Yes, that Virginia gubernatorial candidate has layers

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In one of my favorite scenes in the original  “Shrek” movie, the title character explains to Donkey that “there’s a lot more to ogres than people think.”

“Example?” Donkey responds.

“Example … uh … ogres are like onions,” Shrek says, holding up an onion that Donkey sniffs.

More of the dialogue:

Donkey: “They stink?”

Shrek: “Yes. … No!”

Donkey: “Oh, they make you cry?”

Shrek: “No!”

Donkey: “Oh, you leave ‘em out in the sun, they get all brown, start sproutin’ little white hairs.”

Shrek (peeling an onion): “No! Layers. Onions have layers. Ogres have layers. Onions have layers. You get it? We both have layers.”

I’ve used this analogy before, but too many newspaper stories lack layers. The main characters are 100 percent heroic or totally villainous. They are cardboard cutouts, fitting an easy storyline. Unlike onions (and ogres), they don’t have layers.

But Ken Cuccinelli II, the Republican candidate for Virginia governor, certainly has layers, as portrayed this week in a 3,000-word, front-page profile by the Washington Post. 

I was impressed by the newspaper’s effort to get religion — to see Cuccinelli’s personal actions and political positions through the lens of his Catholic upbringing and experiences:

Gonzaga, the Jesuit high school in a scruffy part of Washington’s inner city, is where Ken Cuccinelli II says he became the man he is. The Republican candidate for governor of Virginia emerged in part in John Hoffman’s social justice class in 1986, when the teacher pressed the boys to look beyond the facts of poverty and inequality and examine the structures that shape people’s lives.

Cuccinelli came into that classroom as a kid from the suburbs who showed great spirit — he was the guy inside the school’s eagle mascot costume — and had a bit of a temper, but he was nobody’s idea of a rebel.

His parents had insisted that he leave the Fairfax County public schools and commute from McLean to the private Catholic school because, as his father put it, “Fairfax is not the real world.”

At Gonzaga, Cuccinelli would be with boys of different races and classes, guys from Anacostia on scholarship and kids from Chevy Chase who’d never known hardship.

Now, a liberal teacher with a beard so long the boys called him “ZZ Hoffman” assigned them readings by Karl Marx and asked them to imagine how society might be different if the world were constructed of, say, Nerf.

Suddenly, ideas could be as exciting as football. The boy who would become a state senator and Virginia’s attorney general embraced his church’s strict rules about right and wrong, and also absorbed a responsibility for those in need.

After a second telling anecdote — this one from the candidate’s time at the University of Virginia — the Post notes:

A quarter-century after those formative chapters in Cuccinelli’s life, those who watched him closely find him a more complex and thoughtful figure than the caricature of a hard-line social conservative might allow. But of those interviewed for this article, none said they would vote for him.

The Post provides this background on the faith of the candidate’s parents:

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Mormonism is a religion, not just a culture

For people serious about their faith, religious beliefs tend not only to influence other types of beliefs but they tend to be presuppositional. Believers adopt particular cultural and political beliefs because of their religious views. For example, an evangelical who believes that abortion is wrong tends to adopt cultural and political views that flow from their religious convictions. Not all evangelicals oppose abortion rights, of course, and even those that do may have developed their position on the issue apart from their religious views. But those who are pro-life tend to be so in a way that is different than those who developed a secular-minded opposition to abortion.

While this may seem too obvious to mention, it can lead to problem for journalists on the religion beat.

A prime example from several years ago is how the media covered the Tea Party movement. There were at least three main factions of the Tea Party, and the main one could be described as a subset of the religious right. Despite the perception of the movement being comprised of economically oriented libertarians, the majority held social conservative views. Nearly two-thirds (63 percent) of Tea Partiers polled in 2011 said abortion should be illegal in all or most cases, and only eighteen percent supported same-sex marriage. When the Washington Post contacted 647 Tea Party groups, they found that less than half of the organizations considered spending and limiting the size of government to be a primary concern.

The bottom line: By failing to understand the foundational beliefs underlying the movement, the media continually misunderstood (and misreported) what the movement was really about.

To truly understand a cultural or political movement comprised mainly of religious believers requires understanding the presuppositional religious views that shapes it. But since it can be difficult to determine the motivating belief and cumbersome to explain, it’s often easier to simply focus on the non-religious aspects. That is one of the reasons why so many religion stories become political stories. Journalists know how to write about politics, so if a story can be “translated” it becomes easier to tell.

A similar process seems to have occurred in a recent New York Times Magazine story focusing on Brigham Young University’s film animation program, “When Hollywood Wants Good, Clean Fun, It Goes to Mormon Country.” Instead of writing about religion-as-politics, though, it translates religion into mere cultural expression.

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