Why Fake News Is a Good Thing

fake-news

Hello again, everyone! It has been a long time since I have posted a blog. I have to admit that dissertation writing has consumed a lot of my time and left me with little inspiration to write blog posts as well. However, I do hope to get back into the blogging habit over the coming months.

Today, on the eve of the Presidential Inauguration, I wanted to write a post about everyone’s favorite topic: Fake News. This has been a trend over the last several months, especially surrounding the 2016 Election. Many people have been duped by fake stories circulating on various websites, especially Facebook.

There was a New York Times article posted just yesterday about the creator of the fake news website ChristianTimesNewspaper and how he made a fair bit of money by posting extreme news stories which he made up. This guy, Cameron Harris, garnered a lot of clicks after posting a story about Hillary Clinton allegedly stuffing ballot boxes. Harris took advantage of a statement by President-elect Trump in which Trump noted a potential for the election to be rigged.

Harris’s website is just one among many out there posting fake stories. I myself have seen friends buy in to headlines and stories about the election, or about other “news” which seemed to be fishy to me. I would then go to Snopes.com and check into these headlines. Often, there would an article debunking these stories which had been shared many times on Facebook. I would post the link to the article from Snopes in the comments, but sometimes would get the push-back, “Snopes is not an unbiased authority! You need to not trust it as a factual site! It’s fake news!” Even the anti-fake news websites were getting branded as untrustworthy. Biased journalism was everywhere! Either news sources were too liberally-biased in favor of Hillary Clinton or they were too conservatively-biased in favor of Donald Trump. Nothing could be trusted. Both sides claimed theirs was the “truth.”

So why can the Fake News phenomenon be a good thing? I have spent way too many years in school working towards my degree. Over these past several years, I feel as though I have gained a valuable tool: how to critically think about sources. I feel like one of the most beneficial things about pursuing a college education, or degree of some type, is learning how to do correct research. I have also been working as an adjunct history professor recently at an undergraduate institution. One of the things I always have to address is how to research proper websites and proper authorities. This usually includes talking about Wikipedia, or other online sources which allow anyone to edit entries.

One thing that Fake News has taught us recently is to be skeptical of certain bold statements. For example, people want to simply attach “BREAKING NEWS!” to a random story in order to get clicks and website visits. This is logical, since like Mr. Harris mentioned above, website visits and clicks actually translate into real-world, literal money and revenue. Sometimes people are trying to become the next Onion.com, a wildly successful satirical website (one of my favorite recent imitators of the Onion is the BabylonBee). These comedic sites are usually looked at for entertainment purposes and people often know when visiting them or when seeing these websites’ articles shared on Facebook that the articles are fake and supposed to be funny. The problem arises when a website is unfamiliar or contains words in the title that make it seem legit. The title ChristianTimesNewspaper, mentioned above, could appear to be addressing actual world news from a Christian perspective. I have seen others with similar titles sharing fake stories with the purpose of seeing End Times type events in “the news.”

But the fact that Fake News has become a buzzword(s), including a popular hashtag on Twitter, has allowed people to be more skeptical when encountering headlines. This is a good thing. Critical thinking is a good thing. Reading a story or article with an eyebrow raised can be helpful and make readers wonder if the story they have just read is fake, real, or at the very least, unverified. One major thing I have learned in my years of research is how to check sources, which sources are typically more trustworthy, etc. For example, picking up a monograph from Oxford University Press that is filled with footnotes and sources is much different than reading a source which has no notes or bibliography and is self-published on Amazon. Both might be good sources, but you need to do more digging with the second book.

I’m curious what you all think. Is Fake News a bad thing? Or, like I have mentioned here, can it be helpful? Can we “trust” any news sources anymore? Who has the time to chase down all sources for an article that someone shared on Facebook? There are positives and negatives, but I think overall Fake News has created more critical thinkers.

A Heart for Muslims: Temple Gairdner’s Legacy

Templegairdner

Last week we took a respite from our series on the history of missions to discuss Donald Trump and his perceived manipulation of Christianity. This week, we return to our series once again, but this time we find ourselves in Cairo. In the wake of the horrific attacks in Brussels, and the resultant xenophobic rants regarding Muslims coming into this country, today’s blog seeks to focus on a missionary who served Muslim communities. William Henry Temple, or simply Temple, Gairdner (1873-1928) served for almost three decades in Cairo, Egypt (Tucker, 244).

Gairdner’s role as a missionary to Muslims was aided by his ability to learn very quickly, including learning Arabic “well enough to become involved in teaching in less than a year” (Tucker, 243). He also, along with his wife (they were married in 1902), used their musical talents to put on concerts to draw Christians and Muslims together (Tucker, 243). Importantly, Gairdner changed his tactics in ministering to Muslims in Cairo. He shifted from the typical missionary strategy of arguing the differences between Christianity and Islam to more calmly discussing the problems that Muslims had with Christian beliefs (Tucker, 244). He even sought to engage Muslims where they were.

Gairdner spent time trying to work with Coptic Christians in the area, but found few of them were very interested in helping out with the missionary work among Muslims (Tucker, 245). Gairdner’s publishing and his teaching left resources to his mission after his death in 1928 (Tucker, 245). Tucker also notes that Gairdner’s real legacy was the resulting increased desire for people to pick up his mantle of missionary work among Muslims, particularly in the Anglican Church (Tucker, 245).

Although Gairdner could be seen as successful in many ways, there were problems in the mission, notably a lack of helpers. This greatly hindered Gairdner’s publishing work, and even though he spent a year studying Islam with world-renowned experts, he was unable to really make an impact in the scholastic realm (Tucker, 244-45). Gairdner himself even lamented it, noting that he could have made a real contribution to the field. He also saw some of his fellow-Christians renounce their faith and convert to Islam (Tucker 243). So, while he did have some modest successes, one might say that he had just as many setbacks.

I want to point out that in today’s religio-political climate in the United States, we have a variety of opinions, especially with regard to Muslims. I think that Gairdner might assist us by his passion for working and engaging with the Muslim communities around us. As mentioned above, there have been a number of xenophobic responses to ISIS-claimed attacks around the world, most notably by Donald Trump. Trump has said several times that the United States should start banning all Muslims from coming to this country. Ted Cruz likewise has recently stated that Muslim communities around this country need to be monitored. I think such positions on Muslims would appall Muslim missionaries like Temple Gairdner. His methodology was to engage Muslims, not fear them. He even lamented the Coptic Christian Church near him for not doing more to minister to Muslims that were a part of their own communities.

Last night, while watching election coverage of “Western Tuesday” (yet another moniker assigned to a day when more than one state holds a primary), I heard several analysts talking about how each time there has been a ISIS-led terrorist attack around the world, Donald Trump gets a bump in the polls. I find such reactions by the American people alarming to say the least. Without getting too political (although I fear I may have already), I would say that we should be worried when we hear things like, “We have no choice but to ban all Muslims from entering this country,” from our presidential front-runners. I would also say that we should be shocked and appalled when such statements are met with exuberant applause by the masses.

Temple Gairdner took issue with the standard Christian missionary practice of his time, which was to fiercely debate Islam and Christianity. His approach sought to meet Muslims where they were and engage their beliefs. While I recognize that Gairdner’s methods were rooted in mission work and politicians like Trump and Cruz are focused on political strategy, I think Gairdner’s legacy still fits. His time in Cairo was not always happy and not always met with successes, but he nevertheless remained there until his death because he believed in the work he was doing. He believed in God’s call on his life. I would even contend that he had a heart for Muslims. I wish that our political climate, particularly political establishments that are aligned with a Christian majority, would share Gairdner’s sympathy and love for Muslims and eschew Trump’s xenophobia. After all, this country was founded on religious freedom, and I hate to break it to many people out there, but Islam is a religion.

What do you think? I would love to hear your thoughts on these issues? Is today’s geopolitical climate too different from from Gairdner’s to make these assertions? Has ISIS changed the game permanently?

Bonus Blog: Trump and Constantine: Can Religion be a Political Tool?

Well, I wanted to start off this blog with a disclaimer noting that I am a historian, not a political scientist. I have noticed many different opinions on the social, cultural, and media phenomenon that is Donald Trump’s rise to the forefront of the Republican Primary discussions. Trump has taken numerous victories around the country, including a thorough domination in the states in the Deep South. Since today has numerous high-profile primaries and one caucus, I wanted to blog about Donald Trump, Emperor Constantine, and the ability of religion to be used as a political tool.

There has been no shortage of blog posts, articles, and probably even forthcoming books detailing Donald Trump’s ascendancy in polls and in voter turnouts. There have been those who have shared memes joking about his unorthodox campaign, those who have questioned his true loyalties, and even a trending hashtag of #NeverTrump. Others have called into question whether or not he is a real Christian, as he claims to be. There was even a mini-controversy over him saying “Two Corinthians” in quoting a Bible verse (many people did not realize it, but many Christians refer to 2nd Corinthians this way). I wanted to delve into the theory that Trump has used Christianity as a tool to gain the support of much of the Religious Right. Such a theory reminds me of some interpretations of Emperor Constantine.

Constantine (272-337 CE) was the first true Christian emperor. He converted to Christianity after seeing a vision of the cross before riding into battle. He parlayed its image onto his shields and eventually was victorious at the Battle of Milvian Bridge in 312. The Edict of Toleration was issued in 311, which ended the persecution of Christianity, and the Edict of Milan in 313 legalized Christianity as a religion in the Roman Empire. Constantine was only baptized on his deathbed, leading to many scholars over the years to question the authenticity of his conversion. Some have argued that Christianity was a political tool to unify the empire under Constantine’s rule, firming up his status as the sole ruler of the Roman world.

Eusebius of Caesarea wrote his Ecclesiastical History and a Life of Constantine, the latter of which was a glowing, hagiographical work which praised Constantine’s virtues and cast him in the role of a saint. For Eusebius, Constantine was completely sincere in his faith, and even ushered in the millennial kingdom on earth. For some modern scholars, Constantine was a shrewd politician who used Christianity. Which is it?

The current consensus is that Constantine definitely made a political move in making Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire. However, most scholars now either believe he might have been sincere, or at least that he could have been sincere but there is just no way to truly know. Unfortunately, we simply have to study Constantine’s actions from the perspective that he might have been a genuine Christian or that he might have just used Christianity’s popularity to his advantage. Either way, the effect was that Rome was Christianized and Constantine was a main cause of it.

This brings us back to Trump. Is he a true Christian? Is he using Christianity to manipulate voters into thinking he’s their Religious Right champion? Maybe Donald Trump is actually a Christian who is using Christianity to his political advantage. He would hardly be the first politician, or potential president, to do so. Unlike Constantine, however, Trump is alive and we can scrutinize his actions and decisions and speeches to determine to what extent he is using Christianity as a political tool.

Where does this leave us? Should we give Constantine the benefit of the doubt? How about Trump? I think that both can teach us that religion can be a political tool. It has been in the past and most likely will continue to be into the future. Voters need to realize this and make informed, intelligent decisions on whom to vote for. What do you think? Do you agree? Should we allow for the possibility that religion is just a tool for politicians sometimes? Does that make them less of a Christian (or other religious follower)?