When political reporters discover religion

I attended the Values Voters Summit to do some reporting for Christianity Today, and I feel like I attended a different event than some of the reporters there.

Why’s that? Most publications sent their political reporters instead of their religion reporters, which shaped the coverage in particularly interesting ways. For instance, one of the major storylines out of the summit was Dallas pastor Robert Jeffress’ endorsement of Texas Gov. Rick Perry. Jeffress then called Mormonism “a cult” and reporters found their story for the day.

If you have been paying attention to religion and politics for at least the last four years, you know that Jeffress’ belief that Mormonism is a cult isn’t terribly newsworthy to religion reporters. I tweeted about the endorsement because I thought it was something to note but not something to write a story about. Jeffress has been saying these things for quite a while now and political reporters are just now taking notice.

In fact, Jeffress debated publicist Jay Sekulow on this point in front of religion reporters at the 2008 Religion Newswriters Association conference, and even by then, it was starting to feel like older news with Romney out of the race. For instance, you’ll see the Religion News Service story by Daniel Burke notes Jeffress’ endorsement but doesn’t lead with it.

One ironic part about the whole coverage is, if you asked an evangelical voter in South Carolina or Iowa before the coverage of this conference whether they knew who Robert Jeffress or Bryan Fischer (who suggests similar ideas) is, they probably couldn’t tell you who they are. When the media covers them, they give them a platform.

Someone asked me why Jeffress was being described by some outlets as the Southern Baptist Convention leader. Perhaps they went with that line because the press release headline was “Southern Baptist Convention Leader to Endorse Perry at Values Voter Summit.” As someone in the SBC told me, “he is a local church pastor, no denominational office (like Rick Warren, or Joe Blow from Arkansas). Influential, but not an ‘official.’”

I overheard a reporter from a prominent newspaper say, “Thank God for Rev. Jeffress. Otherwise we wouldn’t have anything to write about.” I can understand the pressures reporters have to produce interesting stories quickly, but sometimes it takes a little more creativity than the staged events to find compelling stories. The idea that Jeffress considers Mormonism a “theological cult” isn’t a new fact.

What makes all of this even more interesting is how Internet readers think this is a new idea and it starts to trend on various sites. Then the media pack follows with just about every angle they can think of, so everyone is often following the same story. There’s a chicken and egg question: which comes first, the media’s coverage or the Internet’s interest in the story? In other words, it seems like media-generated news more than anything.

Web analytics suggest to us that people love to talk about religion on the Internet. You would think that would tell editors something new, like how you might need more religion reporters to cover all the spicy theological debates. Unfortunately, analytics also sometimes suggest particular stories often do pretty well. Westboro, anyone? The media’s job is to help us sort through what’s news and what’s expected.

With a brave new web world, reporters are facing pressures to produce a lot of content and many are encouraged to meet certain quotas or metrics, which create implications for how we cover news. When you need to meet specific numbers, of course you will pursue the easier story.

Sure, Romney’s Mormonism may still be an issue for many GOP primary voters, and we still need to explore those implications. If Romney is the GOP candidate, it will be pretty interesting to see what that means for religion reporters. Will editors begin to perk up and realize they need people on staff who understand the intricacies of religion? Or will we watch political reporters stumble along with their copy of Mormonism for Dummies?

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  • Jerry

    will we watch political reporters stumble along with their copy of Mormonism for Dummies?

    Sad to say, for some that would be an improvement. Some of the “Dummies” books are not all that bad but I can’t speak to the religion ones.

  • Jeffrey

    So let me get this straight. An Evangelical-run political event picks a leading figure who calls Mormons a cult to introduce a political candidate, knowing he will likely repeat the line afterwards, and you suggest this us a media-created controversy? Seriously?

    I understand the “there’s nothing to see here, move along” approach religion writers may have, but maybe that’s why it’s important to have political writers cover a political event who aren’t used to hearing theological rationales for offensive ideas and comments.

  • Corey Mondello

    people have a short memory when it comes to politics, most probably don’t even know that Mormonism was called a cult in the past. this is how Americans have always been when it comes to politics, well, most anyways.

  • Paolo

    This whole story goes to show the post-modernism in today’s reporters. When Jeffress makes a long, long, long-held statement about Mormonism, it is labeled as “an attack,” “bigotry,” and “hate speech” instead of a historical, biblical Christianity.

  • http://www.biblebeltblogger.com Frank Lockwood

    Jeffrey, you say it’s “offensive” for the Protestant and Catholic majority to insist that Mormonism is not true Christianity.

    Does that mean it’s offensive for the Orthodox, Reform and Conservative Jewish majority to insist that Jews for Jesus is not true Judaism?

    Or do religious groups get to decide for themselves where the boundaries are between insiders and outsiders?

  • Jeffrey

    Frank, it’s fine for groups to define the faith themselves. But when they step in the political stage and say it as a rationale for backing a political candidate (and opposing another) journalists need to see the context and optics. Surely the context of the comment matters. You do realize the wasn’t a theIlogical debate, but a social conservative political event.

  • http://community.acstechnologies.com/ Eleanor

    “The idea that Jeffress considers Mormonism a cult isn’t a new fact.”

    It very well may not be a new fact, but I’d venture to say that it’s not a widely-known fact to many – even many of the fairly aware – news consumers. As a person who grew up on the west coast, where Mormonism is much more common – I didn’t realize how widely-held the view was until I moved to the south.

  • Dave

    I am mildly rankled by both religious and political journalists. The GOP primary is turning up old sectarian rivalries on the conservative end of the religious spectrum — that’s the story, folks. The political reporters don’t understand it and thus cover it ineptly. The religion reporters know the sectarian rivalries are old hat and thus don’t cover it at all. Nobody is serving the readers well.

  • http://www.biblebeltblogger.com Frank Lockwood

    I do realize that this “wasn’t a theological debate, but a social conservative political event.”

    But the reporters asked a theological question and Rev. Jeffress gave a theological answer. No one should be surprised that his theological answer matched his theological beliefs.

    This was shooting fish in a barrel. Absolutely predictable.

    But politically, this strikes me as a foreseeable negative — not a positive — for Perry. I’m surprised that his handlers didn’t anticipate this and find someone else to introduce him.

  • http://www.biblebeltblogger.com Frank Lockwood

    Jeffrey, I should’ve mentioned that this event was really a blend — part “political stage” and part prayer meeting. It wasn’t a “social conservative” event, it was a “Christian conservative” event.

    If you don’t believe me, ask the Ron Paul supporters who had to sit through an entire morning worship service so they could get the best seats for Ron Paul’s 9 a.m. speech.

    The day started with Christian worship and the event ended on Sunday with Christian worship. In between, people could attend sessions with titles such as “Establishing a Culture Impact Team in Your Church,” “Divorcing God: Secularism and the Republic”, and “Why Christians Should Support Israel.”

    They could pick up booklets on “Mixing Church and State — God’s Way” etc.

    This blending of God and grassroots politics isn’t new. When I was in high school, my mother ran for a minor office in the Umatilla County (Oregon) Republican Party. My mom was a Bible-reading, tithes-paying three-times-a-week-attending Assemblies of God Christian and this was her first (and only) run for office. But my mom was on the “establishment” Republican’s slate, so she faced opposition from the Pat Robertson wing of the party, who had come up with a slate of their own. I remember that the Pat Roberson group expressed doubts about one candidate because she was Methodist and her Christian credentials were therefore suspect. Others — Catholics, Mormons, etc. were deemed insufficiently Christian to be trustworthy.

    I’ll never forget the chump I heard telling my mom’s opponent — in front of my mom — that he had come to the central committee meeting so he could vote for the Christian candidate for office — i.e. not my mom.

  • Jettboy

    “Does that mean it’s offensive for the Orthodox, Reform and Conservative Jewish majority to insist that Jews for Jesus is not true Judaism?”

    It is actually. They consider themselves “Jews for Jesus” for a reason. That is, unless they consider themselves Christians. Of course I doubt that the same Christians who consider Mormons as “non-Christian” would accept them as Christians either.

  • Christianes

    It is true, you know, that people engineer the publicity they receive, consciously or subconsciously.

    I think the far-right conservative Christians wanted this to be ‘out there’, and . . .

    it is.

    But they shouldn’t get their knickers in a twist when they can’t control the response to it. People will respond honestly because they want their response to be ‘out there’ . . .

    and it is.

  • sari

    It seems odd that the media which rushed to educate the American public about Islam in the days following 9/11–rightly, in hopes of heading off blanket discrimination and violence against Muslims–has chosen not to do the same for LDS. That’s a prejudice that should be explored.

  • Jeffrey

    Sari. That’s an interesting point, altho a mixing of apples and oranges. And I think the press has raised questions about attacks like this inside the conservative movement, but we also see the “nothing to see here move along” reaction.

  • Tim

    Anderson Cooper, during his interview with Jeffress, didn’t educate in-depth about Mormonism, but he did make a couple of basic statements about Mormonism that many of his viewers may not know. I think most of the media’s doing a decent job here. It’s nothing like the days following 9/11, where Muslims and people mistaken for Muslims were beaten and killed–there hasn’t been major violence against Mormons for a long time, and there’s not likely to be any in the near future. Lots of people in the South (people more likely to watch Fox News than Cooper, unfortunately) may not like Mormons, but there’s no sign they’re resorting to physical violence.

  • Sarah Pulliam Bailey

    Thanks for weighing in, everyone. Just wanted to note this additional comment from Denny Burk:

    Anderson Cooper, for example, could not fathom how anyone could consider Mormonism to be a non-Christian religion. Cooper had read a little bit from the LDS website, and he observed that Mormons claim the Christian mantle. For him, that settled the entire issue. Everyone should just take the LDS church’s word for it. That seems to me a bit naïve, even for an anchor who wants to position himself as a disinterested observer.

  • sari

    Sarah,

    Do you believe that most people question the way other people self label? Jettboy, above, finds it offensive that mainstream Jewry refuses to acknowledge Messianic Jews as Jews. He feels that anyone who self-labels himself a Jew is a Jew. The *why* is of no consequence to him.

    Likewise, to the impartial or religiously uninvolved, the loosest definition of a Christian is one who defines him or herself as such. The debate above is interesting and gives non-Christians a window into the friction between two, theologically different and politically powerful groups, but it still boils down to two self-labeled Christian groups vying for eminence.

  • Jeffrey Weiss

    We’ve addressed this sort of disagreement here before. Are the Catholic women who say they are priests Roman Catholic priests? Surely not. Neither are “Messianic Jews” Jewish. And neither are Mormons Christian in any way that applies to the vast, vast majority of people who say they are Christian. It’s a tough thing for a reporter to explain in passing in a political story. Heck, it’s a tough thing to explain in a story devoted specifically to the topic.

    And yup, it’s news. That it’s old news to religion veterans does not make it old news for the majority of news consumers who are unfamiliar with the topic.

  • John Lambert

    The Wall Street Journal ran a good peace where they actually looked at what the polls tell us about people not wanting to vote for Mormons. Here is a link http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052970203633104576623254205029400.html

  • Julia

    It’s nothing like the days following 9/11, where Muslims and people mistaken for Muslims were beaten and killed—

    I don’t remember much of that.


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