Washington Post tries to define ‘liberal’ in Maryland

There is much to applaud in today’s Washington Post story that ran under the headline, “Maryland’s leftward swing.”

If I could listen in on the inner thoughts of the newspaper’s editors, I would imagine that one element in this story that they considered a bit edgy, in terms of journalistic norms, as its open use of the word “liberal” to describe the victories of liberal politicians in the state of Maryland. Yes, the increasingly popular word “progressive” — the preferred label among political liberals these days — used used high up in this report. But the other “L” word is used without shame.

This is appropriate, since the Maryland left is on a roll.

Now, I live and vote in Maryland and I get that this is a pretty liberal state. Trust me on that.

The problem with this story is that the Washington Post team seems to be viewing events in Maryland through its usual lens, which is the point of view of the Washington establishment. The Post, of course, takes very seriously its role as the voice of the new and evolving normal in the nation’s capital.

The problem is that the view of the Washington establishment is not the same as that in Maryland. The essence of the Post worldview is a kind of white, professional, moral Libertarianism. I would imagine there are debates in the newsroom about, oh, how to handle Iraq and Medicare, but very few debates about issues linked to abortion and the Sexual Revolution.

So what does this have to do with Maryland?

Maryland is a liberal state, yes. But two of its most powerful forms of political liberalism are touched by streams of religious thought that appear to be hard to see through the lens of the Washington establishment. First, there is the crucial role that the African-American church plays in Baltimore and in the older suburbs, especially in Price George’s County. The second is the complex role that Catholicism plays in the state.

Let’s look at the top of the story, a story that has next to nothing to say about either race or religion:

Benefits for illegal immigrants. Same-sex marriage. Strict regulations on gun purchases.

Over the past two years, Maryland has enacted laws that represent a dramatic liberal shift, even for a state long dominated by Democrats.

Driving the progressive swing is Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) and the Maryland General Assembly, which now embraces legislation that it previously rejected. Emboldened by victories in statewide referendums, the governor and his allies have imposed tax increases, repealed the death penalty and approved a system to provide more than $1 billion in subsidies to a potential offshore wind farm.

Now, look at that lede. Where, for example, would establishment Catholics be on the issue of benefits for illegal immigrants? The church hierarchy would favor that. How about the African-American church? More complex, but I would predict that most lean “left” on that issue, if the word “left” applies.

Jumping to the third issue, where would the Catholic establishment be on gun control? Once again, that’s a “life” issue on which most Catholics — even the weekly and daily Mass crowd — would tend to back the “liberal” option. How about the African-American church? Once again, most would lean “left.”

How about the death penalty? Ditto.

How about tax increases, especially those intended to help programs for the poor and unemployed? Ditto.

A measure pitched as pro-environment? Ditto.

Now, what about same-sex marriage? All of a sudden, things change and grow much more complex. The same is true for issues linked to abortion and sexuality in general. There are fault lines and divisions among church-going Catholics and those active in the African-American churches, yet it is safe to say that they remain more conservative than the Maryland norm on moral and cultural issues.

What’s my point?

Here’s the magisterial voice of the Post establishment worldview near the top of the story:

Now, as the legislative session in Annapolis comes to an end, the state faces the question of whether Maryland is becoming a reliably liberal bastion like Massachusetts, California and Vermont. Or has the state’s Democratic leadership moved too far to the left, potentially endangering incumbents at the polls in 2014? …

Republicans argue that Democratic leaders have alienated the electorate’s mainstream. Even as the General Assembly repealed the death penalty, a majority of state residents expressed support for executions in a Washington Post poll in February.

Now, the story goes on to discuss a wide range of political issues, many of which I am sure will cause lots of debate on both sides of the aisle. Is Maryland ready to decriminalize marijuana? To sock it to gasoline buyers with a new tax? It also talks about the tensions between the rural East and mountain West and the highly urban Baltimore core. All valid concerns.

But what really tears this state up, from time to time, are the debates about moral and cultural issues. Yes, the state is edging left on those and, in the most recent vote on same-sex marriage, the moral left peeled off enough black votes to win. But where were the key discussions? Black churches. Where were the most fierce discussions of conscience clauses to protect the rights of traditional Catholics, Jews, Protestants, Muslims, etc.? They took place among liberal Catholics.

So, do the Post editors GET Maryland? When it comes to the power of religion, is their Washington establishment lens a bit warped when it views Maryland? Read the whole story and look for the crucial voices in black-church pews and in Catholic sanctuaries.

Good luck with that.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Rachel K

    I did like that they touched on the “two Marylands” issue in this article–that we aren’t so much an electric blue through-and-through state as a state where the rural red voters are outnumbered by the urban blue voters. But the religion ghost was definitely there.

  • Pingback: That ghost in Dr. Ben Carson’s, well, moral theology


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