Last week, the Fordham Center on Religion and Culture hosted a panel of media professionals talking about how the media are covering religion and morality in the 2008 camapign. When I heard about the event, I was disappointed that I couldn't attend. Thankfully there was a brief write-up of the event. Peggy Fletcher Stack, senior religion writer for the Salt Lake Tribune, condemned the treatment of Romney by the press. Don Wycliff, veteran journalist for the Chicago Tribune, remarked that sensational treatment of religion goes back to coverage of "born again" Christian Jimmy Carter:
"I sometimes think we haven't made any progress since then as a media industry," he said. "A lot of [the coverage] is like a trip to the zoo--see the crazy Mormon here, the wild black pastor there. There is no appreciation of what religion means to people."
Moderator Ray Suarez, with PBS' NewsHour with Jim Lehrer, wondered whether there should be limits to probing politicians' religious views:
"Some of the most potent truths in a person's life were being asked in the way you would ask about a garbage pickup or a national service requirement," Suarez said. "Religion as part of the conversation . . . is this something [the media] should be deploring or celebrating?"
According to panelist Andrew Kohut, president of the Pew Research Center, religion is integral to American politics in shaping one's cultural identity, but its importance in predicting voter behavior is often exaggerated. Kohut cited the perception that "moral values" drove the election of George W. Bush in 2004, when, in fact, polls showed it was Bush's winning over of religious moderates.
And yet why do I think we're headed into another few months of "values voter" obsession? Kohut mentioned to the panel that the latest Pew results show that the selection of Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin for the Republican VP slot has substantially raised the interest of evangelical Christians. Catholics are still torn, he said.
It's nice to see that Fordham held this panel discussion. I don't have high hopes for the rest of this campaign season, but perhaps when everything calms down after November, journalists can reflect on how to better cover religion as it pertains to politics.
Picture of the panel from Fordham Public Affairs.