Media Portrayals of Religion: Christianity

Christian religions form the largest religious group in Canada today, with more than 70 per cent of the population identifying with a Christian denomination. The widespread popularity of Christianity in Canada, however, does not mean that media treatment of Christianity is always accurate or informed.

Michael Wakelin, former head of Religion and Ethics for the BBC, describes how journalists often assume that they understand Christianity simply because of its popularity. As a result, reporters are often more willing to ‘take swipes’ at Christianity in newspaper and television reports, while other religions are treated with more caution [1].

Darren Hewer, author of an online faith blog, writes that, “Christians are weirdos. At least, if you read the daily news, that’s likely the message you’ll get” [2]. A common media stereotype is that of the ‘Christian extremist’: a Christian who holds radical religious viewpoints and who will go to radical extremes to assert them. These beliefs and behaviours are presented as dramatic, unusual and excessive, almost always within a negative context. An example of this type of stereotype can be seen in The Shawshank Redemption, where the prison warden, who mistreats prisoners, also distributes Bibles and recites Biblical verses to the same prisoners he abuses. His Christianity is associated with his tyranny; he is portrayed as a radical Christian.

Where does this stereotype come from? Edward Caudill, professor of journalism, discusses how this stereotype appeals to common mass media values that are not necessarily compatible with a responsible portrayal of religion. Stories with a high potential for conflict and drama are crucial for generating profit and retaining readership of newspapers or viewership of television shows. Because of this, some Christian issues – creationism for example – are framed in terms of culture wars and politics, where Christian views starkly oppose another side of the conflict that is presented as more rational. These stories are presented under the guise of adhering to core journalistic values of fairness and ‘presenting both sides’ [3]. In this same way, Christians are often represented in media as intolerant, racist or even violent – not because these assertions are true, but because they allow conflict to be presented more easily.

A similar stereotype to that of ‘Christian extremist’ is the ‘fallen Christian’: someone who used to exhibit traditional Christian morals but ultimately lost these qualities through some sort of temptation or sin. Like the ‘Christian extremist’, this stereotype also has great potential to generate drama and conflict, both of which help to boost media consumption. An example of this stereotype can be seen in Quinn Fabray of Glee. Portrayed as a devout Christian high school cheerleading captain in early episodes, she ultimately becomes pregnant and is kicked out of her house by her radical Christian father. She proceeds to lose her boyfriend, friends, cheerleading position and social status, which are portrayed as consequences of her immoral choices.

A final Christian media stereotype is the ‘liberalizing young Evangelical’, where young Christian Evangelicals are presented as favouring progressively more liberal positions on contentious social issues. While young Evangelicals are more likely to prioritize protecting the environment, their views regarding other social issues are generally as conservative as, if not more than, those of their older counterparts [4].


[1] Bailey, M. (2010). Media, religion and culture: an interview with Michael Wakelin. Journal of Media Practice, 11(2), 185-189.
[2] Hewer, D. (2010). How the Media Screws Perspective. Power to Change. Accessed: January 4, 2011.
[3] Caudill, E. (2010). Intelligently designed: creationism's news appeal. Journalism & Mass Communication Quarterly, 87(1), 84-99.
[4] Johnson, B., & Smith, B. (2010). The liberalization of young evangelicals: a research note. Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 49(2), 351-360