Covering the evangelical cat fight

cat fightEvangelicals are going at it again over the environment, and the media have hardly sparred us a detail in covering the blow-by-blow in this round. For starters, Stephanie Simon of the Los Angeles Times laid out the fight Saturday as an attack by "leaders" such as James Dobson of Focus on the Family on those who have "strayed too far from their signature battles against abortion and gay rights." The crux of the story involves a tough-sounding letter from Dobson and a handful of other leaders of the religious right calling for the resignation or silencing of the Rev. Richard Cizik, a lobbyist and National Association of Evangelicals vice president for governmental affairs.

Simon's story is thorough but especially shines in pointing out that Dobson and friends are not exactly theologians, which exposes this fight for the political cat fight it really is:

The signatories -- most of them activists, not theologians -- expressed dismay that an evangelical emphasis on global warming was "contributing to growing confusion about the very term 'evangelical.'"

In religious terms, an evangelical is a Christian who has been born again, seeks a personal relationship with Christ, and considers the Bible the word of God, to be faithfully obeyed.

But Dobson and his fellow letter-writers suggested that evangelical should also signify "conservative views on politics, economics and biblical morality."

In an odd follow-up that ran the day after Simon's, The Washington Post's Alan Cooperman leads with the fact that the NAE's board of directors is supporting Cizik and his stand on environmental issues. Simon's much more in-depth piece, clearly backed up by more than a few days of reporting, has that detail down in her story, so it's not like Cooperman has himself an exclusive.

Perhaps Post readers are more educated when it comes to things religious, but there is no definition of what makes an evangelical, or details explaining who the letter-signers are. There was this little detail that deserves a follow-up:

On Friday, the association's board approved a 12-page statement on terrorism and torture.

Do tell us more sometime, just whenever you get around to it, because it's only one of the most under-covered issues in the coverage of religion and politics these days. Please. Rachel Zoll of the Associated Press has more here, but more on that later.

Lisa Miller's BeliefWatch column on the matter wasn't exactly appreciated over at NewsBusters, a site that works at "documenting, exposing and neutralizing liberal media bias."

Miller does a good job digging up some new details, such as the fact that some evangelicals (as defined by Simon) actually refused to join with Dobson and friends on the letter:

But Dobson's Lear-like fury may have backfired. Some prominent religious leaders refused to sign the letter, saying they found it un-Christian. "I didn't feel," says Richard Land of the Southern Baptist Convention, "that it was the most productive, most redemptive way to address the problem." Leith Anderson, NAE president, says his mail last week was "overwhelmingly supportive of Rich." Cizik himself is smart enough to seize the moment and position himself as a martyr. "It's time we return to being people known for our love and care of the earth and our fellow human beings," he wrote in remarks he planned to give at the NAE board meeting last week. Score one for the tree hugger.

This feeds into the storyline that the power of the "religious right" -- as defined by the bloc of voters courted by President Bush's political adviser Karl Rove -- is waning, at least at the higher levels. What is interesting is that as President Bush moves to embrace the views of Cizik and company on climate change, Dobson and others remain convinced that they must continue to focus on the traditional rallying issues.

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