Media narratives, media myths

JesusRodeADonkey 01The "God gap" has to be one of the biggest religion stories of the year. It seems we can't go more than a few days without an additional story about Democratic outreach efforts to religious voters. Leah Daughtry, the Pentecostal minister and organizer of the Denver Democratic National Convention, is the perfect profile subject for stories about the efforts. The latest entry comes from the Los Angeles Times. Reporter Mark Barabak follows Daughtry as she tries to pull together the interfaith service that will launch the convention -- no small feat as we discovered yesterday. He paints a picture of Daughtry juggling a gazillion religion-related balls -- finding someone to give the Buddhist reading and making room for a congressman angling for a spot onstage. She tells him that her job is to narrow the "God gap":

Over the last generation, religious voters have become the bedrock of the GOP, with surveys showing the more a person attends services, the more likely he or she is to vote Republican. President Bush worked hard to woo the faithful, and in 2004 won the support of nearly 8 in 10 white evangelicals, accounting for a third of all his votes.

But that support may be slipping. A Pew Research Center poll found Bush's approval among young evangelicals falling from 87% early in his term to 42% in August 2007. A June survey by Calvin College, a Christian school in Michigan, found that for the first time since President Franklin D. Roosevelt took office, a larger percentage of mainline Protestants called themselves Democrats than Republicans.

That may reflect unhappiness with Bush and the GOP amid a weak economy and an unpopular war. But there is also a growing chorus of religious leaders urging worshipers to weigh matters such as poverty, healthcare and environmentalism when they vote.

"The top issues are no longer just abortion and gay marriage," said campaign strategist Eric Sapp, who works with Democrats on faith outreach. "That creates opportunity."

Note the first line of the second paragraph. We'll revisit that in a minute. But the excerpt above represents the media's 2008 campaign narrative about religious voters. One thing I've been following in recent months is whether all this opportunity for Democrats about which the media keeps pounding on and on is manifesting itself in actual vote shifts. I'm beginning to think that the overarching media narrative is blinding reporters to some clues about the larger story. Take this perfect profile subject Daughtry:

Enter Daughtry, 44, a self-described "black chick from Brooklyn," who was born into politics and the Pentecostal faith. Her father, the Rev. Herb Daughtry, is a longtime civil rights activist. Her earliest memory is walking down a flight of stairs from the family apartment to services, then down another level to dinner with congregants. "It was seamless," she says.

Daughtry found her professional calling in her senior year at Dartmouth, where she ran the campus campaign for Jesse Jackson's 1984 presidential bid. Jackson, a family friend, did her a favor; Daughtry knew nothing about political organizing. "He allowed me to experiment on him," she says.

After graduating, Daughtry headed to Capitol Hill. She moved to the Labor Department under President Clinton, and in 2002 became chief of staff of the Democratic National Committee. Last year she took charge in Denver, her fourth convention. The city has struggled to raise money, but Daughtry -- unflappable and diplomatic, as her juggling of the Sunday lineup suggests -- has kept planning on track.

"Very focused. Very talented," said Steve Farber, a Denver lawyer who helped land the convention. "She gets the job done."

Faith has been a constant in Daughtry's life. She sang in the choir at her church, ran its affairs and worked in the kitchen. But she felt God wanted more.

On and on the Times piece goes, explaining how religious Daughtry is. The assumption seems to be that if Democrats can just show that they're religious, they'll gain votes. But no one seems to be looking at whether that assumption is correct.

I thought of this while looking at Jeffrey Weiss' account of the latest Pew survey for the Dallas Morning News. I haven't looked at the results yet, so I'm just going with what he has:

Based on their religious beliefs, voters are divided between Barack Obama and John McCain today in much the same way they were four years ago between John Kerry and George Bush, according to a new survey by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life.

According to the survey taken in July and August, Mr. Obama has the support of 24 percent of those who say they are white, born-again or evangelical Christians — the same percentage Mr. Kerry had four years ago. And Mr. McCain’s support, 68 percent, is about the same as Mr. Bush enjoyed in August 2004.

Mr. Obama, the Democratic candidate, has lost a few percentage points compared with Mr. Kerry among white mainline Protestants, Catholics, and the religiously unaffiliated. Only among black Protestants has he gained support over where Mr. Kerry stood in 2004.

But none of the changes are more than a few percentage points. And enthusiasm for Mr. McCain among religious conservatives is significantly less than Mr. Bush had in the summer of 2004.

McCain's enthusiasm gap is definitely an issue, but I find it fascinating that the media keep pushing this narrative about how successful Obama's outreach is going -- when there's little evidence to support that.

I think that New York Times profile of Daughtry a month ago gave a hint as to why:

[Her father's] ministry has always combined consuming spirituality with black liberation theology -- the theology Jeremiah Wright invoked this spring to defend his controversial sermons -- and zealous political activism. Leah holds these forces within her.

It also relates to what I wrote yesterday. Activism on the left by religious adherents is not a new concept. It's just newly noticed by the media. Daughtry's father was politically engaged in the same way that she is. While the Democratic Party has struggled to fully embrace its religious voters, and has certainly lost more than a few these last couple of decades with some of its platform stances, it has always had a strong contingent of religiously motivated grassroots.

But how much reaching out to non-traditionally Democratic voters is happening, exactly? And is someone who embrace liberation theology the best person to be doing the reaching out?:

Disappointed after the 2004 election -- and armed with data showing the correlation between faith and voting -- Daughtry launched Faith in Action, an effort to turn the devout into Democrats. There were doubts inside the party.

"People thought, 'Gee, is this Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell?' " party Chairman Howard Dean says.

But Daughtry was not interested in "beating people over the head with moral issues" or dictating political theology from Washington.

Instead, Daughtry and her interdenominational staff of six have held countless meetings with religious leaders across the country, listening to their concerns and working to move the discussion beyond contentious social issues. That means appealing to Orthodox Jews -- with their large families -- by talking about government-funded healthcare for children, or courting Muslims with a promise to fight discrimination and post-Sept. 11 profiling.

DNC hero But beyond the fact that Orthodox Jews and Muslims are neither a large percentage of the voting population nor reliably Republican voters, on what basis is this type of outreach deemed a good way to reach out to Republican-trending religious voters? I'm not saying it isn't, necessarily, but I don't see where it is.

Here's how the Times piece breaks down the numbers:

Obama probably can't erase the God gap, even if he seems more comfortable discussing his Christianity than the last two Democratic nominees or, for that matter, his Republican rival, Sen. John McCain of Arizona. A recent Pew poll found Obama trailing McCain among white evangelicals, mainline Protestants and non-Hispanic Catholics. But McCain's support was below Bush's levels, and even small gains by Obama -- winning, say, just 1 in 3 white evangelicals -- could significantly reshape the electoral map, says Allen Hertzke, a University of Oklahoma expert on religion and politics.

Presumably the reporter is using the previous month's Pew poll for this paragraph. But still, the spin is clear. Last month's poll showed that Obama hadn't gained evangelical support over Kerry's support the same time four years ago -- he was even a point below it. Neglecting to mention that -- because it doesn't meld with the narrative you've chosen for your piece -- isn't good journalism.

That Pew poll, incidentally, appears to have other interesting results. We'll be looking at mainstream coverage of it in coming days.

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