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The spirit of networks: new media and the changing role of religion in American public life

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Title: The spirit of networks: new media and the changing role of religion in American public life
Author(s): Healey, Kevin
Director of Research: Christians, Clifford G.
Doctoral Committee Chair(s): Christians, Clifford G.
Doctoral Committee Member(s): Nerone, John C.; Ebel, Jonathan H.; McChesney, Robert W.
Department / Program: Inst of Communications Rsch
Discipline: Communications
Degree Granting Institution: University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
Degree: Ph.D.
Genre: Dissertation
Subject(s): new media public sphere Jeremiah Wright Sarah Palin religion authenticity
Abstract: The Spirit of Networks examines the implications of new media for the future of American religious politics. I argue that we are at a critical juncture in both media and religion, similar to the early days of radio broadcasting. The outcome of that earlier juncture involved an increase in media commercialization and the proliferation of conservative evangelical broadcasters—developments which paved the way for the emergence of the Religious Right. Today, technological and generational shifts have the potential to alter the course of American religious politics. Younger people are more wary of political partisanship and religious hypocrisy, and are more likely to use new technologies as tools of political engagement. These shifts have led some journalists and researchers to pronounce the death of the Religious Right and the emergence of a new Religious Left. The research presented here assesses the potential outcome of this critical juncture by examining the impact of new media technologies on public discourse at the intersection of religion and politics. Through qualitative analysis of newspaper articles, cable news transcripts, and blog commentaries, I demonstrate how new media tend to generate debates about the authenticity and sincerity of public figures. Pundits and bloggers frequently claim to glimpse public figures’ “backstage” identity through video clips, instant messages, and e-mails. In this way, the new media environment generates competing “discourses of authenticity.” Occasionally this dynamic favors independent media sources and grassroots activists. For example the Republican sex scandals, which drove some evangelicals away from the GOP, erupted when liberal bloggers exposed the private messages of conservative congressmen. More often, though, established media industries and political organizations manage to exploit the dynamics of new media to their advantage, leading to what Charles Taylor calls shallow or “flat” debates about authenticity. The scandal that erupted in the summer of 2010 surrounding the firing of USDA official Shirley Sherrod exemplifies a trend that began during the 2008 election, as video clips of Rev. Jeremiah Wright circulated between cable news and YouTube. Media coverage of Wright, and subsequently of Sarah Palin, demonstrates that traditional media sources often set the terms of debate about religious authenticity. In these debates, religion frequently serves as a proxy for underlying concerns about race. This intersection of religious and racial politics breathes new life into the Religious Right, while pushing “prophetic” social critique to the sidelines. In uncovering these trends, the current research troubles the argument that new media have inherently “democratizing” effects that can resuscitate the public sphere and render industry regulation obsolete. Instead, my work buttresses arguments for the revitalization of professional journalism, tighter regulation of commercial media industries, and the development of independent media sources. The current research also contributes to ongoing debates in cultural theory about the relationship between religious practice, racial identity, and democratic politics. In conclusion I examine the implications of the current research for developments beyond the American context, and offer suggestions for future research.
Issue Date: 2011-05-25
URI: http://hdl.handle.net/2142/24142
Rights Information: Copyright 2011 Kevin Healey
Date Available in IDEALS: 2011-05-25
Date Deposited: 2011-05
 

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