You gotta have faith

interfaiithSo I’m out here in beautiful Denver covering the Democratic Convention (I also came for my sister-in-law’s awesome naturalization ceremony last week!) and it’s been a blast. The spectacle is amazing, the crowds are enthusiastic, the alcohol is flowing (even in the morning!), the protesters are fun to watch. It’s everything I could have hoped for in a convention.

On Sunday I attended the interfaith worship service that kicked off the convention. I’ve had fun looking through various media reports of the lively event.

The service was disrupted almost immediately by a protester who opposed Barack Obama’s position on abortion. Shortly after the first protester was escorted out of the event, another one rose. Then another. And then the first keynote address focused on abortion. (This might be a good thing to ponder for readers who wonder what abortion has to do with media coverage of religion.) Christianity Today had some awesome live-blogging of the event and relative-of-this-blog Sarah Pulliam (who I got to meet yesterday) is covering all of the religion angles throughout the convention. Catholic News Service has a great straightforward write-up from a Catholic perspective. This Boston Herald notebook piece was probably the best short write-up of the event. It shows that even if you don’t have a lot of words, you can accurately characterize what went down.

I filed a story on the event, and I led with the abortion theme — as did many other reporters. The Associated Press, for instance, shipped a story about Rev. Charles Blake’s sermon opposing abortion. the Denver Post led with the abortion protests (and ended with protests from Latinos who felt the service wasn’t inclusive enough!).

Rocky Mountain News reporter Paul Anthony filed several stories about the day’s activities, including the only one I read that caught one of the odder parts of Sister Helen Prejean’s crowd-pleasing, charismatic address. He began another report this way:

Abortion has stormed onto the stage of the Democratic National Convention’s opening event.

Bishop Charles E. Blake, presiding bishop of the Church of God in Christ, called on presumptive Democratic nominee Barack Obama to “follow through on his promise . . . to reduce the number of abortions” while stopping just short of criticizing the Democratic Party for its support of the practice.

“Surely we cannot be pleased with . . . millions of terminated pregnancies,” Blake said to applause from the nearly full Wells Fargo Theater. “Something within us must be calling for a better way. If we do not resist at this point, at what point will we resist?”

I suppose it’s technically true that Blake’s comments received applause. I was smack dab in the middle of the venue, which housed a couple thousand people, and I heard someone clapping off to my left and maybe two people to my right. If there were more, there weren’t many more. It’s interesting to see how different reporters cover the same thing in different ways. Here’s how Dallas Morning News columnist Wayne Slater’s described the same thing:

“Surely we cannot be pleased with the routine administration of millions of surgically terminated pregnancies,” he thundered from the stage. “If we do not resist at this point, at what point do we resist?”

A smattering of applause.

He went on to say that, although Christians are sharply divided, they can find common ground in supporting programs to reduce the number of abortions.

A standing ovation.

Another AP report, filed by Eric Gorski, did a good job of covering the event and putting it in context. But he somehow didn’t mention the abortion issue. While some mainstream media acted like the interfaith gathering will help more evangelicals and “values voters” cross the political divide, Gorski explained how the religious outreach of Democrats differs from Republicans:

One hallmark of Democratic faith efforts at the convention is diversity, which might soften objections from party activists wary of the Christian right or any mixing of religion and politics. Behind the scenes, efforts to attract the religious vote will concentrate largely on Christian “values voters.”

“If we create or become a mirror image of the religious right, we have failed,” said Burns Strider, who ran religious outreach for Hillary Clinton’s campaign and now does faith-based political consulting. “But if we have increased the number of chairs around the table, … then we’ve succeeded.”

One thing I will note is that all civil religion has diversity. All civil religion looks for common denominator beliefs. As the Rev. Barry Lynn pointed out in his Beliefnet post, the right does interfaith stuff, too.

MormonWorkerStill, I’m just happy that Gorski isn’t assuming that visible religiosity is all it takes to get those religious Republicans into the Democratic Party. The AP story also looked for tangible evidence of religious outreach and whether it is having any effect. Now that I’ve had a day to reflect on the event, I’m amazed at how quickly Gorski turned that story out. Neglecting to mention the dominant abortion theme is odd but he packed the piece with information and context.

For a bad example, I have to point out the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review‘s lede:

On the eve of their national convention, Democrats appeared eager to woo a segment of the electorate more identified with the GOP in recent presidential elections: the God vote.

What does that even mean? Argh. The media have underreported the presence of religious adherents in the Democratic Party and hyped the heck out of the values voters on the right. Usually the stories are on shaky ground, evidence wise, and are just used to push a commonly accepted meme. Now if the reporters actually think that the interfaith service would woo evangelicals in the GOP, they are probably high or know nothing about culturally conservative evangelicals.

The Omaha World-Herald had the same problem:

Democrats signaled Sunday that they aren’t ceding the churchgoing vote to Republicans in this presidential election.

Was that the signal? I could be wrong, but the type of churchgoers who would be moved by this service are probably already voting Democratic. And the data do not suggest that efforts such as this are having a tremendous effect on moving religious votes.

One of the most interesting parts of the service were the prayers and addresses from Muslims. Al Jazeera had a good write-up for that angle.

Other good comprehensive write-ups include National Public Radio and Washington Times.

Robert Tiernan of the Freedom from Religion Foundation also disrupted the service, attempting to shout down organizer Leah Daughtry when she said that Democrats were people of faith. It wasn’t as dramatic as the abortion protests but it’s interesting that no reporters mentioned that.

There are tons of religious angles throughout this convention, with invocations and benedictions each day of the convention, a new “faith caucus” and meetings of religious groups. Please let us know if you see particularly good or bad coverage.

Photos were taken by my husband. The second photo shows that even the protests have a religion angle to cover.

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  • Jerry

    Abortion has been close to a political third rail for Democrats. It seems that the frame-of-reference is beginning to shift from the legality question to one of how best to reduce the number of abortions. I’m sure that my wondering if Obama is the “Nixon” that goes to “China” on this issue will upset a number of people. Of course asking perspective questions such as this is not the focus of the coverage, but such questions are important.

  • tmatt


    The third rail is RESTRICTIONS, even the restrictions that are legal under Roe.

    At this point, in a Democratic context, the issue is whether any change is possible on the legal side of this issue. Any. Change.

  • Nathan

    Restrictions are theoretically legal under Roe…

  • tmatt


    Agreed. The court opened the door, then essentially closed it.

  • Martha

    Mollie, they have ceremonies to celebrate becoming a naturalized Denverian? ;-)

  • Martha

    “Robert Tiernan of the Freedom from Religion Foundation also disrupted the service, attempting to shout down organizer Leah Daughtry when she said that Democrats were people of faith.”

    For some reason, that immediately made me think of this scene from Chesterton’s “The Man Who Was Thursday”:

    “Comrades,” began Gregory, in a low but penetrating voice, “it is not necessary for me to tell you what is my policy, for it is your policy also. Our belief has been slandered, it has been disfigured, it has been utterly confused and concealed, but it has never been altered. Those who talk about anarchism and its dangers go everywhere and anywhere to get their information, except to us, except to the fountain head. They learn about anarchists from sixpenny novels; they learn about anarchists from tradesmen’s newspapers; they learn about anarchists from Ally Sloper’s Half-Holiday and the Sporting Times. They never learn about anarchists from anarchists. We have no chance of denying the mountainous slanders which are heaped upon our heads from one end of Europe to another. The man who has always heard that we are walking plagues has never heard our reply. I know that he will not hear it tonight, though my passion were to rend the roof. For it is deep, deep under the earth that the persecuted are permitted to assemble, as the Christians assembled in the Catacombs. But if, by some incredible accident, there were here to-night a man who all his life had thus immensely misunderstood us, I would put this question to him: ‘When those Christians met in those Catacombs, what sort of moral reputation had they in the streets above? What tales were told of their atrocities by one educated Roman to another? Suppose’ (I would say to him), ‘suppose that we are only repeating that still mysterious paradox of history. Suppose we seem as shocking as the Christians because we are really as harmless as the Christians. Suppose we seem as mad as the Christians because we are really as meek.’”

    The applause that had greeted the opening sentences had been gradually growing fainter, and at the last word it stopped suddenly. In the abrupt silence, the man with the velvet jacket said, in a high, squeaky voice—

    “I’m not meek!”

    “Comrade Witherspoon tells us,” resumed Gregory, “that he is not meek. Ah, how little he knows himself! His words are, indeed, extravagant; his appearance is ferocious, and even (to an ordinary taste) unattractive. But only the eye of a friendship as deep and delicate as mine can perceive the deep foundation of solid meekness which lies at the base of him, too deep even for himself to see. I repeat, we are the true early Christians, only that we come too late. We are simple, as they were simple—look at Comrade Witherspoon. We are modest, as they were modest—look at me. We are merciful——”

    “No, no!” called out Mr. Witherspoon with the velvet jacket.

    “I say we are merciful,” repeated Gregory furiously, “as the early Christians were merciful. Yet this did not prevent their being accused of eating human flesh. We do not eat human flesh——”

    “Shame!” cried Witherspoon. “Why not?”

    “Comrade Witherspoon,” said Gregory, with a feverish gaiety, “is anxious to know why nobody eats him (laughter). In our society, at any rate, which loves him sincerely, which is founded upon love ——”

    “No, no!” said Witherspoon, “down with love.”

    “Which is founded upon love,” repeated Gregory, grinding his teeth, “there will be no difficulty about the aims which we shall pursue as a body, or which I should pursue were I chosen as the representative of that body. Superbly careless of the slanders that represent us as assassins and enemies of human society, we shall pursue with moral courage and quiet intellectual pressure, the permanent ideals of brotherhood and simplicity.”

  • Chip

    Since Terry felt free to argue the politics of abortion instead of solely focusing on the issue of reporting on religion in the above comments, I feel justified in responding to an aside in Mollie’s post. :)

    (This might be a good thing to ponder for readers who wonder what abortion has to do with media coverage of religion.)

    I’m going to assume this statement is directed towards my recent comments on Mark’s post (“Young Obama, the state, the unborn” – for some reason I cannot include more than one link in this comment) about this issue. My point was that religion has as much to do with media coverage on abortion as politics has to do with media coverage of religion. There is a lot of overlap, but it is just as much of a mistake to assume that any coverage of abortion ought to mention religion as it is a mistake to assume that any coverage of religion ought to mention politics. That’s the mistake that Mark made in his post.

    To get back to the subtext of Mollie’s post, I think this would have been a great chance to discuss the Barna Group’s recent survey. I certainly have some question about how they identify evangelicals, but they do try to break down the “faith community” into distinct groups the same way Terry breaks down 4 groups of Catholic voters. Here is their summary of what they call the Faith-Driven Vote:

    For the most part, the various faith communities of the U.S. currently support Sen. Obama for the presidency. Among the 19 faith segments that The Barna Group tracks, evangelicals were the only segment to throw its support to Sen. McCain. Among the larger faith niches to support Sen. Obama are non-evangelical born again Christians (43% to 31%); notional Christians (44% to 28%); people aligned with faiths other than Christianity (56% to 24%); atheists and agnostics (55% to 17%); Catholics (39% vs. 29%); and Protestants (43% to 34%). In fact, if the current preferences stand pat, this would mark the first time in more than two decades that the born again vote has swung toward the Democratic candidate.

    However, while there has been little movement since the beginning of June among most voting segments (such as ethnic groups, age groups, or geographic slices), there has been substantial churn among religious segments. During the past two months, Sen. Obama’s lead has eroded substantially among non-evangelical born again Christians (a decline of nine points); active Christians (a 20-point drop); Protestants (down 13 points); and Catholics (down 11 points).

    While some Christian voters seem to be questioning their early support for Obama, the McCain candidacy does not seem to be gaining momentum among evangelicals. Since June, the current level of support Sen. McCain has among evangelical voters has declined significantly (dropping from 78% to 61%).

  • Dave2

    Nathan said:

    Restrictions are theoretically legal under Roe. . .

    And tmatt said:


    Agreed. The court opened the door, then essentially closed it.

    But if I’m not mistaken, Casey opened the door even wider than Roe. What gives?

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