Freak out III: The power of small, vulnerable minorities

2004countymap3Under normal conditions, I am not a big-time reader of the business sections in American newspapers. Most of the time, they focus 99 percent of their ink on people who own businesses, instead of covering the people who work in them, are affected by their actions or who purchase goods and services from them. It’s a corporate thing. In a way, it’s like the old religion pages in newspapers that only covered what was going on in religious denominations and bureaucracies. Where are the people?

Anyway, I digress.

Being stuck in an airport for a few hours tends to send me deeper into a newspaper and, thus, I wandered into the business pages of the New York Times on Thursday, while traveling to Nashville to take part in the fall National College Media Convention. And lo, I discovered that the wave of pew-gap coverage had swept all the way back into the column called the Economic Scene. I urge you to check this one out, because Virginia Postrel — author of "’The Substance of Style: How the Rise of Aesthetic Value Is Remaking Commerce, Culture and Consciousness" — may have written the most level-headed piece in the newspaper that day. As a rule, I don’t like question leads, but this one is fascinating:

Have religious issues become more important in politics because too few Americans go to church? That is the surprising suggestion of a new working paper by the Harvard economist Edward L. Glaeser and two doctoral students, Jesse M. Shapiro and Giacomo A. M. Ponzetto. …

The paper starts with a puzzle: In a majoritarian system like ours, political economists generally predict that candidates will converge toward the center of the spectrum, so as to attract as many votes as possible. This is the "median voter theory." But it doesn’t seem to describe what’s happened in American politics. On divisive religious issues like abortion, the two parties aren’t hugging the center. They’re abandoning it.

Anyone who has been paying attention knows that this is true — in part, because it is hard to compromise on moral issues. This is the political version of the old via media theological approach found in Anglicanism. One side says "Jesus is Lord." The other side says "Jesus is not Lord." The via media compromise is "Jesus is occasionally Lord." This is not a victory for the traditionalists. It is for the progressives. Or let’s try it with a social issue: "Sex outside of marriage is sin." The other side says "Sex outside of marriage is not sin." The via media is "Sex outside of marriage is occasionally sin."

Now, the cases I just cited are theological, not political. But the same thing is happening on political/moral issues such as abortion and the redefinition of legal terms such as "marriage," "fidelity" and "monogamy" in public life and institutions. Only in this case, the activists on the left are being just as hard-nosed as those on the right. Truth is, the Massachusetts Supreme Court just re-elected George W. Bush.

Postrel gets it. Once again, she returns to the Harvard publication:

While most people know that the Republican Party has taken an increasingly strong anti-abortion position, the authors note that the Democratic Party has simultaneously moved in the opposite direction.

In 1976, the Democratic platform said, "We fully recognize the religious and ethical nature of the concerns which many Americans have on the subject of abortion," while terming a constitutional amendment overturning Roe v. Wade merely "undesirable." In this year’s platform, by contrast, Democrats declared that they "stand proudly" for a woman’s right to an abortion, "regardless of her ability to pay."

Actually, the 2004 Democratic platform goes much further than that — stripping away a conscience clause that gave pro-life Democrats a shred of political dignity. Do you think the Democrats wish they had those votes now?

Postrel’s essay is hard to edit, so I will not try. She notes that some religious voters are struggling with the decision of whether they can vote at all, because picking a flawed candidate forces them to compromise on these — for them — life-and-death issues.

And what if the leaders of both the religious left and the religious right felt increasingly vulnerable? The rising profile of the gay-rights movement, and its strategic clout in blue-county elite culture, increases attacks on its views, as well as its power. Ditto for the leaders of the religious right, even though their numbers are apparently quite large — especially in red-county America. What if the realization that you are a minority actually undercut your ability to compromise?

And what if you had few political options? Perhaps the religious left and the anti-religious left face the same dilemma as the religious right. Where do they go? What are their options in the voting booth, other than deciding to stay at home? How will Dr. James Dobson dance with the Terminator? Could Hollywood embrace an old-fashioned Democrat, one who was conservative on cultural issues and progressive on economics?

Once again, this has journalistic implications. How do the cells of progressive journalists in places such as Atlanta, Dallas and the rest of red-county America sell newspapers to people whose lives they do not understand and whose views they do not respect? (Yes, this post features an early version of the 2004 map.)

Maybe journalists have become a small, vulnerable, endangered neo-religious group who have lost the ability to compromise — which would mean doing old-fashioned journalism that tries to deal fairly and accurately with the views of people on both sides of tough political and cultural issues.

Audiophile postscript: The theme song of our three posts on The New York Times’ post-election coverage, “Le Freak,” is available as an iTunes download.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • AH

    “Too few Americans go to church” is really skewing the point, which seems to be the technical one that where there is a common factor (going to church in SC), then it is not a variable.

    What I find most interesting, and the supposition is that it’s what did-in former Senator Daschle (D, SD), is that you can no longer target extreme messages to one constituency and have the hermetic seal on it. It will be public, in close-to-real time. As someone said on Kendall Harmon’s Anglican-controversy blog titusonenine, “…it looks like most church PR flacks still don’t get it – we unwashed masses have access to the raw facts now. We’ve actually read the responses from around the communion…”

    As someone with a passion for not being lied to, this makes me very happy. Par exemplum, Tuesday night. The pleasure of following election returns with interactive maps wired to Secretary of State returns offices, vs. looking at and listening to slow and spun analysis, Dan Rather’s furrowed-brow anxieties about the “blogging machine,” and a world-view whose values are both foreign and adversary to my own:


  • Molly

    The Blogosphere is the new printing press.

    As to voting in good conscience for a candidate, I think either side or any campaign is foolish to attempt to cater to this electoral pipe dream. THERE IS NO PERFECT CANDIDATE. The only one that comes to my mind died on a cross in Palestine 2000 years ago.

    As to the tune “Le Freak”, are you familiar with the website No, it isn’t a gay sex site, it is the repository of misheard song lyrics. One of my favorite is the “chorus” of “Le Freak” that involves bovines! HEEE! I am laughing just thinking about it… :) Go find it and enjoy the wonderful God given gift of humor!!!!

  • ken53


    “Maybe journalists have become a small, vulnerable, endangered neo-religious group who have lost the ability to compromise — which would mean doing old-fashioned journalism that tries to deal fairly and accurately with the views of people on both sides of tough political and cultural issues.”

    I wonder if you would like to comment on this piece by Ken Layne:

    My observation about it is that this is a good example of where most journalists start out their careers, covering local school board elections, mayorial contests etc.

    By the time they start covering national news and hit your radar screen they have pretty muched formed their opinions, based of observation, that the religious right is full of whacko nutcases.

    It didn’t have to be this way. What if the religious rights focus was on serving the poor instead of organizing violence against poor womens health clinics? I think then you would see an entirely different tone and appreciation of the religious right.

    No, I think the religious right is getting the kind of coverage it deserves. At least from the people in the press who know them for what they are.

  • Molly

    Wow. What do you suppose was dug up on him?

    Are you sure the left is “freaking out”? Just because you are paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t out to get you.

  • Brian Lewis

    ken53 – your message is a little hard for me to follow.

    but let me say as someone who spent a good portion of the early part of my career covering religion, the religious left has its fair share of whackos as well.

    Left, middle and right though, most religious people think fairly deeply about the issues.

  • ken53

    Brian, Your bringing up your own past experience as a beginning journalist makes my point. You were assigned to write about religion issues, a fairly narrow baliwick, and it brought you in contact with wackos as well as the deep thinkers.

    I was directing my comment to the much larger field of general interest and political reporting where young journalists are required to cover school board meetings, local city council meetings and the like.

    These young journalist do not write stories about church groups organizing to protect the teaching of evolution in school. Why? Because it doesn’t happen. They do write stories about the religious right coming out if force to deny a person a teaching job just because they are gay. Why? Because it does happen.

    Here is where journalists form their first opinions on the types of people they cover. These opinions stay with them and if they are good enough or lucky enough their careers advance untill they get to cover issues bright enough on the radar screen that it gets picked up by our kind hosts on this web site.

    I hope this helps clear up what I was trying to say with my post above.

  • Brian Lewis

    I wasn’t assigned to the church desk in the corner but then again, I suppose I am an anomaly. I had a different vision than most on how to get where I wanted to be and so far so good.

    And just because a church group organizes to either protect or protest the teaching of evolution it doesn’t mean they’re enlightened or unenlightened.

    I also found that liberals can be just as intolerant as conservatives.

    And also the old saw always cuts both ways:

    I’m liberal because of conservatives often meets I’m conservative because of liberals.

    I’m a Democrat because of Republicans often meets I’m a Republican because of Democrats

    and as Sly Stone said:

    and so on and so on and Scooby Dooby doo. I am everyday people.

  • Ken

    I’m militantly moderate because of liberals and conservatives. This year I swing conservative because of the life issue. Ken53′s rhetoric notwithstanding, I can’t vote for someone who protects the practice of sucking out the brains of almost-born babies and crushing their skulls.

    That said, I would add that the reporting of religion and politics suffers from vast simplifications. For example “red-county Dallas” just elected an hispanic lesbian as sheriff.

    I justed for George W. Bush to be the president of the United States: not national pastor, not pope, and not my personal savior. I did so in profound disagreement with his policies on Iraq and some economic issues.

  • Ken

    I meant to add that it’s not accurate to describe the Republican Party as pro-life in any way analogous to the radical pro-choice philosophy of the Democrats. My Republican congresswoman and Republican senator are both pro-choice, unless they have changed their positions.

  • Zippy

    If you look at a map that shows electoral margins rather than just the winner-takes-all map it tells a somewhat different story; a story that might help explain the hispanic lesbian sherriff in Dallas:

  • Zippy

    Ah, and this batch may be more interesting still: