A couple of weeks ago, I was invited to speak to Year 12 students about potential biases in the media when it comes to the Church. Not one of the students I addressed got their news from what were traditionally considered to be mainstream sources: television, radio or print. Without exception, Facebook (and the online articles it directs them towards) is their only source of news.
I tried to impress upon the group that they could not take things they read at face value, because certain sources within the media capitalised on the short attention span of the “social media” generation, and would use underhanded tricks in order to give the veneer of accuracy to their readers, all the while pushing a biased viewpoint. One example I showed them was an article on the Daily Life website (a Fairfax publication), which asserted that more than 80 per cent of Australians were in favour of legalised abortion.
The “80 per cent” figure was hyperlinked, and the students told me that the inclusion of a hyperlink gave them the impression that the statistic was supported by evidence which they would find by clicking on the link. I invited them to do just that, and the link took them not to any survey or other research, but to the Apple website which was of course, completely unrelated to the point asserted. I told them that the writers at Daily Life knew that their readers wouldn’t bother checking the apparent references for the claim, but rather assume that it was validly made.
Hopefully, they remembered what I said about checking the facts behind stories, because that very same week, the ABC published a report by Julia Baird and Hayley Gleeson which attempted to draw a link between Christianity and domestic violence. The headline announced that women were told to endure domestic violence in the name of God, and the subheading stated that “men most likely to abuse their wives are evangelical Christians who attend church sporadically.”
The piece went on to tell a couple of stories of women who had suffered terrible abuse, had been counselled to be more submissive by their pastors, and told they could not leave. It used these anecdotal stories as a basis to suggest that denominations that believed in male “headship” of the family or that had a male-only priesthood encouraged an idea of male dominance which contributed to a culture of violence and silence. And it went on to excoriate churches for not being more proactive in their fight against domestic abuse.
Hidden somewhere within the 7000-word article, the reporters made a distinction between frequent and sporadic church attendance, noting that American research showed “regular church attenders are less likely to commit acts of intimate partner violence.”
In fact, what the American research said was actually much stronger. The research found “an inverse relationship between church attendance and domestic violence” and reported that conservative Protestant men who attend church regularly were not only “less likely” to engage in domestic violence, but were the least likely group to do so.
The difference is crucially important, because it means that instead of causing domestic violence, an authentic commitment to faith – and not just any faith, the Christian faith – indicated by regular church attendance, is a way to guard against domestic violence.
Had readers not bothered to check the sources relied upon by the ABC report, they would have been left with the impression that there was something within orthodox Christianity which permitted, excused or even encouraged violent behaviour. And nothing could be further from the truth!
Not only is such a blatant misrepresentation of the facts unjust in its depiction of Christianity, it is also dangerous, because it has the potential of discouraging victims of domestic violence from seeking assistance from the Church; separating them from people who might be both willing and able to help. It also has the potential of giving those few who might use a twisting of Sacred Scripture to justify criminal behaviour the impression that they have the support of the churches to do so.
Additionally, it led the writers to make ridiculous recommendations. They suggested that sermons should more frequently express a rejection of domestic violence, but evidence showing that regular church attendees are the least likely to offend indicates the problems are not with what is preached! And it makes sense, because abuse of any kind is antithetical to the Christian message, and anyone who spends enough time in church will realise that.
The response from the ABC after the misrepresentation was pointed out was, quite frankly, a disgrace, with Julia Baird calling it a “brawl over footnotes.” But this was more than a disagreement over an insignificant reference; the footnote in question was the premise of the entire story!
The story said that there would be a special report on domestic violence within Catholic families published in the coming weeks (cue surprise that the ABC would single out the Catholics for special treatment). I hope this next report is based more on facts than the last one. As we know well, misrepresenting facts about abuse in order to push an anti-Catholic agenda doesn’t really serve anyone, least of all victims and potential victims.