Did Washington Post offer reporting or cheerleading?

Did Washington Post offer reporting or cheerleading? May 1, 2014

The religious left gets sympathetic treatment, not only from a new report by the Brookings Institution, but by a Washington Post article on it.

The story uncritically quotes the report, though it also offers some background on the Old Left, including its religious wing. And it doesn’t ask for reactions from anyone on the right, or even the moderate middle.

Instead, the article starts out by choosing the good guys:

The religious left was never as cohesive and effective as the religious right. But a new report based on interviews with religious progressive leaders finds that the Obama era may have further weakened Democrats’ interest in the non-secular.

The report, released Thursday by the Brookings Institution, argues that religious progressives could be heading for a renaissance if they can focus on what some see as the civil rights issue of today: economic justice.

We’ll leave aside how the Post knows the religious left was “never as cohesive and effective as the religious right.” Instead, we’ll note the first signal of bias: the simple title “the Brookings Institution.” If the article was about, say, the Heritage Foundation, the newspaper would have likely tacked on “the conservative.” But as a liberal organization, Brookings is simply a normal, moderate think tank. The good guys don’t get labels.

The story does look honestly at reasons for the decline of the religious left, as indeed the 56-page report itself does. Among them:

*More diversity, less homogeneity within the ranks.

*Ambivalence and suspicion from secular leftists toward religion.

*Decline of the unions, once a strong ally of religious groups.

*Disagreement on whether the poor are helped better by the govt or by churches and private foundations.

Fair enough, all of it. But the Washington Post apparently didn’t ask about other possibilities for the decline — from a conservative viewpoint. I can think of a few myself:

*Boosting practices like abortion and same-sex marriage as private rights, then pushing them as social and political issues.

*Sapping doctrinal authority in the name of relativism, then campaigning for social issues in the name of truth.

*Preaching equality for everyone, then pitting groups against each other with the rhetoric of class warfare and racial privilege.

The Post article also suffers from a lack of definitions. It throws around “progressive” and “economic justice” as if they’re household terms, although the report itself explains the latter. And the Post docilely quotes the Brookings report for saying the leftists may benefit from a “broadly felt need for a new social contract” — without explaining the terms of such a contract or offering evidence that the need is, in fact, broadly felt.

There’s at least one other way to write about the Brookings report, and the Dallas Morning News took it.

The newspaper summarized the report, then quoted a Brookings blog post (obviously) in favor of it. Then it got one dissenting view from Mark Tooley of the Institute on Religion and Democracy — and refreshingly didn’t call it “the conservative …”

Then the newspaper got reactions from a variety of sources: a theologian, a historian, a Bible professor, Presbyterian and Unitarian clergy, an interfaith leader, even a new ager who calls herself Moonlady. (Of course, given the paper’s location in Dallas, a Southern Baptist pastor would have been a good addition.) And the article wasn’t weighted in favor of a “correct” conclusion.

For all the noodling in the Post piece, there’s no talk about how this proposed leftist religious renaissance will affect the First Amendment. Such articles typically fret over Jefferson’s “wall of separation” when they’re dealing with the religious right. But for the religious left, no problem. Carry on.

Finally, the Post article ignores religious moderates and the danger of polarization between right and left, although the Brookings report has some discussion of both. An insightful excerpt:

The progressive religious community is in an unusual position in both American politics and the world of faith. It has a capacity to bridge divides that often seem insurmountable — even as it can be viewed with mistrust in the secular world and in more conservative faith traditions alike.

That would have been a nice addition to the Washington Post article about the report.

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