Don’t do that Voodoo

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Vodou.jpgSam Freedman, now the sole NYT Saturday religion columnist, has a nice piece today slamming Haiti coverage for lack of attention, except negative, to what is commonly known in Anglophone countries as Voodoo. Pointing out that this is one of Haiti’s official religions, practiced by at least half its citizens, Freedman notes that reporters and commentators have not come close to showing it the kind of respect normally accorded the faith of those suffering horrendous “acts of God” like earthquakes.

The worst offender was, as usual, Pat Robertson, who happily recycled the old canard about Haitian revolutionaries’ pact with the devil in order to blame the victims for their suffering. But among the more respectable offenders were Times columnist David Brooks–whose tawdry column on Haiti Freedman could not criticize, under Times rules–and Beliefnet columnist Rod Dreher, whom he does call out slyly as an ignoramus. Dreher, following Brooks, stuck his foot in it by suggesting that Haitians would be better off with the “Church of Christopher Hitchens” (i.e. atheism) than Voodoo. Having been slammed for that crack by various commenters, he proceeded to make matters worse by pursuing the subject all the way to a denunciation of syncretism in Christianity. I wonder if, on Christmas, Dreher permits his family that arboreal erection denounced by our Puritan forebears as paganism, or if he has given any thought to the old controversies that left his adopted church with practices that their iconoclastic opponents considered idol-worship.

In any event, Freedman does a nice job exposing the long history of anti-Voodoo bigotry, with the help of my colleague Leslie Desmangles, the dean of scholars of Haitian religion. The only problem is that, because of Times style, he must continue to call the religion Voodoo. Scholars have long since adopted “Vodou” as its name, not just because it sounds more like what adherents call it but in order to distance it from the negative stereotypes. That usage has filtered down to Wikipedia and the online Britannica, and even to Rod Dreher (who has taken to calling it Vodou/voodoo). But changing AP and Times style requires a virtual act of God. Let us pray.