Boundaries on reporting on religion and politics

Yesterday I told you about the pre-conference to the Religion Newswriters Association annual conference being held over the next few days here in the Washington, D.C. area.

Because the speakers were all situated on one side of the aisle, more or less, I mentioned that the pre-conference is organized independently of RNA.

But the best panel was this one:

What Should the Boundaries Be on Reporting on Religion and Presidential Politics: Bill Keller, The New York Times; Melinda Henneberger, The Washington Post; David Campbell, the University of Notre Dame; Amy Sullivan, writer and editor; Moderator: Professor Shaun Casey, Wesley Theological Seminary

The Huffington Post had a nice write-up of the discussion. Each participant gave their opening remarks. Sullivan talked about how reporters need to discuss religion as a means to understanding how elected officials might govern. Campbell said we should ask candidates about religion “only to the extent it has a plausible connection to what an elected official would do in office” instead of covering candidates’ faith solely to make them seem odd or exotic.

On the other side of the debate, Keller defended his widely-discussed (and widely dissed) piece arguing that Republican primary candidates should get tough questions about their views on interpreting Scripture (and various other things). So I guess the piece wasn’t satire, as I had argued at the time (See my “Bill Keller’s Modest Proposal“). Henneberger also argued in favor of exploring any religion angle that comes to mind.

I found myself agreeing with all of them (I have that problem sometimes). But it seemed to me that the two sides could be reconciled. It seemed Sullivan and Campbell — and, if I’m reading at least a portion of the gathered reporters correctly — simply wanted good faith efforts at understanding religious influences and the role religion plays in candidates’ political goals. Keller argued that it’s the politician’s job to decide if he is going to answer a question or not and that reporters shouldn’t unduly limit themselves in where they probe.

I pointed out (the peanut gallery got to ask questions) that part of the reason why Keller’s piece went over like a lead balloon is because he had incorrectly said that Rick Santorum — a rather well-known Roman Catholic — was part of a “fervid subset of evangelical Christianity”and that he’d confused literalism and inerrancy and had mis-stated what Catholics believe about Communion. Perhaps, I asked, newsrooms could do something to make sure religious questions are more informed? Liz Tenety at the Washington Post asked about how hostility to religious views in newsrooms affects trust with readers and what can be done about it.

Keller didn’t quite manage to answer my question, although he noted he’d had to correct the column. Anyway, I thought the discussion interesting none-the-less.

What do you think are the boundaries for reporting on religion and politics? My own approach is a bit of a mix of all four panelists. Like Keller, I think boundaries are the wrong way to look at this. Like Henneberger, I just have a blast discussing religion wherever that might lead. Like Campbell, I don’t think society is helped by having reporters highlight religion simply to make it seem weird. And I agreed with most of what Sullivan said (she had some great comments on what the media miss when they cover religion stories) and was favorable to her idea that the religion questions of political reporters should meet a basic test of whether or not the answer will help news consumers learn about how the candidate will govern.

What are your thoughts on the debate?

Boundaries image via Shutterstock.

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  • Darren Blair

    As a Mormon?

    I can see reporters looking to the basic history of the faith tradition… provided that they make it a point to actually consult documents from the faith tradition in addition to their other research.

    I can also see reporters asking how certain points of theology will affect how a person makes a decision.

    But beyond that, the main boundary should be “common sense.”

    For example, you’ve got Time Magazine making a to-do over the fact that Romney is descended from polygamists. Thing is, find someone who can trace their family lineage in the church to the 1800s and the odds are good that they had at least one ancestor involved in a polygamous situation. I myself had an ancestor with three wives. Unless they’re wanting to try and discuss the Romney family’s time in Mexico or are arguing about whether or not polygamy will be legalized, the point is moot.

  • Mollie
  • FW Ken

    Maybe “religious test” is a better framework for the discussion. Yes, it’s the government that is prohibited from imposing a test. As a private citizen, Bill Keller can impose whatever test he chooses. As a columnist, and even an editor, he also has that right. As a consumer of journalism, I can likewise go looking for more credible sources of news and opinion than The New York Times or Fox News, or CNN, or any specific news outlet.

    What makes a source credible?

    Common sense really is a good starting place, but advocacy overwhelms common sense too often. It’s “common sense” that marriage is between a man and a woman, or that anyone should be able to marry anyone they love. Whatever. How many stories should be written about the Mormon Church is a cult, but evangelicals will vote for Gov. Romney anyway? When does common sense tell a reporter that theology is not the determining factor in voting for most people. I’m old enough to remember my yellow-dog Democrat, Baptist family talking about whether they could vote the Catholic JFK, and they did.

    Credibility comes with honesty. Keller is marginally honest in admitting his religion – collapsed Catholicism – but doesn’t seem to acknowledge that it’s actually secularism, or atheism, or agnosticism, or something. I’ll go with “secularism” for shorthand, and it’s a problem when you promote your theology while complaining about others doing the same thing. It’s simply bogus to promote abortion on demand, then complain when Catholics object to murdering unborn babies.

    Credibility comes with respect shown. I think it was Bobby Ross who made the distinction between disagreeing with someone and despising them. See above about all those stories about evangelicals who will vote for Gov. Romney. For that matter, consider those who disagree with Pres. Obama about life matters but will vote for him. When you say that a viewpoint is unworthy of consideration, can what you write be journalism? You might be right, but are you a journalist? The snake-handling articles highlighted here were wonderful examples of respect shown to what is, I think we might agree, is a fringe religious experience.

    There is probably more to say, but this is too long and my third version of this comment. Enough. :-)

    • JoFro

      Loved reading your post. Excellent summation of the topic being discussed.

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  • Jerry

    I think there are two valid areas to ask about religion. The first is the obvious one which has already been mentioned. If someone does not believe in science, putting science in opposition to religion, we need to know. Because that person will take action that denigrates science and impacts our standing in the world.

    The larger question is one of character. When the unexpected happens, and the unexpected always happens, what will the person fall back on to guide him or her through the crisis? Clearly one’s religious beliefs forms a part if not the major part of that question. So knowing the moral and ethical beliefs of a person is necessary to know how he reacts.


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