And now for something completely different, after what seems to have been a hurricane of news about the alleged love affair between "evangelical voters" and Citizen Donald Trump. Let's look at what happens when faith shows up in news coverage of reality TV.
Oh, wait. What is the difference between "reality TV" and the White House race? Might Trump be winning the hearts of many Americans, including a 30-something percent slice of evangelical Protestantism, because he is a superstar level performer in the world of reality TV?
Oh man, now I'm really depressed.
Anyway, USA Today ran a long, long "news" story the other day about a major development in the history of extreme-romance television, which had this headline: "Ben tells TWO women he loves them on 'The Bachelor,' one is his fiancée." (We have the inevitable ABC News coverage up top.)
So what we have here is a controversial use of the word "love" by one Ben Higgins. The complicating "love" factor is that Higgins is a strong Christian. So how does this affect life in the "fantasy suite," when bachelor stars can choose to spend the night with the women who are, well, pursuing them? USA Today handles this issue by ignoring it.
Instead, the feverish, wink-wink entertainment-news page prose included passages such as:
But before Ben could ask one woman to spend the rest of her life with him, he had to whittle three women down to just two.
Ben also shockingly dropped two L-bombs on Monday night's episode! In 20 seasons, many women have told a Bachelor that they loved him, but rarely have they heard the guy say it back. Again, Ben proved he is no ordinary Bachelor.
The "God" angle shows up in another clip. Folks, consider this "news" coverage a sample of a whole different American news culture.
I know that this seems rather silly, but there is -- I promise -- an interesting journalism angle to this:
On their date, Ben and Lauren B. released baby turtles into the ocean, and they were so cute!!! Lauren B. said that she felt like the luckiest girl in the world, and Ben literally thanked God that they were able to share this moment together.
On the beach, Ben told Lauren B. that he cried when he talked to her sister about his feelings for her. "You're too good for me," Ben said. "You're beautiful, and you're smart, and you're sweet, and you're sensitive."
Lauren B. said that she felt the same way and worried that what she and Ben have might be too good to be true. STILL she didn't say that she loved him.
After turtle time, Ben and Lauren B. went to listen to some music, and Lauren B. wore a really cute pink cropped top with a matching skirt that had a high slit. She told Ben that she really struggled this past week and that his relationships with other women weighed heavily on her mind. She also told him that he was the man of her dreams.
When the two went to the fantasy suite, Lauren B. FINALLY told Ben that she loved him!
And the assumption is what?
OK, over at Slate the wink-wink question was asked early and, to some degree, addressed. The headline: "Bachelor Ben Is a Very Religious Christian. So Why Won’t Producers Let Him Talk About It on TV?" If you read the coding in that Slate URL, it appears that "Very Religious Christian" means -- sssssshhhhh! -- "evangelical."
Has this horrible fact been hidden on the show? Sort of, kind of.
Higgins’ faith is obvious to anyone who follows the wider universe of online Bachelor-alia. His blog includes lines like “I had to trust in God and that he would guide me in the right direction.” His Twitter bio (“sweetly broken, wholly surrendered”) is a lyric from a Christian worship song, and his Instagram quotes Christian author Donald Miller. He has a tattoo that reads “Commit to the Lord whatever you do and your plans will succeed -- Proverbs 16:3,” for Pete’s sake. “I know Ben has a heart for Jesus," Sean Lowe, known a few seasons ago as “the virgin Bachelor,” wrote on his own blog as the season kicked off. "Now, he’s going to have a big stage to share that love for the Lord with the world."
That stage has turned out to be off screen. On the show itself, spirituality gets only the most fleeting, veiled references and dog whistles. ... Lauren’s sister mentioned her “good values,” JoJo’s brother told her to “keep her heart guarded,” and Caila’s dad mentioned that he was praying for her. As for Ben, the one sign of his possible evangelicalism was the massive church that made a brief cameo. ... “This is my church,” Ben told Lauren as he gave her a tour of Warsaw. “Aww,” she responded. “Ben, this is a big church.” “It is a big church,” he agreed, and drove on.
And, since the always shocking (ask Tim Tebow) V-word -- as in "virgin" -- was used, what about, you know, the "fantasy suite" issue?
Apparently, Higgins is on the record as saying that he is seeking a woman who has a "similar faith as I do.” This contrasts, notes Slate writer Ruth Graham, with the "Bachelor universe" in which the highest virtues are "things like willingness to open up, to be vulnerable, to be authentic." (Like on the campaign trail.)
The dangerous world of religious faith has surfaced in some previous Bachelor gigs:
Methodist Jake Pavelka asked the women about their views on premarital sex on the first night they all met. Lowe’s faith became one of his defining characteristics, but apparently only because it affected his restrained approach to the “fantasy suite,” where each of the last three finalists spend the night alone with the Bachelor or Bachelorette. (Lowe went on to become the only Bachelor to marry the woman he picked at the final rose ceremony.)
So what is the bottom line here?
What does young evangelical Ben Higgins actually believe? What do evangelicals believe, anyway? Might that be a key factor in news coverage of a national phenomenon like reality TV?
On a show like "The Bachelor," might these kinds of central human questions linked to faith and sexual ethics actually have something to do with love and marriage, that is, if a person is attempting to live out a traditional approach to a faith such as Christianity?
Believe it or not, journalist Graham goes there (although stopping short of defending something as truly controversial as someone striving to remain a virgin until his or her wedding night):
... Religion is about far more than a person’s approach to sex. (Ben, too, has said he “set boundaries” for the fantasy suite, based on his faith.) It deserves better than the cutting-room floor because it intersects with values, culture, and intellectual and social interests -- all things a person might hope to share with a spouse.
Dang it, that is actually a pretty good statement for why it's important for journalists to take religious issues seriously in all mainstream news -- especially issues linked to marriage, family, ethics, etc.
So that's that. Let me stress that NOTHING in this post should be read as a metaphor linked to coverage of the candidates in this year's race for the White House. There is no connection whatsoever between the dating strategies in "The Bachelor" and the modern-media TV techniques used in seeking the White House, or the news coverage thereof.
Zero. Zip. Nada. Nichego. Niente. Nichts. (Oh well, whatever) Nevermind.
Turn it up, especially on the chorus.