Concerning Obama’s faith, where’s the (journalistic) beef?

In a front-page story on Easter Sunday, the Los Angeles Times made some rather broad statements concerning President Barack Obama and religion.

Let’s start right at the top:

President Obama stood before an audience of distinguished Christian clergy and lay leaders and took on the mantle of pastor in chief.

“I have to be careful,” he joked at the White House’s annual Easter prayer breakfast. “I am not going to stand up here and give a sermon. It’s always a bad idea to give a sermon in front of professionals.”

With that, he gave a sermon, telling the story of Christ in the garden of Gethsemane and his eventual crucifixion, a sacrifice that “puts in perspective our small problems relative to the big problems he was dealing with.”

Few presidents have spoken about their religious faith as often, as deeply or as eloquently as Obama. “We worship an awesome God in the blue states,” he declared at the 2004 Democratic convention, and he has sought since then to rebuild ties between the Democratic Party and the world of faith.

Yet no president has faced such sustained hostility over issues of faith, including Republican charges that he is waging a “war on religion,” widespread suspicion about the sincerity of his Christian faith, and the persistent legend that he is a practicing Muslim.

That’s certainly a compelling intro. And the piece definitely is timely given the ongoing discussion of the role of religion in politics and public life (see a related Washington Post story).

But concerning the L.A. Times story, do any journalistic questions strike anyone besides me?

For example, concerning the statement that “few presidents have spoken about their religious faith as often, as deeply or as eloquently as Obama,” does anybody besides me desire some, um, attribution?

Who said that? What facts back up that claim? To put it most simply, where did the Times get that information? Without attribution (and the rest of the 1,200-word article fails to provide it), the statement sounds like editorializing. This is not rocket science. It’s Journalism 101.

Similarly, the statement that “no president has faced such sustained hostility over issues of faith” rings hollow without any concrete information to judge the veracity of the claim. Again, the Times fails to provide any attribution at all.

The claims raised certainly are intriguing. I wish the Times had quoted presidential scholars and/or American religious historians who could have weighed in on the questions raised.

Alas, the piece takes an abrupt detour after painting such broad strokes in the lede, focusing mainly on religious issues in the political realm during Obama’s presidency. Most of the ground covered will be familiar to those who have followed religious issues during the Obama administration (presumably, that would include most GetReligion readers).

Like the intro, the rest of the story suffers from broad labels (from “moderate groups” to “conservative critics”) and sweeping statements mainly made without concrete attribution.

That said, the writer provides enlightening insight in a few sections, such as these quotes from an evangelical lobbyist:

“We’re very, very concerned about that,” said Galen Carey, vice president of government relations for the National Assn. of Evangelicals, which objected to the government deciding which religious groups qualified for an exemption from the rule.

At the same time, Carey expressed a nuanced view of Obama’s record. “There are some things that President Obama has done that have been helpful,” he said. “There are some policies that we definitely take exception to, but to say the president is hostile to religion, I think, would not be correct.”

Obama gets generally high marks from faith organizations for maintaining, and in some ways strengthening, the Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships begun by President George W. Bush. Obama faced pressure from secular liberals to scuttle the office, which was seen as blurring the line between church and state. Instead, he used it to reach out to faith groups across a broad spectrum of theology and politics.

Even in that last paragraph, however, I’d welcome more specific details on the “faith organizations” who are giving high marks as well as the “secular liberals” who are applying pressure.

Without such details, I can’t help but ask: Where’s the (journalistic) beef?

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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.

  • Jeff

    There’s no beef at all in this LA Times piece, but there is a whole lot of another thing that bulls produce …

  • http://www.getreligion.org Mollie

    I actually agree with much of what was written. I could have written this editorial myself, in fact. (The other part I could have turned into an editorial *against* faith-based initiatives as opposed to advocacy of them.) But if I’d done that, I would have backed it up with data and facts. They’re missing from this piece.

    I also somewhat resent that Obama’s discussion of Easter — which was very Christ-centered and personal — is being turned into a political point.

    It wouldn’t be bad to simply report what the President said and explain what it meant rather than turn it into a campaign ad.

  • Jeff

    “I also somewhat resent that Obama’s discussion of Easter — which was very Christ-centered and personal — is being turned into a political point.”

    No sitting politician and certainly no sitting president ever does anything at all in the public eye that isn’t political through and through.

    In this case, the idea, aided and abetter by this LA Times piece, is to browbeat all of us with his supposed “eloquence” on matters of faith in order to distract us from the fact that he is doing more to undermine the Constitutional guarantee of religious liberty and to subordinate the Church to the State than any president in U. S. history — and more than anyone on the so-called Religious Right ever dreamed of on his or her wildest day.

    These Easter reflections were all about politics, as they are every year, and this year more than most, with a re-election campaign getting into gear amid the ongoing assault on religious liberty.

    I will grant this: It’s not that Obama is at war with religion in the sense that, say, the New Atheists are. He doesn’t want to see religion die. He just wants to use as a tool to his political ends — he just wants to subordinate it completely and utterly to the interests of the secular and secularist state. To the extent that religion is “a sign of contradiction” over and against the secular state, it must be brought to heel, by any means necessary to accomplish that. But once religion has been brought to heel, and once Jesus or whomever has been made to bow down before Caesar and to lick his boots, then the problem with religion has been solved, at least in the eyes of the secular state.

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    It is amazing how this story couldn’t add some context by at least mentioning how the mainstream media has constantly badgered and sometimes ridiculed Romney about his Mormon faith.
    Also, every time the writer mentioned the mandate dispute over Obamacare he only mentioned contraception and consistently left out coercing Catholic entities to also get involved in financing abortion pills and sterilizations.
    And it is clear that in the eyes of much of the Left American religion has only one roll to play–that of the Anglican Church in England which has been described as “The Conservative Party at prayer” (although that may have changed in recent years).
    The last thing some American politicians and their media allies want is for Christian churches to stick to their Biblical and doctrinal moral roots and be a “sign of contradiction” that refuses to be kept house pets.

  • Ann

    Deacon John M. Bresnahan,

    Do you have a links to the “mainstream media has constantly badgered and sometimes ridiculed Romney about his Mormon faith”

  • MJBubba

    This puts me in mind of the great distress among the reporters about how President W would speak in Evangelical code talk that would go right over their heads.

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    Ann–I don’t sit here with a chart registering everything I read or hear on the internet–footnoting is the hobby of professional scholars (Throwing citations-links- at each other is not how most people carry on discussions.)
    Recently Laurence O’Donnell of MSNBC went on such a tirade about Mormonism that I later saw it used on another news channel as an example of the attacks on Romney’s faith. Maybe if you Google O’Donnell you can find his diatribe. O’Donnell ridiculed just about everything to do with the Book of Mormon, its authorship and religious teachings and Joseph Smith. And Mitt, he demanded, where do you stand on every controversial thing about your faith.
    It is as if a Catholic candidate were being challenged to state his opinion of St. Francis of Assisi and the stigmata or to state his position on transubstantiation.

  • Jeff

    Ann,

    In addition to the particular bigoted rant of Laurence O’Donnell’s that Deacon John cites — and red-faced, neck-vein-popping Laurence O’Donnell has so very many bigoted rants about so very many things — there is also this bigoted rant in The New York Times from the literary critics Harold Bloom, who has a long and shameful history of vulgar bigotry toward Mormons, Catholics, and Evangelicals all three.

    http://www.nytimes.com/2011/11/13/opinion/sunday/will-this-election-be-the-mormon-breakthrough.html?_r=4&pagewanted=3&partner=rss&emc=rss

  • http://fkclinic.blogspot.com tioedong

    When I read the story, I wondered who were these “distinguished religious leaders”. Anyone? Anyone?

    Personally, I thought the “Easter Prayer breakfast” was held in Holy week so that the press could use it as a preemptive strike against Archbishop Dolan’s plan to talk on the news shows Easter morning to protest the Obamacare actions against religious freedom.

    The story does mention and discuss this problem, but the only Catholic whose name I recognize who is quoted in the entire article is Justice Kagan…

  • R.S.Newark

    Yeah, what bothers me is the statement; “We worship an awesome God in the blue states”. What God does he suppose is worshiped in the “red states” and what does he really mean by “awesom”? No spirtuality there.

  • Hugh

    “Few presidents have spoken about their religious faith as often, as deeply or as eloquently as Obama.”

    That would be when he threw Jeremiah Wright under the bus.

  • sari

    the only Catholic whose name I recognize who is quoted in the entire article is Justice Kagan…

    Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan is Jewish.

  • sari

    and…

    Personally, I thought the “Easter Prayer breakfast” was held in Holy week so that the press could use it as a preemptive strike against Archbishop Dolan’s plan to talk on the news shows Easter morning to protest the Obamacare actions against religious freedom.

    Some dates (easily accessed online):

    2010 Easter 4/4 prayer breakfast 4/6

    2011 Easter 4/24 prayer breakfast 4/19 (holy week preceding Easter)

    2012 Easter 4/8 prayer breakfast 4/4 (holy week preceding Easter)

    Following this line of reasoning, who (or what) were Obama and the press trying to upstage in 2o11? Given the schedules of all involved, how likely is it that the event was scheduled last year or last week? Among others, a Greek Orthodox Archbishop, a Catholic Cardinal, Presidents of the National Association of Evangelicals and the National Baptist Convention–not people who can fly in a moment’s notice.

  • http://getreligion.org Bobby Ross Jr.

    This is a journalism site. We want to talk about media coverage of religion. Take your political comments and advocacy elsewhere, please.

  • Ann

    the only Catholic whose name I recognize who is quoted in the entire article is Justice Kagan…

    Reflecting on Christ’s resurrection, “the all-important gift of grace” and times when faith is shaken, President Barack Obama welcomed 150 Christian religious leaders to the White House April 4 for his third Easter prayer breakfast. With a guest list composed of theologians, preachers, nuns, priests and lay activists from dozens of denominations

    Among the breakfast guests were Washington Cardinal Donald W. Wuerl, who did a reading; Greek Orthodox Archbishop Demetrious; Sister Carol Keehan, a Daughter of Charity who is president and CEO of the Catholic Health Association; the Rev. Al Sharpton; the Rev. Joel Hunter, senior pastor of Northland, A Church Distributed; the Rev. Leith Anderson, president of the National Association of Evangelicals; and the Rev. Julius Scruggs, president of the National Baptist Convention.

    http://www.catholicnews.com/data/briefs/cns/20120404.htm

    Suzan Johnson Cook, the United States ambassador for International Religious Freedom; the Rev. Louie Giglio, Passion City Church, Atlanta; the Rev. Sharon Watkins, General Minister and President, Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)

    http://tinyurl.com/7dgyj4u

    Russell D. Moore, dean of the School of Theology at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.

    http://tinyurl.com/756l4mp

  • northcoast

    By his own words and actions President Obama has enabled a variety of observations about his religious faith. At times he seems to be giving witness to a Christ centered life. At other times he seems to contradict this image.

    One example is his history with the Rev. Jeremiah Wright and his Chicago church. Early in 2008, and in previous years, candidate Obama was quoted speaking of a nurturing relationship that brought him to Christian faith. In one Soujourners Magazine interview he claims regular Sunday Morning attendance. Later, since some of Rev. Wright’s more inflammatory sermons were brought to national attention, he has denied ever hearing any of them.

    “Few presidents have spoken about their religious faith as often, as deeply or as eloquently as Obama.” This could be based on his Sojouners interview and his February prayer breakfast statements in which he has described a faithful prayer life. I don’t remember previous Presidents being interviewed about their religious faith and practice or just speaking out on the subject. President Carter, in his Playboy interview when he was still a candidate, was an exception, but I only remember that one time. President Eisenhower, at his 1953 prayer breakfast, had much more to say about prayer and America’s foundations and much less to say about himself than President Obama.

    In 2009 we read about the Obama family and the chaplain at Camp David, and there was speculation that Lt. Cash would be the First Family’s new spiritual advisor. Whatever happened to that relationship, Lt. Cash was included in a 2010 Christianity Today report about the President’s “spiritual cabinet” and prayer partners.

    Despite the above, President Obama has been very casual about attending church since leaving Chicago. In 2008 he made his “guns and Bibles” statement in a way that I interpreted as being dismissive of gun owners and Bible readers. The recent storm over application of the health care (insurance) law has done more harm.

  • http://collectingmythoughts.blogspot.com Norma

    “Of all the great and necessary freedoms listed in the First Amendment, freedom to exercise religion (not just to believe, but to live out that belief) is the most important; before freedom of speech, before freedom of the press, before freedom of assembly, before freedom to petition the government for redress of grievances, before all others.”
    Rick Santorum


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