Who is looking for a political savior?

0904CHRISTIAN RIGHT wideweb  470x297 0Like the Divine Ms. MZ, I spent much of the week mulling over that Media Matters report titled “Left Behind: The Skewed Representation of Religion in Major News Media.” I received quite a bit of email suggesting that GetReligion was ignoring the report, which would be really strange since this blog has, ever since opening its cyberdoors, been arguing for more coverage of the activities and the beliefs of the Religious Left.

But it has taken me several days to pull together my thoughts on the report and I imagine that, sooner rather than later, I want to address it in one of my Scripps Howard columns. I totally agree with MZ that the report is rooted in political ideas rather than religious doctrines. I also agree that anyone from a liturgical, creedal, dare we say “catholic” (with a small c) church is going to look at the report’s list of religious conservatives and say, “Huh? These are my leaders?”

Here’s that list again: James Dobson, William Donohue, Gary Bauer, Charles Colson, Jerry Falwell, Franklin Graham, Ted Haggard, T.D. Jakes, Richard Land, Tom Minnery, Joel Osteen, Rod Parsley, Tony Perkins, Pat Robertson, Rick Warren and Wendy Wright.

And on the left you have Tony Campolo, Joan Chittister, Robert Edgar, Jim Forbes Jr., C. Welton Gaddy, Jesse Jackson, Michael Lerner, Brian McLaren, David Saperstein, Al Sharpton, John H. Thomas and Jim Wallis.

That’s really a debate between evangelical GOP Protestants and, for the most part, oldline Democratic Protestants. Also note the presence of several pro-life liberals, such as Wallis and Campolo.

Where, for example, are the conservative Catholic clergy in this list? Why not at least one conservative rabbi?

In other words, what we have here is a list by a liberal group of the 10 conservatives it believes best represent the views of religious conservatives and then its own list of the 10 religious voices it wishes could represent political liberalism.

You would have exactly the same thing happen, of course, if a conservative think tank did its own version of this research.

All of the liberal voices in this list are valid sources, of course. But where are the heavy-hitter clergy from oldline Protestantism? Where are the Catholic bishops? Where is Episcopal Bishop Gene Robinson? Where is Oprah Winfrey, for that matter?

But here is a big question: Who is the liberal version of the late Jerry Falwell? Where are the names on the liberal list — OK, other than Jesse Jackson — who make the majority of people on the left side of the church aisle cringe when they open their mouths? Who are the embarrassing voices on the Religious Left?

Meanwhile, some of the conservative names are total jokes, when it comes to offering insights on public policy issues. Of course, I addressed that quite some time ago in my Poynter.org column in which I argued that it is time for mainstream reporters to “excommunicate” Pat Robertson.

But, the more I think about the study, the more I think of two specific media realities.

Years ago, I covered a press conference in which the Colorado Council of Churches came out in favor of this or that political bill and argued that its stance represented the views of most believers in the state. During the Q&A time, I addressed a question to each of the clergy lined up on the podium. I asked if any of them represented churches that were growing or even, on that day in the mid-1980s, had the same number of people in the pews as in, let’s say, the mid-1960s.

The Roman Catholic priest raised his hand. I should add that, a few years later, Rome appointed an archbishop who distanced the church from the liberal Colorado Council of Churches — because of clashes over moral and cultural issues.

story 01The second thing I thought about was something that Walter Cronkite used to say, whenever critics of the media would ask that old, old question about journalists spending too much of our time covering bad news instead of focusing on good news. Uncle Walter replied that people doing bad things is news, because it is normal for people to do good things. It will be a sad day, he said, when it is rare that people do the good, when good deeds are so shocking that they leap into first few minutes of an evening newscast.

So look at it this way: For the past few decades, the bad news in American politics has been the rise of the Religious Right. This was a big, big, big story.

The views of the Religious Left represent, for most journalists, the logical, smart, ordinary, positions on the political issues at hand. Journalists cover the bad more than they cover the good, because the bad represents the strange, bizarre, even horrifying, side of life. The Religious Right represents the tacky hordes of fundamentalists from blue zip codes who want to sack Los Angeles, San Francisco, New York City and Washington, D.C.

Of course you cover the loud voices on that side more than you do the calm, compassionate, sensible, “moderate” voices of the other churches.

With that dynamic in mind, read the following Newsweek report by Eve Conant titled “Evangelicals Search for a Political Savior — Evangelicals aren’t flocking to the GOP front runners, and don’t know where to turn.”

The big worry among some Republican strategists: that millions of evangelicals who turned out for Bush in 2000 and 2004 won’t crank up their formidable money and promotion machine if the party nominates a Giuliani or a McCain. Grover Norquist, the influential conservative strategist and president of Americans for Tax Reform, says that no matter how upset evangelicals may be, they aren’t going to do anything that hands the White House to the Democrats. “Evangelicals will vote for whoever can beat Hillary. They are more sophisticated than they were 20 years ago.” But others disagree. “Where you won’t see them is working the phone banks or sending out mailings,” says Tony Perkins, head of the conservative Family Research Council. “It’s foolish and naive for moderate Republicans to think we’ll just push aside the issues.”

But what if millions of those evangelicals aren’t Republicans? What if they are moral conservatives who are Democrats? What if they are blacks and Hispanics? What if they are progressive, yea even crunchy, people who read and think and go to movies and buy newspapers and still, horrors, happen to be pro-life or in favor of 2,000 years of Christian doctrine on marriage? What if they back one side of the GOP on abortion, but back the Democrats on most poverty issues? What if they are waiting, hoping and praying that someone — Barack Obama perhaps — might be willing to demand that the Democratic Party seek compromises on the key moral issues, compromises more in line with what the vast majority of Americans believe?

Who, in the Media Matters lists, speaks for those people in the middle?

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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.

  • Harris

    I think you may have unintentionally hit the reason with this quote:

    That’s really a debate between evangelical GOP Protestants and, for the most part, oldline Democratic Protestants.

    The nominally political battles of the culture wars look a lot more like an extension of the old Modernist/Fundamentalist battles of the early 20th C, only the names have changed. The ecclesiastical battles of the late 20th C (e.g. SBC) look striking like the political battles.

    And going back further, there is often more than a whiff o the old Populism drifting around in these supposed “religious” questions.

    In this light, asking where the liberal analogues are to the conservatives is almost certainly the wrong question. It’s also ignoring the evidence in front of you: the Methodist Sunday School girl, the adult UCC convert on one side against two Mormons, a failed Catholic, a converted Catholic (Brownback). No wonder the Conservatives are unhappy, there is not a populist among them. Thus Fred’s rise to the front (and why, incidently GWB got the easy ride, too).

    As a matter of politics, the Old Evangelical Alliance (Dobson, Bauer and before them Falwell, Robertson) so tied their support to the President, that they now face a significant challenge unwinding themselves from support of anti-climate change, plutocratic tax policies, and unflinching support for some of the most egregious aspects of this War (torture, habeas).

    That such stances do little to recommend the Savior, no doubt explains why a younger generation is far more leary of this kind of social engagement.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    Harris:

    The problem, of course, is that we are not talking about issues of Fundamentalism. We are talking about major compromises at the heart of Judaism, Catholicism, Orthodox, classical Protestantism, Islam, traditional Budhism, etc.

    So modernism and postmodernism are now cutting into creeds and classic moral theology, not the doctrines of Fundamentalism.

    I agree with you totally on the issues of environmentalism, economic justice and the war.

  • Larry Rasczak

    “The views of the Religious Left represent, for most journalists, the logical, smart, ordinary, positions on the political issues at hand.”

    I think here you have a very important point.

    One of the reasons the Religious Right has outspoken leaders is that but for those outspoken leaders our views would never have seen print or publication.

    The Left does not have outspoken religous leaders because none are needed. The views of the Left are represented and defended by the editors and reporters of the NYT, CBS, NBC, ABC, CNN, etc.

    If one is a Catholic Priest or a Baptist Minister who believes abortion to be murder and feels called to protest it, you have to form your own organization and speak out… the NYT isn’t going to do it for you. You won’t get press unless you march on Washington, or stage protests, etc. This is how the Religous Right formed in the first place.

    If you are an Episcopal Bishop who thinks Planned Parenthood is just the bees knees, then there is no need for you to do anything. You will be able to pick up your copy of the NYT or the WaPo and read nicely written articles that reflect (or guide) your beliefs and prejudices to the letter. Why should you go to the trouble of forming an organization, printing up letter head, hiring staff, etc. when NARAL and NOW and PP and NYT and WaPo etc. are doing the job quite well thank you very much?

    “What if they are moral conservatives who are Democrats?”

    I can remember when Dick Gephart was on the cover of The American Life League magazine. (Well it was more of a monthly newspaper… couldn’t afford glossy paper, but I digress…). Look what happened to him. He wanted to be President so he had to choose (thus allowing Bloom County to create the “Gephartization Ray” in one of the funniest moments in the history of the Comics). Look at what happened to Gov. Casey at the Democratic Convention.

    There WERE Democrats who “happen to be pro-life or in favor of 2,000 years of Christian doctrine on marriage” but the emphasis is on the past tense here…they pretty much went extinct when Gov. Casey died. I think there are one or two pro-Life Dems left in Congress… but for the most part the party has been throughly purged.

    Lets not forget the surveys that show a strong link between the non-attendance of Church and voting Democratic. The Religous Right makes up a big part of the GOP base. The largest part of the Dem. Base is deliberately NON-Religious. “Moral conservatives who are Democrats” would have a position of power in the DNC akin to that enjoyed by the Log Cabin Republican in the GOP. Even if any still exist, they would be a fringe group at best.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    LARRY:

    You are way off on the number of pro-life Democrats on the Hill and, even more important, I was not talking about elected officials anyway. I was talking about ordinary people — voters.

    Follow the link to the column I wrote on that. The numbers are shocking, drawn from recent Pew Forum Data.

    And also check this out: http://democratsforlife.org/

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    The text of that Scripps Howard column:

    Talk to Democrats at church and you will usually find citizens who yearn to find middle ground on America’s most painful social issue, to find ways to restrict or even ban most abortions.

    Talk to Democrats as they exit voting booths and you will almost always find voters who pulled levers to elect candidates who oppose these compromises.

    The vast majority of Democrats want change on abortion. That’s one of messages in a new study on politics, faith and social issues produced by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life and the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press. Yet harsh political realities make it almost impossible to find middle ground.

    “If you ask Democrats, ‘Would you like to see some compromises on abortion?’, you will see high numbers” of people saying “yes,” said veteran researcher John C. Green of the University of Akron, who is working at the Pew Forum during this election year. “But if you ask them if they want to see Roe v. Wade overturned, you will get a totally different set of numbers.”

    For millions of Americans it is “impossible to reconcile their emotional attachment to Roe with what they believe about finding middle ground on abortion,” he said.

    The Pew report provides plenty of evidence that Americans are hard to pin down. They lean right on gay marriage, but are beginning to lean left on embryonic stem cell research. On abortion, small camps of true believers dominate both parties, while millions of average Americans say they want compromise.

    “Abortion continues to split the country nearly down the middle,” according to the Pew team. Still, “majorities of Republicans (62%), Democrats (70%) and political independents (66%) favor a compromise. So do majorities of liberals, moderates and conservatives. More than six-in-ten white evangelicals also support compromise, as do 62% of white, non-Hispanic Catholics.”

    It’s hard to define “compromise” in terms of legislation, said Green. Study participants were asked if abortion should be “generally available,” “allowed, but more limited,” “illegal, with few exceptions” or “never permitted.” As expected, Republicans were more conservative than Democrats.

    Nevertheless, 10 percent of “liberal” Democrats chose the most anti-abortion option and 13 percent said abortion should be illegal, except in cases of rape, incest or to save a mother’s life. Then, 14 percent said abortion rights should be restricted with new laws, which Green said might include a “partial-birth” abortion ban, parental-notification laws, mandatory waiting periods and even a ban on late-term abortions.

    “Many of those liberals are black Democrats who are frequent church goers,” said Green. “But those Democrats are still out there.”

    Meanwhile, 12 percent of “moderate” and “conservative” Democrats backed a complete abortion ban, while another 39 percent said abortion should be “illegal, with few exceptions,” the choice that Green called a “modern pro-life stance.” Another 20 percent backed legalized abortion, with more restrictions. Once again, church attendance seemed to influence these views.

    In all, 37 percent of liberals and 71 percent of centrist Democrats said they supported policies that would not be allowed by the U.S. Supreme Court under current interpretations of Roe v. Wade and other decisions defining abortion rights.

    However, the modern Democratic Party is led by liberals who lean left on abortion and hot social issues, according to Peter Steinfels, the veteran religion columnist of the New York Times. But this creates a problem, since the centrists make up 67 percent of the party and the liberals only 31 percent. “The ideologically dominant group — certainly on abortion, less so on same-sex marriage — is the numerical minority,” he noted.

    The Republican Party has internal rifts of its own on religious and cultural issues. For example, 44 percent of white evangelicals now support embryonic stem-cell research, which is a 12-point increase over the past year alone. Democrats are split over whether to push gay marriage, but Republicans are split over the issue of whether to amend the U.S. Constitution to ban it.

    Green stressed that most Americans, especially those who frequent pews, want to affirm what they believe are “traditional,” even conservative, positions on these kinds of moral issues.

    “But they also want to affirm personal freedom and the right of individuals to make their own choices,” he said. “So they are not so sure how to put all that together, when it comes to deciding what to do about an issue like abortion.”

  • Jerry

    “But they also want to affirm personal freedom and the right of individuals to make their own choices,” he said. “So they are not so sure how to put all that together, when it comes to deciding what to do about an issue like abortion.”

    That’s been my personal hot button for quite a while. I wish there was a poll that asked: “Do you think that it’s time to stop fighting about whether or not abortion should be legal or not but instead focus on helping women choose life?”

    I suspect that if someone like Senator Obama came out with an abortion position that endorsed “Choose Life” a lot of people would flock to him, especially if he had a set of sensible proposals that would aid women in making that choice. Because, if Green is right, that is what most Americans want.

    I think we’re already seeing this but you have to look to find the evidence since such stories as this are not ‘sexy’ enough to put on the front page:

    Already Democrats opposed to abortion are finding the party’s leaders more inclined to work with them on legislation such as the Pregnant Women Support Act, she added. The bill, which has the support of the U.S. Catholic bishops, is aimed at reducing the number of abortions.

    http://www.catholic.org/national/national_story.php?id=21979

    There are some Democrats who think that bill leaves too much out so there is another alternative: Reducing the Need for Abortion and Supporting Parents Act. One of the issues in these competing bills is the Catholic anti-birth control position because there are many Americans who see contraception is one of the key ways of preventing abortions.

  • Maggie Newman

    But here is a big question: Who is the liberal version of the late Jerry Falwell? Where are the names on the liberal list — OK, other than Jesse Jackson — who make the majority of people on the left side of the church aisle cringe when they open their mouths? Who are the embarrassing voices on the Religious Left?

    I don’t think you will find really embarrassing voices on the Religious Left for a couple of reasons. 1) Those on the religious left rarely become institutional authority figures (the authority of power, not scholarship), so they don’t always get the publicity that makes for embarrassment. 2) By the time they become embarrassing, they have often parted from that particular institutional religion, either voluntarily or involuntarily. Willingly sticking with a religious body suggests that you are willing to submit to that institution’s authorities. Consider all the R.C. theologians who have accepted their silencing by the Vatican. The alternative is to leave–Matthew Fox, the former Dominican, comes to mind. As for involuntary departures, consider what happened to Jesus, John Huss, and Joan of Arc.

  • Chris Bolinger

    Terry, terrific post. You hit the nail on the head, especially in this section: “The views of the Religious Left represent, for most journalists, the logical, smart, ordinary, positions on the political issues at hand…The Religious Right represents the tacky hordes of fundamentalists from blue zip codes who want to sack Los Angeles, San Francisco, New York City and Washington, D.C. Of course you cover the loud voices on that side more than you do the calm, compassionate, sensible, ‘moderate’ voices of the other churches.”

  • ursus

    Are you going to change your mast head quote to say “The press…just doesn’t get *conservative* religion”?

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    ursus:

    Nope. If we dig up the old Freedom Forum study from about 1993, you’ll find that the press seems to have trouble with all religion. But there is no question that the culture wars questions linked to faith and morality consistently show a anti-traditionalist slant. That even shows up in the LIBERAL books on media bias. See Eric Alterman’s “What Liberal Media?”

    http://www.amazon.com/What-Liberal-Media-Truth-About/dp/0465001777/ref=sr_1_1/002-6356583-8738455?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1180820576&sr=1-1

    That book, of course, does stress other — accurate — press biases that favor the right on issues of economics, military issues, etc.

    But note the references on moral and cultural issues. Check it out.

    The issue is whether the MSM can improve its coverage of the beliefs of about 20-40 percent of the American public.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    Oh, and do you disagree with my analysis of the Cronkite view of “bad news”?

  • Gary McClellan

    At one time, I would have said that John Spong was the “left’s own Robertson”, but unless I’ve been watching the wrong sources, I’ve not seen much out of him in recent years.

    I was extremely surprised to not see Rev. Barry Lynn on the “left” list, as I probably see more of him than anyone else on that side of things.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    Barry Lynn is, perhaps, the most glaring omission from the list on the left.

    With Oprah, of course. Of course, she rarely gives interviews. She speaks in her own way on her own terms.

  • ursus

    I disagree with Uncle Walter’s view that normal is for people to do good things. People do good and bad things all the time. Being bad isn’t enough to warrant making the news. The item in question must be bad “enough.” An act that was very good will be a likely candidate for the news (like the moon landings and other space events that Cronkite loved to cover).

    Not every “dog bites man” story will make the paper. If the man is a small child and the dog is a pit bull owned by a drug dealer, that story probably runs.

    Most “man bites dog” stories all have a good chance of running.

    But what if the man is a Bishop from the Northeast and the dog is from a diocese on the Atlantic coast in the South? Will the press spend most of its time explaining how the dog deserved to be bitten?

    The fact “the press seems to have trouble with all religion” combined with “a anti-traditionalist slant” is truly a deadly combination. They will tend to misrepresent and be critical of all religious perspectives but will give the non-traditional the benefit of the doubt. They will tend to pick stories that make the traditional religious person look bad and the non-traditional person look sympathetic.

    And directly related to this thread, they will view traditional religion as monolithic. They are unable to see the wide diversity represented in it. They will not be able to see that a traditionalist with regards to religion might be a progressive with regards to social issues.

    So you should change the mast head quote to “The press…just doesn’t get religion…but they love those creative, non-judgmental, inclusive Episcopalians (and other similar types)”

  • Str1977

    “As for involuntary departures, consider what happened to Jesus, John Huss, and Joan of Arc.”

    Talk about silly examples?

    - Joan of Arc did not depart at all.

    - John Hus got what he wanted at Constance – he wanted to be a martyr.

    - And Jesus? Give me a break!

  • Maureen

    That’s not a rosary. It’s a cross necklace, one of those huge “I can’t wear a pectoral cross, ’cause I’m not a bishop YET” ones. Haven’t a clue why the person would feel the need to string it with beads, but there you go. :)

    Re: “introduction”
    There’s actually a name for it. “Rosary” originally meant rose garden or rose wreath, and that’s the “path” into the garden. Neat, huh?

  • momly

    Tony Campolo is a liberal??


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