O'Donnell gets God, and many votes

All that talk about the possible death of print media? Totally premature. Christine O'Donnell's big win in Delaware's Republican primary for U.S. Senate has spilled enough ink to keep the dead-tree news business operating at least through the November election.

Don't take that to mean, however, that O'Donnell hasn't done her part to boost late-night talk show ratings.

She apparently even dabbled in witchcraft.

Here at GetReligion, we tend to run across more ghosts than witches. In that regard, The News Journal in Wilmington, Del., deserves kudos for an in-depth story Sunday that attempted to explain the role of religion in O'Donnell's upset victory Tuesday. On the other hand, the 2,30o-word piece seems long on conjecture and short on actual facts (read: vote totals, poll data, anything concrete) to back up the notion that evangelicals propelled O'Donnell to victory.

The story's headline and subhead boil down the main thesis nicely:

Delaware politics: Rise in evangelical activism tips scales in primaries

Politically conservative Christians putting ballots where their Bibles are

The top of the story:

Ella Shank recalls saying a little prayer Tuesday before casting her Republican primary vote in the Greenwood Fire Hall.

"I believe that God is waking America up," said Shank, who attends a Mennonite church. She was among those who helped Christine O'Donnell upset longtime Rep. Mike Castle in the Republican primary for the U.S. Senate.

"If people don't start voting for what's right, God will punish us."

Greenwood stands at the epicenter of O'Donnell's upset win over Castle -- a large and mostly rural, majority-Republican election district that, along with nearby Bridgeville, delivered more votes to O'Donnell than any other in Delaware.

It was a district that by most accounts saw a surge in political activism on social issues among evangelicals, surprising many party regulars, and was a factor in derailing Castle's political career.

As the story goes on, readers learn that voters "united in prayer and evangelism" at O'Donnell's campaign rallies. Readers are told that no one explains the vote entirely in terms of "activist voting by conservative Christians" but that many think it's a "significant factor." The story mostly proceeds along those lines, building an anecdotal case -- a house of sticks.

The only real numbers reported are these:

According to the Association of Religion Data Archives, a compilation of reports from religious scholars and research centers around the world, Catholics made up the largest group of adherents to a single religious denomination in Delaware as of 2000. Mainline Protestants were next at 32 percent and evangelical Protestants at 13 percent. Orthodox faiths and other religions accounted for the remaining residents. Only about 40 percent of the state, however, claimed membership in any identified church.

But many with long histories of watching Delaware elections believe the evangelical Christian voting bloc has grown in strength, especially in southern New Castle County, where suburban Catholic congregations and new evangelical churches are growing.

Interesting numbers. Particularly given the idea that evangelicals -- representing just 13 percent of the population in the latest statistics -- swayed the election. Of course, the stats are 10 years old, and the piece leaves open the possibility that their ranks have grown. Still, my skeptical side wonders if the story's easy thesis -- evangelical activists tipping the scales -- could stand up to serious scrutiny. Did anyone take exit polls that might provide better data and explanations for how Delaware Republicans voted?

I also wish The News Journal had done a better job explaining O'Donnell's religious background:

Raised Roman Catholic, O'Donnell converted to Protestantism, and later rejoined the Catholic Church. Throughout the 1990s, she organized young Christians to fight pornography, premarital sex and abortion and advocated turning homosexuals "straight" in groups such as the Savior's Alliance for Lifting the Truth (SALT) and Concerned Women for America.

O'Donnell rejected Castle's support of embryonic stem-cell research and of women's rights to abortion. She has described homosexuality as "an identity disorder."

Catholic. Protestant. Then Catholic again. Anybody but me think that might merit a bit more explanation? (And apparently this report was written before the witchcraft phase was made public by Bill Maher.)

"Straight." "An identify disorder." Anybody not totally certain about the purpose of such "scare quotes" in a news story? (Hint: It's a quasi-journalistic way of saying, "These are some of the crazy things this candidate believes ...")

Finally, this quote stood out to me:

Gary Hindes, former chairman of the state Democratic Party, called the surge in socially conservative influence troubling.

"It's scary to see a legitimate political party run by people I respect -- but have profound differences with -- taken hostage by basically extremists. It's not good for America. It's not good for Delaware," Hindes said.

"Taken hostage by basically extremists." My question: If you're going to let a source make such a statement, shouldn't you at least provide space for him to be specific about the extreme positions?

Yes, the story follows up Hindes' quote with remarks from a Church of God pastor. But while the Democrat's quote swings a hatchet, the response comes across more like a butter knife.

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