So I'm out here in beautiful Denver covering the Democratic Convention (I also came for my sister-in-law's awesome naturalization ceremony last week!) and it's been a blast. The spectacle is amazing, the crowds are enthusiastic, the alcohol is flowing (even in the morning!), the protesters are fun to watch. It's everything I could have hoped for in a convention. On Sunday I attended the interfaith worship service that kicked off the convention. I've had fun looking through various media reports of the lively event.
The service was disrupted almost immediately by a protester who opposed Barack Obama's position on abortion. Shortly after the first protester was escorted out of the event, another one rose. Then another. And then the first keynote address focused on abortion. (This might be a good thing to ponder for readers who wonder what abortion has to do with media coverage of religion.) Christianity Today had some awesome live-blogging of the event and relative-of-this-blog Sarah Pulliam (who I got to meet yesterday) is covering all of the religion angles throughout the convention. Catholic News Service has a great straightforward write-up from a Catholic perspective. This Boston Herald notebook piece was probably the best short write-up of the event. It shows that even if you don't have a lot of words, you can accurately characterize what went down.
I filed a story on the event, and I led with the abortion theme -- as did many other reporters. The Associated Press, for instance, shipped a story about Rev. Charles Blake's sermon opposing abortion. the Denver Post led with the abortion protests (and ended with protests from Latinos who felt the service wasn't inclusive enough!).
Rocky Mountain News reporter Paul Anthony filed several stories about the day's activities, including the only one I read that caught one of the odder parts of Sister Helen Prejean's crowd-pleasing, charismatic address. He began another report this way:
Abortion has stormed onto the stage of the Democratic National Convention's opening event.
Bishop Charles E. Blake, presiding bishop of the Church of God in Christ, called on presumptive Democratic nominee Barack Obama to "follow through on his promise . . . to reduce the number of abortions" while stopping just short of criticizing the Democratic Party for its support of the practice.
"Surely we cannot be pleased with . . . millions of terminated pregnancies," Blake said to applause from the nearly full Wells Fargo Theater. "Something within us must be calling for a better way. If we do not resist at this point, at what point will we resist?"
I suppose it's technically true that Blake's comments received applause. I was smack dab in the middle of the venue, which housed a couple thousand people, and I heard someone clapping off to my left and maybe two people to my right. If there were more, there weren't many more. It's interesting to see how different reporters cover the same thing in different ways. Here's how Dallas Morning News columnist Wayne Slater's described the same thing:
"Surely we cannot be pleased with the routine administration of millions of surgically terminated pregnancies," he thundered from the stage. "If we do not resist at this point, at what point do we resist?"
A smattering of applause.
He went on to say that, although Christians are sharply divided, they can find common ground in supporting programs to reduce the number of abortions.
A standing ovation.
Another AP report, filed by Eric Gorski, did a good job of covering the event and putting it in context. But he somehow didn't mention the abortion issue. While some mainstream media acted like the interfaith gathering will help more evangelicals and "values voters" cross the political divide, Gorski explained how the religious outreach of Democrats differs from Republicans:
One hallmark of Democratic faith efforts at the convention is diversity, which might soften objections from party activists wary of the Christian right or any mixing of religion and politics. Behind the scenes, efforts to attract the religious vote will concentrate largely on Christian "values voters."
"If we create or become a mirror image of the religious right, we have failed," said Burns Strider, who ran religious outreach for Hillary Clinton's campaign and now does faith-based political consulting. "But if we have increased the number of chairs around the table, ... then we've succeeded."
One thing I will note is that all civil religion has diversity. All civil religion looks for common denominator beliefs. As the Rev. Barry Lynn pointed out in his Beliefnet post, the right does interfaith stuff, too.
Still, I'm just happy that Gorski isn't assuming that visible religiosity is all it takes to get those religious Republicans into the Democratic Party. The AP story also looked for tangible evidence of religious outreach and whether it is having any effect. Now that I've had a day to reflect on the event, I'm amazed at how quickly Gorski turned that story out. Neglecting to mention the dominant abortion theme is odd but he packed the piece with information and context.
For a bad example, I have to point out the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review's lede:
On the eve of their national convention, Democrats appeared eager to woo a segment of the electorate more identified with the GOP in recent presidential elections: the God vote.
What does that even mean? Argh. The media have underreported the presence of religious adherents in the Democratic Party and hyped the heck out of the values voters on the right. Usually the stories are on shaky ground, evidence wise, and are just used to push a commonly accepted meme. Now if the reporters actually think that the interfaith service would woo evangelicals in the GOP, they are probably high or know nothing about culturally conservative evangelicals.
The Omaha World-Herald had the same problem:
Democrats signaled Sunday that they aren't ceding the churchgoing vote to Republicans in this presidential election.
Was that the signal? I could be wrong, but the type of churchgoers who would be moved by this service are probably already voting Democratic. And the data do not suggest that efforts such as this are having a tremendous effect on moving religious votes.
One of the most interesting parts of the service were the prayers and addresses from Muslims. Al Jazeera had a good write-up for that angle.
Robert Tiernan of the Freedom from Religion Foundation also disrupted the service, attempting to shout down organizer Leah Daughtry when she said that Democrats were people of faith. It wasn't as dramatic as the abortion protests but it's interesting that no reporters mentioned that.
There are tons of religious angles throughout this convention, with invocations and benedictions each day of the convention, a new "faith caucus" and meetings of religious groups. Please let us know if you see particularly good or bad coverage.
Photos were taken by my husband. The second photo shows that even the protests have a religion angle to cover.