Journalism is missing the largest story of our lifetimes. A deeper story has emerged over the last 15 years that has shattered traditional political alignments and changed the lives of millions of people, especially in the Global South. That story is the resurgent role of religion in politics both here in the United States and around the world.
This claim is a provocative one, I admit, but religion is one the biggest geopolitical variables as the world moves into a new era of great power competition and realignment, and the influence of religious actors in politics will impact the fight against climate change, the future of democracy and the interplay of science, technology and political change.
Coverage of religious news, be it from religion-affiliated outlets, national or international outlets, is becoming all the more vital to inform the public and hold religious authority and movements accountable as they grow more relevant in U.S. and global politics.
To see the impact of religion in politics these days, and the failure of outlets to report on it, look no further than to the rise of Pentecostal churches. Pentecostalism, a charismatic Evangelical denomination of Christianity that emphasizes direct personal experiences of God, is the fastest-growing religious movement in the world. It is rapidly upending the political status quo around the world, creating new political constituencies and fueling a new wave of conservatism in the Global South and among Latinx voters in the United States.
Brazil is the perfect case study. Throughout this year’s contentious presidential election, President Jair Bolsonaro and President-elect Luiz Ignácio Lula da Silva jockeyed for the support of Brazil’s fast-growing Evangelical and Pentecostal communities, which have co-opted American social conservatives’ rhetoric around abortion, LGBTQ+ rights and the decline of traditional families.
Now, Brazil’s democracy is buckling, amid claims of voter fraud from Bolsonaro supporters reminiscent of those in the U.S. that have been amplified by Evangelical actors. American outlets largely overlooked Brazil’s Evangelical stakeholders in their coverage of this election, missing a brewing storm that now threatens the stability of Latin America’s largest democracy.
The electoral transformations that have accompanied the growth of the Evangelical movement are not exclusive to Brazil. In the U.S., Evangelical churches have helped Republicans increase their support among Latinx voters in key swing states like Florida, Arizona and Texas, shattering alignments that have defined American politics for several decades.
It is worth noting the importance of religion in politics is not limited to Christian countries. The rise of Hindu nationalism in India is receiving little coverage from most American newsrooms, even as allies of India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi continue to weaponize Hindu identity as a cudgel against the various faith groups found on the Indian subcontinent.
In Israel, far-right parties that cater to Jewish settlers in the West Bank are likely to join a governing coalition that will return to power the country’s controversial former prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu. Netanyahu’s policies, especially around the expansion of settlements and relations with Palestinian authorities will likely escalate tensions further.
Deeply sourced reporting and coverage of these stories would not only enrich the public, but also better direct policymakers towards a more holistic approach to statecraft and diplomacy as they navigate these new religious currents.
Right now, coverage of religious news falls on a motley crew of outlets and journalists: reporters at wire services like the Associated Press, staff writers at religion-focused outlets like the Religion News Service and religiously-affiliated outlets like the Jesuit magazine America and the Jewish magazine Tablet, and a handful of reporters and producers employed by major outlets to cover the Vatican from Rome. Most secular outlets lack religion desks to coordinate coverage, and many relegate religious news to the corners of their print pages.
Covering these stories will require newsrooms to make investments in their religion desks, such as hiring journalists with knowledge of the faiths they cover and their theologies. Whether newsrooms make those investments will seal the fate of journalism as an industry and its ability to hold powerful actors and movements accountable.
Eric Bazail-Eimil is a Senior in the School of Foreign Service