The press gets political religion

fred barnesMatt Stearns of the McClatchy Washington Bureau has a nice piece in the The Sacramento Bee that deals with the religious faith of presidential candidate Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz. The essence of the story is that McCain, while known to have professed a Christian faith, is not that vocal about it, and some say this is hurting him at the most and a missed opportunity at the least. It's a very straightforward story about religion and politics that highlights an interesting aspect of the 2008 GOP presidential nomination process. A generation ago, when Ronald Reagan, Bob Dole and George H.W. Bush were jousting for the GOP presidential nomination, who was asking about the personal faith of the candidates?

One of the major stories in American politics is the rise of personal faith as an important aspect in national politics, and it is demonstrated in this article:

McCain "seems to have a difficulty in discussing it in terms that people relate to," said Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, a leading conservative evangelical organization. "I think people want a sense of where someone stands in their relationship with the Lord. I think George Bush was able to do that in the way he communicated, using terms that evangelicals are familiar with."

Many who agree with McCain's comprehensive approach to an immigration overhaul, such as Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass., routinely invoke biblical imperatives in defending their stance. McCain doesn't.

Perkins and Gary Bauer, key players in advancing the Christian conservative agenda in Washington, said they knew virtually nothing about McCain's religious life.

Weekly Standard executive editor Fred Barnes said Monday that he was one of the first people to ask President Reagan back in the 1980s why he didn't go to church. The issue was largely moot among the rest of the national media covering the campaign. Now the politics of religion is one of the leading stories of the 2008 presidential campaign.

But does that mean the media are starting to get religion outside politics?

Speaking at a Faith and Law event on Capitol Hill Monday, Barnes said that while the media understand Islam, Buddhism and atheism, they don't get Christianity and know even less about the "modern evangelical movement inside Protestant Christianity."

[They] are basically somewhere between being indifferent to Christianity to being aggressively hostile to it, and there are more people on the aggressively hostile side, but probably fewer than there were before.

Barnes is not shy about sharing his faith and is known for being a strong supporter of President Bush. He told the crowd, composed largely of young congressional aides, that there has been more coverage of religion lately and suggested that this may be a result of emerging "aggressive and smart atheists," including Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens.

"The press is looking for a modern update to the Scopes Trail where the Christians would be terribly embarrassed," Barnes said. Coverage of Christianity is "still extremely uninformed and largely bigoted." Barnes attributed this hostility toward Christianity to journalism being a "very secular profession."

I do not share Barnes' view that the scribes writing daily news stories are looking to embarrass Christians in their coverage of religion. I also think the media's coverage of Islam is generally uninformed, with a few recent exceptions.

But I do agree that the media's coverage of religion, particularly Christianity in politics, has become less hostile and has improved over the years. I don't think we can say the same thing about the coverage of religion outside of politics. But that is why we are here as a blog, and we will continue to comment on the highs and lows and the random in-betweens in the media's efforts to cover religion.

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