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Chercheurs de dieux dans l’espace public - Frontier Religions in Public Space

Pauline Côté

Deuxième partie / Part II. Monde vécu, scandale public - Personal experience, public controversy

The media and socio-cultural regulation of religion1

Roland J. Campiche

Texte intégral


  • 1 Revised version of a paper first presented in French at the annual meeting of the AFSR (Paris, Feb (...)

1The thoughts which I intend to develop are closely linked to research which we have recently brought out under the title, “Religion and the social connection”. The objective of this research is to repeat, after a period of ten years, an analysis of the state of religion in late modern Switzerland, recorded in “Croire en Suisse(s)”(1992).

2It is significant that we have introduced something into our research program which was not there in 1987, namely a study on the theme of religion and the media; its conclusions will provide us with a key to the interpretation of the construction and regulation of religious mobilisation. How can such an initiative be justified? As an introduction, I will put forward the following eight points:

31) Since the beginning of the 1990s, the media have attached a growing place to religion (after a period of indifference or indeed rejection).

42) By doing this, they are contributing to the support of the sociocultural role of the latter.

53) By referring to the criterion of laicity which implies the recognition of religious pluralism and the axiological neutrality of the state, they are mapping out the contours and « relief » in the field of religion.

  • 2 Dayan and Katz (1992, 207) from their analysis of journeys of the Pope and the nonreligious (diplo (...)

64) But by dint of tackling the theme, they also contribute towards making it commonplace (a term which I prefer in order to avoid an epistemological debate on desacralisation2).

7As in a news-flash, these four points return us to the regulatory role of the media; a role which, from the outset, seems ambivalent and relatively independent of religious organisations.

  • 3 This last point finds confirmation in Dayan and Katz (Media Events, 1992). We draw inspiration fro (...)

85) Observation of the media shows, on the one hand, that by reason of its function, it inevitably increases the standing of religious leaders and on the other, tends to place greater importance on events3.

96) It therefore creates the social necessity for leadership and the obligation for religious organisations to generate events.

10These last observations (points 5 and 6) highlight the fact that the treatment and the regulation of the subject obey secular criteria. These same observations open up the problem of effect.

117) In the latter perspective, the media accentuates the relative stereotypes in the way it presents religious matters

  • in what is considered religious
  • in the personality of the leader (whether a cardinal or a guru)
  • in the strangeness of a particular field in relation to the general order

128) However one is almost totally ignorant of its influence on the cognitive religious plan. In fact there are very few empirical studies of this theme; and moreover these studies are very difficult to cope with.

13In these eight points, I recognise that with the passing years, the media has become the interpreter of religious matters in the same way as the ‘virtuosi’ in the field, namely the clerics and the various specialists in the social scientific study of religion (Campiche, 1995, 1997). Furthermore, it plays a role in the restructuring of this field. But which role? The more I progress in my reading of sociological studies of the media, the more perplexed I become and, as a result, the more cautious. In fact the understanding of the conditions and the effect of the reception of the media message can be a delicate matter as Dayan has shown (1992: 156, and Dayan and Katz, 1992). To know how the spectator, the listener or the reader should decipher or re-encode this message, whatever it is, thus remains open to question. In consequence, my thoughts will assume a hypothetical character and will raise more questions than they are able to resolve.

14In formulating these preliminary remarks, I am following in the footsteps of the poet, philosopher, theologian and Hellenist Edouard Burnier (1998: 96) who wrote in his diary in July 1978:

15Which thought does not simply move from one grey area to another, having travelled across a clear sky, in which space we construct the fixed constellations of our clear ideas?

1. Defining the problem

16Allow me to begin with an anecdote: soon after the first suicide massacre of the Order of the Solar Temple, an event which was the main topic of conversation in Quebec as well as in Switzerland, the Swiss Romande television showed a program scheduled in the consumer slot entitled, “Sects-how to get away from them?” Having touched on the difficulty of defining them, the program then showed in turn a selected list of these movements, a description of their technique of indoctrination, testimonies of former members as well as those of the experts, of whom Dr Abgrall was inevitably one, a list of the rights and obligations of people ensnared by these sects and then concluded: “You are free: you can do as you please.”

  • 4 Colleagues who analysed the tragic case of Waco expressed a similar point of view: (see Wright, 19 (...)

17I hardly need to describe my state of mind after watching this program. In fact I felt as though all efforts to put forward an alternative interpretation of the event or a different approach to it, had been totally demolished4.

18Three years later, and almost to the day I showed this same program to a final year class at the Haute Ecole specialising in social studies. To my great surprise, all the students spontaneously launched into a fierce criticism of the broadcast, rapidly deconstructing its assumptions.

19These two episodes serve to illustrate in a positive way the theoretical gap of polar extremes between which we swing in order to interpret the socio-cultural effect which the media might have on religion, or, to put it more precisely, and this is the view I would prefer to take, the importance of the regulatory role played by the media where religion is concerned. In other words, the socio-cultural effect and the regulatory effect do not have the same meaning, even if the two notions are not mutually exclusive. To have an effect involves altering the content and the portrayal of religion in our society. To regulate religion would involve determining particular forms and treatment of religion and the way they should be regarded in the scheme of things. Here is an example of this: on the Thursday prior to the « Journées mondiales de la Jeunesse » (19-24th August 1997 in Paris) the French media said it would be a flop because French people would stay at home. On the Friday, because of the crowds attending, it was pronounced a success given that the mythical number of one million of the faithful had been reached. In this particular case, it is the media which has conferred the dimension of an event on this meeting. The latter enters the category of ‘ceremonial event’ in the sense ascribed to it by Dayan and Katz (1992, 16). « Les Journées » had been arranged a long time in advance and the script had been written by responsible Catholics and was therefore under control. As for the media, they described the event in the telling of it. In contrast to some of the other journeys made by the Pope (Poland, Nicaragua), this one was of primarily religious connotation, which notoriously changed the nature of the commentary. A good illustration of this is the fact that participants were often described as pilgrims.

20But let us return to the two theoretical poles relative to the sociocultural effect of the media, having taken into account the declared porosity between the two sets of problems.

  • 5 It is worth noting that Lasswell has not retained the positions he defended in his 1927 thesis.

21On the one hand we can put forward the argument of an immediate and great effect, whether by defending the idea of a deconstructed society in which the media is the sole socialising factor, (Lasswell, 1927)5, or by advancing the theory of ideological domination such as that of the Frankfurt School. Seen from another point of view, it has to be admitted that the media has a limited effect, whether by virtue of the individual mechanisms used to withstand its impact, generated among other things by the fact that the listener is embedded in a network of interpersonal relations or in view of the listener’s preliminary knowledge, (Lazarsfeld, 1944) whether by virtue of his or her social status (Hoggart, 1970), or of any other needs. (Berelson, 1949).

  • 6 The appendix entitled: “Five Frames for assessing the Effect of Media Events” does not appear in t (...)

22These arguments, which have become classic, have been reconsidered during recent decades in favour of theories which bring out the complexity of the effect of the media and the necessity to take them on board in the long term (see in particular Dayan and Katz, 1992, 221ff)6, but without fundamentally renewing them. While supporting the argument of limited effect, I have put forward the hypothesis (Campiche, 1997, 267ff) of a variable effect on religion by the media, attributing a great media impact in the construction of the portrayal of religious subjects, such as sects, by virtue of the fact that their character is unknown to the public, but attributing a relative impact in relation to established religions, since the public can take it or leave it, because of what it knows and what it has experienced, as is also the case in politics.

  • 7 According to this theory, the media was teaching people how to think by way of informative languag (...)

23By distinguishing the strong and relative effects of the media, I am provisionally dismissing the different theories concerning the influence of the media. In the first case, the media has contributed as an intermediary to the construction of a collective memory where sects are concerned; a strongly sought after memory amongst the elaboration of legal texts or those artfully seeking to contain their actions. The measures taken by the police in order to prevent publicity for Scientology propaganda (Lausanne, Zurich, Basle) are good examples of this. It is the same with current discussions to prevent this group in taking the name of church (Geneva). The theories known as ‘critical paradigm’ regarding the conservative role of the media, or ‘technological’7, which accentuate the role per se of the media are reinforced, while the idea of a relative effect goes back again to the so-called ‘gratification research’ theory, affirming the capacity of the reader/listener/spectator to select and use the media like a cafeteria where he can take advantage of the resources (see ibid., 221ff). The latter theory is very close to that of the individualisation of religion underlining the different religious ‘pick and mixes’ made by our contemporaries. One could wonder with justification, whether the flaw in these last two theories is that it is giving greater importance to the short term at the expense of a long-term process.

24The verification of the hypothesis of variable effect has taken place as a result of the observation of journeys by the Pope and from analyses of this subject on the one hand, and on the other by a study of the contents of a thick press file and from television programs about religious minorities, given the name of sects. These analyses are in fact not shown to be very illuminating in tackling the problem of the effect of the media on religious attitudes, but are good for defining, on the one hand, the use which religious actors can make of the media (for example: the papal journeys) and on the other to detect the impact of the media on the construction of religious representations. We only have to think of the way in which religious correctness is portrayed in relation to the treatment of “sectarian deviations”, and their associated dangers.

  • 8 The analysis of the case is based on a press dossier provided by the Church in question and on the (...)

25The disputes between the Evangelical Church of the Pentecost at Besançon and the press and the authorities provide a good illustration. This Church, whose statutes were laid down in 1963 at the préfecture in Doubs, subscribes to the Mennonite sphere of influence, according to E. Poulat8; it reflects the dual evangelical and Pentecostal tradition. Prior to 1988, articles on this subject were published in the regional and local press. They were insignificant and made mention of the distribution of tracts, the participation of its members in the activities of the Church and the testimonies of healing. The importance of reference to biblical text was emphasised but without any negative judgement. On the contrary, in the journalists’ eyes, the Church appeared normal and respectable and was not considered to be a sect; an assessment which was confirmed by Alain Vivien in a public debate in 1989.

  • 9 The propensity of the press to take up, with little verification, the accusations of anti-sect gro (...)

26From 1988 onwards the tone changes. A branch of the Roger Ikor Centre (a centre against the manipulation of the mind [CCMM]) was set up at Besançon. Its attacks on the Mission and on the Church in particular, were targeted on the healings, the quality of ministerial training, the wealth of the community and the source of that wealth. Accusations of mental manipulation abounded. The local and regional press (l’Est Républicain) took up and endorsed the information: a well-recognised scenario9. Feelings rose between the Mission and CCMM. An action for slander was instituted, but the Mission was finally ruled out of court in 1994 by the Court of Appeal in Besançon, supposedly on formal grounds (for not meeting deadlines).

27The attacks by CCMM hit home after the local police enquiry and when its results reached Paris. The fiscal status of the Pentecostal Church of Besançon was challenged by the Tax Office and the Mission was brought before the administrative tribunal. So it came about that the community in question appeared in a report “Sects in France” (1995) without expert appraisal and verification of the religious character of the enterprise. This gap did not create any problem, since public opinion by now viewed this process with disfavour.

  • 10 See note 8.

28As Poulat says10, even if the evangelical Church of the Pentecost in Besançon had made mistakes and was clumsily defended, the danger of this organisation appearing in the list of deviant sects was never established. The hostile climate made honourable recovery difficult, even if the Mission received the support of ECAAL (The Augsburg, Alsace and Lorraine Church) and the Salvation Army and entered into official dialogue with the Protestant Federation of France.

29This example brings to the fore the role of social regulation which the media has in connection with religion. A role which is consistent with the production of a widespread consensus where religious institutions such as minorities are concerned. It can be summarised as follows: religious institutions are not bad, but marginal, sects are pernicious because they are confining. In this sense, as in political matters, the media confirms the stereotype. Thus they contribute to the portrayal of religious affairs. They reflect an image of the latter which conforms to the criteria of laicity: pluralism and neutrality.

30In putting forward the opinion that the media participate in the regulation of religion, I would like to draw attention to the multiplicity of agents who play a part in this process. I will therefore make mention of the problems posed by this multiplicity, before returning to the method by which the media operates this regulation.

2. The absence of a central regulator

  • 11 The strong view is recalled here, which supports the theory quoted in “Gratification Research”.

31If one goes along with Lemieux’s idea (1996a), one which I share, of the absence in western society of a central regulator of religion, it is possible to open onto two lines of thought and interpretation of the facts. Firstly, there is the autonomisation of the religious subject able freely to construct his or her religious identity11 and who, because of this, would bring about a dissipation, indeed an infinite dispersal of religion in society, with all the implications imaginable.

32In this case, the question of regulation becomes obsolete. The abovementioned agencies do not regulate anything. They sustain at most a market which operates strictly according to the law of supply and demand. Thus, as a last resort, regulation is passed on to the individual (as many types of religion as there are individuals). The second line of thought postulates a plurality of factors: state, school, family, religious organisations, the media. In view of the difference in function, they do not conform to the same social logic and are pluralist within themselves and do not share the same interests in comparison with religion. Under these conditions, is it possible to talk of their effects or their regulatory role? How is it possible to decipher the convergent or divergent impact of their regulatory action and to organise their effect into a hierarchy? It can be seen immediately that by taking them into consideration, both sets of problems become intermingled.

  • 12 I drew inspiration here from an exchange of letters with Daniel Dayan.

33Let us look at the family. It is clear that there are some families who manage to create a religious tradition and who thus ensure the continuity of the line of belief, something according to Danièle Hervieu-Léger’s thesis. Others will not rest until they have neutralised the religious factor in order to survive or to abide by an informed choice inferred by the context especially when they, the families, have been reconstructed in a multiplicity of ways, ethnically, socially or religiously. The regulatory role of this institution, although the subject of much research, is, to say the least, questionable. Turning to the school, it becomes obvious in many European countries that there is a desire to dispose of denominational religion in favour of the teaching of religion on the basis of bringing the differences under one roof and of managing pluralism without conflict. In this way this institution lays down an acceptable religious model and conforms to the plan of society which the media might well reinforce by giving it a wide circulation. Thus the question of the regulatory role of the various institutional agencies, whose effect might well be to cancel one another out and/or have a neutralising or commonplace effect on the subject concerned, appears, in this day and age to be difficult to decipher. In addition, these observations refer back to the two stages in the flow of communication12. The interpretation/reception stage seems that much more decisive and its restoration that much more complex!

34But let us return to the principal question, that of knowing whether the media intervenes in the regulatory process.

3. But what can the media regulate?

35At this stage, it is worth remembering one or two points concerning the status of the media in our society. They are subject to certain imperatives. Firstly to market forces, but equally to the pressures of sociocultural reproduction and finally to the government of the day (in the democratic circumstances in which they evolve).

36Communication thus seems to be a managed process. Take for example the Waco tragedy, the media can be seen solely as a medium of a regulation which stems from elsewhere. In fact, during the siege at the Davidian Community, the forces of law and order virtually dictated the process of communication, supporting the claim at the crucial moment, of the theory of mass suicide by an apocalyptic community, when subsequent analysis of events would show that the forces of law and order themselves had been the cause of most of the deaths (Richardson, 1995,153ff). This version of events, broadcast on the spot,-a publicly acknowledged and verified fact-has contributed nevertheless to the representation of sects, by means of which, for example, the Solar Temple affair has been interpreted (see Campiche, 1995) with all the social and political consequences of which we are aware, in particular the vague desire of the French or Swiss state to control non-conformist religion without distinction, (see Gest, Guyard, 1995; Ramseyer and Bellanger, 1997).

  • 13 See the transmission: Cahiers Français, no 258.

37In returning to the subject of “agenda” (McCombs and Shaw, 1972) which holds that there is a strong correlation between the order of importance given by the media to certain pieces of information and the importance attributed to it by the public13, the media can create a type of hierarchy of that which is acceptable, by means of the greater or lesser amount of attention it pays to a religious event and by the tone of its comment. Thus it seems that the idea implicit in the theory of a simple revelatory agenda, is an illusion. The phrase “It is advisable to think...” is in fact often accompanied by some sort of evaluation. It is always “This is how you should think.” An event or a problem is not just placed on the agenda. It becomes the object of an artifice. A critical history of the function of the agenda remains to be made (see note 7 infra).

38Let us look at another example, the journeys of the Pope, focusing in particular on « Les Journées Mondiales de la Jeunesse » (August 1997). The extraordinary attention given to the Pope in person (in particular by channel 2 of French television), during which every step was followed live for the duration, is something which runs counter to the way in which information is presented, where speed and selection predominate and which, as a result, gives credit to a certain number of attitudes and religious behaviour, independent of their meaning, simply by virtue of their being portrayed. As for the commentary which was more or less limited to the religious character of the event, it was distinguished more by the respectful tone of its remarks than by its content. Even when the commentary was sharper, for example during the television news, the fact that the event was shown at all, has more significance than the interpretation given to it. A comparison could be made with the way in which a visit by a head of state is presented, asking whether this is yet another illustration of the manner in which power is portrayed, similar in fact to the numerous ceremonies that can be gathered up in the term “coronation”, (see Dayan and Katz, 1992, 38)

  • 14 The drama of the Solar Temple Order can be compared with media events which Dayan and Katz (1992, (...)

39The portrayal of “sects”-once again they could linked with other marginalised socially unacceptable groups, such as the National Front or hooligans, because they are perceived to be anti-democratic-obeys certain criteria: those of astonishment and reprobation14. These warning examples which testify to a desire to purify the religious market are too numerous to mention through the centring on images of ceremonies, rites or other events concerning religious minorities (see the television film inspired by the Solar Temple affair). The choice of what is shown is such that it renders any commentary almost superfluous. Even if there was no intention to stigmatise, the reaction provoked by these images: the development of legislative measures to limit religious liberty, for example, shows its effectiveness. Even so, it is also possible to form a contrary hypothesis. By being the medium of new information, and consequently passing on knowledge which reveals unknown aspects in the field of religion, the media is able to prompt experimentation in non-conformist religion. In fact, in being circulated, the latter paradoxically becomes legitimated, made into some form of consumer product. By being shown, it exists, which means that it is recognised by the media by being shown on the screen, in the same way that hooligans or inner-city revolts are shown, and paradoxically become commonplace.

40We can see by means of this last example that the media can play a dual role where regulation is concerned. A witnessing role which maintains the pre-eminence of established traditions. At the same time the media can contribute by way of its function and its dependence on the market, in fixing attention on the possible extension of religion, of drawing attention to esoteric movements, and by encouraging the listener to experiment outside established traditions. In this sense, it has a role in the definition and demarcation of religion in society.

41A demarcation which increasingly eludes the religious organisations themselves. Besides the media it seems that other actors are making use of these circumstances in order to try to establish control in the field of religion. As well as the examples given above of attempts by the police, which originate from the state, aiming to counter religious excesses, it can be seen that there is a propensity amongst anti-clerics to seize the opportunity to reappear on the public scene. Thus, paradoxically, we arrive at a situation where there is an alliance between these two environments with the defenders of “religious correctness” in order to police a field more or less voluntarily deserted by its traditional actors.

42As can be seen, the media controls the market in religious communication. But does it control religion itself, in other words, does it exert a cognitive influence on religion? This question remains unanswered. On the other hand, by way of a summary, it could be said that by increasingly talking about religion, the media legitimizes its social role. It has done this in particular by giving its leaders a public role and by covering events (a symbolic way of saying that they sanction it). By doing this, its action is ambivalent, in that it gives credibility to religion at the same time as making it commonplace.

43In conclusion it is relevant to underline the fact that the media does not cover the whole field of religion. Numerous movements and demonstrations escape its gaze. Something which comforts legitimate research which revolves around a religion which is seldom if ever spoken of, namely ordinary religion! But if these movements escape the media, will they escape media temptation, would that only be to have the sense of existing?



Berelson B. (1949), “What’ Missing the News — Paper’Means in Lazarsfeld P. et Stanton F.: Communication Research 1948-1949, Harper, New York, 111-129.

Burnier Eduard (1998), Une barque prêtée. Extrait de son journal, 1976-1990, Editions St.Augustin, St. Maurice.

Cahiers Français (1992), La Communication, voir le chapitre sur les théories de la communication: 3-31, in La Documentation française, no 258 (oct.-déc.), Paris.

Campiche Roland J. (1982), “Automaticité des contrôles et démoralisation de la vie publique?”, in Visages de l’informatique, Payot, Lausanne, 83-94.

Campiche Roland J. et Dubach A. (éd.) et al. (1992), Croire en Suisse(s), L’Age d’Homme, Lausanne.

Campiche Roland J., Entretiens avec Cyril Dépraz (1995), Quand les sectes affolent. Ordre du Temple Solaire, médias et fin de millénaire, Labor et Fides, Institut d’éthique sociale, Genève, Lausanne.

Campiche Roland J. (1997), “Le traitement du religieux par les médias”, in Études théologiques et religieuses, Institut protestant de théologie (Facultés de théologie protestante de Montpellier et de Paris) en collaboration avec la Faculté de théologie protestante de Strasbourg, Tome 72, 267-279.

Dayan Daniel (1992), “Les mystères de la réception”, in Le Débat, no 71.

Dayan Daniel et Katz Elihu (1992), Media Events. The Live Broadcasting of History, Harvard University Press, London.

Gest Alain et Guyard Jacques (1995), Les sectes en France. Rapport fait au nom de la Commission d’enquête sur les sectes, Les Documents d’information de l’Assemblée nationale (éd.), Commission d’enquête, Rapport no 2468 (document mis en distribution le 10 janvier 1996), Paris.

Hoggart Richard (1970), La culture du pauvre, Les éditions de Minuit, Paris.

Lasswell Harold D. (1927), Propaganda Techniques in the World War, Knopf, New York.

Lazarsfeld P. (1944), The People’s Choice, Columbia University Press, New York.

Lemieux Raymond (1996), Notes sur la recomposition du champ religieux, Sciences religieuses 25/1, 61-86.

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Ramseyer Gérard et Bellanger François (1997), Audit sur les dérives sectaires. Rapport du groupe d’experts genevois au Département de Justice et Police et des Transports du canton de Genève, Ed. Hurter, Genève.

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1 Revised version of a paper first presented in French at the annual meeting of the AFSR (Paris, February 2-3th 1998). Translation in English by Sandra Hogan (Exeter).

2 Dayan and Katz (1992, 207) from their analysis of journeys of the Pope and the nonreligious (diplomatic, political....) implications, judge that media events contribute to the removal of borders between the sacred and the profane.

3 This last point finds confirmation in Dayan and Katz (Media Events, 1992). We draw inspiration from this remarkable study on the production of events by the media to place our observations in comparison with the different relative theories of the effect of the media.

4 Colleagues who analysed the tragic case of Waco expressed a similar point of view: (see Wright, 1995 and Tabor and Gallagher, 1995).

5 It is worth noting that Lasswell has not retained the positions he defended in his 1927 thesis.

6 The appendix entitled: “Five Frames for assessing the Effect of Media Events” does not appear in the French edition of this work: Dayan, D., Katz, E. (1996), Ceremonial Television. Live Anthropology and History, P.U.F., Paris.

7 According to this theory, the media was teaching people how to think by way of informative language (see Campiche, 1982, 90).

8 The analysis of the case is based on a press dossier provided by the Church in question and on the expertise of Emile Poulat (in his letter of 21 April 1997 to the Church officials as well as in his own articles). I am fully aware that the press file is not exhaustive, but it contains enough significant elements which illustrate the aim of this argument.

9 The propensity of the press to take up, with little verification, the accusations of anti-sect groups is a well-observed phenomenon on both sides of the Atlantic.

10 See note 8.

11 The strong view is recalled here, which supports the theory quoted in “Gratification Research”.

12 I drew inspiration here from an exchange of letters with Daniel Dayan.

13 See the transmission: Cahiers Français, no 258.

14 The drama of the Solar Temple Order can be compared with media events which Dayan and Katz (1992, 27) call “Conquest” and which can be characterised by their unexpected character and their capacity to alter the future. The viewer has the tendency to receive this sort of event with “awe and suspicion”. These two attitudes were pinpointed at the time of the broadcasts provoked by the suicide-massacre at the Solar Temple Organisation.


Professeur Directeur de l’Observatoire des religions en Suisse Université de Lausanne

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