O’Donnell gets God, and many votes

All that talk about the possible death of print media? Totally premature. Christine O’Donnell’s big win in Delaware’s Republican primary for U.S. Senate has spilled enough ink to keep the dead-tree news business operating at least through the November election.

Don’t take that to mean, however, that O’Donnell hasn’t done her part to boost late-night talk show ratings.

She apparently even dabbled in witchcraft.

Here at GetReligion, we tend to run across more ghosts than witches. In that regard, The News Journal in Wilmington, Del., deserves kudos for an in-depth story Sunday that attempted to explain the role of religion in O’Donnell’s upset victory Tuesday. On the other hand, the 2,30o-word piece seems long on conjecture and short on actual facts (read: vote totals, poll data, anything concrete) to back up the notion that evangelicals propelled O’Donnell to victory.

The story’s headline and subhead boil down the main thesis nicely:

Delaware politics: Rise in evangelical activism tips scales in primaries

Politically conservative Christians putting ballots where their Bibles are

The top of the story:

Ella Shank recalls saying a little prayer Tuesday before casting her Republican primary vote in the Greenwood Fire Hall.

“I believe that God is waking America up,” said Shank, who attends a Mennonite church. She was among those who helped Christine O’Donnell upset longtime Rep. Mike Castle in the Republican primary for the U.S. Senate.

“If people don’t start voting for what’s right, God will punish us.”

Greenwood stands at the epicenter of O’Donnell’s upset win over Castle — a large and mostly rural, majority-Republican election district that, along with nearby Bridgeville, delivered more votes to O’Donnell than any other in Delaware.

It was a district that by most accounts saw a surge in political activism on social issues among evangelicals, surprising many party regulars, and was a factor in derailing Castle’s political career.

As the story goes on, readers learn that voters “united in prayer and evangelism” at O’Donnell’s campaign rallies. Readers are told that no one explains the vote entirely in terms of “activist voting by conservative Christians” but that many think it’s a “significant factor.” The story mostly proceeds along those lines, building an anecdotal case — a house of sticks.

The only real numbers reported are these:

According to the Association of Religion Data Archives, a compilation of reports from religious scholars and research centers around the world, Catholics made up the largest group of adherents to a single religious denomination in Delaware as of 2000. Mainline Protestants were next at 32 percent and evangelical Protestants at 13 percent. Orthodox faiths and other religions accounted for the remaining residents. Only about 40 percent of the state, however, claimed membership in any identified church.

But many with long histories of watching Delaware elections believe the evangelical Christian voting bloc has grown in strength, especially in southern New Castle County, where suburban Catholic congregations and new evangelical churches are growing.

Interesting numbers. Particularly given the idea that evangelicals — representing just 13 percent of the population in the latest statistics — swayed the election. Of course, the stats are 10 years old, and the piece leaves open the possibility that their ranks have grown. Still, my skeptical side wonders if the story’s easy thesis — evangelical activists tipping the scales — could stand up to serious scrutiny. Did anyone take exit polls that might provide better data and explanations for how Delaware Republicans voted?

I also wish The News Journal had done a better job explaining O’Donnell’s religious background:

Raised Roman Catholic, O’Donnell converted to Protestantism, and later rejoined the Catholic Church. Throughout the 1990s, she organized young Christians to fight pornography, premarital sex and abortion and advocated turning homosexuals “straight” in groups such as the Savior’s Alliance for Lifting the Truth (SALT) and Concerned Women for America.

O’Donnell rejected Castle’s support of embryonic stem-cell research and of women’s rights to abortion. She has described homosexuality as “an identity disorder.”

Catholic. Protestant. Then Catholic again. Anybody but me think that might merit a bit more explanation? (And apparently this report was written before the witchcraft phase was made public by Bill Maher.)

“Straight.” “An identify disorder.” Anybody not totally certain about the purpose of such “scare quotes” in a news story? (Hint: It’s a quasi-journalistic way of saying, “These are some of the crazy things this candidate believes …”)

Finally, this quote stood out to me:

Gary Hindes, former chairman of the state Democratic Party, called the surge in socially conservative influence troubling.

“It’s scary to see a legitimate political party run by people I respect — but have profound differences with — taken hostage by basically extremists. It’s not good for America. It’s not good for Delaware,” Hindes said.

“Taken hostage by basically extremists.” My question: If you’re going to let a source make such a statement, shouldn’t you at least provide space for him to be specific about the extreme positions?

Yes, the story follows up Hindes’ quote with remarks from a Church of God pastor. But while the Democrat’s quote swings a hatchet, the response comes across more like a butter knife.

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About Bobby Ross Jr.

Bobby Ross Jr. is an award-winning reporter and editor with a quarter-century of professional experience. A former religion editor for The Oklahoman and religion writer for The Associated Press, Ross serves as chief correspondent for the The Christian Chronicle. He has reported from 47 states and 11 countries and was honored as the Religion Newswriters Association's 2013 Magazine Reporter of the Year.

  • Dave

    “Straight.” “An identify disorder.” Anybody not totally certain about the purpose of such “scare quotes” in a news story? (Hint: It’s a quasi-journalistic way of saying, “These are some of the crazy things this candidate believes …”)

    Those need not be scare quotes at all. They could be direct quotes of the candidate’s own words, quoted to make it clear they were not the reporter’s paraphrase.

  • kjs


    I would think the author used quotes for “an identity disorder” because it is an actual quote from Ms. O’Donnell.

    You may be right about “straight,” though.

  • http://getreligion.org Bobby


    Thanks much for the link. I realize space is an issue, but I wish the story had included the full quote and not just the partial one:

    “People are created in God’s image. Homosexuality is an identity adopted through societal factors. It’s an identity disorder.”

  • Sarah Pulliam Bailey

    Interesting stats via Romenesko: “O’Donnell’s surprise victory filled 30% of newshole last week”
    The U.S. economy — the No. 2 story– accounted for 16 percent of the newshole last week, about half the coverage devoted to the midterms”


  • Jeffrey

    This seems to raise another question for reporters to explore. Is the Tea Party movement really uninterested in culture wars given the prominence of social conservatives in the movement? O’Donnell is a classic culture warrior. If it is social cons fueling the movement in Delaware, what about in other states? The rest of the movement?

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    I have seen very little in the media of the politically radical, extremist youth of O’Donnell’s opponent in the Senate final. (Shades of Barack Obama treatment).
    The one report I saw said Coons didn’t want to talk about it or answer questions about it.

  • northcoast

    I could appreciate an explanation of this sentence from the article, “At times, the event organized by Beck, a Mormon, evoked Urquhart’s and O’Donnell’s campaign rallies, where assembled voters united in prayer and evangelism.” I understand the prayer part, but what about evangelism?

    Has anyone observed that “Politically Incorrect” wasn’t exactly a forum for serious discussion? My most vivid memory from the show back in 1999 involved an observation that everyone lied about sex as if that settled the impeachment argument. Miss O’Donnell was obviously playing to her audience, but even so she didn’t say anything that would keep me from voting for her.

  • Helen

    I don’t like this article. The Democratic Party leader makes it seems as if social conservatives are nutcases and extremists (they make lies about them such as: ”Oh social conservatives want prayer in schools” when in reality they don’t and other positions are misinterpreted as well). The old media for sure is dying (and it’s on it’s last stages printing junk such as this) and I’m thankful for it. No more Glenn Becks, FOX News and Sarah Palins will be spring up in the next 10 years (I’m starting to believe that they are the creations of the media to misinterpret conservatives) or the lying social liberals whom see any shred of social conservatism as ”extreme”.

    I mean look at my positions:

    - I support evolution in schools (though I don’t personally believe in it)
    - I’m against abstinance education in schools (I am for it at home and am personally a virgin) and support reproduction/birth control education at schools
    - Against prayer at schools
    - Against secular control of curriculum at private religious universities
    - I would like to see affirmative action and diversity training to be banned. Tolerance has gone way over that even the slighest offense can get you sued.
    - Etc

    The whole thing that assembled voters were united in prayer and evangelism is also untrue. Christians don’t pray with Mormons, Jehovan Witnesses, etc or other people outside of their faith. Not to mention these images makes social liberals think of the boogey man ”Religious Right”.

  • Helen

    And when I mean slighest offense I mean that by just calling a person useless or stupid without any implication whatsoever to their race or gender they sue you on ”You’re racist!” or ”You are sexist!” or ”You are homophobic!”. ”It’s all because of bigotry!!!”.

  • Helen

    Sorry for my mispellings.

  • http://www.acupuncturebrooklyn.com Karen Vaughan

    One ghost: Wiccans don’t have Satanic altars with blood on them. In fact they consider Satan a Judeo-Christian invention. She may have known some Wiccans and dabbled a bit in high school, but her Satanic altar description clearly shows that she wasn’t seriously involved.