As tmatt mentioned yesterday, I was able to cover the taxpayer protest here in Washington this Saturday. I cover protests here all the time but I don't think anyone -- including the people who came up with the idea for the protest, the marchers, the media or the police -- had any idea it was going to be as big as it was.
I realized as soon as I got on the Metro heading in early that it might be big. My car was packed with protesters. Then the train stopped at a nearby location and the entire platform was filled with folks headed to the rally.
The organizers had told people to gather at Freedom Plaza near the White House at 9 a.m. and begin marching to the Capitol at 11. But so many people had gathered by the start that they just sent people marching down Pennsylvania Avenue hours early. I stood there monitoring some camera equipment for a media outlet and it was wall to wall protesters streaming from one side of Pennsylvania Avenue to the other -- six lanes plus a median -- for hours. I am not a professional crowd counter but I hadn't seen a march that big since 2004's March for Women's Lives.
Obviously with a march of that size, it's impossible to know what was happening anywhere outside my vantage point but I can say that the only media I saw there were foreign press. Unlike at most marches, I never saw any American media during the march or when people gathered in front of the Capitol and on the mall. I think that media outlets were probably taken as much by surprise as everyone else. So that might explain why their coverage is so uneven. Also, while the crowd was generally friendly, I did see a lot of signs against the mainstream media -- so maybe it's unrealistic to expect them to go out of their way to cover the march fairly.
But as for the purposes of this blog, I think the coverage got one thing right: This was not a religion-infused protest.
Now, don't get me wrong, I bet the people who attended were largely Christian, to one degree or another, like the rest of the U.S. population. And I bet a great number of them go to church regularly and give money to religious and other charities. But the theme of the march was not religious. Sure, there were some generic "God and country" signs (e.g. "Trust in God, not the government," and "This Pennsylvanian will just have to cling to her guns and her religion.") But the signs were usually witty and were far outweighed by messages regarding economic issues and about the size and scope of government.
The mainstream media didn't mention much religion because other than the civil religion issues tmatt mentioned, I don't think there was much to report on that front. Now, I'm seeing some attempts to make this rally or movement be about the religious right, so it will be interesting to see if the mainstream media follow their lead, but my impression differed. I didn't see tmatt's "talk-radio GOP" so much as independents, libertarians, conservatives and Republicans. Many people described themselves as formerly GOP, for instance, indicating disgust with the spending habits of both parties. Lots of signs about the debt that their children and grandchildren would have to pay off. That may or may not be a religiously motivated concern, but it's certainly economic.
Again, I'm not saying the crowd wasn't religious but the unifying themes for the ragtag assembly were not. Now having said that, clearly when you have an extremely large gathering of people from all over the country marching on the U.S. Capitol to protest pretty much everything that the legislative and executive branches have done in the last 12 months (or more, depending on who the protester was), the media is going to have to start running stories about who they are and what their concerns are.
I'm sure that when we get to that point, we might see that this coalition has some religious elements. More likely its values are rooted in principles from a shared Western Civilization culture that is itself rooted in religious beliefs about the individual and property -- but that's kind of a stretch for religion coverage.
Or maybe we'll see the institutions of the Religious Right affiliating themselves with this populist movement in support of economic liberty. They've been affiliated before -- during the heydays of the "leave us alone" and anti-communist eras, and perhaps there will be some platform sharing again. I mean, there were people who didn't like communism for purely economic reasons or simply because communism denied personal freedom. But there were also the people who didn't like the forced atheism of the whole thing. These groups can find odd ways of working together for a shared goal.
Maybe this movement will only be a tea party, a protest of the increase in the size of government. But maybe the concern regarding the increased scope of government will broaden the coalition in new ways. We'll see and we'll watch the coverage to see how well those angles are handled. Until then, making the news coverage about something other than the religious right was the honest thing to do.