Um, Wallis represents the new Christian right?

Jim Wallis has been calling the religious right dead for a while now. I can't imagine his surprise when he was included in Newsweek's new list on "faces of the Christian right." It is as if the editors at Newsweek are saying, "Ha ha, you thought it was dead, but you're actually the leader of it -- joke's on you!" Perhaps writer David A. Graham didn't write the headline, but he certainly makes a lot of assumptions in his slideshow attempting to capture the current politically-inclined religious leaders.

My friend Anna sent me this note:

That Newsweek piece is abysmal. My favorite quote? "It's not as sexy as praying with the president." [In the bio of Melissa Rogers] Since when is Palin an "evangelical rock star"? [In the bio of Marjorie Dannenfelser] The bit about Cizik is wildly inaccurate -he never backed gay marriage. [In the bio of Jim Wallis] This guy makes young journalists everywhere look bad. The arrogant sarcasm running throughout this piece is inexcusable; it's not even appropriate for the op-ed page!

Let's start with his introduction and move back to the bios in a bit:

Who speaks for the religious right? That used to be an easy question to answer: on matters of faith and politics, Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, and James Dobson were towering figures: opinionated, controversial, and vastly influential.

Excuse me? "Who speaks for the religious right" has never been an easy question to answer, in part because of the vague labels and definitions involved. But I just don't understand Graham's criteria for "Christian right." Yes, there is a new generation on the scene, but does the Rev. Billy Graham really not merit any inclusion whatsoever? Anyone can be both opinionated and controversial. Is you-know-who from Westboro Baptist the leader of the religious right? Um, no. Were Falwell, Robertson and Dobson influential? Yes, in their own ways, but it probably depended on who you talked to, at what time of their life and on what issue.

But with Falwell's death in 2007, Robertson's outlandish comments about the 2010 earthquake in China and Hurricane Katrina, and Dobson's gradual retirement, it's harder to pinpoint a similar council for the second generation of the movement, which is more strategically, denominationally, and ideologically diverse.

Did Falwell's death and Robertson's China/Katrina statements really mark the moment of their diminishing influence? You could argue the influence waxed and waned as the media kept their ideas alive. Is there any data to support the idea that the Christian right is more strategically, denominationally and ideologically diverse than it was in the past? Where does this idea stem from?

Here's Newsweek's wish list: Robert George, Jim Daly, Maggie Gallagher, Matthew and Nancy Sleeth, Melissa Rogers, Marjorie Dannenfelser, Tony Perkins, Jim Wallis and Joel Hunter.

If you must create such a list, some of the choices might make sense, and I don't necessarily want to quibble about who's in and who's out. For what it's worth, though, I wrote a piece last year exploring whether the term "Christian/religious right" is even helpful anymore. Now, one might argue that conservative religious leaders just want to abandon a term because it isn't very good PR, but others could argue that the label has become so confusing that no one knows how to apply it effectively. But who do these people represent and/or influence? Do their endorsements of a candidate or policy matter and how do you measure that? Do some of them perhaps have more influence in the media than for some congregation or coalition? Can Catholics -- representing a very broad agenda on social issues and economic justice -- really be slipped comfortably under the Religious Right umbrella?

The author included minor defenses of why each person was on the list. One of the funniest bits was the section on Maggie Gallagher:

"I don't object to the [Christian right] label, but it's not how I think of myself," she tells NEWSWEEK. But her work, which also includes writing for the conservative National Review and others, is informed by her faith, and she's collaborated closely with black preachers whose congregations strongly oppose gay marriage.

I love how she says "I don't think of myself that way" and the writer comes back with, "Oh, but she definitely is. Anyone who is informed by their faith are definitely part of the Christian right. And she collaborates with black preachers whose congregations oppose gay marriage. No question about it!" I'm just not following the logic.

Back to Wallis, the author describes him as flying the flag of the "Christian left," if it exists. In the same section, he describes Brian McLaren as a "moderate evangelical." I don't go around slapping on or quibbling over labels, but I would imagine that any reporter would get some raised eyebrows out of that one. So leaders of the Christian left are now part of the Christian right?

What was the process in selecting these particular individuals? What's the criteria? How do you judge whether someone is a leader or has a following? The author cites little bursts of news he can remember (she was on the presidents faith-based advisory council), but does the same person really influence a large group of followers? What about other influencers like New York Archbishop Timothy Dolan, the Rev. Franklin Graham, Denver Archbishop Charles Chaput or World Vision president Rich Stearns, for instance? You could argue against their inclusion, which is fine, but you could also point to their pretty huge followings or potential for influence. Besides, whatever happened to Lisa Miller's idea that Sarah Palin could invigorate the religious right? (lol)

I tweeted about Newsweek's list yesterday and received this feedback from @chrisblackstone: @spulliam I'd include @albertmohler, @rickwarren, @johnpiper, @billhybels. While they may not be politically influential, they do influence.

That's a key point. Who is influencing who, and why does that matter? For instance, does a person really influence anyone if he or she appears some council or as leader of some organization? I can tell you that if, for instance, Al Mohler, Rick Warren, Bill Hybels, etc. decided to support a particular candidate privately, it could definitely turn some heads. They may not lead politically-focused organizations, but that's the thing about some religious leaders. These individuals are trusted by some large numbers because of their religious role as pastor/leader of a seminary, not because of who they rub shoulders with in Washington.

Lisa Miller also has a new Newsweek story on what could motivate the religious right in 2012. Miller offers some new reporting -- apparently Wallis, Joel Hunter and Tony Campolo met to build a new communications strategy -- as well as some historical background. Few reporters are able to incorporate history due to time and space, but Miller makes a concerted effort. Her thesis seems to build around Glenn Beck.

Evangelicals characteristically see themselves as a persecuted group whose values are under assault by the mainstream culture, and Beck has most successfully (and visibly) reframed those values in terms of patriotism. The enemy is no longer "moral relativism," a term that encompasses sexual promiscuity, divorce, homosexuality, and pornography. It's socialism, the redistribution of wealth, immigrants--a kind of "global relativism" that makes no moral distinction between America and every other place.

Read that first sentence again. Evangelicals characteristically see themselves as a persecuted group? Funny, I don't remember that in David Bebbington's classic description of evangelicals. Also, is there any data to suggest there the "enemy" shifted from "moral relativism" to socialism, immigrants, etc.? I'm not saying that shift did not take place, but haven't seen this theory before or reflected in any data. History is employed for background purposes, but where's the current proof?

It's ironic that Beck, a Mormon, would gain acceptance as a leader of a new Christian coalition: Mormon theology in the 19th century was seen as so heretical--such a threat to the Protestant establishment--that the followers of Joseph Smith were routinely persecuted and killed. But Beck's gift, and Palin's, is to articulate God's special plan for America in such broad strokes that they trample no single creed or doctrine while they move millions with their message. Jerry Falwell had a similar gift, and in 1980 his Moral Majority helped make Jimmy Carter a one-term president--and elect Ronald Reagan in a landslide.

It's ironic that Miller sees Beck as a leader of a new Christian coalition the same week a new Lifeway survey suggests that most Protestant pastors do not see him as a Christian. Ed Stetzer reports that 75% consider former President George W. Bush to be a Christian, while 66% consider the same thing about Palin and 41% about President Barack Obama. In contrast, only 27% think of Glenn Beck as a Christian. There were definitely concerns raised over Beck after his comments on social justice and then concerns about his Mormon faith after his rally. His interest among certain evangelicals (Richard Land, Jonathan Falwell) is interesting, but I don't see much evidence that he's the new leader of religious involvement in politics.

Like many outlets, Newsweek is trying to predict 2012 outcome, but it's unclear how important politically these individuals will become in the coming months. That said, the article raises an interesting idea and doesn't frustrate me as much as the little slideshow did.

Sometimes reporters throw out a theory or idea, but then they go through this process called reporting. You research background info, you do interviews, you check polls--in other words, you make your theory as rock solid possible. I'm not sure Newsweek's list of the Christian right is any more than a gimmick, designed to get clicks on the website. Reporters should definitely watch for future religious leaders, but pigeonholing them into a list like this seems to turn journalism into a little guessing game.

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