I've frequently discussed my dislike of religiously ignorant reporters playing theological "gotcha" with political candidates. Sometimes I will be sitting in church and listening to a sermon and just imagining how completely and thoroughly a reporter might miss the point, the context, the tradition, the nuance, the proper distinction of the Law and the Gospel, etc. Almost always I've written about my dislike of reporters trying to understand the significance of some snippet of a sermon or a bulletin insert when it comes to President Barack Obama. But we have a doozie -- and yes, you can all stop sending it in now -- with Joshua Green's piece in The Atlantic titled:
Michele Bachmann's Church Says The Pope Is The Antichrist
I don't know what it is about conservative women that makes some reporters lose their everliving minds, but Bachmann's candidacy is this year's Sarah Palin media meltdown, apparently.
In any case, Joshua Green is one of the more partisan folks at The Atlantic, and that harms his piece when it comes to stuff like facts, nuance and context.
For one thing, the headline is not true. It's about the church body to which Bachmann once belonged, but not her current church. And let's actually start there. I'm a confessional Lutheran. Ostensibly, Michele Bachmann was a member of a more conservative but also confessional Lutheran church body. And for years, whenever I heard her speak, she never sounded even mildly Lutheran to me. The "the Lord put it on my heart" type language. The "the Lord anointed me" stuff. This is not how Lutherans speak, although I won't bore you with all of the why. Her other affiliations have always been more evangelical than Lutheran, going back decades.
You might keep that in mind when you're thinking about what news value a hit-piece on the doctrinal views of a church that a presidential candidate no longer belongs to has.
Here's the lede:
Michele Bachmann is practically synonymous with political controversy, and if the 2008 presidential election is any guide, the conservative Lutheran church she belonged to for many years is likely to add another chapter due to the nature of its beliefs--such as its assertion, explained and footnoted on this website, that the Roman Catholic Pope is the Antichrist.
Now, as anyone who knows anything about church history can tell you, the papacy is not a feature of Protestantism. And if you followed the Reformation or knew anything about the abuses of Pope Leo X or the anathemas of the Council of Trent, it's not really newsworthy that the reformers looked at what Scripture says are the marks of the anti-Christ and basically said "yep -- the papacy has those." What makes the church to which Michele Bachman was once joined slightly different is that while most Lutheran church bodies will talk about the historical context into which they were made, the Wisconsin Synod says that basically they're still Protestants who still don't believe in the papacy and still think it sits in opposition to the Gospel of Christ.
And, again, if you don't know that Catholics and Protestants have very strongly held different views on whether the papacy is on the whole a really good or really bad institution, you should repeat 8th grade or whatever.
But Joshua Green's story is being featured in a way that lacks much of the background, familiarity and understanding needed to digest all this.
It's not that the story itself is riddled with error. I mean, sure, the headline is completely wrong and the incendiary language throughout the piece is a bit overwrought.
But the problem is just the existence of the story to begin with. This article shows why The Atlantic needs some improvement in the religion reporting department and gentle nudge down (OK, maybe a kick down a few flights of stairs) on the partisan hackery department.
Literally the last line of the piece is:
That's the theological basis for the WELS claim. It may be up to Bachmann to furnish a political one.
The justification for the hyperbolic story about 500-year-old history is that, we're to believe, Michele Bachmann will have trouble getting the Catholic vote in light of the fact that she was once a member of a Protestant church that had Protestant views on Catholicism.
There is no political significance to what the article reports. Instead it serves only to alarm the casual observer over a non-issue. I mean, seriously, go to Minnesota and you can see for yourself that there is no 30 Years War breaking out among the large Catholic and Lutheran populations. That state has had tons of Catholic and Lutheran governors -- many of whom held opposing views on the papacy. They somehow managed to get through it.
Or as one commenter to the Joshua Green piece wrote:
What an interesting headline. Bachmann has attributed to her the belief of a religious denomination from which, later and in much smaller type, it is acknowledged she has resigned.
This sort of preaching no doubt goes over well with the choir; but some of us out here in the pews are getting tired of it. There are some very good reasons to hope Michelle Bachmann never becomes President of the United States; and those who resort to these Are-you-now-or-have-you-ever-been stories so reminiscent of Joe MCarthy are likely to find out what those who criticized Obama about Wright did: people start taking a second look. In the long run, Obama was as likely as not helped more than hurt by that episode.
I live in Minnesota, a state every bit as Lutheran and Catholic as Keillor's monologues suggest. The fact is, whatever Luther said and whatever the Council of Trent replied, the adherents of each faith (I happen to follow neither) get along well with each other and do not consign each other to hell. I note nothing in the above story which would indicate that, in either her personal or political life, Bachmann has set out to specifically injure Catholics in any way.
This is right up there with those vintage 1959/1960 stories that since John F. Kennedy was Catholic, as President he would take orders from the Pope. Now as then, there are going to be those of us who start thinking: If they're so desparate as to print that, this guy/gal deserves a closer look.
Michele Bachmann is not Lutheran now, even if she once was a member of a Lutheran church. But this is an unfair hit piece on her.
And that's not to say that stories about the religious lives of candidates aren't worthy and worthwhile. Or even that arcane doctrinal views can't be discussed. But when they are, the posture of the partisan doesn't usually lead to enlightened news gathering or discussion.