Too often, we aren't sure. Do we have a religious story with a political dimension -- or a story about politics that has a religious angle? When journalists cover a story about the "culture wars," the religious convictions that may fuel someone's position on an issue sometimes end up buried in the end quotes. Here's one example from a recent story by David M. Brown from the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review.
There's a wonderful quote from Catholic nun Patricia McCann that helps illuminate why she is working the telephones for the pro-choice Democrat Barack Obama in the framework of her church's moral teaching -- as she understands it.
"The Catholic church teaches that abortion is an intrinsic evil, along with euthanasia, murder, war, torture, racism, oppression of people," McCann said. "For me, life means from conception to natural death, so I look at the full range of issues."
Unfortunately, this McCann quote is the third paragraph from the end.
As evidence that similar convictions about abortion may not determine a person's vote, Brown began by using the examples of Patricia McCann and Rosemary Horvat. One is campaigning for Obama, the other McCain.
It isn't until you get well into the story that you have any idea what motivates these two volunteers -- it's never clear (perhaps it's assumed) how Horvat's faith drives her choices. Actually, it's not even clear that she's a Christian.
While the article offers a useful perspective that impels us beyond the usual polemics, it also has some significant weaknesses.
Take the way we are introduced to the two women who frame the story.
Patricia McCann is described as "an archivist for the Sisters of Mercy and retired teacher of church history at St. Vincent College."
Rosemary Horvat is a "mother of three of grandmother of nine." Does she have a profession? The writer doesn't tell us.
It is also disquieting that Brown didn't interview any male volunteers -- are all abortion activists women? The only men in his story are strategists and pollsters.
In a section of the article titled "Cultural issues take a back seat," Brown quoted Franklin & Marshall College professor Terry Madonna:
"Catholics are not all pro-life. In fact, they are not much different than Protestants on the issue," Madonna said. "There are culturally conservative and culturally liberal Catholics, but they have become swing voters in recent years -- which is why they are important politically."
Research indicates pro-choice voters slightly outnumber pro-life voters in the state, he said.
"Abortion is considerably less important to voters this year than the advocates on either side will ever admit. When the economy and war are as important as they are, cultural issues take a back seat," Madonna said.
It would have been helpful if Brown had questioned Madonna on what it actually means to be "culturally conservative" or "culturally liberal" -- particularly since he puts an anti-abortion Catholic nun working for Barack Obama front and center.
In the third section, "Where the candidates stand," Brown describes the Democrat's positions this way:
Obama and his running-mate, Sen. Joe Biden of Delaware, generally agree on abortion rights. Biden was among a minority of Democrats who voted in favor of banning the procedure opponents call partial-birth abortion.
This terse summary gives us just enough information to be dangerous -- clearly Biden's point of view needs to be explained more clearly.
This isn't solely Brown's problem. Biden's perspective on abortion, let alone on faith, hasn't gotten much press time.
The article asks an intriguing question -- what role does the issue of abortion play in driving people's voting-booth decisions?
It would have been wonderful if he'd dug a little deeper, and asked all the people he interviewed how their faith informs their decisions. It would have been even more wonderful if he'd put that information near the top.