Last week Michael Luo of The New York Times had a fascinating piece about the public piety of Sen. Hillary Clinton. After decades of losing socially conservative religious voters, Democrats are noticeably reaching out to religious folks. It's wise for media outlets to track and analyze the move. Of course, journalists are at a bit of a disadvantage that may affect the quality of the pieces about the trend. For one, they seem to have totally bought into a simplistic two-party story of religion and politics in America. They say, well on the left you have mainstream religious folks who think Jesus wanted big government social welfare programs and on the right you have those evangelicals and fundies who say Jesus only cared about protecting unborn children and keeping marriage sacred.
This trend both shortchanges the larger story and serves the narrow interests of the two groups that get all the coverage. It serves the two groups because it helps push their very real special interests to the forefront of media coverage. But it shortchanges the larger stories because it completely misses those who don't fit in either camp -- the churches that are focused less on American politics and more on, say, the Sacraments, worship, eternal life, etc. It also neglects the very real similarities of the groups on left and right: they highlight moralism, relevance, and personal feeling and politicize the moral meaning of Christianity; they tend not to embrace ritual, churchliness, and tradition. And I'm not even going to get into how shortsighted the mainstream media view is of religious activism in politics. Depending on the agenda of the storywriter, the entire 17th, 18th and 19th centuries, and decades of the 20th, are dropped as if they never occurred.
But let's look at this Clinton story, which is written very well, as Luo's pieces generally are, and covers a lot of ground:
Long before her beliefs would be tested in the most wrenching of ways as first lady, Hillary Rodham Clinton taught an adult Sunday school class on the importance of forgiveness. It is a lesson, she says, that she has harked back to often.
"We all have things that oftentimes we're upset about, or ashamed of, or feel guilty over, and so many people carry these enormous burdens around," Mrs. Clinton said in a recent interview. "One of the great gifts of faith is to let it go."
The themes of wrongs, forgiveness and reconciliation have played out repeatedly in Mrs. Clinton's life, as she has endured the ordeal of her husband's infidelity, engaged in countless political battles and shared a deep, mutual distrust with adversaries.
From the beginning, Luo emphasizes this theme of forgiveness, which is really exciting because it made me think that for once we wouldn't be getting a story about social justice but real religious discussion.
But it never really pans out. I mean, it's a long story and there's plenty of room to talk about what forgiveness means to Clinton. I'm not sure if she's not sharing or if the reporter isn't disclosing it, but we never learn anything about the central role of forgiveness in Christian thought. The story makes it hard to discern the difference between what a therapist might tell you about "letting go" of resentment and what a devout Christian might say. And the opportunities to dig further are left unexploited. Clinton says the reason why forgiveness is talked about so much in Scripture is because it's really hard to do. That is a perfect opportunity to explore her understanding further (I'm sure many people would disagree that the reason why it's discussed so much is because of its difficulty).
There's also this weird section:
In high school, [Clinton] was influenced by the Rev. Donald Jones, a charismatic youth minister. He introduced his charges to the world beyond their suburban enclave, taking them to the South Side of Chicago to interact with black and Hispanic teenagers and baby-sit for migrant workers. On one memorable evening, he took them to hear the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
"I wouldn't have focused so much on personal salvation," Mr. Jones said recently about his message then. "I would have focused more on social responsibility."
That quote in no way supports the preceding paragraph. The first graph is all social responsibility, social responsibility, social responsibility. So where was the long-lost focus on personal salvation? Was it there but the reporter didn't note it? Was he confused about the difference between personal salvation and social responsibility? Or what in the world does that quote mean?
This part was very interesting, however:
In a brief quiz about her theological views, Mrs. Clinton said she believed in the resurrection of Jesus, though she described herself as less sure of the doctrine that being a Christian is the only way to salvation. As for how literally to interpret the Bible, she takes a characteristically centrist view.
"The whole Bible gives you a glimpse of God and God's desire for a personal relationship, but we can't possibly understand every way God is communicating with us," she said. "I've always felt that people who try to shoehorn in their cultural and social understandings of the time into the Bible might be actually missing the larger point."
This would have been exciting to get more details on. Does she believe in the physical resurrection of Jesus? Or the metaphorical one confessed by some mainstream religious types? And that second statement about faith in Jesus being one of many options could use some elaboration. There are infinite ways to interpret that statement. But perhaps another reporter will follow up on those if this religious-outreach-to-primary-voters trend continues. Either way, the story is worth your time, even with its limitations.
Another lengthy feature on Democrats and religion ran in Time last week. It is extremely simplistic and cheerleading with cherry-picked statistics and cheesy turns of phrase ("the party began to test the holy waters") -- all to hammer home the point that evangelicals and other religious types are up for grabs.
Nevertheless, it has a few interesting quotes and anecdotes. Besides, no one reads Time for nuance. Anyway, after the devastating 2004 loss, helped along through the systematic alienation of many religiously devout, the Dems had a Great Awakening, write Nancy Gibbs and Michael Duffy:
Stunned by the results, Democratic leaders launched polls and focus groups and strategy sessions. At the Democratic headquarters, even Dean, now chair of the Democratic National Committee (DNC), was getting into the spirit. He had seen the Democrats' share of the evangelical vote drop from 33%, when Bill Clinton ran, to 17% for Kerry. Dean's aides began asking state party chairs, Do you talk to religious press? Do you know any religious leaders, even? Ever think to organize them? The response came back, Well, no, not really. Like the national party, most local Democrats had always done their outreach to various constituencies in silos -- veterans on one set of issues, African Americans on another, women on another and so forth. There was never any common language of faith to appeal to those voters. "We walked away from the single institution most Americans turned to when they try to be better than they are," admits Carl Pope, executive director of the Sierra Club. "It was a huge mistake."
The story is all "religion at the service of politics" rather than a meaningful examination of anyone's religious views, but it doesn't pretend to be otherwise. Reminder #345,339,421: it pays to be political if you want coverage of your religious views.
On that note, the Times and CBS News teamed up to poll religious folks about their views of Iraq, George W. Bush and religious rhetoric in stump speeches. The results suggest a shift although they also confirm the difficulty that Democratic candidates have in being open about their religion: many in their base don't want to hear about it. Also, voters really distrust atheists.
So reporters are trying to improve their coverage of religious Democrats. They're just struggling to get to anything terribly substantive. I mean, I'm sure many mainstream reporters think it's fascinating to learn that voters enjoy a bit of the religious imagery in political rhetoric, but a casual survey of nearly ever political speech made for the last couple hundred years could have told them that. Hopefully we'll see more coverage of actual religious beliefs and not things that look surprisingly similar to the platforms of the Democratic and Republican parties. Let us know if you see any good ones.