Getting Appalachians

webb Not so long ago, in the days when the country’s financial system was not falling down a cliff, Barack Obama was said to have a problem with white Appalachians. He couldn’t connect with them; he didn’t speak their language; he had denigrated them. Why?

Some writers had speculated about the reasons. Yet Peter Boyer of The New Yorker must be one of the few reporters who has done in-depth reporting on the issue. And his latest story deserves a wide audience, not least for its emphasis on the importance of religion to Appalachians, especially those who live in the swing state of Virginia.

Perhaps the story’s chief virtue are the quotes that Boyer got from his interview subjects. Here is David (“Mudcat”) Saunders, a Democratic strategist, about the hurdles that Obama faces this November:

If Obama loses Virginia, Saunders says, it will be because he didn’t succeed in breaking down cultural barriers. Obama’s famous remark, made at a fund-raiser in San Francisco, that rural voters are bitter, which causes them to cling to religion and guns, lingers in the heartland. “I don’t pray because of resentment–I pray because it makes my life better,” Saunders says. “I don’t have a gun because of resentment–I’ve got a gun because I’ve always had one. I don’t ever remember not having a gun of some kind.”

Although Saunders worked for John Edwards in the primary, his on-the-record quote was candid for a Democratic strategist, especially a few months before a presidential election. Boyer did a good job not only identifying Saunders as a fine interview subject, but also letting his subject speak.

Another virtue of the story were Boyer’s summaries of Appalachian life. Sprinkled throughout the story are interesting references to religion; Boyer notes, for example, that most of the original Scotch-Irish settlers were Calvinists. I have read several long magazine articles (for example, this one ain’t bad) about the Scotch-Irish or Scots-Irish, yet this was the first time that I have read a writer note their religious denomination.

To take another example, Boyer nicely summarized Sen. Jim Webb’s depiction of his people:

Webb has been thinking and writing about such people for forty years. When he turned to writing after serving as a Marine infantry officer in Vietnam, he became obsessed with the American cultural divide, and the fact that his people, the Scots-Irish, stood so firmly on one side. The descendants of the Ulster warrior clans that settled the Appalachian frontier were a proud, ornery lot, deeply patriotic and always ready for a fight. They invented country music, fostered the form of democracy named for their kinsman Andrew Jackson, and supplied generals on both sides of the Civil War. In “Born Fighting,” his 2004 book about the Scots-Irish influence in American life, Webb summarized the culture’s core ethos: Fight. Sing. Drink. Pray.

The story had only two real errors in my view. One was nominal (and not related to religion). Virginia Polytechnic University, the school that former Gov. Mark Warner helped persuade the Atlantic Coast Conference to admit in its conference, is better known as Virginia Tech University. The other was an omission of fact: John McCain is Scots-Irish on his dad’s side. Might not that fact contribute to Obama’s problem? (Admittedly, Obama fared poorly against Hillary Clinton with this group of voters.)

But that is a quibble. This story got religion.

Grasping Demons

demon Another controversial preacher is making news. His name is Thomas Muthee, a Kenyan pastor who has preached at Gov. Sarah Palin’s former Assembly of God church in Wasilla, AK and claims to have cast out demons. Both Newsweek‘s On Faith blog and The Christian Science Monitor ran stories about Muthee, and the two were entirely different in subject matter if not quality.

In his story for On Faith, David Waters described the controversy, such as it is. He noted that in 2005 Muthee used the term witchcraft while delivering a public intercessory prayer at Palin’s church; and that in 2006 Palin gave credit to Muthee for her victorious gubernatorial election:

Turns out, Muthee began his ministry with a witch hunt against a Kenyan woman he accused of causing car accidents through demonic spells, according to the Christian Science Monitor, which first reported the story in 1999. Muthee publicly declared the woman “a witch responsible for the town’s ills, and order her to offer her up her soul for salvation or leave Kiambu . . . The woman fled.”

This past June, in a speech at Wasilla AOG, Palin gave credit to Muthee for her 2006 election victory. In another now-famous YouTube video, Palin says, “As I was mayor and Pastor Muthee was here and he was praying over me . . . He said ‘Lord make a way and let her do this next step.’ And that’s exactly what happened.”

As far as I know, Waters described the remarks of Muthee and Palin accurately and fairly. What I do know is that Waters’ later conclusion gets religion. Waters compares the hubbub over Muthee with that of the Rev. Jeremiah Wright:

Keith Olbermann, MSNBC’s designated derider and host of Countdown, was all over Palin’s witch hunter connection last Friday: “The Palin’s preacher problem: The minister who laid hands on her at the Wasilla Assembly of God in 2005, the one she credits with helping make her a governor, it turns out he makes Jeremiah Wright look like Father Flanagan of Boys Town,” Olbermann said in his opening.

Here we go again. People who were in a lather about Wright’s sermons know as little about African American church rhetoric and black liberation theology as people who are in a state about Muthee’s sermons know about Pentecostal church rhetoric and “spiritual warfare.”

Waters makes an unappreciated point: For all of the controversy about the Rev. Wright’s sermons, and to a much lesser extent those of Muthee, the MSM rarely shed light about their underlying theology. Roughly speaking, the coverage was the equivalent of CNN’s motto — All Politics, All the Time.

Getting religion is not the problem of The Christian Science Monitor‘s story.

Reporter Jane Lampman did an excellent job treating as a serious subject matter the casting out of demons, of which Muthee is a practitioner. Consider her lede:

Can the ‘spiritual DNA’ of a community be altered?” That’s the question posed in a Christian video called “Transformations.”

Kenyan pastor Thomas Muthee is convinced that it can be. In 1988, he and his wife, Margaret, were “called by God to Kiambu,” a notorious, violence-ridden suburb of Nairobi and a “ministry graveyard” for churches for years. They began six months of fervent prayer and research.

Pondering the message of Eph.6:12 (“For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world…”), they prayed to identify the source of Kiambu’s spiritual oppression, Mr. Muthee says. Their answer: the spirit of witchcraft.

Their research into the community revealed that a woman called “Mama Jane” ran a “divination clinic” frequented by the town’s most powerful people.

After months of prayer, Muthee held a crusade that “brought about 200 people to Christ.” Their church in the basement of a grocery store was dubbed “The Prayer Cave,” as members set up round-the-clock intercession. Mama Jane counterattacked, he says, but eventually “the demonic influence – the ‘principality’ over Kiambu – was broken,” and she left town.

The atmosphere changed dramatically: Bars closed, the crime rate dropped, people began to move to the area, and the economy took an upturn. The church now has 5,000 members, he says, and 400 members meet to pray daily at 6 a.m.

Lampman might have been tempted to dismiss Muthee’s efforts. Instead, she explained the larger religious context in which it occurs; the controversy about it; and its theological basis. I particularly liked the quote below for its insight:

Russell Spittler, provost at Fuller Theological Seminary, in Pasadena, Calif., suggests that the practices flourish most among Pentecostals. “Pentecostals approach Scripture literally, so they see the world populated with demons. It is not a far step to start naming them, assigning them territories, devising prayer strategies. For Pentecostals, ‘spiritual warfare’ is not a metaphor – it’s reality.”

The weakness of Lampman’s story, however, was that it did not get journalism sufficiently.

Lampman takes at face value the claims of spiritual warfare’s proponents without seeking to verify or question them. For example, did the efforts of one California pastor really renew the town or was it something else? and what do academics have to say about such claims? At a minimum, Lampman should have been more honest empirically, noting that a subject said such and such rather than conveying the impression that such and such was fact.

Top-notch journalism would only improve the fascinating nature of the story. Can religious people really drive out demons? As the CST story shows, religious leaders have to be as much at the top of their game as do journalists.

Misrepresenting Christians and torture

torture 01Last month, Catholic writer and blogger Eve Tushnet urged us to write more about coverage of the religious debate over the Bush administration’s policies regarding torture. For weeks, I looked in vain for the press’ treatment of the issue, which has fallen into eclipse. But then evangelicals inaugurated an annual conference about torture and the neo-conservative publication The Weekly Standard wrote about it. Now I had something to write about.

As you might guess, writer Mark D. Tooley was not impressed with the conference. He depicted it as little more than a political gathering of liberals rather than as a meeting of religious people opposed to torture and the administration’s policies. As he writes in the lede,

Primarily organized by the Evangelical left, a summit called “Religious Faith, Torture and Our National Soul” convened in Atlanta on September 11 to inveigh against the Bush administration’s allegedly pro-torture policies.

Evangelicals for Human Rights President David Gushee was the summit’s chief organizer. A Christian ethicist at Mercer University, Gushee helped persuade the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE) last year to endorse his evangelical manifesto against torture. The manifesto, along with intensified interest in Global Warming, has marked the NAE’s shift to the left. Gushee and other leaders within NAE also represent the increasingly predominant Evangelical Left within evangelical academia, where the traditional Religious Right is shunned as an embarrassment.

Gushee’s NAE-backed manifesto, like the Atlanta summit, largely avoid any definition of “torture” but widely assumed that the United States is a routine and pervasive practitioner of it. And although ostensibly focused on inhumane interrogation techniques, the religious anti-torture campaign seems to represent a wider opposition to the wars of the Bush administration.

Skepticism about a religious-and-political event held less than two months before a presidential election is always warranted. So Tooley can be forgiven for concluding that that organizers and its participants had political goals in mind.

Yet Tooley goes too far: He assumes that the conference had no religious goals in mind. Where Tooley sees only base political motives, he should have seen complexity and nuance, not to mention religion.

For example, does the opposition to torture really represent a turn to the left? Or does it not simply represent a turn to traditional Christianity? After all, a core Judeo-Christian teaching is that humans are not means to an end. Or might the opposition to torture represent an embrace of liberal Christianity, with its goal of human autonomy?

To his credit, Tooley does not eschew nuance altogether. He quotes a critic who raises good questions about anti-torture advocates:

Among those critics is Keith Pavlischek from the Ethics and Public Policy Center, who has accused Gushee and many of his anti-torture activist colleagues of a soft pacifism that disregards the state’s vocation to uphold justice and defend the innocent. Himself an Iraq War veteran and Christian ethicist, he noted Gushee’s reluctance to define torture, telling the Atlanta Journal Constitution: “I want to push up against the boundary of that. Why, because I am sadistic? No, because I want to protect innocent people.” Terror suspects do not qualify for the same protections afforded U.S. citizens and lawful combatants, he said. “In between are a continuum of interrogation techniques that I believe are morally and legally permissible, that are aggressive, that are short of torture,” Pavlischek insisted.

This is fair. According to the Atlanta-Journal Constitution‘s story about the conference, at least one evangelical pastor agrees that the definition of torture is ambiguous.

Yet Tooley’s story lacks not only sufficient nuance but also sufficient fairness.

For example, Tooley misrepresented conference organizer David Gushee’s comments about John McCain. Try this contrast. Here is Tooley’s version of Gushee’s remarks:

According to Associated Baptist Press, Gushee chided John McCain, who opposes affording terror suspects the same rights as U.S. citizens and lawful combatants, as “grievously disappointing to all who follow this battle for our national soul.” And he encouraged Barack Obama to “make torture a moral and, in fact a religious issue–a values issue” that will help him “communicate to religious Americans–and especially to evangelicals.”

And here are Gushee’s remarks as reported by the Associated Baptist Press:

“My message to [Illinois] Sen. Barack Obama … is that you have an opportunity to make torture a moral and, in fact a religious issue–a values issue,” said Gushee, who teaches Christian ethics. “This is in your interest, because you are trying to communicate to religious Americans–and especially to evangelicals.”

But he warned Obama not to soft-pedal the torture issue in his campaign speeches for fear of alienating middle-of-the-road voters. “I say: Say more about the issue of torture and not less,” Gushee said. “Don’t run away from the issue.”

For McCain, the veteran Arizona senator who endured years of torture while he was a prisoner of war in North Vietnam, Gushee had different advice. “I say to Sen. McCain: Make the tie between your personal narrative and your policy stance on human rights perfectly clear,” he said.

Gushee, noting that two-thirds of those in the poll who said they were supporting McCain also support torture, added, “Tell your own voters why they are wrong on this issue, and why you are committed to the positions that you have articulated since 2002-2003 on the issue of torture.”

During a question-and-answer session, Gushee said he was disappointed with McCain’s actions on specific legislation earlier this year that seemed to indicate he was backtracking on his previous anti-torture stance. Gushee said one vote in particular was “grievously disappointing to all who follow … this battle for our national soul.”

Nonetheless, the professor said, McCain’s original position on torture is more in line with the candidate’s overall message.

“It fits entirely with [McCain's] vision of national honor, it fits entirely with his vision of the discipline and grandeur of the U.S. military,” Gushee said. “I think his whole appeal–his whole stated appeal–for his candidacy is a maverick who stands up for what is right. And I want him to be who he says he is.”

To me, the ABP story sounds like Gushee chided Obama, too, not just McCain.

Nuance about and fairness toward religion and religious people — those are supposed to be two values not only of journalists, but also conservatives. Tooley’s story simply failed to embody those.

Going to the dogs, revisited

leona 01About three months ago, Stephanie Strom of The New York Times broke the news that hotel heiress Leona Helmsley had given $5 billion to $8 billion in her bequest to her dog Trouble. As I wrote, the otherwise fascinating story failed to account for the origins of Helmsley’s misanthropy.

Now Jeffrey Toobin of The New Yorker has advanced the storyline — Helmsley’s bequest, far from being an anomaly, epitomizes nothing less than a legal revolution. This story is even more interesting than the Times‘. Yet it suffers from the same flaw.

In the story’s nutgraph, Toobin, a legal analyst, explains the significance of Helmsley’s last will and testament:

In fact, the clear motivation underlying Leona Helmsley’s will–her desire to pass her wealth on to dogs–is more common than might be expected. Pet-lovers (many of whom now prefer the term “animal companion”) have engineered a quiet revolution in the law to allow, in effect, nonhumans to inherit and spend money. It is becoming routine for dogs to receive cash and real estate in the form of trusts, and there is already at least one major foundation devoted to helping dogs. A network of lawyers and animal activists has orchestrated these changes, largely without opposition, in order to whittle down the legal distinctions between human beings and animals. They are already making plans for the Helmsleys’ billions.

Later, Toobin elaborates on the importance of the broader animal-rights movement: It has succeeded in extending some human rights to animals.

The legal movement, which largely focussed on pets, was, of course, symbiotically aligned with the broader animal-rights movement, which also grew in the nineteen-nineties. But the theme remained the same–to extend the rights of humans to animals. In a country where most people eat meat, many hunt, and most others give little thought to the legal rights of their pets, the complexities of such a change are considerable. Even pro-animal-rights scholars, like Peter Singer, a professor at Princeton, recognize the difficulties. As Singer said at a recent conference in New York City, “We’re talking about beings as different as chimpanzees, pigs, chickens, fish, oysters, and others, and you must recognize those differences.” For the moment, the goals of the movement are modest, and largely limited to domestic animals.

“What the law is doing is catching up with the idea that people don’t consider their pets property, in the way a car or a chair is,” Hoffman told me. “I am not pumping for my cats to be able to vote for McCain or Obama. I’m not saying they could visit me at the hospital, though that’s probably a pretty good idea. The right category for pets is closer to children, who can’t vote, and can’t own property, but you can’t inflict pain on them, either. The law is catching up with societal beliefs.”

Toobin’s story also has other interesting details — the founder of People Soft is giving millions to his dogs; Helmsley may not be able to be buried with her dog because the law precludes the possibility; the effort by animal-rights activists to use bequests not to fund a dog’s lifestyle but to prevent stray animals from being killed in pounds. These are worth reading in full.

At the end of the story, Toobin attempts to find a larger significance in not only Helmsley’s gift but the broader animals-deserve-human rights movement:

Hoffman’s enthusiasm obscures the fundamental moral question about how Helmsley hoped to dispose of her fortune. The way Leona altered her mission statement places the issue in especially stark terms. Version one proposed helping dogs and ailing poor children; version two–the final version–cut out the children and gave everything to the dogs. Is there any justification for such a calculation? Or does Helmsley’s change, along with the broader vogue for pet bequests, reflect a decadent moment in our history? …

“When you see a gift like Leona’s, it’s individualism carried to iconography,” Gregorian went on. “The whole idea that individuals can do whatever they want is part of the American psyche. It’s left to individual decision-making. That you can give to this sector of society, which is animals, as opposed to the other sector, which is human beings, tells you something about her and about the times in which we live.”

Like the Times‘ story, this summary cried out for a religious angle. Both are about the rise of a certain kind of misanthropy. Is this related to a breakdown in traditional religious belief? What do non-traditional religions think about extending some human rights to animals?

Also, Gregorian’s quote deserves more scrutiny. While America has long been an individualistic country, it has not considered some animals to be humans deserving of legal rights. Is the individualism carried to iconography related to the dictatorship of relativism that Pope Benedict XVI decried?

In any event, I think that regular GR commenter Stephen A.’s reply to my original post applied equally to this story:

the problem is (and the point this entire blog makes, and is here to make) is that religion is often ignored completely in stories that would clearly benefit from a religious angle, like this one. It would certainly add texture to this story about Helmsley, and how she became the person she was.


What faith of his fathers?

mccain 03In his new cover story for The Atlantic Monthly, writer Jeffrey Goldberg portrays John McCain as a believer in the military in general and the right use of military power specifically. My summary of Goldberg’s article is lengthy, so please bear with me.

McCain is similar in eerie ways to his father, John S McCain, Jr., the commander in chief of American forces in the Pacific during the Vietnam War, Goldberg argues. Both men believed that seemingly unwinnable wars were in fact winnable. All the politicians needed to do was to embrace a new military strategy and supply the troops with aide rather than seeking to withdraw them. Early in the story, Goldberg hands McCain a copy of a memo that McCain’s father wrote in 1969 that endorsed such a plan:

[McCain] pulled one out and began to scan it. “Look at this,” he said, holding up an April 1969 message from his father to Wheeler and Abrams. He started to read aloud: “As shown in the negotiations in Paris, the government of Vietnam is acting more independently of the U.S. and may become even more independent as U.S. troops begin to withdraw.”

He put down the cable and laughed. “History repeats itself, huh?” he said. “You’re darn right history repeats itself.”

When President Nixon, bogged down in 1973 by Watergate, was no longer able politically to continue the policy of Vietnamization, the results were catastrophic in McCain’s eyes. In Goldberg’s account, McCain worried above all about the the impact of a loss on the military:

McCain said the seeming disintegration of the military as a fighting force in the dispiriting days after Vietnam worried him most. “The drug problems — I was still in the military then, and you know, we had serious discipline problems, racial problems. One of the reasons why I felt so strongly about victory in Iraq was because the impact of what was basically a defeat on our military in Vietnam was devastating.”

Preventing another Vietnam has been the central theme of McCain’s political career, Goldberg argues. McCain is not a strict militarist, let alone a jingoist. Yet he has long believed that the proper application of military force is wise, in Goldberg’s account:

In one area, though, he has been more or less constant: his belief in the power of war to solve otherwise insoluble problems. This ideology of action has not been undermined by his horrific experience as a tortured POW during the Vietnam War, or by the Bush administration’s disastrous execution of the Iraq War. All this is not to suggest that McCain is heedlessly bellicose or reflexively willing to send U.S. soldiers into danger; he is the father of a marine and a Naval Academy midshipman, James McCain and John S. McCain IV, whose service he rarely mentions. And he opposed, presciently, keeping the Marines in Beirut in 1983, just before their barracks were bombed. But his willingness to speak frankly about the utility of military intervention sets him apart from his opponent. Senator Obama, though certainly no pacifist, envisions a world of cooperation and diplomacy; McCain sees a world of organic conflict and zero-sum competition.

Indeed, McCain has almost a theological belief in the necessity of military preemption. If the United States neglects the importance of preemption, McCain thinks, the nation suffers a loss of honor:

For McCain, the doctrine of preemption clearly falls outside the realm of mere politics, as does the need to “win,” rather than “end,” wars; the safety of America demands that they be fought, and honor demands that they be won.

McCain’s father, Kissinger said, saw the world the same way McCain sees it. “He was a military man, not a diplomat. Both men grasp the notion of consequences. From about 1967 on, we were experiencing a national trauma, with obsessive doubts about the fitness of government and with a yearning to just get out of Vietnam and get it over with, with a refusal to look at the consequences. Both of them understood that withdrawal without honor has costs. The son knows this from his own experience and from his father.”

I once asked Sen. Lindsey Graham to name something unusual about McCain in the context of the debate about Iraq; he said that McCain believes, among other things, that “some political problems have military solutions.” A related McCain belief that’s even more out of sync with America’s current mood: wars are quagmires only until someone figures out a way to win them.

To my mind, Goldberg’s article is impressive journalistically. He was fair to McCain; he portrayed reality from McCain’s point of view, quoting him at length. His article is timely, relevant, and insightful. And he did a ton of great reporting; not only did he find memos from 40 years ago, he interviewed McCain, his supporters, and adversaries.

Yet Goldberg’s article had one intellectual flaw: It omitted any mention of religion and how it shapes McCain’s views on the military and waging war. Religion would seem to be an obvious line of inquiry to explore. For one thing, the title of McCain’s best-known book is The Faith of My Fathers.

For another thing, McCain does profess to be a Christian and an important intellectual tradition within Christianity has long been just-war theory. What does McCain think of just war theory’s key principles? Goldberg could not be expected to ask McCain about all of its tenets. But why not ask McCain, for example, whether he thinks that as president he could negotiate with Iran rather than bomb it?

I also would have liked for Goldberg to flesh out McCain’s idea of honor. Does McCain understand honor purely in nationalistic or vocational terms? Does his notion have any religious connotations.

In summary, I would recommend Goldberg’s article to anyone interested in learning more about McCain’s worldview. But I would caution that in Goldberg’s account, religion and faith play an undetermined role in it.

NOTE: This post is not a forum about the Iraq War, the presidential election, or the Bush administration. If you feel impelled to write about those topics, please go to another website. All replies on those topics will be deleted.

Newsweek ignores women’s faith

MaryNewsweek‘s cover story this week focuses on the historical and social roots of female voters’ embrace, so far at least, of Gov. Sarah Palin.

Its lede hints at the story’s theme: for all of the celebration in 1984 of Geraldine Ferraro as the first female on the ticket of a major presidential party, she was opposed by traditional female voters:

[W]hat Ferraro was most surprised by, in focus groups convened after the election, was that stay-at-home mothers had been horrified by her candidacy, despite the fact that her three children were teenagers. “What we found was that some women felt intimidated,” she says now. How would their husbands view them if they were just staying at home rather than shattering glass ceilings and conquering the world? “I thought, ‘God almighty, how did that happen?’ … They thought it would somehow hurt them. That if I could do all these things — be a supermom or whatever — how would it look for them, if ‘all’ they were doing was taking care of their children at home?” They wondered, she says, if it would jeopardize their marriages.

Nearly a quarter of a century later, Sarah Palin is also being grilled about her capacity to negotiate with the Soviets (well, the Russians, but they are acting like Soviets at the moment), asked if she will still cook for her family if elected vice president and praised for her chic glasses and copper highlights. But this time, women are flocking to her, cheering her can-do attitude and her unabashed embrace of the hockey-mom label. After her nomination as the Republicans’ vice presidential candidate, the Washington Post/ABC poll reported a remarkable 20-point shift toward McCain. The new NEWSWEEK Poll also finds that some movement occurred: in July, John McCain led Barack Obama among white women by 44 to 39 percent; now his lead is 53 to 37 percent.

The story continues on in this vein. The authors allow that gender is important to female voters, but stress that it is hardly all-important:

All things being equal between candidates, however, there is evidence to suggest that women are increasingly likely to support female candidates because they are women — if they believe there are too few women in positions of power. But gender remains only one consideration of many.

What, you might ask, are those considerations? The story mentions the conventional sociological categories — race, family status, and class. But it fails to explore — indeed, it barely touches on — two crucial considerations: marital status and religious affiliation.

In the 2004 election, pollster Anna Greenberg found that marital status was a big fault line among voters:

The marriage gap is a defining dynamic in today’s politics, eclipsing the gender gap, with marital status a significant predictor of the vote, independent of the effects of age, race, income, education or gender. Marital status had a significant effect on the way in these voters performed, whereas a voter’s gender did not. Younger unmarried women supported Kerry while younger married women supported Bush.

Marital status is related to religiosity. As scholar Brad Wilcox has shown, the more religious you are, the more likely you are to be married.

Also, the political scientists Earl and Merle Black have shown that religious affiliation shapes female voters’ attitudes. Mainline Protestant women have moved away from the GOP; Catholic women away from the Democratic Party; and evangelical women sticking with the GOP.

Newsweek‘s story misses these two important elements. It mentions marital status only a few times; and does not mention religious affiliation at all.

Come on, Newsweek. Are we to believe that faith and religious affiliation have played no role in female politics? Haven’t you read your Tocqueville, especially his line about women safeguarding American religion? Sure, gender, class, and race shape female behavior. But doesn’t religion, too?

Apparently not. Which is why Newsweek‘s story did not get religion at all.

Getting Catholic voters, mostly

mswFor months, I criticized the print press for not covering the Democratic presidential candidates’ outreach to religious Democrats in general and Catholic Democrats specifically. I didn’t get it. Both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama had religious outreach directors. Yet until the Pennsylvania primary in April, reporters avoided writing about their efforts.

Now things have changed, as Mollie’s post shows. Reporters are doing more than writing about the campaigns’ outreach to Catholics. They are also writing balanced, informed stories about them. While the stories are less than perfect, they are superior to their predecessors.

Exhibit A is this story by David Kirkpatrick of The New York Times.

Kirkpatrick wrote about how Catholic voters in key swing states are divided about the issue of abortion, not so much about whether the nation’s abortions laws are desirable but rather the extent to which the issue should influence Catholics’ votes this fall. As I show in Why the Democrats are Blue, this storyline is an old one, stretching back to the 1976 presidential election, but Kirkpatrick’s was better than previous stories in one respect.

Kirkpatrick showed that Catholic bishops’ public criticism of pro-choice Catholic Democrats was persuading Catholic Democratic voters to cast their ballots for a Republican presidential candidate. In fact, Kirkpatrick made this his lede:

Until recently, Matthew Figured, a Sunday school teacher at the Holy Rosary Roman Catholic Church here, could not decide which candidate to vote for in the presidential election.

He had watched progressive Catholics work with the Democratic Party over the last four years to remind the faithful of the party’s support for Catholic teaching on the Iraq war, immigration, health care and even reducing abortion rates.

But then his local bishop plunged into the fray, barring Senator Joseph R. Biden Jr. of Delaware, the Democratic vice-presidential nominee, from receiving communion in the area because of his support for abortion rights.

Finally, bishops around the country scolded another prominent Catholic Democrat, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California, for publicly contradicting the church’s teachings on abortion, some discouraging parishioners from voting for politicians who hold such views.

Now Mr. Figured thinks he will vote for the Republican candidate, Senator John McCain of Arizona. “People should straighten out their religious beliefs before they start making political decisions,” Mr. Figured, 22, said on his way into Sunday Mass.

I liked this lede. I think its point is true: the Bishops’ public comments about issues influence many Catholic voters, though how many it does is impossible to say. And I think the lede got religion: rather than dismissing the remarks of bishops, which has been a key media narrative about Catholics since the advent of the birth-control controversy, Catholic voters take them into account.

Later, Kirkpatrick showed that some Catholic voters are influence not only by the bishops but also church teaching, or at least their interpretation of it:

Dozens of interviews with Catholics in Scranton underscored the political tumult in the parish pews. At Holy Rosary’s packed morning Masses on Sunday in working-class North Scranton and the Pennsylvania Polka Festival downtown that afternoon, many Clinton supporters said they were planning to vote for Mr. Obama, some saying they sided with their labor unions instead of the church and others repeating liberal arguments about church doctrine broader than abortion.

“I think that one of the teachings of God is to take care of the less fortunate,” said Susan Tighe, an insurance lawyer who identified herself as “a folk Catholic, from the guitar-strumming social-justice side” of the church.

But more said they now leaned toward Mr. McCain, citing both his experience and his opposition to abortion. Paul MacDonald, a retired social worker mingling over coffee after Mass at Holy Rosary, said he had voted for Mr. Kerry four years ago and Mrs. Clinton in the primary but now planned to vote for Mr. McCain because of “the life issue.”

I liked this section, too. Kirkpatrick was not using scare quotes about abortion; the life issue is a euphemism. And he talked to ordinary voters in addition to experts; many reporters rely on the latter at the expense of the former.

That said, the story had a flaw characteristic of the media’s coverage of religious voters. It got politics as much as it did religion — Catholic voters are split between the two parties and the two major presidential campaigns are courting Catholics.

For example, I think Kirkpatrick should have quoted from the bishops about the following statement:

After the 2004 election, progressive Catholics started to organize and appeared to win some victories. In 2006, the bishops’ conference all but banned outside voter guides from parishes. And last fall, the bishops revised their official statement on voting priorities to explicitly allow Catholics to vote for a candidate who supports abortion rights if they do so for other reasons. And it also allowed for differences of opinion about how to apply church principles. The statement appeared to leave room for Democrats to argue that social programs were an effective way to reduce abortion rates, an idea the party recently incorporated into its platform.

This passage left me with questions. Is there a source for the assertion that the bishops’ conference virtually banned outside voter guides? Also, the bishops’ statement left room for difference of opinion about applying church principles? Hmm.

In any event, those are only a couple of complaints. I think on the whole the story got religion, certainly far more than previous stories have.

Getting great quotes (updated)

quotesWhen I was a cub reporter lo many years ago, I was advised to get great quotes. Getting the full context of the story was important; ensuring that the story was accurate and fair was important; but nothing was quite as important as getting great quotes. Great quotes, and only great quotes, made the Story.

My editors pounded this message home; journalism experts pounded this message home; Tom Wolfe pounded this message home. This was in the era of journalism right before the dawn of the Internet, so the message has lost cachet. Yet the message is no less important or relevant, though perhaps not as critical as I was told.

As an example, consider the following story by Daniel Burke of Religion News Service. Burke wrote about the origins of the U.S. Catholic Bishops‘ decision to change a line in the Catholic Church’s catechism and the response of American Jewish leaders. Burke’s use of quotes elevated the story, turning what could have been a ho-hum article into an excellent one.

Most importantly, Burke’s quotes were revealing. The first half of his story addresses why Catholic bishops voted to change a line in the United States Catholic Catechism for Adults about the Catholic Church’s interpretation of Jews’ relationship with God. As you might imagine, the topic is a sensitive one, and Burke’s quote from a top U.S. Catholic official highlights the political and social calculations involved:

Deleting the sentence allows U.S. bishops to dodge the controversy, said Monsignor Daniel Kutys, executive director of evangelization and catechesis at the USCCB’s committee on the catechism.

“Part of the decision was to skirt the issue rather than explain it,” said Kutys.

The second half of Burke’s story addresses the roots of the change. It discusses the role of Robert Sungenis, an amateur Catholic apologist. Burke got a great quote from Sungenis’ bishop questioning the apologists’ writings.

Sungenis’s writings on Jews have been sharply criticized by fellow Catholics, who accuse him of anti-Semitism. His local bishop, Kevin Rhoades of Harrisburg, has demanded that Sungenis stop writing about Jews and made him stop using the word “Catholic” in his organization’s name.

“I had hoped that he would cease from speaking or writing about Judaism and the Jewish people in a hostile, uncharitable, and un-Christian manner,” Rhoades wrote to a former colleague of Sungenis last February.

In addition, Burke’s quotes had variety. He talked to top Catholic prelates; he talked to top Jewish leaders; he talked to Sungenis and quoted from Sungenis’ bishop. In all, he quoted from seven people. His story was not, in other words, a cut-and-paste job.

However, Burke’s use of quotes was not perfect.

His story suggests that Sungenis played a key role in changing a line in the catechism; the caption in the photo accompanying the story attributes a larger role to him, stating that Sungenis “helped lead the charge.” Yet Sungenis’ role is perhaps more ambiguous than Burke’s story implies. Burke quotes from an official with the Catholic bishops’ conference who suggests that Sungenis’ role was overstated:

Sungenis may have been the first to raise the issue, but he shouldn’t be given credit for revising the catechism, said the USCCB’s Kutys.

“It was changed, but not because of what he said,” Kutys said. “People were misunderstanding it, and through that blog spreading that misunderstanding to other people.”

Kutys’ quote, while revealing, throws into doubt Sungenis’ role. Does Kutys believe that Sungenis played any role at all? As is, Kutys’ quote implies that Sungenis did not play a major role. The reader is left scratching his or her head.

Despite this one misstep, Burke’s story deserves praise. As a rule, Catholic prelates are wary of the press and so don’t give interesting quotes, let alone revealing ones. Yet somehow Burke got them.

UPDATE: I should have described the dispute in question. The USCCB voted to remove the following passage from the adult catechism:

Pending Vatican approval, this sentence will be deleted from the text: “Thus the covenant that God made with the Jewish people through Moses remains eternally valid for them.”

In its place, the USCCB approved this passage:

“To the Jewish people, whom God first chose to hear his word, belong the sonship, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises; to them belong the patriarchs, and of their race, according to the flesh, is the Christ.”

Also, I should have explained the reason that some Catholics consider Sungenis’ writing anti-Semitic. Below is Burke’s evidence:

[Sungenis] also asserts that “an anti-Christian, Jewish influence has infiltrated the Catholic Church at the very highest levels.”