When I was an intern at the Ventura County Star, an editor taught me to avoid writing ledes that require weak modifiers like "may." The same goes for headlines that end with a question mark. It's a cheap trick designed to imply a big story that really isn't there -- though I will admit I use it often when blogging. So what to expect from this story in last Sunday's Los Angeles Times: "Will scandals inspire evangelicals to stray from Republican Party?"
How about very little you haven't heard before.
A series of sex-related scandals over the last few years has undercut the party's assertions of moral authority and, worse, may serve to reinforce the doubts that many evangelical voters have traditionally harbored about the unholiness of the political realm.
"If we place our hope in a political party or a politician, we'll be let down," said Brandt Waggoner, 25, a student at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, N.C., who said he spoke for many young evangelicals. "My hope is in God and not in the government."
A sudden and overwhelming shift of Christian conservatives from the GOP to the more secular-minded Democratic Party appears unlikely. As Laura Olson, an expert on religion and politics at South Carolina's Clemson University, put it: "The Republican Party is still going to be, at a minimum, the lesser of two evils."
The Times reporter than goes on to say, in what amounts to the story's nut graph, that "in politics, subtraction can be just as important as addition." But really, the story has already died by the time we get to Olson's quote, which appears in the fourth paragraph.
The article bounces all over the place -- noting that while Mark Sanford and Mark Foley and Larry Craig are the Republican's cross to bear, well Democrats have John Edwards and Eliot Spitzer and, of course, Bill Clinton -- and offers a lot of conjecture without a lick of statistics. No mention of exit poll data from the last three presidential elections; no comment from The Barna Group, whose entire operation focuses on distilling evangelical patterns and behaviors into spreadsheets; not even a quote from John Green of the Pew Forum.
The article's subhead had suggested that even if the recent spate of sex scandals didn't disenfranchise some GOP voters they could at least "reinforce some Christian conservatives' doubts about politics in general." Well, I sure hope so. Too many Americans are too quick to accept the publicly professed beliefs of polticians who make a living pandering to whatever interest will make them popular.
But aside from Waggoner, "who said he spoke for many young evangelicals," the story provides no such evidence of that either.
And why would it matter if evangelicals split from the Republican Party? The Times reporter briefly mentions their significance to the GOP since the late '70s, but he doesn't break down the breadth of conservative "religious voters." Believe it or not, they're not all evangelicals; many aren't even -- stop the presses! -- Christians.
Unlike many stories that have focused on evangelicals since George Bush was re-elected in 2004, the flaw of this article wasn't that the reporter seemed to have never met an evangelical in his life, but that too much effort was made to slip a story into the paper that offered nothing new to the reader.