Please define ‘evangelical’ (yet again)

USA evangelicals2If you type the word “evangelicals” into Google Images, the art attached to the top of this post is the very first thing that turns up. This tells us quite a bit about how most Americans now define the vague word “evangelical.”

Even Wikipedia is better than this strictly political image and — horrors — you can see the battles over what the word means by reading the start of the “evangelicalism” entry at that mixmaster site:

The word evangelicalism often refers to a broad collection of religious beliefs, practices, and traditions which are found among Protestant Christians and some Catholics. Evangelicalism is typified by an emphasis on evangelism, a personal experience of conversion, biblically oriented faith and a belief in the relevance of Christian faith to some cultural issues. Historically, the movement began in the early 18th century as a response to Enlightenment thinking. It stressed a more personal relationship with God at the individual level; as well as activism based upon one’s biblically based beliefs.

Current media usage of the term (especially in the United States), is often synonymous with conservative Protestant Christians. This is only partly accurate, as the movement embraces a wide range of expressions of faith around the four core characteristics.

Notice, again, the entire history of the term Protestant, yet somehow we now have Catholics who apparently vote evangelical, which means there are Catholics who are now evangelical Protestants. The terrible phrase in the Wiki definition is the one that says evangelicals share a “biblically oriented faith” — which could mean just about anything. Thus, all the confusion. But it is not my intent to open up that subject for debate, yet again.

No, what caught my eye this time was a recent New York Times story by veteran religion writer Laurie Goodstein, which makes a solid attempt to add some clarity on the diversity of “evangelical” views on at least one issue that is hard to label as “liberal” or “conservative.”

Thus, the headline: “Coalition of Evangelicals Voices Support for Palestinian State.” This coalition is stressing that both Jews and Palestinians have rights “stretching back for millennia” to territory in the Holy Lands. These leaders have issued a letter calling for the creation of a Palestinian state that includes the “vast majority of the West Bank.”

Now, who are these people?

The letter is signed by 34 evangelical leaders, many of whom lead denominations, Christian charities, ministry organizations, seminaries and universities.

They include Gary M. Benedict, president of The Christian and Missionary Alliance, a denomination of 2,000 churches; Richard J. Mouw, president of Fuller Theological Seminary; Gordon MacDonald, chairman of World Relief; Richard E. Stearns, president of World Vision; David Neff, editor of Christianity Today; and Berten A. Waggoner, national director and president of The Vineyard USA, an association of 630 churches in the United States.

“This group is in no way anti-Israel, and we make it very clear we’re committed to the security of Israel,” said Ronald J. Sider, president of Evangelicals for Social Action, which often takes liberal positions on issues. “But we want a solution that is viable. Obviously there would have to be compromises.”

Once again, you can see how hard it is to use political labels in this context — especially in a short news report.

What in the world does it mean that Sider and company often take “liberal positions on issues”? That is simply far too vague. What issues? Is it “liberal” to favor economic justice? Is that politically “liberal” or theologically “liberal”? Sider, by the way, is consistently pro-life and a doctrinal conservative on sexuality issues.

You can see this struggle later in the article, as well:

In the last year and half, liberal and moderate evangelicals have initiated two other efforts that demonstrated fissures in the evangelical movement. Last year, they parted with the conservative flank by campaigning against climate change and global warming. This year, they denounced the use of torture in the fight against terrorism. Some of the participants in those campaigns also signed this letter.

I do not fault Goodstein in any way for this confusion between political “evangelicalism” and doctrinal “evangelicalism.” Truth is, the word is all but meaningless right now. The reporter is caught in an impossible situation.

9780801025778However, by the end of the piece Goodstein manages to squeeze in an authoritative voice (and I must confess that he is a friend and former teaching colleague of mine) who can crisply note the nature of the doctrinal debate that looms behind this debate over Israel and Palestine.

There is a crucial theological difference between Mr. (John) Hagee’s views on Israel and those expressed by the letter writers, said Timothy P. Weber, a church historian, former seminary president and the author of “On the Road to Armageddon: How Evangelicals Became Israel’s Best Friend.”

Mr. Hagee and others are dispensationalists, Mr. Weber said, who interpret the Bible as predicting that in order for Christ to return, the Jews must gather in Israel, the third temple must be built in Jerusalem and the Battle of Armageddon must be fought.

Mr. Weber said, “The dispensationalists have parlayed what is a distinctly minority position theologically within evangelicalism into a major political voice.”

Now, most run-of-the-mill newspaper readers who make it this far are almost certainly going to have to ask, “What in the world is a dispensationalist?” And, there is no way around it — this is another big word worth arguing about.

But at least it’s the right word and a highly precise one at that.

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Here some stand

Schmeling“Stories like this annoy me,” a Lutheran pastor wrote when he notified us of the following Chicago Sun-Times piece. Written by veteran religion reporter Susan Hogan/Albach, it’s about how the Metropolitan Chicago bishop-elect of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America views his denomination’s celibacy requirement for gay and lesbian clergy. The Lutheran clergy and GetReligion reader is a pastor in the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, which does not ordain gay clergy. Though both Lutheran groups are large (and I’m a member of the LCMS), only the larger ELCA is mentioned in the story.

Because of insufficiently clear mainstream media coverage, LCMS Lutherans are used to being asked if we really pay for the abortions of our female clergy members (the LCMS doesn’t even have female clergy members and officially believes the lives of unborn humans should be protected) and other such questions that are better posed to the larger and more politically liberal ELCA. But rarely is there any differentiation among the Lutheran groups in mainstream media. The mention that not all Lutherans are ELCA Lutherans doesn’t need to be big or a substantive part of the story — but it’s probably good to mention it. Particularly considering just how wildly different the two groups stand on everything from confessional approach to political involvement. On to the story:

The Chicago Sun-Times story begins with a horrible headline: “Same-sex salvation.” The story isn’t about whether gays and lesbians are saved. The story isn’t even about whether or not gays and lesbians should be ordained. The story is about the debate in the ELCA over whether or not people who are gay and lesbian AND are ordained should be engaged in sexual behavior. The story and accompanying side bar never even address salvation. Here’s how the story begins:

The Lutheran pastor soon to be bishop of the Metropolitan Chicago Synod wants his denomination to lift a celibacy requirement for gay and lesbian clergy.

“That’s where I think the church is going,” Bishop-elect Wayne Miller of Aurora said. “That’s where I think it needs to go.”

He’s hoping the change will come next month in Chicago, where the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America is conducting its churchwide assembly. Nearly a third of the denomination’s 65 synods are asking for a policy shift in clergy standards.

Two things that I would like to praise about the story: thank goodness Hogan/Albach is on this very timely story about possible changes in the ELCA’s position on homosexuals in sexual relationships serving in the ministry. It’s a big story and there has not been enough coverage. The denomination’s assembly is being held shortly after a decision to defrock a popular gay pastor in Atlanta (Bradley Schmeling, pictured) for his sexual relationship with his partner. And it’s also great the lengths she goes to identify the denomination by its official name: the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. There are many stories that just go with ‘Lutheran’. The reason why it’s a shame there hasn’t been more coverage of this particular angle is that it leaves those of us curious about the debate completely in the dark about the particular views of the various sides involved. It’s hard to analyze viewpoints when they’re not substantively looked at.

The reporter speaks with folks on one side of the issue, including the current bishop:

“Some of the churches with the most growth in this synod are led by gay pastors in committed relationships,” said Bishop Paul Landahl, 69, who has led the Metropolitan Chicago Synod since 2001.

Landahl said he approaches the issue pastorally and with compassion.

“I have a daughter [who is in] a same-sex committed relationship,” he said. “It’s been part of my life. To see her connected to a church that’s kind of slammed the door on gay and lesbian people is a miracle in and of itself.”

Unfortunately, the reporter doesn’t speak with anyone in the ELCA who believes differently. And the problem with lack of diversity is not just intra-ELCA or intra-Lutheran. In a sidebar, Hogan/Albach tries to show “where the faiths stand” on ordaining homosexual clergy. Here’s the full list:

Catholics: The church, which only ordains celibate men, says homosexuality is “intrinsically disordered,” but that it is not a sin to have a “homosexual orientation.”

Episcopal Church (U.S.): Supportive of gay clergy, including a bishop in a same-sex relationship, which put the denomination at odds with some in the worldwide Anglican communion.

Presbyterians (U.S.): Clergy are required to live either in “fidelity within the covenant of marriage between a man and a woman, or chastity in singleness.”

United Church of Christ: Not only supports gay clergy, but endorses same-sex marriage.

United Methodist: Because homosexuality is considered “incompatible” with Christian teaching, “self-avowed practicing homosexuals” aren’t ordained.

Judaism: More liberal branches allow for gay and lesbian rabbis.

Islam: Imams aren’t ordained and homosexuality is considered immoral.

So there’s no differentiation for Presbyterians. There’s the funny (U.S.) designation after them and the Episcopal Church. Does that mean she’s referring to the PCA? or the PCUSA? There’s a mention of the UCC and UMC but no mention of, say, any Baptist, charismatic or evangelical denominations. And while the LCMS is over twice as large as the UCC, it doesn’t even get mentioned. It’s kind of like we got a view of the full scope of religious viewpoints — as seen through the windows of a mainstream newsroom.

It would be one thing if the story was limiting its focus to old-line mainstream Protestants, but with the inclusion of the Catholic church and Judaism and Islam, it’s hard to see what the goal of the sidebar is.

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Another story in the Iraqi whirlwind

synagoge baghdadFrom time to time, we receive emails from people concerned about a lack of mainstream media coverage of the persecution of the ancient churches inside Iraq, an already tragic situation that is getting worse as Iraq begins to fly apart into competing Islamic states, or tribes, or whatever. This is, of course, part of a wider story in the region — as I learned during my recent visit to Istanbul.

However, this morning I was reading my usual newspapers on the train when I ran into two paragraphs in The Washington Times that added yet another stunning angle to this story. This is one of those situations where I knew something was happening — at the head level — but the bare facts in the newspaper still hit home.

The story by veteran religion writer Julia Duin, a friend of this blog, focuses on yet another hearing by the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom. Sadly, hearings of this kind take place all the time and, thus, this rather short story was located on an inside page. Here’s the lede:

Iraq’s outnumbered Christians and other religious minority groups are targets of a terror campaign and are facing a dire situation where killings and rapes have become the norm, a panel of witnesses testified yesterday on Capitol Hill.

But here are the two paragraphs that snuck up on me. The quote is from the Rev. Canon Andrew White, vicar of St. George’s Anglican Church in Baghdad:

Iraq’s eight remaining Jews, now hiding in Baghdad, are “the oldest Jewish community in the world,” he said, referring to the 597 B.C. Babylonian conquest of ancient Judah that brought the Jews to the region as captives.

“The international community has done nothing to help these people,” Mr. White said, explaining that the group is trying to emigrate to an Iraqi Jewish enclave in the Netherlands, which won’t admit them.

Here’s the question that popped into my mind: Which is more surprising, that there are only eight Jews left in Iraq or that officials in the Netherlands will not grant them asylum?

Have I missed it, or has there been extensive coverage of this issue? There will, of course, be headlines when the last Jews are killed or exiled against their will. I think.

Photo: The synagogue in Baghdad.

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Open source religion reporting works

open sourceDavid Crumm, the Detroit Free Press religion writer, had the enviable task of coordinating a rather significant open-source religion journalism project that involved “forty strangers in a virtual room” talking about their faith.

Wired News, a collaborator in the project, carried a summary story on July 12 that was part of a larger open source project, Assignment Zero. According to the piece, the diverse set of 40 writers, or sources on the religion team, did three waves of reporting, or discussion, and after each Crumm would compose “an evolving story” that compiled the various thoughts and ideas put forth. Those summaries can be found here.

Perhaps what is most interesting about the results of this project is what is not there, rather than what is discussed. Politics hardly comes up, and neither do denominational debates. Here’s how Crumm described the project in his summary piece:

What, exactly, is open source religion? It’s the cutting edge of individual spirituality that’s thriving outside the walls of organized religion. It’s a historic shift in power and authority from religious leadership to the consumer-oriented adherents of religious movements.

In other words, the traditional influences on religion news are removed — the denominations and political groups — and the gaps are filled by Crumm’s sources.

By its very nature the project is introspective and engages in self-criticism that one hardly sees in more established publications. In fact the members addressed the major criticisms I thought I could make of this project before I plowed through the actual series:

That’s the nearly universal motive that attracted the participants — who took pains to point out that they’re hardly a random cross section of the U.S. population.

But what emerged from the discussions is strong evidence that there’s real energy behind open source religion: People are eager to express their most sacred insights within emerging grassroots crowds that are forming around the world.

One of the best areas the project addresses is the growing number of prominent atheist thinkers out there. A major finding of the project — what I would define as the “news” — came from a contribution of a professional:

There’s solid sociological data behind this observation. It comes from multiple waves of World Values Surveys, analyzed by University of Michigan sociologist Wayne E. Baker, who also joined our forum. Baker wrote about this in his 2006 book, “America’s Crisis of Values: Reality and Perception.” As Baker sorted out the data, he showed that religious values are very strong and widespread across America. Americans rank with traditionalist countries around the world, places like Pakistan, in the strength of our religious values. But Americans also are almost off the chart in another powerful value — our desire for individual self-expression. (We rank with Scandinavia on that scale.)

While I started reviewing this project skeptically, I found that it worked amazingly well in uncovering compelling wrinkles in the religion landscape. The story unfolded over the course of weeks rather than hours. But isn’t that the amount of time reporters usually take for a significant in-depth look at a subject? The natural next question is if this could be the future of religion journalism.

A carefully researched, thorough report on a subject involves talking to a diverse set of sources who are experts in the subject matter. Could journalists do this in a more open manner that results in better results? Possibly.

Key challenges that must be avoided include the navel-gazing that typically happens when sources are given a wide platform and porous filters, and an obsession with the “open source” process rather than simply getting on with the work.

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Where the *&^# is that ABC story on hell?

Vision of HellOne of the many, many things that we GetReligionistas do not do very well is handle religion news carried on broadcast and cable television. There is, however, a good reason for this. Actually, there are several of them.

One is that I don’t watch very much television. Not because I am some kind of elitist snob. It’s just that I’d rather watch movies rather than news. I would rather read the news or interact with multimedia news online. Surprise.

I realize that there are some wonderful archives of television news stories online. However, the whole matter still seems to be rather hit and miss. And the “miss” side of things really ticks me off.

Take, for example, what I understand was a rather interesting 20/20 feature the other night on hell. What time does 20/20 come on, anyway? However, I know about the piece because Jeffrey Weiss wrote about it the other day at the Dallas Morning News religion weblog:

I’d love to post a link, but the stupid ABC site is just about unnavigable and I can’t find what I heard last night. But I noted two interesting items:

(1) In an extended discussion about the Christian idea of salvation, including an interview with what was described as an evangelical pastor, I never heard the word “Jesus.” Maybe I missed it?

(2) The segment claimed that Satanists are all actually atheists. And interviewed a self-styled Satanist who filled the bill. That seemed to be a serious stretch. It’s not like there’s a Satanic “pope” who sets “doctrine” for everyone who claims to be a Satanist, after all.

Now if you go to the 20/20 site, you will find a story, “Touching Heaven and Hell — One Man’s Brush With the Beyond Changes His Life,” by reporters Sylvia Johnson and Rob Wallace. It starts like this and quickly turns into yet another standard-issue NDE ratings booster:

Matthew Dovel says he calls himself “a hostile witness to heaven and hell.” Dovel is one of the thousands of Americans who have reported what are called near-death experiences. Although science can find no facts to support the notion that people have actually glimpsed the afterlife, many people brought back from the brink of death swear they’ve been to heaven.

Far fewer report visiting hell, but Dovel believes he’s seen both. And he’s had a few brushes with death.

That doesn’t seem to be what we want to find. So maybe what we are looking for is this Good Morning America story about one evangelical pastor — repeat, one — wrestling with timeless issues of God, free will and theodicy:

A prominent Tulsa, Okla., minister was scandalized not by sex or embezzlement, but by his belief in hell. When Carlton Pearson began wondering if modern believers still need a medieval pit of fire, it cost him his congregation.

Breaking news: Christians only believed in hell during the Medieval era. Forget all of those Eastern Orthodox icons, passages in the New Testament and other hellish references in the early church. And forget John 14:6, while we are at it.

ladderBut it appears more likely that the story for which Weiss saw a promo was this 20/20 feature by Rob Wallace and Farnaz Javid: “The Fascination With Hell’s Fury — Hell Has Played a Role Across Cultures and History, but What Does It Mean Today?” And, yes, if you search the short print version of the report it appears that the word “Jesus” is “not found.”

We are told this:

This afterlife for so-called sinners has fascinated society since the dawn of time. The very thought of the place inspired Dante to write his “Inferno,” giving us history’s most detailed description of the underworld.

Since then, artists from Michelangelo to Marilyn Manson have shaped our opinion of the infernal abyss. Most religious teachings describe hell as the netherworld anyone might end up in who strays from the straight and narrow. That view seems to be changing in this age of logic and political correctness.

A decade ago, 56 percent of Americans polled said they believed in hell. After the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the number shot up to 71 percent (polls conducted by Harris and Gallup), then fell in recent years, but this pattern is not a new phenomenon. Man’s definition of the abyss has shifted since the dawn of humanity. And through it all, it seems the more sinister hell is made out to be, the more it is mocked and embraced. It is a surefire punch line on television and in movies, and it’s used to market everything from comic books to chewing gum.

This report, however, is only 626 words long (whew, as opposed to 666). Surely this is not the whole story on such a complex topic. And, alas, there are no atheist Satanists in sight. Perhaps that was in a different feature?

That’s how things go, when you try to cover television online. The images flicker past or you miss them altogether because you have to do something like cook supper for your family, take a walk or go to church. Then it is hard to find what you are looking for with the search engines.

So let me end by joining with Weiss and asking: Did anyone see any of these reports? Are there illegal versions of them somewhere user-friendly, like YouTube?

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Cynical coverage of the ‘religion-industrial complex’

heavy industryJacques Berlinerblau, an associate professor and program director at Georgetown University, has launched an On Faith column on the “religion-industrial complex.”

I find the whole On Faith site confusing in both layout and content. Berlinerblau’s project, which is equally confusing in its layout, seems associated with Georgetown University, but there is a reference to “university scholars” so that might mean non-Hoyas will be contributors as well.

That said about the layout the concept of covering the “religion-industrial complex” is pretty compelling. Yes, the “-industrial complex” construction has been overused in Washington since the days of Eisenhower, but it is fitting. It is also rather sad to think that the concept has come to the subject of religion.

According to his Georgetown profile, Berlinerblau holds two doctorates: one in ancient Near Eastern languages and literatures and another in sociology. He is the visiting professor at Georgetown for Jewish civilization and directs the Jewish Studies program. He is also an associate professor of religion at Hofstra University.

A reader of ours, Christian Hamaker, brought the post to our attention using the handy Submit a Story link and said that he’s hoping the posts are not saturated in cynicism. But based on the introduction, I have a feeling Christian may be disappointed:

The goal of this blog is to change that by casting a self-reflexive glance on the 2008 faith industry from a non-partisan perspective (about which more anon). By necessity, this will be an incomplete look, a peek. The industry is so vast and decentralized that no one observer could hope to cover it all. But, if all goes well I hope to draw your attention to key trends, emerging patterns, failures of judgment, and moments of critical heroism that will come to pass in 2008.

The goal of this blog, however, is not to appoint or anoint myself ombudsman of the entire, sprawling unregulated enterprise. Such an endeavor would be insufferably boring. Self-righteous. Puritanical. Rather, a sort of overarching apprehensiveness will pervade my bi-weekly posts. My maxim is: when dealing with faith and politics few things do violence to our (already limited) powers of impartiality like our own faith and our own politics. Whether writing about a presidential aspirant’s latest play of the religion card, or an emerging issue being championed by a special interest group, or a poll showing that this community of faith supports that candidate, my goal is to write with an acute awareness of how religious and political passion can obscure and cloud the good judgment, moral reasoning, and analytical clarity of industry commentators (including myself) and those they comment on.

Berlinerblau’s perspective on religion in politics is somewhat shocking in its honesty. The fact that America has developed a religion and politics industry is rather amazing considering the roots of the country. How often do you see the story framed in those words? Perhaps this blog can help reporters see a different perspective on the stories involving politics and religion.

But as our reader said, let’s hoe that cynicism does not dominate the story. Faith has had a persistent and often positive role in American politics since its founding. The fact that it seems to have emerged in the 2008 race may be more of a re-emergence after a generation-long sabbatical. That doesn’t mean reporters covering religion in politics shouldn’t be somewhat cynical, though. Let’s just keep things in perspective and consider the historical role faith has played in American public life.

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The Latin Mass and that ‘trio’ again

ratzingertlm9as 01Time for another visit to the doctrinal terrain of the infamous “tmatt trio” (cheers).

For those who need a brief refresher course on this Sunday morning, here is the trio of questions that I have found — as a journalist, not as a churchman — yield me the most interesting information when I am interviewing leaders involved in conflicts inside mainstream Christian groups.

They are doctrinal questions that loom in the background and help define the various camps. Here we go.

(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?

This brings us back to the big story from Rome that GetReligion has been anticipating for quite some time, and here is the lede in the Los Angeles Times. (Click here for a Google search of the mainstream media coverage in general.)

Pope Benedict XVI … authorized wider use of the long-marginalized Latin Mass, a move that delighted Roman Catholic traditionalists but worried others who fear the erosion of important church reforms.

Revival of the old service, which had been largely supplanted by the modernizing spirit of the Second Vatican Council, also angered Jewish groups because it contains a passage calling for the conversion of Jews.

In a decree known as a motu propio, essentially a personal decision, the pope urged priests to celebrate a 1962 version of the 16th century Tridentine Mass when their congregations request it. Until now, priests could use the Latin Mass only with permission from their bishops, which was not always forthcoming.

There are all kinds of things hiding in there, from the much-discussed “spirit of Vatican II” to the tensions between bishops on the left wing of the church and the conservatives in their dioceses.

But my question is simple. If you were a journalist right now and you were covering this story, how would the questions in the “tmatt trio” relate to it? Which question is the most relevant and why? Which question does not seem to be relevant, but if you know anything about post-Vatican II Catholicism, it actually is?

Here is a more than obvious hint from the Los Angeles Times story.

Some of the strongest criticism Saturday came from proponents of interfaith dialogue and from Jewish organizations. Although references to “perfidious Jews” have been removed from the old liturgy, its Good Friday prayers contain a call for the conversion of the Jews and for God to lift the “veil from their hearts” so that they might know Jesus Christ.

“This is a theological setback in the religious life of Catholics and a body blow to Catholic-Jewish relations,” Abraham H. Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, who is in Rome for meetings with Vatican officials, said in a prepared statement. “It is the wrong decision at the wrong time.”

Clearly, this is an important issue, one linked to historic changes in Vatican II.

But what is the basic doctrine of Christian theology that is at the heart of this? Are there any mainstream stories today that even raise this “trio” question?

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More on that Media Matters study

god saidEvery now and then, a topic covered here at GetReligion kind of hangs around in my mind and turns into one of my weekly “On Religion” columns for the Scripps Howard News Service. That’s what happened this week.

Also, there are people who ask me to post my Scripps column here, which I resist because people can already find it online at the wire service home page — like this – if they really want to see it early. Nevertheless, this is a week when I think the column needs to be stored here, too.

Why? As anyone knows who has read GetReligion for a year or more, I am sincerely interested in seeing more coverage of what can be called the religious left. I am also interested in the growth of the segment of the American population that is either fiercely secular or, in a related trend, spiritual yet opposed to religious traditions of almost any kind. Combine that story with the rise of the religious left and you have an emerging force in American life. That’s news.

So I wrote about Media Matters’ “Left Behind” survey this week, which has been covered on this blog before. There are echoes of the earlier post in this, but lots of new material, as well. I should have added lots of hyperlinks to all of the personalities mentioned in this but, hey, it’s really late here in Istanbul and, well, that’s why God made Google.

So here goes.

When it comes to covering religion news, the mainstream American press is a vast right-wing conspiracy that consistently commits sins of omission against religious liberals.

No, wait, honest. Stop laughing.

The leaders of a liberal advocacy group called Media Matters for America recently released a study entitled “Left Behind: The Skewed Representation of Religion in Major News Media” that says journalists consistently dedicate more ink to covering conservative leaders than to those on the left side of the spectrum.

“Coverage of religion not only over represents some voices and under represents others, it does so in a way that is consistently advantageous to conservatives,” according to the study. “Religion is often depicted in the news media as a politically divisive force, with two sides roughly paralleling the broader political divide: On one side are cultural conservatives who ground their political values in religious beliefs; and on the other side are secular liberals, who have opted out of debates that center on religious-based values.”

The bottom line, according to Media Matters, is that religious conservatives were “quoted, mentioned or interviewed” 2.8 times more often than liberals. The study focused on coverage between the 2004 election — the “values voters” earthquake — and the end of 2006. It focused on coverage in major secular newspapers, the three major broadcast television networks, major cable news channels and PBS.

With a few exceptions, the study contrasted the coverage of a small circle of evangelical Protestants with the coverage of a more complex list of liberal mainline Protestants, progressive evangelicals and others.

The 10 conservatives included James Dobson of Focus on the Family, Charles Colson of Prison Fellowship, Franklin Graham of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, Richard Land of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, Pat Robertson of the Christian Broadcasting Network and the late Jerry Falwell, founder of the Moral Majority.

The 10 liberals and “progressives” included Robert Edgar of the National Council of Churches of Christ, C. Weldon Gaddy of the Interfaith Alliance, Rabbi David Saperstein of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, Jesse Jackson of the Rainbow Coalition and Jim Wallis of Sojourners.

Were these lists fair representations of a spectrum of beliefs on either the left or the right? The conservative list does not, for example, include a representative or two drawn from the ranks of Roman Catholic clergy, Jewish rabbis or doctrinally conservative mainline Protestants. The list on the left is better, but there are glaring omissions — such as Barry Lynn of Americans United for Separation of Church and State or the Episcopal Church’s Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori.

It is certainly true that leaders on the religious right have drawn more than their share of news coverage during recent decades of American political life. However this raises a crucial question, which is whether religious movements should be judged by the political maneuvers of a handful of outspoken leaders. Should politics always trump doctrine?

Meanwhile, many conservative evangelicals, Catholics, Eastern Orthodox believers and others have to cringe whenever they see themselves represented in the national media by more quotes from Dobson or Robertson. Who are the leaders on the religious left who make other liberals cringe whenever they open their mouths?

So why have a few religious conservatives dominated the news, while religious liberals have been left in the shadows?

For starters, conservative groups have been growing in size and power, while liberal groups — especially mainline Protestant churches — have lost millions of members. Journalists pay special attention to groups that they believe are gaining power.

Journalists also focus on trends that they consider strange, bizarre and even disturbing. Certainly, one of the hottest news stories in the past quarter century of American life has been the rise of the religious right and its political union with the Republican Party. For many elite journalists, this story has resembled the vandals arriving to sack Rome.

One of the nation’s top religion writers heard an even more cynical theory to explain this evidence that journalists seem eager to quote conservatives more than liberals when covering religion news.

“Personally, I think there’s much truth to what the study claims,” said Gary Stern of the Journal News in Westchester, N.Y., in a weblog post. “But why? Some progressive religious leaders have told me one theory: that media people are anti-religion, so they trot out angry, self-righteous, conservative voices who make all religion look bad.”

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