No hiding the faith-based political news

obamafaithlitOne of GetReligion's most loyal and articulate readers almost certainly spoke for many the other day when he wrote the following comment:

Abortion, Obama and Episcopal issues are the mainstay of this blog. One would almost think that there's almost nothing else of true religious importance by the number of entries devoted to them. Or at least it seems that way to me.

Those that are against Obama are trying to make a mountain out of a pebble by obsessively focusing on the inconsequential in a slanted manner. ...

-- Jerry, July 9, 2008, at 2:42 am

As I have noted many times, it is impossible to write about the history of religion coverage in America, and the related topic of media bias, without facing mountains of data linked to the coverage of abortion issues. The most important sources remains the classic Los Angeles Times series by the late David Shaw. That is still, since it is a mainstream source, written by a man whose on views were on the left, a good place to start.

As for the oceans of ink spilled in Anglican warfare coverage, we'll stop critiquing it as soon as reporters around the world stop spilling it. But I don't expect that to happen anytime soon, as I noted in this snarky essay more than a decade ago entitled "Why Journalists Love the Episcopal Church."

This brings us to Sen. Barack Obama and his crusade to reach the cultural center by expressing his fervent liberal, oldline Protestant beliefs in faith-based language that will appeal to evangelicals who are either young or progressive or both. That is a great, great story on the religious left and one that GetReligion has been urging reporters to cover for several years now. Click here for a Scripps Howard piece I wrote in 2007 entitled "Obama's awesom testimony."

The Obama story is not going away because he does not want it to go away. Also, he seems determined to find some kind of compromise language on abortion, as well, although the evidence that he will back new language with policy proposals remains at the rumor stage.

If anything, GetReligion is way behind on following the coverage of Obama and faith issues -- ever since the flurry of coverage of his faith-based initiative remarks.

Thus, we will not discuss the Washington Post and its coverage of his recent testimony about his conversion experience:

Sen. Barack Obama ended a week's focus on values by giving a conference of the African Methodist Episcopal Church a highly personal account of his spiritual journey and a promise that he will make "faith-based" social service "a moral center of my administration." ...

"In my own life, " he said, "it's been a journey that began decades ago on the South Side of Chicago, when, working as a community organizer, helping to build struggling neighborhoods, I let Jesus Christ into my life. I learned that my sins could be redeemed and that if I placed my trust in Christ, that he could set me on the path to eternal life when I submitted myself to his will and I dedicated myself to discovering his truth and carrying out his works."

We also don't need to discuss that Boston Globe piece on the head of Obama's faith-group outreach team. Perhaps you saw that headline: "Obama's man of faith -- Staff member who found his voice at BU leads religious outreach."

Then there is the matter of Obama trying to convince his core supporters that he is not turning away from the true faith, while trying to reach out to evangelicals and folks in the center of the political arena. Did you see that one the other day in the New York Times? The one with the headline: "Obama Says His Critics Haven't Been Listening."

Meanwhile, The Politico saw yet another side effect of Obama's effort to reach out to traditional Christians, either Catholic, Orthodox or Protestant. Yes, the story -- "Obama walks the abortion minefield" -- focused on the debates over abortion and it's amazing how quickly the topic of abortion linked into the arena of faith:

... (Some) activists in the abortion rights community have been trying to figure out why Barack Obama, a Democrat praised for his strong defense of reproductive rights, appeared to be turning soft.

Those who work on the front lines of the abortion debate couldn't quite believe what they were hearing: Obama, in an interview with a Christian magazine, seemed to reject a mental health exception to the ban on late-term abortions. They feared that Obama, like Democrat John Kerry in 2004, was adopting a view favored by abortion opponents to appeal to conservatives.

I could go on and on (and I haven't even reached the Newsweek cover on Obama's faith, which I hope dig into when I have a chance), but I really don't have to gather a lot of material together to show that GetReligion will not be able to ignore these topics. You see, our friends over at the Pew Forum have just cranked out another study digging into the intersection between politics, religion and the mainstream press. Click here to see it.

obama and warren 01What's the lede? Well, the press is TRYING to get religion when it enters the political arena. There is no question that these topics are news and that they are drawing more and more coverage. Thus, we read:

The study finds that when coverage of the "horse-race" aspects of the campaign is excluded, religion emerges as a relatively prominent topic, accounting for 10% of the non-political-process coverage during the 16 months studied. In fact, religion garnered nearly as much coverage as race and gender combined (11%), even though the front-runners for the Democratic presidential nomination were a black man and a woman.

Overall, however, religion stories, along with other substantive and policy issues, took a back seat to campaign tactics and political strategy, which together garnered 81% of the coverage. So despite the attention paid to Obama's former pastor, questions about McCain's relationship with his party's conservative religious base, interest in Mitt Romney's membership in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and the surprisingly strong campaign of former Baptist preacher Mike Huckabee, only 2% of all the campaign stories directly focused on religion.

When the coverage did turn to religion, it often did not deal directly with questions of faith but instead focused on more familiar territory. For instance, when Obama gave a speech to quell concerns over the controversial statements of his former pastor, both the campaign and the press steered the emphasis toward the race angle of the story. Meanwhile, questions about McCain's association with controversial pastor John Hagee, whose endorsement he once courted, received very little coverage -- political or otherwise -- during the 16 months studied. Even with respect to Romney -- for whom religion was a significant issue from the start of his campaign -- faith-related coverage focused largely on one moment: his December 2007 address on "Faith in America."

These findings suggest a continuing discomfort among news organizations in tackling deep questions of how candidates' personal faith may influence their public leadership. When the press does cover such stories, it tends to focus on discrete events -- such as a speech, video or TV appearance -- rather than the underlying connections, and often the coverage is fairly short-lived.

In other words, the true religion of most journalists remains the same as akways -- political warfare. Sometimes that involves a speech on religion or an individual firestorm about a person. But the basic facts and doctrines are hard to cover and they remain, well, frightening. Why do believers care so much about all of those pesky and picky words, rites and doctrines?

Sometimes, journalists even prefer -- the Pew team notes -- to edit the faith elements out of a speech:

A closer look at the two events that dominated the religious narrative in the 16-month period covered by the study -- Romney's and Obama's pivotal speeches -- suggests that even when coverage of candidates' faith becomes almost unavoidable, oftentimes the press still turns its lens a different way. In coverage of both speeches, for example, one-third (33%) of the stories emphasized the strategic, rather than religious, elements of the story. ... For Obama, whose speech dealt with themes of both race and religion, the press tended to focus on the racial aspects more than the religious ones. In fact, about half (51%) of the stories on the speech were about race while only 1% focused on the religious angle.

Check out the study for yourself. And, in the months ahead, please be patient with us. I imagine that these big, big stories are not going to go away.

By the way, the Anglican Communion's Lambeth Conference starts next weekend. Think anyone is going to cover it?

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