The press gets political religion

fred barnesMatt Stearns of the McClatchy Washington Bureau has a nice piece in the The Sacramento Bee that deals with the religious faith of presidential candidate Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz. The essence of the story is that McCain, while known to have professed a Christian faith, is not that vocal about it, and some say this is hurting him at the most and a missed opportunity at the least.

It’s a very straightforward story about religion and politics that highlights an interesting aspect of the 2008 GOP presidential nomination process. A generation ago, when Ronald Reagan, Bob Dole and George H.W. Bush were jousting for the GOP presidential nomination, who was asking about the personal faith of the candidates?

One of the major stories in American politics is the rise of personal faith as an important aspect in national politics, and it is demonstrated in this article:

McCain “seems to have a difficulty in discussing it in terms that people relate to,” said Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, a leading conservative evangelical organization. “I think people want a sense of where someone stands in their relationship with the Lord. I think George Bush was able to do that in the way he communicated, using terms that evangelicals are familiar with.”

Many who agree with McCain’s comprehensive approach to an immigration overhaul, such as Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass., routinely invoke biblical imperatives in defending their stance. McCain doesn’t.

Perkins and Gary Bauer, key players in advancing the Christian conservative agenda in Washington, said they knew virtually nothing about McCain’s religious life.

Weekly Standard executive editor Fred Barnes said Monday that he was one of the first people to ask President Reagan back in the 1980s why he didn’t go to church. The issue was largely moot among the rest of the national media covering the campaign. Now the politics of religion is one of the leading stories of the 2008 presidential campaign.

But does that mean the media are starting to get religion outside politics?

Speaking at a Faith and Law event on Capitol Hill Monday, Barnes said that while the media understand Islam, Buddhism and atheism, they don’t get Christianity and know even less about the “modern evangelical movement inside Protestant Christianity.”

[They] are basically somewhere between being indifferent to Christianity to being aggressively hostile to it, and there are more people on the aggressively hostile side, but probably fewer than there were before.

Barnes is not shy about sharing his faith and is known for being a strong supporter of President Bush. He told the crowd, composed largely of young congressional aides, that there has been more coverage of religion lately and suggested that this may be a result of emerging “aggressive and smart atheists,” including Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens.

“The press is looking for a modern update to the Scopes Trail where the Christians would be terribly embarrassed,” Barnes said. Coverage of Christianity is “still extremely uninformed and largely bigoted.” Barnes attributed this hostility toward Christianity to journalism being a “very secular profession.”

I do not share Barnes’ view that the scribes writing daily news stories are looking to embarrass Christians in their coverage of religion. I also think the media’s coverage of Islam is generally uninformed, with a few recent exceptions.

But I do agree that the media’s coverage of religion, particularly Christianity in politics, has become less hostile and has improved over the years. I don’t think we can say the same thing about the coverage of religion outside of politics. But that is why we are here as a blog, and we will continue to comment on the highs and lows and the random in-betweens in the media’s efforts to cover religion.

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  • Joseph Fox

    “Barnes, who is not shy about sharing his faith and is known for being a strong supporter of President Bush, told the crowd composed largely of young congressional aides that there has been more coverage of religion lately.”

    But no one is touching the question of whether President Bush’s faith has anything to do with the problems our country is facing in international policy or domestic policy. Is it helping or hurting? Does his faith have anything to do with why his credibility is so low? Why does his religious base not trust him? The focus on politicians’s faith rather than their credibility seems to be wrong.

  • http://www.bombaxo.com/blog Kevin P. Edgecomb

    …Barnes said that while the media understand Islam, Buddhism and atheism….

    That would be the media on what planet?

  • http://carelesshand.net Jinzang

    Barnes said that while the media understand Islam, Buddhism and atheism, they don’t get Christianity

    While press coverage of Buddhism is mostly positive, I haven’t seen any great understanding of Buddhism in the press. The usual attitude is that of a respectful outsider, which suits me just fine.

    It seems that Fred Barnes uses the word “understand” where he meant “repect” or “like.” If the press takes a critical attitude towards Christianity, it’s probably because of negative experiences reporters had while growing up and because of how conservative Christians have been cheerleaders for Republican politicians even when their conduct has been decidely un-Christian.

  • http://www.msu.edu/~chasech Christopher W. Chase

    Barnes said that while the media understand Islam, Buddhism and atheism, they don’t get Christianity and know even less about the “modern evangelical movement inside Protestant Christianity.”

    This is frankly laughable. I would contend that American media understand very little about any of the three major universalist missionary faiths: Islam, Buddhism or Christianity. And Mr. Barnes, as a media figure, is very much part of that problem himself. Coverage of Buddhism is largely limited to puff pieces on the Dalai Lama, or the visit of monks to a local public center of some kind. Nor do we get in-depth coverage of the multitude of different and dissenting voices within Islam–and hardly ever interviews with prominent figures or concerning long-standing ethnic issues within American Islam.

  • Ben

    To second Kevin’s comment (somewhat):

    The media on what planet gets atheism ?

  • norman ravitch

    Barnes still thinks the episcopal church is the GOP at prayer.

  • Chris Bolinger

    “If the press takes a critical attitude towards Christianity, it’s probably because of negative experiences reporters had while growing up and because of how conservative Christians have been cheerleaders for Republican politicians even when their conduct has been decidely un-Christian.”

    That’s a nice, broad generalization for which you provide absolutely no evidence. Maybe the press takes a critical attitude toward Christianity because it is culturally acceptable in the press community to do so. Presenting Christianity, especially theologically or politically conservative Christianity, in a positive light doesn’t exactly win you points in the average press room.


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