Oppenheimer questions religious leaders’ authority
Being a journalist focusing in religion, Mark Oppenheimer is not one to shy away from controversial topics.
During his visit to Luther last Wednesday, Oppenheimer gave a presentation entitled “The Pope Doesn’t Speak for Me!: American Religion and the Crisis of Authority.”
Oppenheimer’s experience within the journalistic realm of religion has seen him cover topics from the Nigerian Pentecostal witch hunters to a conservative Christian college’s first official school dance.
Author of three books, Oppenheimer contributes to publications including Mother Jones, The Nation and the National Republic. He is also a professor of English at Yale University and directs the Yale Journalism Initiative.
The theme of Oppenheimer’s lecture took his experience in journalism and applied it to his skepticism as a religious scholar mainly through the lens of the Catholic faith.
By addressing the audience with the simple question of “Who really gets to decide religious guidelines?” all of Olin 102 was filled with the seemingly choreographed response of “The Pope.”
It was here where Oppenheimer’s skepticism began to take root arguing that if the Pope and his colleagues are actually making the rules that make one a true Catholic, then why are so many Catholics disobeying his doctrines?
Becoming even more specific, Oppenheimer narrowed his argument to focus on the topic of Catholics using contraceptives.
“We know that approximately 92 percent of Catholic women have used a contraceptive before, so why do we always associate Catholics with being anti-contraception?” Oppenheimer said.
To answer his own question, Oppenheimer explained that since the Pope is in a position as a public figure representing the church, we as observers lump all Catholics into a group thus skewing a sense of individualism.
In reality, Oppenheimer said, most individuals ignore specific doctrines and rules regarding any religion.
“It’s not really the law,” Oppenheimer said.
“Through tradition, some individuals in the public sphere got to tell everyone what they should believe.”
Oppenheimer then turned his attention to placing partial blame of lumping religious groups into these stereotypes on the practices of most journalistic media.
What he is referring to is the complex nature of religion and the difficulty some reporters have when it comes to explaining what certain individuals in a particular religion believe.
To solve this issue reporters turn to particular organizations that he admits are more than happy to e-mail them a prefabricated quote about the stance that church has on some political issue.
“If I want to know something about the Catholic Church I call the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and they get me a quote for my article by the end of the day,” Oppenheimer said.
It is through this practice that has led Oppenheimer to believe that the media is partly responsible for the misrepresentation of religions in the public sphere.
Through an ease of convenience these religions have come to be seen as uniform where in reality they are made up of millions of individuals who engage in different practices and hold unique values.
Heads nodded in agreement throughout Oppenheimer’s lecture especially during his chastisement of the media.
“He is an absolute observer of politics and religion who can talk with clarity and insight without the usual sensationalism and mean-spiritedness,” Associate Professor of English Amy Weldon said.
Oppenheimer spent the rest of his day at Luther visiting various classes discussing his new book, “Wisenheimer: A Childhood Subject to Debate,” and his experiences in journalism.