NPR Ombudsman Lisa Shepard took live questions from readers on the Washington Post’s web site, questions on which she was “objective and honest, but pointed,” on the Ron Schiller incident, as Business Insider noted [9]. Below are some of the more illuminating samples:

“Certainly he wasn't fired for harboring negative views about conservatives. it [sic] was the unprofessional manner that cost him his job. Who blabs to total strangers in public about their personal biases? Who doesn't vet a prospective donor before meeting[?]. PBS got the same offer and turned it down.”
- March 09, 2011 1:33 PM

“. . . Ron Schiller wasn’t holdling [sic] a private conversation. he [sic] was meeting in public representing NPR. His personal views should be kept to himself. his [sic] job WAS to sell donors on NPR's commitment to fairness, accuracy, thoroughness, and diversity of voices. he hardly did that. Look, we all have personal views, but journalists and people at Mr. Schillers' level need to be professional, and he was anything but.”
- March 09, 2011 1:34 PM

“Of course, he was required to be objective. He knew what lines shoudln’t [sic] be crossed. I still can't believe you would divulge so much to a stranger. That's what I'm having a hard time wrapping my brain around. He was a fundraiser at Univ. of Chicago and reputed to be excellent. He had to have known better. Makes you also wonder what else he said to potential donors. I hope nothing like this.”
- March 09, 2011 2:08 PM [10]

The conservative news media and blogosphere had a restless field day with this story, collectively expressing an ecstatic mixture of both gleeful vindication and anger at what they perceived as “left-wing bigotry.” The discussion of the line between content and donors was an area of the discussion the right was especially adamant about. Rush Limbaugh was particularly hard on NPR on this point, emphasizing the potential damage he hoped NPR would suffer from the situation: “Now, I don't know which of the things that Ron Schiller said will prove to be the most damaging. He trashes the Tea Party as racist, of course, he calls them bigoted Neanderthals, but that's only gonna help his career at NPR. The comment that's gonna get him into trouble is when he says that NPR could get by without federal funding. Okay, fine, then let's defund it [11].”

Juan Williams, who formed a central part of the backstory underlying this situation, delivered a strong indictment of NPR on Sean Hannity’s talk show, calling them “rude,” and “condescending”:

“These people are so rude and condescending, and they say that people like me are bigots, because I’ll tell you what I feel. These folks are not only attacking the Tea Party as anti-intellectual and racist and biased, they, they attack anybody that disagrees with their point of view, this elitist, this NPR point of view, that the rest of us are a buncha dummies and a buncha rubes and we’re from the country, we don’t understand what’s going on and he thinks that we lack education. And only him, only his group up there at the executive floor of NPR really understands. These folks are doing damage, Sean, to real, good journalists at NPR, the people who go out there and gather the news, because they’re destroying the brand! These people are just destroying NPR!” [12]
The conservative headlines that came out of this story almost constituted a psychological human interest story in and of themselves. The Drudge Report, a popular conservative-leaning news aggregation web site, featured a series of splashy headlines related to the story, which they kept pushing over as Matt Drudge apparently searched for the right words to use. His original headline read “NPR Presdient [sic]: ‘We Would Be Better Off Without Federal Funding’” [13]. This was then changed four minutes later (9:43 Eastern Standard Time) to read “NPR Exec: ‘We Would Be Better Off Without Federal Funding’” [14]. Six minutes after this, Drudge retained the last headline but inserted another directly below from The Washington Times, reading “NPR Officers Compare Deniers of ‘Climate Change’ to Birthers and Flat Earth Believers” [15]. The “Exec” headline finally won out as Drudge’s wording of choice.

However, at least one conservative-leaning news group, Glenn Beck’s The Blaze, enjoyed the distinction of being one of the very few conservative news outfits to condemn O’Keefe’s methods as unscrupulous. The assessment of The Blaze’s Jonathon Seidl on the situation is a particularly good example of a fair and balanced treatment of the situation from a conservative outlook that does not shy away from criticizing both O’Keefe and Schiller in proportional ways. Seidl’s take is thus worth quoting at some length:

1. Schiller does try to distinguish (somewhat) his professional views from his personal views. He fails. In the end, he’s at a work-related event. Trying to qualify something as “this is my personal opinion” doesn’t give him a blank slate to say whatever he wants and have it not reflect on NPR. Ironically, in the video Schiller blasts Juan Williams for doing this very thing [16].
Seidl’s point here is that while Schiller should be applauded for saying that only his personal opinion was being voiced, he was nevertheless at an event representing NPR, a fact that should not warrant “taking his NPR hat off’ multiple times. Of course, the video makers are obviously doing their best to encourage him and lead him on (e.g., “I like it when you take your NPR hat off”) because they want him to be unguarded in his remarks. Seidl also makes a valid point in saying that if Juan Williams cannot express his anti-Muslim opinion on television as an NPR contributor without losing that job, and if this is the standard NPR has set forth, then by their definition Schiller is in fact representing NPR.

But was Schiller really representing NPR? Good, valid arguments can be made on both sides of this question. But Seidl continues:

2. Schiller does say that NPR is looking to feature Muslim voices. Guess what, Sean Hannity does the same thing. The Blaze does the same thing. All journalists and news organizations have a responsibility to present to the best of their ability all sides of the story. That’s why Hannity invited radical Muslim cleric Anjem Choudary on his program a few weeks ago. Even if you don’t agree with someone, they should still get a chance to say what they want. Glenn Beck has always said he’ll stand shoulder-to-shoulder with any MSNBC host for freedom of speech.

3. Some are pointing out that Schiller admits the station would be better off without federal funding, and use it as a “gotcha” moment. I‘m not sure that’s the case. I’ve worked in fundraising before, and it seems to me what Schiller is doing there is trying to remove a donation barrier. As he says, most “philanthropists” think NPR as almost fully-funded by the government, which certainly could prevent people from donating to the organization. If the government’s mainly funding NPR, why should donors?

This third point is an important one that was often completely overlooked by the conservative media. There was an unacknowledged and legitimate context behind Schiller’s comments about NPR being better off without federal funding. After all, any organization that receives federal funding in the first place has obviously already made their argument convincingly for why they need it, and must continue to do so. Schiller was merely saying that they have seen the handwriting on the wall, so to speak, nothing more. NPR revisits their budget every two years or so, and they were seeing that federal funding had simply constituted less and less of their overall budget as time went on. They knew that the “signs of the times” seemed to be showing public broadcasting heading in the direction of experiencing total defunding, and they accordingly made plans for what they viewed as an economic inevitability. He is sitting with two people he believes are wealthy donors offering NPR five million dollars, and therefore part of his conversation toward them is naturally going to be about NPR’s desire to be independent of a government budget.

Seidl continues with two final points:

4. It must be pointed out that Schiller does not overtly dignify the actor’s anti-Semitic comments. When the actor talks about Jews controlling the media, Schiller only gives a half-hearted head motion. In fact, Schiller goes out of his way to point out that there’s no such thing as “Jewish influence” at NPR. That’s huge, and Schiller should be commended for that.

Unfairly, O‘Keefe puts Schiller’s response under the heading, “Jews Own the Newspapers, Obviously.” That’s not what he said at all. He said that there is Jewish influence at papers that are owned by Jews. That’s a far cry from saying “Jews own the newspapers, obviously.” In fact, Schiller’s associate, Betsy Liley, even mentions that NPR is funded in part by a Jewish organization. That doesn’t seem to be placating anti-Semitism.

5. When the actor first begins talking of the Muslim Brotherhood, the video cuts. The actor says the organization was originally funded by a few members of the MB in America, and we do not see or hear Schiller’s unedited, immediate reaction. The video instead cuts to Schiller’s talk about Muslim voices. Maybe that is his immediate reaction, but we don‘t know since there’s a video cut. That could be important, or maybe it’s not. But it’s definitely worth pointing out.

Seidl then goes on to note the fact that just the day before the video was made public, the NPR president challenged critics of their organization to find and present specific examples of bias on their part, adding that it “doesn’t bode well for her that Ron Schiller’s comments about the Tea Party were made public today [17].”


Although a great many commentators and activists in the conservative camp were glad to see spokespeople of NPR being exposed the way they were, as well as the subsequent chaotic fallout that followed within NPR’s infrastructure, it is important for media scholars and practitioners on both sides of the political fence (and everywhere in between, of course) to carefully and critically examine the methods by which the expose came about. Such a critical scrutiny should be carried out regardless of whether one’s personal parochial tendencies incline one to believe it was right that NPR be embarrassed in this way or not.

While all parties may very well agree to disagree, coming to a solid conclusion concerning the ethical status of O’Keefe’s undercover project is a process that requires a prolonged and meaningful dialogue, not uncritical and immediate condemnation or affirmation. Too often people fail to question their current understanding; when results fall in the favor of one’s personal beliefs, viewpoints or biases, people seem rarely to question as harshly the way in which those results came about, because there is no cognitive dissonance providing an urgent sense of the need for intellectual evaluation. Even for those who think poorly of NPR (the way they run their business, the content, the taxpayer funding that comes out of their pockets for NPR, etc.), it is important to study how the expose came about and thus come to a personal determination as to whether there is a problematic issue with how, say, the raw video was cut and edited, to take just one facet of our ethical analysis as an example.

As we begin to evaluate what happened, we should first take into consideration the fact that Ron Schiller had at this point worked for NPR for about a year. He is a professional fundraiser, and professional fundraisers tend to be very good at what they do. They have an easy manner, they meet with wealthy donors at prestigious foundations, and they go about their business in a very suave and self-possessed manner. There is reason to ask whether what they themselves do for a living on a regular basis is particularly ethical. The question of whether the executing of the video was ethical is quite separate from this consideration, and the answers one may arrive at for each does not cancel the other out.

What do we find if we apply Bob Steele’s criteria for ethical justification of undercover tactics (discussed in Part 2 of this series) to O’Keefe’s video sting? According to Steele's criteria, the subject must be (1) of “profound importance,” (2) the journalist must have ensured that no other alternatives are possible, (3) he or she must be willing to disclose the nature of the deception and the reason for it afterward, (4) the individuals and news organization involved must “apply excellence, through outstanding craftsmanship,” (5) the merits of the resulting story must outweigh any harm caused by the act of deception, (6) the journalists involved must have first “conducted a meaningful, collaborative, and deliberative decisionmaking process on the ethical and legal issues,” and finally the individuals involved in the news organization must apply all these standards, not leaving any out. Remember also that believing sincerely that the subject of the story (whether it is NPR, Planned Parenthood, teachers’ unions, etc.) is unethical in their practices does not, in and of itself at least, give one the right to be unethical in acting deceptively to expose them.

(Of course, it is one thing for other people to make assumptions about a writer. There is nothing ethically wrong or suspect with going to a liberal protest group, walking around with a camera, and asking tough, hardball questions. The potential ethical problem comes in when a conservative journalist attending the liberal protest event goes around saying, “My name is Carl the Marxist, let’s have a flip-cam Marxist share time.” That would constitute a different matter altogether, because now serious implications are introduced).

Certainly Schiller, who has been condemned by NPR, is responsible for what he says. But to whatever extent he may have laughed inappropriately or said anything that was actually overtly offensive in this fictional scenario, these will accrue to personal damage to him. Conservatives may say he justly deserves this damage. But have they really considered how many actors were involved in this situation? Was the scenario constructed in such a way as to provide Schiller any means of walking away from the situation with his head held high? I strongly suspect not.

A crucial part of correctly analyzing O’Keefe’s ethics is to reduce the role played by political bias in the analysis. This can perhaps best be accomplished by playing the reverse scenario in one’s mind. For example, imagine if Media Matters planted somebody to become an intern at Mercury Radio Arts or the Rush Limbaugh Show or at Fox News. Our undercover intern walks around with a hidden camera at all times (assuming this is happening in a state where it is legal), catches people in unguarded moments by asking them to “take your official hat off and tell me what you really feel,” then posts videos of their conversation. Is this ethical and right? If this is ethically justifiable, then O’Keefe’s project is ethically justifiable. A conservative supporter of O’Keefe cannot say that it is legitimate for people he or she likes to use deceptive tactics to expose groups and individuals that he or she disagrees with, but then not agree that the Left can use those same tactics to expose groups on the Right by complaining that the Left unfairly duped the people or individual under false pretenses. They would have to be happy about a popular right-leaning group being exposed. For instance, if Media Matters or the Daily Kos uncovered a connection between a popular right-leaning group and the Birthers, the people who now defend O’Keefe’s tactics in principle would be inconsistent if they criticized the left-leaning group for misrepresenting themselves in order to gain the scoop.

Therefore, if O’Keefe and his conservative allies are to avoid a display of cognitive dissonance, they must have no objections if Media Matters wants to sit down at a bar next to conservative news producers, buy them a few beers, and secretly record their privately-expressed thoughts to be shared with the world on YouTube. If Media Matters can ethically justify this technique, then O’Keefe and Project Veritas can do the same with theirs. However, if O’Keefe and Project Veritas have a problem with Media Matters in this hypothetical scenario, then they are obliged to harshly self-assess their own actions as equally unethical as well.

Let us revisit in a slightly different way the hypothetical scenario, put forward in Part 1 of this series, in light of this nonpartisan call to consistency. A journalist wishing to do an expose piece on an individual or organization must do more than simply follow someone around long enough. Let us instead imagine that the liberal Daily Kos writer opted to actually engage with his subjects at the bar for two hours, during which time the Fox producers are sharing drinks with the writer and are unaware they are being recorded (not that it is legal to do this in Manhattan, but for the sake of argument, we will assume that the two-party consent rule does not legally apply here). The Daily Kos writer and the Fox producers have a good, solid conversation, one or two times during which the producers say things which make them sound much less than unbiased producers of the news. Those two hours of video is then cut down into a four-minute video, half of which is footage of the producers saying things like, “Oh my God, you should see the kind of stuff I have to cut. It just turns my stomach!”

Is that a fair approach? Does a journalist, regardless of personal political leanings, have a right to crucify others and potentially wreck their lives? Even if our hypothetical Daily Kos writer sincerely believes that the Fox News channel is doing damage, it still may not be ethical to pretend to be someone he is not, or to try seducing his subjects into making incriminating comments (again, recall Steele's guage for judgment). This is why professional journalists rightly condemn as highly unprofessional the act of buying interview subjects drinks at a bar in the first place, for example.

But what if we are dealing with a much more prominent public figure, not just two producers? Does the ethical question qualitatively change if it is, say, Sean Hannity sitting at the bar? Imagine that for two hours, Hannity engages in a normal conversation with a few people. One of them happens to be a woman who is accompanied by two men. At one point in the conversation being followed, the woman leans in close to Hannity and says, “You know, you’re a lot cuter in person than you are on television.” Hannity looks at her a moment before responding, a slow smile playing across his face, “Well . . . thanks!” The reporter with the hidden camera takes that scene, even capturing Hannity’s suggestive facial expression, and cuts it with another moment in which he slowly places his hand on the back of her chair.

Again, O’Keefe would have to conclude that this is equivalently fair and also that the reporter may even be able to show details from this video that should give people some pause. Again, hypothetical reverse situations such as this help to demonstrate why these questions are enormously important to focus critically upon and not to simply embrace what your side is doing when results seem to be favorable to your causes and personal vendettas.

Was O’Keefe’s video sting project working toward a story of “profound importance”? The only issue of importance to O’Keefe and his allies is the question of taxpayer funding for programs they perceive as having a liberal bias and which they therefore do not like on a personal, purely partisan level. So we can ask: does the alleged elitist alienation of NPR and their alleged failure to treat conservatives fairly really constitute or cause a major moral catastrophe for the media and its consumers in this country? I would argue that it does not.

O’Keefe’s defenders may want to bring up the Muslim Brotherhood issue in this regard. However, O’Keefe has not produced any evidence that the Muslim Brotherhood and other similar groups are actually secretly funding public broadcasting in any way to justify creating that premise. O’Keefe’s undercover project would be more honestly-based if he actually had authentic information showing that the Muslim Brotherhood were even interested (let alone actualizing that interest) in generously funding NPR, which he did not. Instead, the Muslim Brotherhood connection was invented by O’Keefe in order to catch the NPR executives off guard, to surprise them and thereby coax them into saying something on camera that would make them look bad.

This is a more crucial point than it might at first appear. After all, how is one expected to react when all of a sudden the donors being met at lunch present themselves as members of the Muslim Brotherhood who strongly dislike the Zionists? Is it not conceivable that one could naturally react nervously? Could the person react in such a way that he says something off the top of his head to mollify the situation, to move on smoothly and find a way to get to the check in the least awkward manner possible? Ultimately, Schiller and Liley want the encounter to end on a friendly note, while at the same time not even thinking about taking their money. Anyone else in Schiller’s situation would likely have walked away from that meeting heaving a sigh of relief, perhaps recognizing that one or two comments were made that he is not happy about, but that at very least he was able to end the meeting smoothly.

We have all experienced, at one time or another, fringe ideas or convictions floated around in social situations that cause us no small level of discomfort. For example, if I am sitting eating a meal with a group of people and somebody in the group makes a comment that is either quite racist or otherwise outrageous to me, there is a judgment I have to make on the spot: Am I going to knock this person down physically? Am I going to pick a fight and start a verbal argument? Or am I going to attempt to simply laugh it off and change the subject, perhaps just wrap up the meeting? In making the judgment as to whether or not my hypothetical offender is in fact “crazy,” and then subsequently deciding whether to ignore him, engage him, or simply find a middle ground by saying something moderately mollifying, one is reminded of an actual incident in the news involving a “loaded” question directed toward Congressman Paul Broun (R-GA), in which granting the benefit of the doubt seemed the wisest course of action on the part of many commentators. At a town hall meeting speech delivered by Broun in Athens, Georgia on February 22, 2011, a startling question from one of the attendees made national headlines: “Who is going to shoot Obama?” Broun did not condemn the query immediately, instead attempting to assuage the weighty tension of the moment by responding, “The thing is, I know there’s a lot of frustration with this president. We’re going to have an election next year. Hopefully, we’ll elect somebody that’s going to be a conservative, limited-government president [18].”

What must have been going through Congressman Broun’s mind as this question was thrown at him? Only 45 days before this, former House of Representatives member Gabrielle “Gabby” Giffords was the victim of an assassination attempt on her life. Now, here in front of Broun was a man talking about shooting the President! Should Broun have confronted the man, forcefully denouncing him as wrong and his question as abhorrent then and there (instead of three day later, when he did just that) for suggesting such a thing, and thereby possibly agitating whatever volatile part of the man’s character caused him to air the question in the first place? Would such a heroic confrontation be worth possibly having the man suddenly pull a gun on Broun and killing him? Stranger incidents have happened. An argument could be made that it was therefore wiser to sidestep the question or at least tread cautiously with words, to mollify the man by vaguely addressing the cause of his prejudices before delicately moving on to the next question. Every individual person has their own way of deflecting awkward or volatile moments, and most people have been in situations in which a statement made far out of left field made them want to escape the immediate situation as soon as possible.

In the case of the NPR executives, all the evidence indicates they had no intention whatsoever of accepting the five million dollars under any of the premises that were being offered. The MEAC representatives were clear in telling them that there were no strings attached, and they still did not express interest in the money after more than an hour with them. In fact, it is highly possible they were suspicious of the two men and the nature of their organization [19].

This is not to say that Ron Schiller should necessarily be excused from all criticism, because some highly unwarranted and unprofessional statements were indeed made by him (even though he did make clear he was not representing NPR in his statements, a fact which has been greatly underemphasized by Project Veritas). However, there is a clear difference between holding people accountable for off-color statements or remarks that they make on the one hand, and editing a two-hour video in such a way that something is made to appear more damning than it actually was. Project Veritas could have very easily included several of the positive, complimentary statements the executives make concerning conservatives. But the Project Veritas editing job did not bother to point these out.

In the end, James O’Keefe’s NPR video sting project was one in which an entire situation was fabricated, not to seek the truth and report it, but instead to perform a political hit job that was driven entirely by partisan motivations and foregone conclusions. The only social message sent by this sting operation is one that appeals solely to O’Keefe’s partisan allies, who hold to a set presupposition about “liberals” and their viewpoints.

In Figure 1 below, I compare and contrast O'Keefe's methods and approach to that of Dateline NBC’s television program “To Catch a Predator,” which was discussed in Part 2 of this series. On this show, only premises are fabricated (as opposed to entire situations and rigged circumstances), and this is done to catch and detain potentially dangerous criminals suspected to be so based on hard evidence, not partisan-based presuppositions. Also in contrast to O’Keefe’s project, “To Catch a Predator” sends strong societal messages about a real and present social issue in an enterprising and compelling manner, as opposed to an appeal to a cloistered community of ideologues with a vendetta against liberals and federally-funded public broadcasting. After all, was Ron Schiller really a moral evil in the way he encompassed his behavior, such that it is worth destroying his career (indirectly affecting his own well-being and that of his family) by exposing him on a national level for something that was not in fact a problem specific to NPR? James O’Keefe created a fictitious crime to serve his own interests, whereas real and ethical journalism investigates real crime, among a host of other issues, for societal benefit.

FIGURE 1 (Image by Nathan Dickey)

Of course, the way in which Ron Schiller handled himself in this situation was by turns admirable and questionable. He made some offensive statements, but he also said many things that have been cut out of the original two-hour video. It is safe to say that a viewing of the entire uncut video would very likely lead many who have condemned Schiller and written him off to come to a much different impression of Schiller’s character. While there are indeed several instances of both executives bad-mouthing conservatives, both of them also say many complimentary things concerning, for example, the principled loyalty that conservative Fox News viewers display toward people they consider to be speaking for them, figures like Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh.

The debate over the ethics of undercover journalism is culturally relevant as well as pertinent to the professional community. The more the techniques discussed in this essay continue to be practiced, the more sophisticated and sharpened the various responses back and forth are going to become. Moreover, as we see these unconventional techniques executed, we will see that it will inevitably spur more and more people, both media professionals and “citizen journalists,” to mimic them, whether the technique involves going undercover or being confrontational or anything that might fall in between, such as a combination of both styles that Hot Air’s Jason Mattera has pulled off [20]. A great many people who dabble in the media, journalists and non-journalists alike, are greatly interested in creating the next provocative video that is going to receive a large amount of viral traffic, and thereby establish a cultural niche for themselves. Our job as aspiring professional journalists is to learn to distinguish between the truly great pieces of profound muckraking in the name of quality truth-telling, and that which is merely sensationalistic “yellow journalism” carried out in the name of personal fame.

FIGURE 2 (Image by Nathan Dickey)


1. PressClub1908, “NPC Luncheon with Vivian Schiller” (video, 59:02) March 11, 2011, (accessed 6 July 2012).

2. VeritasVisuals, “NPR Muslim Brotherhood Investigation Part I” (video, 11:38) March 8, 2011, (accessed 6 July 2012). At the time of this writing, this video has received nearly 1.2 million views.

3. Muslim Education Action Center of America, “Home,” MEAC of America, (accessed 19 March 2012).

4. Project Veritas, “Full Unedited Footage of Conversation with NPR Foundation President Ron Schiller” (video, 1:58:53) March 8, 2011, (accessed 6 July 2012).

5. Dana Davis Rehm, “NPR Statement: March 8, 2011,” (accessed 6 July 2012). Schiller had actually already made arrangements to resign from NPR before the O’Keefe video was made public, having planned to take on a new job closer to his home as head of the arts program at the Aspen Institute in Colorado. NPR was not aware of the video until it was released on March 8, 2011, at which time Schiller’s already-pending resignation was made immediate. However, the NPR controversy prevented Schiller from getting the Aspen Institute job as well.

6. David Folkenflik, Tweet of March 9, 2011, 6:16 a.m.,!/davidfolkenflik/statuses/45488128512888833 (accessed 6 July 2012).

7. David Folkenflik, interview by Renee Montagne, NPR Morning Edition 89.1 KSMF-FM (Ashland, OR: KSMF, March 9, 2011).

8. Jeff Dunetz, “Audio Interview with NPR’s Media Reporter David Folkenflik – Vivian Schiller Didn’t Quit She Was Fired,” Yid with Lid: Exploring Theories of Political Relativity (blog), March 9, 2011, (accessed 6 July 2012).

9. Noah Davis, “NPR’s Ombudsman Was in the Comments Section at WaPo Today Ripping Apart NPR Exec Schiller,” Business Insider March 9, 2011, (accessed 6 July 2012).

10. Lisa Shepard, “NPR Ombudsman Talked About Vivian Schiller’s Resignation and Ron Schiller’s Tea Party Remarks,” The Washington Post March 9, 2011, (accessed 6 July 2012).

11. “NPR Executive Caught on Tape Being an Ignorant, Arrogant Liberal,” The Rush Limbaugh Show 1440 KMED-AM News Talk (Medford, OR: KMED, March 8, 2011).

12. Juan Williams, interview by Sean Hannity.

13. Drudge Report, “NPR Presdient [sic]: ‘We Would Be Better Off Without Federal Funding,’” Drudge Report March 8, 2011 (9:39:54 EST), (accessed 6 July 2012).

14. Drudge Report, “NPR Exec: ‘We Would Be Better Off Without Federal Funding,’” Drudge Report March 8, 2011 (9:43:55 EST), (accessed 6 July 2012).

15. Ibid. (9:49:58 EST), Cf., Kerry Picket, “NPR Officers Compare Deniers of Climate Change to Birthers and Flat Earth Believers,” The Washington Times March 8, 2011, (accessed 6 July 2012).

16. Jonathon M. Seidl, “Undercover: NPR Exec Talks ‘Racist’ Tea Party and ‘Anti-Intellectual’ GOP, But is He Kowtowing to Muslim Brotherhood?” The Blaze March 8, 2011, (accessed 6 July 2012).

17. Ibid. It bears mentioning in this regard that The Blaze is not opposed in principle to watchdog journalism of the “gotcha” variety, as they demonstrated in May 2007 when they posted clips excerpted from the XM version of the talk radio program The Opie & Anthony Show to BreitbartTV, clips in which a homeless man making a guest appearance described wanting to violently and sexually force himself on then-United States Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and the then-First Lady Laura Bush. This eventually led to the talk show being suspended for 30 days as well as an executive review.

18. Paul Broun, quoted in Jennifer Epstein, “Rep. Paul Broun Gets Town Hall Query: ‘Who is Going to Shoot Obama?’” Politico February 25, 2011, (accessed 6 July 2012).

19. One wonders what plan O’Keefe’s undercover agents had in mind if the NPR executives had agreed to accept the money. Where is the check? Are Malik and Kasaam simply going to write a check at lunch that bounces? Where would the plan have proceeded from there?

20. Michelle Malkin, “Hot Air TV: Jason Mattera Undercover at a Town Hall Meeting,” Hot Air (blog) September 1, 2009 (11:32 a.m.), meeting/ (accessed 6 July 2012).