Bad Jesus-Pontius Pilate analogies

Sojourners magazine founder Jim Wallis predicted on National Public Radio's Interfaith Voices this week that a button circulating on the Internet stating that Jesus Christ was a community organizer, Pontius Pilate was a governor would be all over the place in a few days. Wallis was making the point that the comment by Republican Vice Presidential candidate Sarah Palin during her acceptance speech about Democratic Presidential Candidate Barack Obama's community organizing experience was fairly offensive to community organizers and may backfire in faith-based communities where community organizers are often associated with churches. He suggested he might want to apologize.

For variety of reasons, comparing Palin to Pontius Pilate and Obama to Jesus Christ has not gone over very well in some circles. How has the media covered this issue? Based on the limited amount of real news coverage of the issue (Rush Limbaugh does not count), the coverage has not been all that substantive. The gist of the coverage is that the analogy is not very funny, and not very effective. We aren't told however, whether the analogy is accurate.

Here is the Memphis Commercial Appeal article dated Friday:

WASHINGTON -- U.S. Rep. Steve Cohen's House floor speech suggesting that both Barack Obama and Jesus were "community organizers" has lit up the blogosphere, produced heated partisan exchanges and, on Thursday, landed him on "Hardball."

Cohen released a statement on Thursday clarifying his intent in making the remarks Wednesday night, saying, "I didn't and I wouldn't compare anyone to Jesus. Jesus cannot be compared to anyone. What I pointed out was that Jesus was a force of change, and those who work to accomplish change deserve respect."

He then went on the political TV show "Hardball" to say of the Jesus remark: "I shouldn't have done it," and that he'd learned from the mistake.

In the brief speech on Wednesday, the Memphis Democrat had said Republicans are campaigning against "a Washington they created and cultivated" for more than a decade before the Democrats assumed control last year. He added that he believed the political parties have differences "but if you want change, you want the Democratic Party. Barack Obama was a community organizer like Jesus ... Pontius Pilate was a governor."

Some have taken the latter part of that statement as a reference to Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, the Republican vice presidential candidate.

See here for the Associated Press's coverage of the comment.

Unfortunately, the article does not attempt to examine the comparisons that at least some people who like community organizers thought would be effective. Democratic political activist and CNN commentator Donna Brazile made the same comparison Sunday on CNN. I don't think I am going too far out on a limb in suggesting that neither Cohen came up with that comparison on his own.

There are a couple of things that are worth noting for the purposes of media analysis of this political and religious kerfuffle. The first is the question of why Democrats seem to always get on the wrong side of these things? Wallis thought the comparison was fairly effective. Obviously, Republicans did not appreciate it, but why are Democrats backing down from the line so quickly? Is the comparison that offensive and that ineffective?

Secondly, exactly how valid are the comparisons and are there any community organizers out there that don't want the Democrats to back down from defending their work? Note that USA Today's Jill Lawrence covered the issue of community organizers being upset right after the convention (noting former New York Mayor and Republican presidential candidate Rudy Giuliani snickering), but there is little mention of religious groups being among who are upset.

Ultimately though reporters should get beyond covering silly analogies and report on the story of community organizers and religion that is worth telling.

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