5Q+1: Reporter on the hot seat

flockwoodIf you do a search in Google Images for Frank “Bible Belt Blogger” Lockwood you will find nothing that is useful. Zippo.

But if you use Google to search the whole Web, you will find all kinds of interesting things to read. Or Google “Lockwood” and “Jimmy Carter” in Google News for another interesting set of URLs. Go to the White House and mention the name “Frank Lockwood” and they’ll know who you are talking about, too.

To get the basics on the celebrated Lockwood interview with former President Carter, click here to flash back to a recent GetReligion post.

Let me cut to the chase. To celebrate this mini-firestorm, I went ahead and did what I was planning on doing soon anyway — I got in touch with Lockwood to ask him to do one of our 5Q+1 mini-interviews.

(1) Where do you get your news about religion?

AP and Religion News Service, Baptist Press, other newspapers, Christianity Today and Charisma, GetReligion.org and TitusOneNine, the Religion Newswriters Association‘s blog aggregator, visitors to my blog, church bulletins and newsletters, Christian radio and religious bookstores. Christianity Today‘s Ted Olsen, the folks at the Dallas Morning News, Gary Stern of the Journal News and Brad Greenberg of the Jewish Journal are among the religion bloggers I monitor.

(2) What is the most important religion story right now that you think the mainstream media just do not get?

flockwoodReligion coverage is a whole lot better now than it was a few decades ago. Peter Smith of the Louisville Courier-Journal sent me a story his paper ran on Jerry Falwell in Dec. 23, 1975. The writer begins: “Dr. Jerry Falwell, a husky, 42-year-old television preacher from Lynchburg, Va., took the pulpit at Louisville’s Beth Haven Baptist Church yesterday and delivered an old-fashioned, Bible-thumpin’, smoke-spewin’ sermon. Dressed in a conservatively cut brown suit, his face taut with grim emotion, Falwell unloaded a half-hour harangue on the excesses and decadence of modern society.”

Could you imagine that crummy story running today in one of the nation’s 50 largest papers? Probably not. Certainly not if a reporter like Peter Smith is covering the event.

So we’ve made progress. But there’s a lot of progress still to be made. There are far too few evangelicals (or Mormons for that matter) writing in America’s major newsrooms — and far too few writers who understand America’s largest religious bloc. As a result, you see silly mistakes in major publications.

Back to the Mormons: a major newsweekly last week had a picture of the Mormon Tabernacle and referred to it as the Salt Lake Temple. It wasn’t. They’re two very different buildings. A major West Coast daily a couple of years back botched the name of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in one of its stories — especially embarrassing in Oregon, where the LDS church is the second-largest religious body. Silly mistakes like these wouldn’t happen if there were a few more Mormons in big city newsrooms.

On a related note, I think the major media is figuring out that the Mitt Romney story is more complex than just, “Are Romney’s opponents bigots?” They’re looking at his faith — and his opponents — in more nuanced ways.

(3) What is the story that you will be watching carefully in the next year or two?

flockwoodI really look forward to following the presidential election. I’m curious if evangelicals will stick together as a voting bloc, or whether they’ll fragment in 2008. My guess is that they’ll never be more homogeneous than they were during the last election.

By the way, I’m always somewhat amused when major publications “discover” born again Christian voters, as they did when Carter was elected in 1976 and in 2004 when President Bush won a second term. These evangelicals — tens of millions of them — didn’t immigrate to America during our bicentennial year nor did they go into hibernation after President Carter’s victory. They’ve been here all along and they’re not going anywhere — at least in the near term. They’re only “discovered” at election time because that’s the only time some journalists pay attention to the territory between LA and Manhattan. We’ve seen a series of books and a documentary or two recently warning that “religious extremists” are taking over America.

Well, polling doesn’t back that up. Gallup’s polls don’t indicate that the America is turning into a more conservative or more religious society or that Americans are shifting to either the far right or the far left.

(4) Why is it important for journalists to understand the role of religion in our world today?

Religion isn’t going away and it’s not getting less important. You can’t understand the world if you’re spiritually illiterate. Does that mean journalists need to be able to quote [theologian] Paul Tillich? No. But they should know basic demographics. They should be able to tell the difference between Sunnis and Shiites. They should know the differences between, say, Catholicism, mainline Protestantism and Evangelical Christianity. They should be able to name most of the Ten Commandments and recognize most of the major U.S. religious denominations.

(5) What is the funniest, most ironic twist that you have seen in a religion news story lately?

flockwoodEasy. The Los Angeles Times op-ed piece by Larry Flynt paying homage to Rev. Jerry Falwell. The two men were buddies, traded dieting tips, called each other to chat. Who’d have guessed? It’s a strange world.

BONUS: Do you have anything else you want to tell us about religion coverage in the mainstream news media?

Yeah, if you’re a new religion journalist or an aspiring journalist, you need to find out about an organization called the Religion Newswriters Association. These folks helped me tremendously when I first was assigned to the religion beat. They hold great workshops for newcomers and their annual convention is one of the highlights of my year — right behind Christmas. They offer scholarships so people from financially-strapped papers can attend and they bring together the very best religion writers in the country. This year it’s in San Antonio and it’ll be a blast.

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Hanging out with Julie ‘Bible Girl’ Lyons

bible girlTime for another 5Q+1 session.

If Russell Chandler, retired from the Los Angeles Times, is one of the gold-standard names in traditional religion-beat work, then our second subject represents a much edgier style of reporting from the post-1960s alternative press. The work being done by Julie Lyons in her Bible Girl columns at the Dallas Observer represents a kind of neo-European, advocacy version of the Godbeat in modern niche media.

Lyons is in her mid-40s and a native of Milwaukee. She received a B.A. in English from Seattle Pacific University and an M.S. in journalism from Northwestern University. Bible Girl and her husband are on the pastoral staff of The Body of Christ Assembly in South Dallas, where, she says she “speaks in tongues, early and often.”

Lyons has been editor of the Observer for 11 years. The newspaper is owned by Village Voice Media and, surely, she is the only Pentecostal editor in that chain. Lyons said that she started writing Bible Girl in August 2006 after an argument with her blog editor, who didn’t think she was writing enough for the staff blog. Bible Girl, she says, draws more posted comments than anything else the newspaper publishes, online or in print.

Well, this newspaper is in Dallas, after all. People there want to read about religion.

(1) Where do you get your news about religion?

Charisma (especially J. Lee Grady) and Christianity Today magazines; www.getreligion.org (really) and Rod Dreher’s Crunchy Con blog for Beliefnet; Bible Girl readers who e-mail me or post comments; The Dallas Morning News (especially religion writer Jeffrey Weiss) and its religion blog (www.religion.beloblog.com); The New York Times; the religion-related blogs of some writer friends of mine (such as Sandi Glahn: www.aspire2.blogspot.com); but mostly, from being deeply involved in an evangelical church and talking to a lot of people.

(2) What is the most important religion story right now that you think the mainstream media just do not get?

The mainstream media barely have a clue about Pentecostals and how they’re transforming and impacting evangelical Christianity all over the world. They don’t understand: (a) the tremendous variety of traditions and beliefs within the Pentecostal-holiness movement; (b) Pentecostalism’s departure from the Western, rationalistic expressions of Christianity we’re most familiar with; (c) the concern for racial and ethnic reconciliation that still lies at the movement’s core; (d) the emphasis within Pentecostalism on active, practical faith over biblical minutiae; (e) why Pentecostalism is catching on in places in the developing world where non-Pentecostal clergy once decried the shallowness and/or scarcity of Christian conversions; (f) the fact that we’re not superstitious ignoramuses or tongue-babbling loonies.

(3) What is the story that you will be watching carefully in the next year or two?

How African Pentecostals are calling the Pentecostal movement back to its holiness roots, and a somewhat related story — how Pentecostals are dealing (or not dealing) with the many lurid sexual and financial scandals in their midst.

(4) Why is it important for journalists to understand the role of religion in our world today?

There’s a reason why people go to all those churches, and it’s not because they’re stupid or pathetic. Their faith is the driving force in their lives; it’s as real to them as whether they’re black or white, male or female. Even more real.

(5) What is the funniest, most ironic twist that you have seen in a religion news story lately?

Sad to say, I haven’t come across much that’s funny or ironic lately in my reporting and reading. Just some of the most sordid and bizarre scandals involving clergy — stuff I couldn’t make up if I tried. That’s ironic when it involves leading lights in the so-called holiness churches, but it sure ain’t funny.

BONUS: Do you have anything else you want to tell us about religion coverage in the mainstream news media?

Religion coverage may not be selling a lot of ads, but it’s essential to understanding the communities you report on. Get out there and spend some time in churches, from the biggest to the smallest. Understand what makes believers tick — their concerns, their hopes, why they do what they do. Stop relying on quotes from the same list of church leaders.

And while you’re out there, answer me this: Why does every dish at the church potluck feature noodles?

Lyons asked us not to use her photograph, because she is doing some undercover work at the moment. To understand the symbolism of her logo, check out this highly personal, take-no-prisoners “Bible Girl” column.

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For Hoosiers, God is standard

IGWTplatePart of me thought, the minute I saw this Indiana-based story, “You know, I should have young master Daniel Pulliam write about this one, seeing as how he is our authority on all things Hoosier.”

But then I thought, “Wait a minute. Daniel’s on his honeymoon. He probably wouldn’t be too happy if I rang him up and asked him to write a post.” This is why you won’t see the young man on this site for a few days. Maybe. That depends on how selfish, arrogant, unthoughtful and stressed-out I am (wink, wink). I am sure Pulliam the younger will check in when he can.

Meanwhile, the Los Angeles Times does have an interesting story about a rather symbolic church-state tussle in the heartland city of Fort Wayne, Indiana. Here’s the key question: If it’s OK to have “In God We Trust” on standard-issue money, then why isn’t it OK to have the national motto on a standard-issue Indiana automobile license plate?

Ah, but what if this faith-based “standard” plate is different from another plate that Indiana also considers a “standard” offering? Why should supporters of the environment, education, the arts, breast-cancer research and, another cause with religious implications, the Indianapolis Colts, pay extra while God is standard issue? There are, after all, 75 non-standard Indiana license plates.

But stop and think about this for a moment: If the state charged extra for the “In God We Trust” plate, into what cause or fund would that money go?

in license plate 01Reporter P.J. Huffstutter tells us the story of environmental plate owner Mark Studler, which leads us to this:

Last week, the American Civil Liberties Union of Indiana filed a lawsuit, on behalf of Studler, in state court against the Indiana Bureau of Motor Vehicles and Commissioner Ronald L. Stiver. The complaint challenges a law that lets motorists get the “In God We Trust” design without paying the $15 administrative fee.

The state says the new “In God We Trust” plate is not a specialty plate — like dozens of others it offers — but rather a second “standard” plate, like the one that features a pastoral scene, and is thus not subject to special fees. State officials say the plate, introduced in January, has been a hit, chosen by more than 540,000 motorists. That means that had the state charged the $15 fee, it would have an additional $8 million in its coffers.

“The issue isn’t the message. It’s not about religion,” said Ken Falk, legal director for the ACLU of Indiana … .

“It’s about making sure that nearly every other plate that carries a message has a cost attached to it, and this does not,” Falk said. “In a state that’s as religious as Indiana, the phrase ‘In God We Trust’ is not just about supporting the national motto. It’s about saying you believe in God.”

That would seem to make sense. The words on that license plate may have something to do with believing in God and, you know, you gotta watch out for all those Americans who say that they believe in God.

But seriously, there seems to be sticky church-state separation issues whichever way the state goes.

Nevertheless, this story left me curious about one rather basic and, come to think of it, non-faith-based question. Does anyone know if any other states in the union have more than one “standard” license plate? If another state does, what’s the issue in Indiana? I’m curious, and the search terms are so common that it is hard to learn this via a quick online search.

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5Q+1 e-visits with Russell Chandler

London Eye 1Everyone needs heroes. Back in 1980 or so, when I was trying to break into religion reporting, I decided that one of my journalistic heroes was going to be Russell Chandler of the Los Angeles Times.

If you know anything about the history of religion news in American, you know that this was a very predictable choice. Chandler’s work on the beat was winning every award known to humanity — often two or three times. There has never been a stronger advocate of basic, old-school, hard news journalism on this beat than Russ and, to push toward the future, he has helped create a national award for religion writing at the college-newspaper level.

Chandler earned a B.S. in Business Administration from UCLA, a master’s degree from the University of Southern California’s Graduate School of Religion and an M.Div. from Princeton Theological Seminary. He is an ordained minister in the mainline Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), but has always been known for his fairness and rigor on both sides of various religious divides. With retirement on the horizon, he launched into writing books that focused on trends in American religion. To read a copy of a speech by Chandler, click here.

All of this is to say that Chandler is the first person to take part in our ongoing and still evolving 5Q+1 feature. As you can tell, he answered the questions via email. I’ve added some links. I am sorry about his kind first reference, but I have not censored him:

(1) Where do you get your news about religion?

Tmatt weekly columns; ReligionLink, a service of the Religion Newswriters Association; Christianity Today magazine; daily papers (local and The Wall Street Journal); Leadership Network postings; The Gathering newsletter (online); Commonweal magazine (some); TV specials (some), and AOL news items (some).

(2) What is the most important religion story right now that you think the mainstream media just don’t get?

Evangelical Christians (of whatever denominational affiliation, if any) are not necessarily right-wing fundamentalists; militant extremists; or pre-trib, anti-environmentalists. The usual conservative, right-wing “Christian” spokespersons often quoted by elite and/or un-savvy reporters don’t necessarily speak for the majority of any group, only for themselves. Same for the “super-libs.”

(3) What is the story that you’ll be watching carefully in the next year or two?

How the ongoing religion/culture/power wars between Islamic groups in the Middle East play out.

(4) Why is it important for journalists to understand the role of religion in our world today?

What people believe has profound influence on how they behave.

(5) What’s the funniest, most ironic twist that you’ve seen in a religion news story lately?

School Renames Easter Bunny ‘Peter Rabbit’

ABC News

(April 7) — A Rhode Island public school has decided the Easter bunny is too Christian and renamed him Peter Rabbit, and a state legislator is so hopping mad he has introduced an “Easter Bunny Act” to save the bunny’s good name.

Chandler comment: PC gone to seed!

BONUS: Do you have anything else you want to tell us about religion coverage in the mainstream news media?

Why limit it to mainstream news media? We should be alert to how religion, ethics and values are covered by all media — the good, bad, right, left, ignorant and ugly.

Religion watchers’ eyes should rove to and fro throughout the entire spiritual landscape.

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Well, the AP seems to get it

32425179I was going to post this early in the week (hat tip to reader Larry Rasczak), but the Virginia Tech tragedy and several days of travel got in the way. I am currently in Southern California, after speaking for two days at California Baptist University.

Anyway, a hot topic of discussion on this blog, from time to time, is whether it is good or bad for professional religion writers to know a thing or two about religion.

Don’t laugh. This is serious.

There is a school of thought in many mainstream newsrooms that anyone who cares enough about religion to bother to learn much about religion is a person who is not dispassionate enough about religion to be allowed to cover religion. Or something like that. If you care enough about religion to want to cover religion well, then you care too much about religion to be allowed to cover religion. Is that better?

Anyway, Rasczak passed along this post from the Democracy Project:

Job Opening (March 15, 2007)

INTELLIGENCE REPORTER

The Associated Press is seeking an experienced journalist to join its reporting staff and cover intelligence issues from the nation’s capital.

Coverage areas include the intelligence agencies and Hill committees with oversight. Responsible for aggressive and imaginative pursuit of stories, solid reporting and attractive writing. Must have extensive reporting experience, with demonstrated excellent journalism skills.

Must have demonstrated the ability to develop sources and break stories against intense competition. Prior experience covering intelligence is a plus. Should be versatile, aggressive, productive and enterprising, with a thorough knowledge of the AP and enthusiasm for its mission.

Now, note that the Democracy Project’s post critiques the AP for considering knowledge only “a plus.”

Heckfire, I think that’s progress, when compared with some of the religion-beat war stories that I have heard from experienced, trained, talented, award-winning religion reporters who have been passed over for major jobs in favor of candidates with zippo religion-beat experience or studies of any kind. All of this, once again, calls to mind that 1994 Washington Post religion-beat job posting that said (All together now!) that the “ideal candidate is not necessarily religious nor an expert in religion.”

Now, consider the AP notice for that intelligence-beat job. As you read it again, stick “religion” in there wherever you can. That’s pretty good. I mean, we at least know that when push came to shove, the AP managed to get the job done right.

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Is GetReligion a ‘Christian’ blog?

Cb RedSeaThe iMacs on my desks at home and work share many things in common, including an overflowing (digitally speaking) email folder called “GetRel guilt.”

This file is full of really good, really bad or really interesting religion-news stories that I really, really wanted to write about on this weblog. However, something bad happened along the way and things just kind of slid until the topic was simply too old. Most of the time, the topic of the story is so important that I am simply too intimidated to write about it without pouring several hours of careful writing into the post. There are many times when — with my full-time academic job, starting a new program in which I am the director and lead lecturer — I just don’t have the time. Oh, and I write the “On Religion” column for Scripps Howard as well.

Thus, several times a week, I drag another couple of stories over to the “GetRel guilt” file, because my co-workers — working journalists, all — are too busy to write about them either. I imagine that they have their own guilt files.

Meanwhile, the waterfall of news roars on. And, in the midst of this, readers are constantly submitting links to stories from newspapers, magazines, wire services and networks that they want us to cover on the blog. Most of these tips are really good and we appreciate them very much, especially those from newspapers in cities and lands far from the oceans of ink poured out on the east and west coasts. There is no way that we can read even a tenth of the news that we would like to read. Television news is another major gap.

My guess is that we get about 10 to 15 of these news tips during a typical weekday, when traffic on the site is heaviest. Add that to the dozen or so items that the GetReligionistas share with each other day after day, as we try to figure out what we have the time or the smarts to write about on any given day while we do our various jobs.

So a week or so ago, a reader sent in the URL for a New York Times piece by Michael Slackman that ran with the headline “Did the Red Sea Part? No Evidence, Archaeologists Say.” It focused on a tour of digs that Dr. Zahi Hawass, Egypt’s chief archaeologist, provided for a pack of journalists. This media event

… prompted a reporter to ask about the Exodus, and if the new evidence was linked in any way to the story of Passover. The archaeological discoveries roughly coincided with the timing of the Israelites’ biblical flight from Egypt and the 40 years of wandering the desert in search of the Promised Land.

“Really, it’s a myth,” Dr. Hawass said of the story of the Exodus, as he stood at the foot of a wall built during what is called the New Kingdom.

Thus, our reader commented:

… (P)lease understand that I am not necessarily saying THERE IS compelling physical evidence of the Exodus. I have my own questions about Biblical “history.” I am only commenting on the quality of this story and the major play it received in the NY Times, “the paper of record.”

I believe this story deserves comment on several levels:

(a) It’s a standard “where’s the beef?” story that pops up around every major “historically based” religious celebration — Jewish, Christian or whatever (well, maybe not all of them). This particular story line has been done for years in connection with Passover, which leads one to wonder why the Times bothered to redo it.

(b) The only source quoted touting the no-evidence line is an Egyptian, apparently a government official (no academic connection is mentioned so how else do you get to be Egypt’s chief anything?), which makes him suspect in this context, given Israel’s conflict with Egypt (despite the peace treaty) and the Arab history of seeking to deny any Jewish historical connection to the Holy Land for religious/political reasons.

(c) The counter voice by another Egyptian is deeply buried at the story’s very end.

(d) This piece talks only about one possible route into Sinai. There has been speculation about several possible routes.

(e) The writer fails to note that no proof it happened differs from proof that it did not happen.

Excellent points, all the way around. I remember thinking that I wish I could run this as an item on GetReligion, in large part because this particular reader is a religion-writing pro named Ira Rifkin. If you don’t know that byline, Rifkin is best known as the former national correspondent for Religion News Service, founding news producer for Beliefnet.com and Washington correspondent for The Jerusalem Report magazine. His most recent book is Spiritual Perspectives on Globalization: Making Sense of Economic and Cultural Upheaval and you can read his work in lots of other places, as well.

But I didn’t get to that article and my co-workers didn’t, either.

tenCommandmentsAs you can tell, I didn’t throw it away. It was, however, almost certainly headed to the GetRel guilt file.

A few days later, another note showed up from Rifkin. It was blunt and it stung, in large parts because I agreed with much of it. It certainly needed to be taken seriously. Here is a shortened version:

The creators of any publication, online or dead wood, have the right to decide subject matter and perspective. Readers who differ can go elsewhere or start their own publication. So it is with some hesitancy that I write the following.

I’m a veteran religion journalist who reads GetReligion with some regularity because I agree with the blog’s basic premise — which is that one cannot understand human actions and world events without first understanding religious motivations, and that the popular media too often fails in its responsibility when it comes to covering religion. This is particularly so when the religious are traditional in nature. …

Reading the blog’s “Why We’re Here” page I am led to believe that critiquing popular journalism’s coverage of religion is the blog’s raison d’etre. There is no mention of a desire to spur insider wrangling over Christian theology, criticism of liberal Christian thinking or to evangelize from a traditional perspective. Also not mentioned is any desire to in any way limit the blog to Christian issues, even though most American media religion coverage is — and rightly so from a demographic perspective — about Christian issues and individuals.

Nonetheless, I find the blog to be Christian-centric in a way that contradicts the “Why We’re Here” page. I concede that I could be overly sensitive on this point as a non-Christian. I’m a practicing Jew; my theology is unorthodox but my practice leans toward what might be described as a blend of liberal and traditional. Moreover, I consider my faith tradition, in all its permutations, to be under considerable if not existential threat from external and internal pressures.

What prompts me to write this is GetReligion’s apparent decision not to comment on a story I submitted that ran in the New York Times last week under the headline: “Did the Red Sea Part? No Evidence, Archaeologists Say.” Perhaps it was inadvertently overlooked, or simply fell through the cracks because of Holy Week pressures, but several other important non-Christian stories I’ve sent in or have noticed in the major media also have not received comment by the editors. So I discern a pattern.

Why comment on Rachel Zoll’s AP piece on debunking Easter stories and not Michael Slackman’s Times story debunking Passover? I think anytime the Times gives prominent play to a controversial religion story it is worthy of GetReligion comment. …

So tell me, am I out to lunch? Am I simply on another wave length? I welcome repudiation, though agreement would be nicer.

Like I said, it’s an important letter. We’ve been dealing with some of these questions from day one or thereabouts (post No. 24), when Jeff “Killing the Buddha” Sharlet of The Revealer quipped that we want people to “get” religion — our religion. I stressed that we are interested in mainstream news coverage and that, well, we have no plans to add a “Just As I Am, Without One Plea” soundtrack to the site. That remains the case.

We really have no interest in doctrinal fights unless they get woven into the news and, believe me, they often do. That’s where the whole “tmatt trio” thing came from. Those edgy doctrinal questions grew out of my own work covering the Anglican wars, and I will argue again and again that they are valid, information-rich questions, if journalists want to dig beneath the political surface of that ongoing train wreck (and lots of other oldline Protestant stories, as well).

Obviously, reporters focusing on fault lines in Judaism, Islam, neopaganism and other newsworthy faiths would need to ask doctrinal questions appropriate to those groups. As an Orthodox rabbi in Denver once told me, when in doubt ask Jewish newsmakers if they believe in God and if they still believe in the state of Israel.

Meanwhile, I would like someone to show where the featured writers for this blog — as opposed to folks on the comment boards — have veered into evangelistic work. We are constantly trying to police the comments pages to try to get people to focus on the journalistic questions linked to the writing we do here. We should spike more comments than we do.

However, let me answer Rifkin’s main question: Is GetReligion a “Christian” weblog?

The most honest answer is that it is a journalism blog produced by mainstream journalists who are traditional, creedal Christians — Eastern Orthodox, Episcopalian, Lutheran and Presbyterian — who have never hidden their religious convictions.

Yes, I am sure we tend to write about the topics that we know the most about, in part because we don’t want to mess up. I, for one, am constantly aware that I am — this is my goal — writing to an audience of mainstream journalists and that I am also praising or dissecting the work of professionals. I also know that the GetReligion gang has never found a writer with the time to do a decent job covering religion news at the global level. That is another massive area of guilt.

I wish there were more hours in the day. I probably end up writing about one out of 10 news stories or topics that I want to write about. My GetRel guilt file keeps getting bigger.

Nevertheless, keep those news tips coming. And if you send us letters, as opposed to comments, please let us know whether we can publish them. We’re looking for all the content we can get. Believe me.

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Political data in the Pew pews

dday 0138Attention all journalists who cover religion, politics or both.

Our friends at the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life have always produced waves of interesting poll materials on issues linked to faith and public policy. And, at least for now, it is the home base for the always candid and insightful John C. Green, the scholar whose work — back in the late 1970s — began to put the political power of evangelical Christians on public display.

Now, the forum’s tech folks have started putting some of their information into a new form at Religion & Politics ’08. It looks rather simple, at the moment, with short profiles of six candidates — three in each party. It’s the usual faces, with Hillary Clinton, John Edwards, Barack Obama on one side and Rudolph Giuliani, John McCain and Mitt Romney on the other. Obviously, there are more GOP profiles ahead.

Here is a bit of Hillary Clinton‘s religious biography:

The daughter of a Methodist Sunday school teacher, Hillary Clinton was raised in Park Ridge, Ill., attended Sunday school and vacation Bible school and was active in her church’s youth group. She is a lifelong member of the United Methodist Church, the country’s largest mainline Protestant denomination. After her marriage to Bill Clinton, a Southern Baptist, she taught Sunday school at First United Methodist in Little Rock, Ark. As First Lady, she regularly attended services at Foundry United Methodist Church in Washington.

In her autobiography Living History, Clinton describes her faith as a “crucial, though deeply personal, part of my life and my family’s life.” Clinton has said that even if she had not been taught by her family to pray, “after I’d been in the White House for a few months, I would have become a praying person.” She writes that her faith helped her in the days and weeks following the Monica Lewinsky scandal and President Clinton’s 1998 impeachment by the House of Representatives.

That’s part of the story, of course. A longer biography would have to address her college years and the impact of feminism on her faith. It will be interesting to see how deep these Pew religious biographies become as the campaign rolls along.

Meanwhile, the site provides lots of information and numbers to all kinds of familiar topics — abortion, church-state issues, the death penalty, education, the environment, gay marriage, health care, Iraq, poverty, etc. However, what struck me — the moment I opened up the site — was the strong mainline Protestant tenor of the leading candidates and the lack of a clear candidate for the conservative side of American religious life.

I mean, I knew that in my head. But it’s interesting to see it displayed so openly in this kind of site. With Rudy’s status as the official cafeteria Catholic, and McCain acting as a flashback to the silent, establishment Episcopalianism of the George H.W. Bush era, we really are looking at the revenge of the National Council of Churches.

This is especially true in light of the recent Pew study that found key elements of American society drifting toward unbelief, vague forms of faith and/or more liberal stands on moral issues — all of which helps the Democratic Party and hurts the conservative side of the bitterly divided Republican Party.

Thus, we have an interesting paradox. The world of liberal, mainline Protestantism has, for decades, been in sharp decline at the level of membership (worship statistics can be spun in a number of different directions). However, it appears that the religious left may be gaining power as part of an anti-Religious Right coalition with the growing ranks of hardcore secularists and the vague world of spiritual-but-not-religious voters.

yeste128This raises an interesting question. Politicos have focused a lot of attention on the percentage of GOP voters who claim they would refuse to vote for a Mormon. Has anyone asked how many Democrats would refuse to vote for a conservative, off-the-rack evangelical Protestant? I predict the percentage would be higher than the GOP Mormon number. How about a Catholic candidate who actually supports the teachings of his or her church on moral and doctrinal issues (yes, the whole “Culture of Life” spectrum)?

The Pew Forum will chart all of this, I am sure. We can also hope for an update from the City University in New York, where political scientists Gerald De Maio and Louis Bolce should be getting done with an update on their interesting study of “anti-fundamentalist voters” and the Democratic Party leadership. (It appears that The Public Interest‘s report on their work is not available online anymore.)

But as I looked through the Pew site, I found myself becoming less interested in the politics of the religious left and more curious about the religion of the religious left. It would be interesting to see Pew focus its talented team on a poll probing the doctrinal side of life in this small but very powerful corner of the American religious scene.

May I, perhaps, suggest asking these voters the following questions or some variation on them?

(1) Are biblical accounts of the resurrection of Jesus accurate? Did this event really happen?

(2) Is salvation found through Jesus Christ, alone? Was Jesus being literal when he said, “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6)?

(3) Is sex outside of marriage a sin?

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It’s journalism, stupid

Typewriter KeyboardI have made it back safe and sound from exploring various mountain regions in the American West, often on small commercial airplanes. The air over the Rockies isn’t all that smooth this time of year. Take my word for it.

It’s been a long time since I have been so happy to see a nice strong WiFi signal in the toolbar at the top of my Apple screen. It’s kind of hard to blog on the (Windows) computers found in unfamiliar zip codes, so I have been quieter than normal. Let me offer a big “thank you” to my GetReligion buddies for the explosion of interesting posts in the past few days.

As you would expect, I had several hundred emails to answer upon my return home. Here is one of the most interesting, from a GetReligion reader named Stacy/orthodork.

I’ve been visiting Get Religion for quite a while, enjoying much of what you all have to say. I have not studied journalism but I have a couple of advanced degrees. All of that is to simply say that while I’m not an idiot, I admittedly do not know the ins and outs of the journalism profession. Mostly I know what I like and what I don’t like. For example, I refuse to watch the local news. I don’t like it.

Many of the articles you present here seem to me to not only be examples of the media not getting religion, but also examples of the media being poor journalists. I’m going to make an unfounded assumption that you would disagree with me and I’m wondering if you would take the time to explain to me why. If a journalist ignores essential material in the article creating a gap in understanding for the reader, is this not just poor journalism? While I get that the focus of the website is to focus on media and religion couldn’t it easily be understood that “the media just doesn’t get good journalism?”

I hope that you read that my tone is not antagonistic, but rather, curious. Is it possible to be a good journalist and to make the same errors regarding religion over and over again? Yes, of course it’s possible, but given journalistic standards (again, my ignorance regarding the fullness of those standards leaves much room for enlightening) is it feasible?

underwood5smallI have listened to lots of ticked off religious people in my day, and this is one of the most calm and constructive letters of this kind that I have ever read.

I think her main point is linked, in my mind at least, to the whole hot topic of whether talented journalists who lack experience and lack studies in religion are, for some strange reason, more qualified to cover the religion beat than are talented journalists who have experience on this beat and have studied religion, history, theology, etc.

There are people who believe that and many of them run newsrooms. Honest.

Anyway, I want to ask this question to the journalists out there in cyberspace who read this blog: How would you answer this concerned reader?

I have always said that the best way to improve religion coverage is to do the same thing you would do to improve coverage on any other complex beat — hire a trained professional who has proven skills on the beat and give her or him the time, space and resources needed to do the job.

In other words, let us all say, “It’s journalism, stupid.”

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