RELIGION AND NATIONAL POLITICS RELIGION COVERAGE IN THE 2012 AND 2008 PRESIDENTIAL ELECTIONSCampaign 2012In sharp contrast to the 2008 presidential election race, the press, in the 2012 campaign, paid much less attention to the candidate’s faith and much more to their perceived values. Both President Barack Obama and Governor Mitt Romney had countervailing reasons for wanting to keep their religious backgrounds on the back burner. For the president, his Muslim roots via his Kenyan but absentee father; for the governor, his deep connections to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. Still, the religion angle was important in 2012 race and the press provided important perspectives on why faith matters. Mitchell Landsberg of the Los Angeles Times saw the trend coming in a perceptive analysis on June 4, 2012: “…analysts on both sides of the political spectrum say religion is perceived as a no-win subject by both campaigns, and it is not likely to play a prominent role in the 2012 election.” The Obama camp did not want either the President’s former membership in controversial preacher Jeremiah Wright’s church, or the belief still held by about 16% of the population that he is a Muslim, to cause him problems. Conversely, the Romney campaign did not want his LDS faith, with its unique and theologically unorthodox teachings, to become an issue. However, Professor Diane Winston of USC put her finger on the real issue in the campaign. She noted that religious labels might be irrelevant in the race but not religious values. These determine who is taxed, what is regulated, and how much help is given to those in need (LA Times 9/9/12). One might easily add to this list: who gets deported or given amnesty, who may marry, and who gets access to contraception and safe abortions. The Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism statistically confirmed the downplaying of religion in the contest: Just 1% of campaign coverage by major news outlets of all kinds focused on the candidates’ faith or religion’s role; and only 6% of all election-related stories in major media outlets even referred to religion. Of the religion related stories, just 13% resulted from statements or actions by either candidate, though Romney received twice the religion-related coverage of Obama. The most revealing finding in the Pew analysis was that, by the end of the campaign, 82% of respondents to a Pew post-election poll had learned “not very much” or “nothing at all” about Mormonism. So it appears the press did not do an adequate job of explaining the LDS faith to the public. Perhaps Romney’s reticence in speaking of his faith (see below) was reflected in the press’s avoidance of the topic. Coverage of the Religion Factor in the Republican Presidential PrimaryThough religion took a back seat in the general election, that wasn’t so in the Republican primary race. Former Senator Rick Santorum’s conservative Roman Catholicism shaped a campaign that denounced not only abortion and same-sex marriage but artificial contraception as well. The latter issue became a cause celebre for Catholic bishops who might have derailed Obama’s campaign if the Catholic faithful had supported their leaders.Santorum, according to New York Times columnist Charles Blow (3-2-2012), sees the sexual revolution of the 1960s—and its iconic event at Woodstock—as causing a shift in the Democratic Party away from “blue collar working-class folks with traditional values” to sexual freedom. The world, said Santorum in a 2008 speech, has become “hedonistic, self-focused…anti-American.” Santorum did manifest concern for working people during his campaign, but his relentless attack on abortion and contraception attracted most of the press’s attention including his comment that contraception is unnatural. A biting cartoon by Jim Morin in USA Today(Feb. 20, 2012) pictures Santorum and a Catholic bishop in bed with a married couple as the prelate states, “Mr. Santorum and I are here to make sure the government doesn’t interfere with your lives.” John Meacham wisely noted that Santorum’s intense focus on religious appeals might inspire secularists to make the public square devoid of religious wisdom—a far cry from James Madison’s original insight (Newsweek, March 12, 2012).
One clear consequence of the former senator’s campaign was to force candidate Romney to focus on Santorum’s values issues rather than the economy and jobs, observed Ronald Brownstein (LA Times, Feb. 13, 2012). And no doubt this contributed to Romney’s defeat. Coverage of the Religion Factor in the General ElectionGovernor Mitt RomneyRomney was massively covered and analyzed by the press. Most of the reporting was competent, even outstanding at times, but there were exceptions. Michael Tomasky and Martin Amis, both writing in Newsweek, did very one-sided pieces on the candidate. Tomasky called Romney a snob and a “true wimp” who apologizes insincerely after gaffs, such as criticizing London’s commitment to the summer Olympics, flip-flops on issues and is risk-averse (August 6, 2012). There is substance to these observations, but the governor’s strengths got little ink.Amis, in a broadside of the Republican convention and its nominee, eventually lambasted his religion: Joseph Smith had 87 wives, his successor Brigham Young incited a series of murders to quell intra-church strife, and LDS members massacred 120 men, women and children in 1857 (Sept. 17, 2012). All true (though the wife count is exaggerated), but tragically similar to what most other faiths have perpetrated at one or another time. Has Amis forgotten the Crusades, witch burnings, the Inquisition and the endorsement of slavery by southern clergy? Jodi Kantor of the New York Times wrote two informative analyses of the former governor. In the first, she described the depth of his LDS faith which shaped his approach to business and politics, for example, the importance of hard, dedicated work and for observing rules both in one’s Mormon stake (parish) and in the office. He prays frequently, attends church services wherever he is on the campaign trail, and “bears the marks of the theology and culture” of his church (May 20, 2012). She also made the important observation, noted by others, that American exceptionalism is central to his political philosophy, that we are nation “chosen by God to play a special role in history” with a divinely-inspired Constitution. David Frum accurately observed that Romney’s ardent LDS faith might offset, “…the isolation from ordinary people imposed by his wealth” (Newsweek, 6-18-2012). If the renowned Mormon work ethic contributed to the former governor’s financial success, it also influenced how his wealth should be used to help the needy. Like most of his co-religionists, Romney tithed and thereby donated millions to charity, especially to the LDS welfare system known for offering a hand up not a handout.
Romney finally let the press observe his faith up close in mid-August when reporters were invited to a service he attended in Wolfeboro, N.H. However, Kathryn Lofton, writing in Religion Dispatches, noted that the candidate might well have won the election had he stressed the power of his faith commitment. Perhaps, but doing so had risks he wasn’t prepared to take. CNN did an in-depth portrait, “The Making of Mitt Romney”(http://religion.blogs.cnn.com/2012/10/27/the-making-of-mitt-romney) that emphasized his profound commitment to his faith as a missionary in France and a bishop in a Boston suburb. But the governor didn’t say much about this himself. Again, as with the President Obama, politics trumped theology. Nicholas Lemann’s essay in The New Yorker, “Transaction Man (Mormonism, private equity and the making of a candidate)” (Oct. 1, 2012) is an incisive portrait of Romney that sees aspects of LDS culture as central both to his business philosophy and his approach to campaigning and governing. Mormons are taught from childhood to be leaders, to be responsible. They were persecuted and driven across the country, so they must be resourceful. One of Romney’s role models is hotel magnet and Mormon Bill Marriott who constantly pushes his employees to be more efficient, more customer-friendly. Lemann also describes how the former governor linked lack of personal discipline to “free-spending, fiscally irresponsible liberalism” that takes money from one person’s wallet and puts it another’s, an approach that runs so contrary to the LDS spirit of working “hands-on in an elaborate church welfare system.” President Barack Obama The president’s religion was discussed much less frequently than in the 2008 campaign. The Washington Post’s E.J. Dionne decried the never-ending epithets thrown at Obama: a Muslim or a secularist waging war on religion or an elitist or someone possessed of a “Kenyan anti-colonial worldview.” (Feb. 23, 2012) In fact, argues Dionne, he is “a rather moderate politician quite conventional in his tastes and interests.” Americans ought to take some pride in having elected “a Christian convert who is the son of a Muslim father and an agnostic mother” and who brought the nation through a great economic crisis. Landsberg echoed these sentiments, noting that the president maintained the Office of Faith of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships begun by President George W. Bush despite objections from secular liberals (LA Times, Apr. 8, 2012).Obama’s most serious faith-connected problem involved the decision of Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius in Feb., 2012 to require Catholic hospitals, universities, welfare agencies, etc. to cover contraceptive costs for employees. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, that opposes artificial contraception, reacted strongly. They saw the government as asking the church to violate its corporate conscience by funding an immoral practice. Conservative commentators on Fox News and elsewhere—and even some liberal Catholics—criticized the Obama administration. In response, Sebelius revised the mandate so that insurance companies, not the church, would directly pay for contraceptive coverage. The bishops remain unhappy despite the compromise and have begun legal action to block it. Overall, the press did a creditable job of covering the much-less-prominent religion angle in the 2012 presidential race, but the absence of fact-based information about the LDS Church was a weakness.
Campaign 2008 Although the 1960 presidential race brought John F. Kennedy’s Catholicism to the fore, and the 1976 contest Jimmy Carter’s “born-again” background, no race in memory had a “religion angle” as conspicuous as in election ’08. The Pew Forum compiled an exhaustive content analysis of the election, “How the News Media Covered Religion in the General Election”which powerfully illustrates the extent to which religion factored into politics. Among the study’s key findings: Press accounts related to religion comprised 4% of the general election’s “newshole,” the total space or time available in a media outlet for news content. This was less than news of the economic crisis (9%) or Iraq (6%) but equal to coverage of the Republican National Convention and greater than news of energy issues (2%) or the environment (<1%). Religion storylines in which candidate Obama was the lead newsmaker comprised 53% of all coverage of the presidential and vice-presidential candidates. Most of these stories involved controversy or had an unfavorable cast. The majority of the Obama-focused stories dealt with rumors that he was a Muslim, followed by his association with controversial pastor Jeremiah Wright, Jr. By contrast, John McCain was the focus of just 9% of religion-related coverage, and his running mate Sarah Palin 19%. Most of the Palin coverage involved family or personal issues (especially her teen-age daughter’s pregnancy). Stories about Joe Biden were scarce (0.7%). All four of the candidates had pastor problems of some sort—most notably Obama’s with Rev. Wright, followed by McCain’s with Pastor John Hagee. The Saddleback Civil Forum on the Presidency, moderated by Pastor Rick Warren at his huge church in Lake Forest, CA, on Aug. 16, 2008 garnered brief but intense coverage that amounted to 10% of total news in the week of the event but quickly faded. Ethical issues involving religion and culture comprised less than 1% of total campaign news—most of it tied to Palin’s views on abortion. Next, we turn to specifics—the subject matter and quality of religion-related stories about the four presidential candidates along with a brief discussion of the coverage of one candidate from the Republican presidential primary, Mitt Romney. His case is important for an understanding of how the “religion angle” should be handled. Barack Obama and His Outspoken Pastor As noted, the controversial sermons of Senator Barack Obama’s former pastor at Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago, Dr. Jeremiah Wright, Jr., and their fallout on the Obama presidential campaign were an important news focus. In fact, they accounted for 9% of all religion-related campaign stories. Some of Wright’s comments—taken in the raw without any context—were very controversial and distressed many people, including Obama. To say, “The chickens have come to roost” (shades of Malcolm X’s comment after President Kennedy’s assassination) following 9/11, is hardly endearing to the general public. And “God damn America” made even political lefties cringe. Those comments, however, were not uttered in isolation but in the midst of highly emotional sermons about racial injustice, America’s sometimes controversial foreign policy, and the plight of some of Wright’s South Side Chicago congregants struggling with unemployment and poverty.Ironically, former Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee, a former preacher himself, might have provided the most insightful comment on the controversy: “There are things that sometimes get said [in sermons] that, if you put them on paper and looked at them in print, you’d say, ‘Well, I didn’t mean to say it quite like that.’” In any case, once excerpts from Wright’s fiery sermons hit YouTube, the conservative commentariate—Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Bill O’Reilly et al.—began to pillory Obama without mercy (or context). To its credit, many centrist and liberal newspapers and magazines tried to contextually situate Wright’s blunt rhetoric. Stuart Silverstein of the Los Angeles Times (3-19-08), for example, noted the very positive overall thrust of Wright’s preaching philosophy—to uplift and inspire. Thus, Wright told members of LA’s Church of God in Christ several years ago, “Don’t give up on God!...Don’t give up on the process of marriage.” Silverstein also noted Wright’s six years of military service between 1964 and 1970. Lisa Miller of Newsweek (3-24-08) also provided a balanced, insightful analysis of the controversy, noting the extraordinarily good work of Trinity United in its AIDS ministry, assistance to senior citizens, etc.But Obama had to respond fully to his pastor’s disturbing words (which he had already disavowed in one of the presidential primary debates). He did so in a powerful speech in Philadelphia on March 18, 2008. Obama unequivocally condemned Wright’s inflammatory rhetoric, saying that his words, “…expressed a profoundly distorted view of this country…that elevates what is wrong with America above all that we know is right with America.” But he also lauded his former pastor for his social justice ministry. Obama spoke candidly of the anger still simmering in Black America, yet also noted the struggles of working class whites. And he observed that the African American community needed to “embrace the burden of our past without becoming victims of our present.” The New York Timeseditorialized on March 19 that Obama, “Drew a bright line between his religious connection with Mr. Wright, which should be none of the voters’ business, and having a political connection, which should be very much their business. The distinction seems especially urgent after seven years of a president who has worked to blur the line between church and state.” Steven Greenhut, writing in the conservative-libertarian Orange County Register on March 22, opined that the Obama speech sounded surprisingly conservative at points, for example, his comment that economic problems in the Black community had resulted both from “the legacy of legalized discrimination, but also from ‘the erosion of black families’ and failed welfare policies.” Greenhut also mentioned the endorsement of Senator John McCain’s candidacy by fundamentalist pastor John Hagee whose anti-Catholic rhetoric was very troubling to many. Writing in the Columbia Journalism Review’s on-line blog March 14, Zachary Roth noted McCain’s calling mega-church pastor Rod Parsely “a spiritual guide.” Parsely has called on Christians to wage war against the “false religion of Islam” to destroy it, and makes no distinction between Muslim extremists and moderates. Yet, Roth couldn’t find one mainstream US news outlet that even mentioned McCain’s connection to this extremist pastor. Later in the campaign, Obama severed relations with Wright and resigned from Trinity United after the pastor made a number of inflammatory statements during an appearance at the National Press Club. In summary, the Obama-Wright controversy is an example of the importance of contextualization, balance and historical memoryin reporting on political controversies, especially when there is a religious dimension to the story.McCain’s Pastor ProblemsThough not as serious as Obama’s affiliation with Rev.Wright, candidate McCain also got a lesson in the perils of connections to outspoken pastors. Rev. Hagee, leader of an evangelical mega-church in San Antonio, Tex., endorsed him early in the campaign. However, Hagee, who later apologized, had said Adolph Hitler’s anti-Semitism was a fulfillment of God’s will because it would hasten the Jews’ return to Israel in accord with his reading of biblical prophecy. (Hagee had also disparaged Catholicism in some of his sermons.) When McCain learned of these comments, he quickly distanced himself from the pastor and the issue faded. A backgrounder on why some evangelical ministers are prone to such bizarre interpretations of the Bible would have been useful, but nothing surfaced in the mainstream press.Obama the Clandestine MuslimRumors that President Obama was a Muslim accounted for 30% of all religion-related campaign news in the Pew survey. Two other surveys by the Pew Research Center (in June and October, 2008) both found that 12% of the electorate believed the rumor. Obama’s Kenyan father was born Muslim but had become a non-believer; and his stepfather, Lolo Soetoro, was a non-practicing Muslim. Moreover, from age eight to 10, the President while in Indonesia attended a private elementary school—though not a Muslim madrassa—that had a largely Muslim student body. However, he never converted to Islam, and at ten was sent by his mother, also a non-religious person, to live with her parents in Hawaii. A June 21, 2008 New Yorker magazine cover depicted Barack in typical Muslim dress and his wife Michelle as a Black Power radical—shades of 1960s professor and activist Angela Davis. Though the cover and the magazine’s accompanying story, “The Politics of Fear,” were intended to dispel the Muslim rumor, they kept the story alive. In fact, the Obama team, even before the New Yorker story appeared, had set up a website, www.fightthesmears.com, to stem the rumors.Conservative commentators Limbaugh and Hannity criticized the Obama camp over an incident, also in June, when his staffers removed from camera view two women wearing Muslim head scarves during a campaign rally. Appearing at around the same time on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” former Secretary of State Colin Powell, noted that Obama was, in fact, a Christian, and then got to the heart of the controversy: “What if he is [Muslim]? Is there something wrong with being a Muslim in this country? The answer’s no. That’s not America. Is something wrong with a seven-year-old Muslim-American kid believing that he or she could be president?” Writing in the Miami Herald on June 29, 2008, Leonard Pitts, Jr. observed that candidate Obama had apologized for the flap with the Muslim women. But he said the apology would have seemed more sincere if Obama had been courageous enough to point out there is nothing wrong with being an American Muslim (`a la Powell) and “…hadn’t spent so much time treating the American Muslim community as one does the carrier of a contagious disease.” Pitts does grant that candidate Obama was walking “an unprecedented political tightrope, one part John F. Kennedy, one part Jackie Robinson.” Still, Pitts felt the candidate’s “standoffishness” towards American Muslims was a mistake. In sum, with few exceptions, the press failed to sufficiently investigate the roots of anti-Muslin sentiment in America and make clear, as Powell and Pitts did, that there is no “religious test” for public office in this country in accord with Article VI of the Constitution. The Personal Faith of the Presidential CandidatesBarack ObamaA June 21, 2008 Newsweek essay by Lisa Miller and Richard Wolffe, “Finding His Faith,” was a fine exposition of Obama’s faith journey. It was accompanied by a sidebar from the magazine’s editor, Jon Meacham, which—like the Miller-Wolffe piece—exhibited a high degree of religious literacy. Meacham discussed the influence of the Founding Fathers, Abraham Lincoln and Reinhold Niebuhr on Obama’s theological worldview. Meacham quoted the then-candidate on the necessity of having a “north star” of faith to guide a president, as it had guided Lincoln during the dark night of the Civil War. The principal locale for a discussion of Obama’s and McCain’s faith was Rick Warren’s Civil Forum mentioned above in connection with the Pew survey. Though the abortion debate accounted for only 5% of the Forum’s content, it received most of the coverage in mainstream media. By contrast almost 20% of the Forum dealt with the candidates’ religious beliefs but received scant notice. Yet, the candidates discussed significant religious and ethical questions: the moral obligation to provide for “the least of these” (Obama, alluding to the Gospel of Matthew 25:45), the fortifying power of faith, personal moral failures, etc. As in the case of Jimmy Carter’s personal faith more than 30 years ago, the press largely failed to analyze the implications of the candidates’ religious views for how they would govern. It is important for political reporters to distinguish between (a) using a politician’s religious affiliation (Catholic, Evangelical, Mormon, Muslim, etc.) to question his ability to govern fairly—almost always a mistake; and (b) analyzing his or her core moral positions to determine how these might affect a president’s decisions—a benefit.John McCainTurning to coverage of McCain’s faith, one notes far less content, mainly because the Arizona senator said less about it and didn’t have the significant pastor problems that Obama did. McCain occasionally spoke of how faith helped him survive captivity at the hands of the North Vietnamese, as he did in an Aug. 18, 2008 Time Magazine interview. In the Saddleback Forum, he expressed his theology in a single sentence: “I’m saved and I’m forgiven.” Regarding his core moral positions, whose importance to good reporting was just mentioned, Michael Gerson, wrote perceptively about him in a Newsweek essay on Sept. 8, 2008. He pointed out that McCain might be reticent to speak about his faith, but his moral positions as a senator—opposing torture, recognizing the humanity of undocumented immigrants, condemning the slaughter in Darfur—manifest “a code, combining a religious concern for the weak and the oppressed with a military conception of national honor…” And Mecham was eloquent in interviews on National Public Radio on October 29 and 30, 2008 when he observed that both Obama and McCain believed in doing the right, and both saw the world as tragic, yet knew they must do their best to improve or heal it. Sarah PalinCandidate Palin’s family and personal issues comprised about a quarter of all the religion-related campaign stories, but most involved the pregnancy of her unwed daughter and her opposition to abortion and stem-cell research. A 2005 video of Kenyan Pentecostal preacher Thomas Muthee laying hands on Palin at the Wasilla Assembly of God Church while she was running for governor of Alaska caused a brief media stir during the presidential race. Two weeks before being tapped by McCain as his running mate, Palin was asked about her religious affiliation. “Christian,” she replied; asked whether she was a particular kind, she responed, “No. Bible-believing.”She had, though, attended the Wasilla Assembly for a number of years. Harking back to Colin Powell’s retort about whether there was anything wrong about a Muslim being president, how about being a Pentecostal? In a valuable background piece on Palin, Teresa Watanabe of The Los Angeles Times (October 1, 2008) reported on the candidate’s decision to accept the vice-presidential nomination in light of her evangelical, Bible-centered faith. Three New Testament letters (Ephesians, 1Timothy and Titus) state that a woman’s place is in the home and she should be obedient to her husband. Watanabe found a difference of opinion among evangelical leaders. Some were dismayed by Palin’s decision, others approved as long as her husband concurred and it was understood that a woman could direct a nation or state but not a religious congregation. Joe BidenBiden’s Roman Catholic faith generated scant news during campaign ’08 except in connection with his pro-choice stance. On NBC’S “Meet the Press Sept. 7, Tom Brokaw asked him what he’d say if asked by Obama when life begins. Biden replied that he knew when it began according to his Catholic faith (at conception), but added, “…for me to impose that judgment on others is inappropriate in a pluralistic society.” As in the case of 2004 presidential candidate John Kerry—also a pro-choice Catholic—several bishops were critical of Biden, but the abortion issue faded both for Biden and for the electorate in general. Mitt Romney Though former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney lost the Republican primary, press (and public) scrutiny and suspicion about his Mormon faith deserves comment. Because the LDS church allowed polygamy until 1890, kept African Americans from the priestly rank until 1976, and is viewed as a cult by some conservative Christians, Romney began his campaign with particular liabilities. Michael Kinsley, writing in Timeon Sept. 17, 2007, wanted to know how candidates would deal with “religion’s improbabilities.” And he was especially concerned with those faith dimensions in the Mormon tradition. However, all religions rest on improbabilities. So it is important for journalists to temper their skepticism and realize that competent politicians are able to separate matters of state from matters of the spirit. President Kennedy didn’t take orders from the Pope, despite the fears of some Protestants in 1960. Governor Romney would not have taken his from the Mormon president. This doesn’t mean that a candidate’s religious and ethical convictions should not be factored onto one’s voting decisions, but rather that his or her political views and record are of much greater importance. Final Observations on the Candidates’ FaithThe unprecedented amount of God talk in campaign ’08—and the precarious pastor connections discussed here—led Peter Canellos to observe that, in seeking to inject some religion into their campaigns, the candidates learned that religion and politics is a difficult mix.On the whole question of a presidential candidate’s faith, Nancy Gibbs, in a June 30, 2008 Time essay, wrote perceptively that Americans have always said in surveys that they want a person of faith in the White House. However, this time around the bar was set so high that pastor connections nearly capsized Obama’s election ship and didn’t help McCain. And the candidates, especially Hillary Clinton and Romney in the primary and Obama throughout, may have “…willingly relinquished any spiritual privacy...” www.journalism.org/print/31927http://religion.blogs.cnn.com/2012/10/27/the-making-of-mitt-romneyhttp://pewforum.org/docs/?DOCID=372 The Pew study extended from June 1 to Oct. 15, 2008. It examined 7,592 campaign stories in 48 media outlets: newspapers, television networks, cable TV, news and talk radio, and websites. Somewhat surprisingly to me, the coverage did not include any of the three major weekly news magazines: Newsweek, Time or U.S. News and World Report. For example, Martin Luther King, Jr., in a 1967 speech during the Vietnam War, called the United States the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today.” www.miamiherald.com/opinion/other_views/v-print/story/586100.htmlwww.time.com/time/printout/0,8816,1837536,00.htmlMiller of Newsweek and Jonathan Darman (Oct. 8, 2007) wrote an informative story about Romney’s life and Mormon faith that struck just the right balance. www.boston.com/news/nation/articles/2008/06/03/mix_of_politics_religion_appears_...