I completely understand why many mainstream journalists get frustrated when they try to write -- in a fair and accurate manner -- about the political force that is usually called the Religious Right. First of all, the "religious" right can be defined quite broadly. At the very least, on most moral and cultural issues, this would include the so-called "First Things" coalition of conservative Evangelicals, pro-Catechism Catholics, Jewish conservatives and others. In other words, the "religious" right would have to be interfaith, from the get go. Are Mormon Christians part of that? Certainly.
But we all know that this is not what most reporters are writing about when they use the Religious Right label.
How about "Christian right"? That's better. But that would really need to include conservative Catholics, the Orthodox, morally conservative (but perhaps economically progressive) Evangelicals, lots of hard-to-label Anglicans, etc. And how about the Latino charismatics and traditional Catholics? How about, on many issues, the African-American church? And, while we are at it, these people lean to the right on what issues?
So what about "Evangelical right"? That's better, only you then have to wade into the old question of what "Evangelical" does and does not mean. And, again, what political issues are we talking about here?
You can see some of this at work in a pre-presidential health care speech story in the Washington Post that ran under the headline: "Opposition to Health-Care Reform Revives Christian Right." The term "Christian right" is used throughout the piece. Here's a crucial passage:
"Movements do better when they have something to oppose," said D. Michael Lindsay, a sociology professor at Rice University who studies evangelicals. "It's easier to fundraise in those kinds of situations. It's easier to mobilize volunteers because you have an us versus them mentality, and that plays very well right now for the Christian right."
After seeing their bread-and-butter issue of abortion take a back seat during the election last year, the Christian right has been a prime force in moving it back to the front row by focusing on it as a potential part of health-care reform.
"It's a busy time," said Tom Minnery, senior vice president of Focus on the Family Action, the lobbying arm of Focus on the Family. He said donations to Focus Action have climbed beyond expectations, although he declined to say by how much.
Experts say the resurgent interest is proving that predictions of the death of the Christian right -- widespread before the election -- were again premature. But they say the recent flurry of activity does nothing to solve the underlying challenges facing the movement -- the lack of younger leaders to replace aging ones and ways to engage younger evangelicals who want the movement to embrace a wider range of issues.
The story has excellent sources and great quotes. But once again you have to ask: Who are these people? Where are the Catholics, who have offered some interesting comments on health control. How about African-American churches? Are they all on board with President Barack Obama on this one? Are some of them in the "Christian right," while others are not?
I think the link here to abortion is accurate and crucial. But anyone who has followed this story carefully knows that that is one of several religion-rooted issues on the big plate called health-care reform.
This leads me to another question, one centering on the Democrats who are having the crucial debates over the contents of the key legislation. We all know that the U.S. Catholic bishops want wider or universal access to health care. But the hook for this Post story is that all of these "Christian right" leaders are opposed to health-care reform.
Well, is that true? Has anyone asked these leaders what they would like to see passed? Are they opposed to health-care reform, or are they in favor of a different approach? I guarantee you that some of them, in their surge to oppose Obama, are totally opposed to any change at all. But I bet that many in the widely defined "Christian right" are not opposed to all of the elements of this plan and they may have ideas about compromises that they could support.
That's my main point for reporters right now. Look at the wider spectrum and tell us (a) who is opposed to all health-care reform, (b) who genuinely backs health-care reform, yet is opposed to some elements of the current plan and (c) who actually backs the Obama plan, or has been given a wink and a nod that the compromise plan will be acceptable to them.
This story tells us quite a bit about the impact of the health-care wars on the white, Evangelical, Protestant, pro-Republican, so-called "Christian right." But who, pray tell, is talking to the Blue Dog Democrats? What are the pro-life Democrats saying (and are any of them "religious" or "Christian")?
Who is seeking compromise? That's another story and one that might overlap, a bit, with the Divine Ms. MZ Hemingway's earlier post.