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Cain and Abel, Abel and Cain

I’m saving the best (Got News?) for last. But first, let’s cover culture war news from the Values Voter Summit held in D.C. And right off the bat I wanna say (yeah, that’s how we talk in Philly — you gotta problem with that?) that I’m ambivalent about any journalist who uses that term as a descriptor rather than the title of the Family Research Values conference. The term implies that conservative activists are the only ones with values, or that those on the left are value-free, or that voters who fell into the middle of the spectrum don’t take their values to the voting booth. In general, the reporters below tend to be clear that this is a term of choice, not of reality.

A few tidbits from the Summit: if you are looking to 2012 and the Presidential candidates, former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee was first choice of the approximately 600 delegates who voted (Minnesota’s Tim Pawlenty made a strong showing among the more marquee names). Former Alaskan governor Sarah Palin chose to welcome her son home from Iraq rather than attend (sounds like a good move to me, but somehow this became controversial). Former Miss California Carrie Prejean gave a speech (which got sympathetic treatment in the Los Angeles Times) that had some delegates in tears.

So why does it matter that fewer than 2,000 voters came to a meeting in Washington, D.C.? For a few reasons. Folks who show up at such meetings tend to be highly engaged. Politicians recognize their importance by courting them. And activists, in the hyperdemocratic environment aided by the Internet and the turmoil in the mainstream press, are more adept than ever at getting the message out to the faithful and adulterous alike.

But some in the mainstream press did consider the Summit worth a mention. Among them was New York Times political reporter Adam Nagourney.

Some of the issues with Nagourney’s article are highlighted by this high-snark-factor piece from the (we don’t need to know that Nagourney is gay anymore than we need to know that conservative analyst Juan Williams is black — and targeting his “special pleading”? — schoolyard stuff). Conservatives could only be “nearly politically wiped out” if a liberal Great Awakening had occurred last year, sweeping away the right, and it didn’t. Poster John Hinderaker also takes on this statement by Nagourney:

Many Republicans have been arguing that the party’s focus on social issues is a mistake at a time when voters are concerned about the economic downturn and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. But the emphasis at the summit, sponsored by the Family Research Council, was still decidedly on issues like same-sex marriage and abortion. The crowd rose to its feet to applaud Carrie Prejean, the former Miss California who caused a furor by denouncing same-sex marriage at the Miss USA contest, as she declared that “God chose me” to make the case she made

The blogger points out that, at a “Value Voters” meeting, attendants are predictably going to have a high level of interest in social issues, however much other groups are concerned about economic ones. I’m not sure I’d agree with Hinderaker that the focus on social issues in the Republican party is purely Nagourney’s, however — sedate as they might be, Summit attendees have ‘values’ that represent those of a large U.S. minority and in some cases cross party lines — particularly with some of the moderates and independents who voted for Democrats in last year’s election.

The main problems I have with Nagourney’s piece (but he does cover politics, after all) is that an overarching narrative (conservatives!! back from the dead!! (perhaps) ) takes over, mowing down any potential distinctions between attendees. And although one can assume that faith is a driver for many attendees, there’s almost no mention of it.

At ‘the vote blog’ of the website, the writers are also guilty of making sweeping generalizations (i.e., that the “tea parties’ and social conservatives are just two faces of the same group). But they do at least seem to get some of the religious tensions in the social conservative movement.

Many younger evangelicals — the type quite likely to be seen tea-partying or at this weekend’s conservative summit– apparently have a noticeably different set of values than their elders. For example, 44 percent favor a larger government offering more services — nearly twice the percentage of older evangelicals. They’re also more likely — 52 percent to 34 percent — to approve of same-sex marriage and civil unions.

Possibly. How do these guys know that the tea parties are either driven by evangelicals or that the younger ones were protesting last week? Some protesters aren’t religious — and not all the religious ones are evangelicals. But the bloggers link to a Washington Post OnFaith “Guest Voices” commentary that is by far one of the better pieces of analysis of “Value Voters Summit” values that I’ve seen. If you want to read something worthwhile and you don’t have much time, this commentary, written before the fact, by Public Religion Research’s Robert P. Jones is excellent because it reveals some of the internal fault lines, and the theological/doctrinal issues that drive many conservatives. That’s exactly what’s missing from the stories I’ve read.

By far the most revealing piece was columnist David Gibson’s dissection of a survey on religious activists. The beginning sums up the thrust of his theme — that activists on both sides are much more alike than they would ever care to admit.

If you’ve ever stood in a pet shop and watched Siamese fighting fish attack their reflection in a glass tank, then you know what it’s like to read a fascinating new survey of more than 3,000 religious activists on the left and the right.

Extra! Extra! Read all about it. Activists on both ends of the spectrum have strong theological beliefs. They are generally better-off than most citizens in America, older, better-educated, mostly white. In other words, if the word has much meaning anymore, they are “elite.” If you were splitting hairs, you might argue that conservative activists are a bit more “elite” by virtue of income, but it’s pretty much a wash.

But one thing the conservatives and “progressives” have in common — they are convinced that they are right, and most invested in having you believe it, too.

The next time you are reading a story about these activists, it might help to remember that in many respects they are more alike than different. Kudos to Gibson for highlighting this survey, and a big hole in news coverage in general — much more invested in conflict than in sometimes disturbing similarities.

Paging Pat Moynihan, long distance

1101670728 400 01Here we go again.

For various reasons, journalists have rarely done even an adequate job covering the decline and fall of the African-American family. The share of black babies born out of wedlock in the last four decades has soared to around 70 percent from 25 percent.

Tellingly, the original story was broken not by a reporter but by a young researcher at the U.S. Labor Department, who had grown up in a single-parent Irish Catholic household full of Democrats. In the liberal backlash to Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s 1965 report, journalists avoided discussing the topic of black family dissolution, fearing that they were “blaming the victim” or blaming blacks for centuries of racism and oppression. After black sociologist William Julius Wilson in 1978 made the subject respectable again, a few top journalists explored the topic, but they tended to rely on materialist explanations, such as the role of AFDC or welfare and the decline of good-paying, low-skill industrial jobs.

To be sure, it’s difficult for journalists to cover long-term, quantitative- and sociological-driven stories. Yet the story about black family decline has been going on for a long time, entering its fifth decade. Surely some journalist has identified the main problems.

Well, no, Which explains the stunned reaction to a report by the Pew Foundation about a sharp decline in black mobility. As The Washington Post reported in an A1 story:

Ronald B. Mincy, a Columbia University sociologist who has focused on the growing economic peril confronted by black men and who served as an adviser on the Pew project, said skeptical researchers repeatedly reviewed the findings before concluding they were statistically accurate.

“There is a lot of downward mobility among African Americans,” Mincy said. “We don’t have an explanation.”

Pew hopes to develop some answers in future reports in its series on economic mobility. Reports scheduled to be released early next year will probe, among other things, the role of wealth and education in income mobility.

Mincy and others speculated that the increase in the number of single-parent black households, continued educational gaps between blacks and whites and even racial isolation that remains common for many middle-income African Americans could be factors.

Journalists are given no more than speculation and resignation? Michael Fletcher of the Post should have looked elsewhere for his explanations of the trend.

Although the story no doubt has many parts, it’s clear that two key parts are the decline and fall of the two-parent black family and decline in religious attendance. Heck, haven’t we reporters checked out the debate in black America between Bill Cosby and Eric Michael Dyson? Or have we not read what social conservatives such as Maggie Gallagher and David Blankenhorn or black moderates such as Juan Williams had to say about these topics?

dpm lbyPat Fagan, a scholar at the Heritage Foundation, has emphasized the importance of religion and family structure well:

During the 1980s and 1990s, when religious practice decreased overall, the association between regular religious attendance and marital stability became even more apparent. Those who had ceased religious practice divorced 2.5 times more frequently than those who continued to attend religious services. Paul Amato, a leading authority on the sociology of divorce from Pennsylvania State University, concluded that a possible increase in religious practice among some already existing marriages might have offset the negative effects of the overall decrease in religious practice among many other Americans.

… Parents’ religious practice also counts. The greater the parents’ religious involvement, the more likely they will have higher educational expectations of their children and will communicate with their children regarding schooling. Their children will be more likely to pursue advanced courses, spend more time on homework, establish friendships with academically oriented peers, avoid cutting classes, and successfully complete their degrees.

It’s unlikely that the decline in religious attendance among African Americans and divorce (or marriages that never formed in the first place) entirely explain the jump in downward black mobility. But it’s surely more than what our fellow journalists have been telling us.

The Washington Post, by the way, was not the only major newspaper in serious denial about some of the moral and religious issues tied to this painful and tragic reality in American life. Check out the Los Angeles Times story on the same topic. Keep in mind that this information is at the very bottom of the report, literally the next to last paragraph. The key voice here is John Morton, director of this economic mobility study, who says that “changing family structures” are also a factor that must be considered.

“There is a higher prevalence of single-parent families at a time that it is increasingly important to have two salaries to maintain a standard of living,” Morton said.

And this is a new trend? Or is this now into its second or third generation? What would Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan have said about that?

Pod people: Faith language and death penalty

Last week I highlighted some of the coverage of the jury that deliberated the death penalty for convicted murderer Steven Hayes. Many media reports did a good job quoting the jurors and affected family members even when those quotes included religious language.

Take, for instance, this Associated Press bit:

Dr. William Petit, the husband and father of the victims, said the verdict was not about revenge.

“Vengeance belongs to the Lord,” Petit said. “This is about justice. We need to have some rules in a civilized society.”

It seems weird to praise such a basic thing, but sometimes reporters — particularly those outside the religion beat — are uncomfortable pursuing lines of inquiry following discussions of religion. Or they strip quotes that use religious language. That became the topic of discussion for this week’s Crossroads podcast, which you can listen to here. Host Todd Wilken asked why reporters struggle in this particular way and I threw out some ideas. The fact is that I’m not altogether certain. I grew up in a household where religion was discussed by the hour and so I almost feel more comfortable when people include religion in their discussions. Not always, but frequently. I’m curious what your ideas are for why religious language gets sanitized from many stories.

Another point I raised in the podcast arose out of the death penalty coverage. One of the things I did find interesting, although I thought it might be a bit inappropriate to spend too much time on it last week, was how little coverage of the death penalty case reflected on the larger moral questions. Usually whenever a capital case comes to trial, the media devote more stories about how religious views shape people’s ideas of justice. But I didn’t see too much coverage on that front, which I found disappointing. I think that’s most likely because of the unbelievable barbarism involved in the particular crime. But tough cases still call for such discussions, in my view. What do you think about the lack of discussion about this particular death penalty?

An important Cordoba distinction

NEW YORK - MAY 25: People and police stand outside of a community center in lower Manhattan before a meeting to debate Cordoba House, a proposed Islamic cultural center near Ground Zero, May 25, 2010 in New York City. The plan to build the Islamic cultural center -- which is so close to the site of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks that debris from one of the hijacked planes smashed through the roof of the existing building there -- is surrounded by controversy, and politicians and activists are preparing on both sides of the debate. (Photo by Chris Hondros/Getty Images)

You can oppose something and still think it shouldn’t be opposed by the government. Many people seem to have trouble with this distinction and its corollaries. The media tend to have trouble with this distinction because many journalists consider the provoking of government action as a good metric of success for their rabblerousing or reporting. But it’s true — you can oppose things and still think they should be legal.

I thought of this while reading the Anti-Defamation League’s statement that both supported the right of Muslims to build an Islamic Community Center at the edge of Ground Zero and yet opposed its construction. Here are the concluding paragraphs of the Anti-Defamation League’s statement:

In recommending that a different location be found for the Islamic Center, we are mindful that some legitimate questions have been raised about who is providing the funding to build it, and what connections, if any, its leaders might have with groups whose ideologies stand in contradiction to our shared values. These questions deserve a response, and we hope those backing the project will be transparent and forthcoming. But regardless of how they respond, the issue at stake is a broader one.

Proponents of the Islamic Center may have every right to build at this site, and may even have chosen the site to send a positive message about Islam. The bigotry some have expressed in attacking them is unfair, and wrong. But ultimately this is not a question of rights, but a question of what is right. In our judgment, building an Islamic Center in the shadow of the World Trade Center will cause some victims more pain — unnecessarily — and that is not right.

Most of what I have learned about the mosque and community center I’ve gleaned from months of reportage in the New York Times. While most people discussing this topic have focused on the politics, the hometown paper has actually reported a bit on how the proximity to Ground Zero is not coincidental but was, in fact, a key “selling point” to the somewhat mysterious investors of the $150 million project. We could use more information on who, exactly, is behind the project in addition to the media spokesmen, but it’s actually difficult to get this information, as the ADL noted. I suspect that the New York Times reporters — and others — are working overtime to find out more about this project that has generated so much interest and controversy worldwide. The Times report this weekend, written by Michael Barbaro with reporting by Paul Vitello, did a good job of explaining how the ADL opposition fits into the growing conflict over this mosque project. And it did so without hiding the heated emotions on all sides but also without biasing the piece one way or the other. I was impressed:

The complex’s rapid evolution from a local zoning dispute into a national referendum highlights the intense and unsettled emotions that still surround the World Trade Center site nine years after the attacks.

To many New Yorkers, especially in Manhattan, it is a construction zone, passed during the daily commute or glimpsed through office windows. To some outside of the city, though, it stands as a hallowed battlefield that must be shielded and memorialized.

Those who are fighting the project argue that building a house of Muslim worship so close to ground zero is at best an affront to the families of those who died there and at worst an act of aggression that would, they say, mark the place where radical Islam achieved a blow against the United States.

The story quotes Newt Gingrich but also local figures:

Several family members of victims at the World Trade Center have weighed in against the plan, saying it would desecrate what amounts to a graveyard. “When I look over there and see a mosque, it’s going to hurt,” C. Lee Hanson, whose son, Peter, was killed in the attacks, said at a recent public hearing. “Build it someplace else.”

Those who support it seem mystified and flustered by the heated opposition. They contend that the project, with an estimated cost of $100 million, is intended to span the divide between Muslim and non-Muslim, not widen it.

It’s got great quotes from both sides and it seems to accurately convey their arguments. I do wish the report better distinguished between people — on both sides — who are talking about legal remedies and people who are talking about propriety.

The Associated Press report on ADL opposition was able to distinguish these ideas. It also did a good job of treating opposition to the mosque as something that can be based in something other than bigotry. And, if you’re interested, there are many more things found in various media outlets.

This story might have some of the best unexplored angles we’ve seen in a religion story this year. I hope we see some more good stories soon.