Like 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.
The 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?