Phony outrage over "phony theology"?

It's been an interesting, if tiring, few weeks in media criticism and the culture wars. We saw how national media figures immediately jumped to help Planned Parenthood's campaign against the Komen Foundation and how they have been working hard to frame objections to a federal mandate (that critics say seriously harms religious liberty) as a war on women. So when news broke this weekend about some supposedly alarming things that Rick Santorum said, I wasn't sure I could handle another round. I loathe politics and would really like a break from it, particularly on Ash Wednesday. But that's not to be, I guess. So let's look at how well the media have been reporting just one thing said by Rick Santorum. Let's first look at this piece in the Washington Post by Felicia Sonmez, headlined "Five reasons why Santorum’s campaign-trail ‘misstatements’ may help him":

1. Reporters aren’t voters.

When it comes to Santorum’s recent controversial remarks, Republican primary voters – at least, those showing up to the candidate’s recent events – seem to have had a completely different reaction than the news media has.

I just want to thank her for the honesty of showing that members of the news media have a reaction to Santorum and that it's not favorable. In fact, it would probably best be described as "angered" or "appalled" something of that nature. Sonmez highlights some "theology" statements that Santorum made and remarks that "members of the press may still be scratching their heads over the remarks." What were they? Well, what the media describe them as bears almost no resemblance to what they actually were, which might explain the head-scratching.

You can watch the first couple minutes of the video above to see for yourself what Santorum was talking about. He was quite clearly criticizing Obama on his drilling policies. Here's the transcript of the relevant portion:

SANTORUM: The price of fuel right now, they’re talking maybe by the summer we’re looking at $5 a gallon. Why? Why? Because this president systematically is doing everything he can to raise the price of energy in this country. He’s shutting down all sorts of opportunities for us to drill for oil. He’s now trying to infuse not science when it comes to the environment, not environmental science when it comes to drilling wells for oil and gas in Pennsylvania and North Dakota and other places that use hydraulic fracking.

He’s trying to do again what he tried to do with global warming. Instead of using climate science or global science he uses political science. And political science in this case is suggesting that a technology that has been successfully used to drill hundreds of thousands of wells in this country, hundreds of thousands of oil and gas wells, all of a sudden now that’s a dangerous technology. Why? Because it could lead to lower energy prices. That’s the dangerousness of this technology. It doesn’t fit his pattern of trying to drive down consumption, driving to drive up your cost of transportation to accomplish his political science goal of reducing carbon dioxide emissions.

This is what the president’s agenda is. It’s not about you. It’s not about you. It’s not about your quality of life. It’s not about your jobs. It’s about some phony ideal, some phony theology. Oh, not a theology based on the Bible, a different theology.

I couldn't hear any head scratching at the end, but there was lots of cheering. The crowd seemed to get what Santorum was saying. Now, if you've ever heard anyone criticize some environmentalists, you've probably heard that criticism allege that extreme environmentalism seems like a religion or a false belief system. (If you really want your mind blown, check out this excellent book that takes on both environmentalists and economists, titled "The New Holy Wars: Economic Religion Versus Environmental Religion in Contemporary America.")

Sometimes people talk about theology in a political sense and no one gets mad. You can see some examples of President Clinton talking about politicians' theology here. Or you can go all the way back to a December 13 press briefing, when President Obama's press secretary said: "Now, what we have seen from Republicans in Congress is the promulgation of this idea that passing a tax cut for middle-class Americans is somehow a favor they would be doing for the President of the United States. Most of my adult life, the Republican theology has been tax cuts for everyone are the highest priority. "

So while crowds who go to political rallies understood what Santorum was saying, and while the media don't react in a crazy fashion when certain people use the term theology, in this case, that didn't happen. They utterly flipped out. On Face the Nation, CBS’s Bob Schieffer said:

BOB SCHIEFFER: The Associated Press led its story of your appearance in Columbus, Ohio, by saying, quote, "Rick Santorum questioned Barack Obama's Christian values." That was after you lashed out at the President's proposal on energy of all things when you said this.

RICK SANTORUM (Republican Presidential Candidate/Former Pennsylvania Senator): It's not about you. It's not about you. It's not about your quality of life. It's not about your jobs.

MAN: Right.

RICK SANTORUM: It's about some phony ideal, some phony theology. Oh, not a theology based on the Bible, a different theology.

(Crowd applauding)

BOB SCHIEFFER: So, Senator, I've got to ask you. What-- what in the world were you talking about, Sir?

Note the "of all things" and "what in the world were you talking about, Sir," drama. Come on.

Others took similar approaches. Here's the Detroit Free Press and here's how the Los Angeles Times led its piece on the issue:

Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum denied Sunday that he had questioned President Obama's Christian faith, but said the president held an environmental belief "that elevates the Earth above man."

Santorum was quoted Saturday as telling an audience in Ohio that although he accepted the president's Christianity, he believed Obama adhered to "some phony theology. Not a theology based on the Bible. A different theology."

There's really no defense for taking these remarks out of context to make them look like he was going after President Obama's religion. Well, I say there's no defense, but you can watch Howie Kurtz defend it here. Or read Howie Kurtz defending it here.

It's gotten to the point that when a reporter or pundit says that Santorum said something, I don't even react until I find the actual thing he said and read it or watch it myself. It's not like Santorum doesn't give people plenty of religion and values stuff to discuss. There's no need to make up additional instances of it. And there's not really a need to dig back into the past to find religious comments he made as a private citizen and presenting them as if they were uttered yesterday on the campaign trail.

I get that many in the media loathe and despire Santorum with a passion they haven't felt in a few years. Some have told me this themselves. But their job isn't to get people to love or hate Santorum but, simply, to report on what he has actually said, in context, and to tell us how voters respond to it. They don't need to manufacture a story and they would do well to spend more time listening to how his message goes over with voters than telling everyone what they should think about it.

A bad example of this might be Charles Babington's piece for the Associated Press or this piece by Politico. Better examples come from Nate Silver of the New York Times and this campaign trail piece from the Wall Street Journal. On that note, you may also be interested in this conservative column arguing that the media ignore Democratic statements about religion because of a double standard.

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