The O'Reilly Religious Factor

The sensational purge going on at FOX News bears a subliminal reminder that America's religion is, on the whole, immature and captive.

Roger Ailes and Bill O'Reilly are the big names who have been kicked out for allegedly abusing women. For FOX, the crisis was part moral and part legal. By whatever calculus they used, the string of accusations against both men would be offensive to large segments of its conservative Christian audience. The threat of lawsuits was likely even more troubling.

FOX therefore implicitly acknowledged that the legacy of the Ten Commandments -- its strictures against adultery and associated assaults -- still meant enough to punish Ailes and O'Reilly for crossing those lines. Fear of huge legal-money losses must have played large, but the traditional rules of Christian-Jewish conduct were deemed an important wild card.

In O'Reilly's demise, the cause was more obviously a matter of survival. A wave of corporate sponsors suddenly dropped the show, threatening collapse. Presumably, however, the advertisers wanted to avoid possible guilt by association from viewers outraged by what they saw as O'Reilly's flouting of the commandments.  

On pragmatic grounds, they might have been able to ignore the moral part. Though we profess allegiance to Biblical codes on an individual bases, the outcry against them has softened in recent decades. Divorce, unfaithfulness, philandering, adultery, fornication outside marriage carries only some of the public scorn that it once did. We know lots more about it in the lives of our public figures, as in the case of the former South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford who ran off to South America with his mistress and covered up his escapade. He left his governor's role but the rock-ribbed seat of the Old Confederacy has restored him to Congress as if nothing ever happened. We're more libertarian, willing to live and let live particularly if the public figure who's in hot water serves our interests.

But myths have a longer shelf life than reality. Establishments like news organizations purport to keep an eye on trends but often miss shifts of this magnitude in the wider religious culture. FOX, therefore, apparently felt it had to answer to a moral judgment against the alleged breakers of divine rules even though they might have ignored that aspect without serious harm.

The same could not be said of legal charges, however, Though hostility toward feminism among that audience no doubt mitigates the blaming of men for sexual abuses, guilty verdicts against abusers tend to carry greater public weight than religious declamations and can cost a bundle. Presumably FOX's viewers would be more concerned with the litigation, too. 

The old American custom of regarding personal morality as virtually the whole of religion surely played some part in FOX's blood-letting. But that factor obscured a far greater moral development that has bolstered FOX's success -- religious believers devoted to a set of behavioral principles that fly in the face of an honest interpretation of Biblical ethics. FOX's dogma embrace an Ayn Rand outlook, self-centered, chauvinistic and supremely individualistic, which set a direction nowhere evident in the Sermon on the Mount or the Beatitudes or any other portions of the Bible. What does it mean that so many in the FOX legions who count themselves faithful Christians adopt a set of "rights and wrongs" that undermine personal well-being and the common good? With that backing, it would seem that FOX could have counted on viewer support and essentially discounted moral objections from its audience. The moral disparities tilted in their favor.

[Ken Briggs has reported on religion for Newsday and The New York Times. His latest book is The Invisible Bestseller: Searching for the Bible in America.]

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