For days after a huge EF-5 tornado struck Moore, OK, the news was dominated by the event. There were, of course, plenty of important facts to talk about: the tornado itself and the massive destruction it left in its path; the loss of 24 lives and injuries to hundreds; the miraculous survival stories; and the immediate aid given to the victims by teachers, first responders, the National Guard and neighboring Oklahomans themselves.
But humans are never satisfied with just facts. We want facts to “make sense”, to understand the how and the why of what we see around us, particularly things that pose major threats to us. The Moore tornado generated attempts at this immediately, of course. Politicians were quick to claim that the tornado was caused by global warming, until more reasoned analysis failed to find a smoking gun in the data. There were, of course, meteorological explanations, but those are dry and impersonal; there is really nothing we can do about them (as, if global warming were the culprit, there might be), so they remained unsatisfying.
Not surprisingly, the “understanding gap” was filled by a traditional source: religion. For thousands of years, when people have needed to understand and feel some sense of influence over complex, mysterious natural phenomena, they have turned to religion to provide a sense of comfort, and a sense that God can help endure even in the face of adversity. Certainly that was true in Moore. But reporting of it by the media was curiously one-sided, and in a way that seems to belie much of what is said about American culture and the media that feeds it.
A great deal has been made from pulpits around the country about an “assault on religion”, and commentators have claimed that the “liberal mainstream media” is systematically omitting God and His worshippers from favorable coverage. S. E. Cupp, in in her book on the subject, claims, “But worship of any kind, private or public, gets religious America into serious hot water with the liberal media, which has come to mock and resent public displays of faith . . . .”
And yet, that’s not what happened in the coverage of Moore. The media were replete with coverage of victims expressing prayers and thanks to God for saving them (and even answering their prayers to save their pets). CNN’s Wolf Blitzer, in his customary fumble-tongued manner, even solicited expressions of faith and thanks to the Lord – although not always with the intended result. Clearly the “liberal mainstream media” was favorably disposed to religious explanations for those people whose life had been spared by the tornado. Just as clearly, they showed no sense of irony or criticism of those who prayed, during the storm for survival, or afterwards for a favorable recovery. It has been very hard to find any criticism of religion, or attempt to “mock or resent” expressions of faith.
But it’s more than just acceptance of religious expressions of prayer and faith that can be found in the media. There was a complete lack of any coverage of the other side of the Moore tornado relationship to God. Although all that coverage suggests God is able to grant prayers in protecting lives from the storm, there was nearly zero coverage of the relationship of God to the creation of the storm itself. He who protects us from it might, one would think, also be able to protect everyone, and all that property, simply by not allowing it to form in the first place, or to do so somewhere that it would cause less destruction and loss of life.
Some religious leaders have ventured into that place. After the previous massive Oklahoma tornado, Pat Robertson told us that God allowed the storm to come to Moore because the people there had not prayed hard enough. He wasn’t willing to go so far as to state that God explicitly directed that storm at the people of Moore, just that he had the ability to stop it, and had chosen not to do so.
The ever-vigilant theologians at Westboro Baptist Church, of course, were less reticent, explicitly stating that God had brought all this death and destruction to Oklahoma because of the actions of the community, or even of one man.
But this aspect of the relationship between God and the storm was absent from media coverage. Proclamations like those from Pat Robertson or Westboro are treated as aberrations from the extreme wings of Christianity, if they are covered at all. The media steadfastly shies away from any examination of the relationship between an all-powerful God and His ability to start, stop and direct the course of storms. They prefer to cover the benign, helpful actions of God in responding to prayers to save persons and pets from the effects of the devastating storms He has caused, or allowed, to be visited on the community.
The “liberal media,” which is accused of mocking and resenting public displays of faith, could have presented a story that “God chose to wreak death and destruction on the people of Moore, OK.” Instead, the coverage was uniformly positive, ignoring that aspect entirely.
One has to wonder if this “liberal media assault on religion” is quite what it is made out to be.