One of the best strategies journalists can use when dealing with religious people -- especially those with intense and even unusual, beliefs -- is to give these folks some time and space in which to explain what they do believe (and often what they do NOT believe). I have been waiting for a major news publication to attempt this approach with supporters of Todd Akin's stunningly strange beliefs on conception and rape, if such people can be found and accurately quoted. You see, there is a rather obvious reason that so many pro-life leaders have been distancing themselves from Akin's claim -- all together now -- that "legitimate rape" rarely results in pregnancies because the "female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down." Reason No. 1 is that they were appalled at his words. Reason No. 2 is that they had no idea what he was talking about. I mean, I've been a pro-life Democrat ever since the famous 1980 Sojourners issue about abortion and I have never heard anyone, on the pro-life left or right, say what Akin said.
Thus, I was intrigued when I saw the Washington Post headline that proclaimed, "Todd Akin’s rape comments find sympathy among conservative women in his district."
Now, obviously, if that headline is going to stand up, the Post team needs to deliver some on-the-record quotes from, well, conservative women in his district who -- this is the key -- agree with his "rape comments." I mean, "find sympathy" is rather mushy, but it certainly sounds like another way of stating agreement.
On one level, this story pulls off part of this equation. The Post team successfully quotes some culturally and politically conservative women -- Sharon Barnes and Janice DeWeese -- who continue to support Akin's candidacy.
But do they agree with his statements on "legitimate rape"? Pay close attention:
In many ways, the two women, and others who would drop by as the day went on, are the audience that liberal America understands the least and that Ann Romney, wife of Mitt Romney, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, will be addressing in her speech at the convention in Tampa on Tuesday night: conservative women whose energy and turnout are crucial to her husband’s campaign. ...
“So you’re not upset about the ‘war on women’?” joked a man in a golf shirt who stopped by for a Romney bumper sticker, referring to the slogan Democrats have used to cast Republicans as hostile to women.
“Do we look battle-scarred?” DeWeese quipped.
“We’re doing perfectly fine,” said Barnes, who was cheery -- considering that she’d recently been called a “monster” and a “blasphemous disgrace,” and had her soul condemned to hell for defending Akin after he said in an interview that in instances of “legitimate rape,” pregnancy is rare because women’s bodies somehow shut it down. His remarks were quickly discredited by many doctors and provoked condemnation from across the nation, including from Romney. But they found sympathy here in Akin’s solidly conservative 2nd Congressional District.
Barnes, a local Republican committeewoman, told a reporter that if a woman is raped and becomes pregnant, then God has “blessed this person with a life” that should not be taken.
“I didn’t mean a loving gift,” Barnes later clarified. “The whole concept of rape is so violent, so horrific. I was just trying to say -- it’s just hard to express that the child should not be punished.”
What Barnes is defending -- the belief that a child conceived in rape is innocent and deserving of life -- is very traditional doctrine among Catholics and other consistently pro-life believers. This is a hard, but consistent, statement.
Now stop and think about this for a moment. How does a woman become pregnant after a rape if God has somehow created some kind of "legitimate rape" safety mechanism? Barnes is saying that rape is rape, but any children conceived after these violent and evil acts still deserve a chance at life. If Barnes supported Akin's strange rape stance, she must have done so in some other statement -- not the one quoted in the Post. If anything, the logic of her statement rejects what Akin said.
Later on, there is this second encounter with these women on the same matter, as another conservative woman, Betty Rottler, is pulled into the conversation:
Rottler said that for her, being a conservative woman had to do with being a Christian and a Catholic woman, with upholding a moral order that places respect for life at the center. She said she is against abortion and against the death penalty. She is against anything that in her view degrades the value of life.
“All this premarital sex everywhere, all these abortions, all this violence just becoming normal,” she said. “It doesn’t make any sense to me.”
She looked out across the grassy fairground, where there were booths for the Girl Scouts, for beer, for funnel cakes and for a cellulite-reduction system promising women that it would “bring your sexy back.”
To Rottler’s way of thinking, American culture has become too indulgent, too reckless with life. Sexual permissiveness has cheapened a woman’s value. Legalized abortion, she believes, has allowed a woman to kill an essential part of herself.
OK, did anyone hear this Catholic woman affirm Akin's controversial words on rape?
Just checking. As the story ends, there is this one final opportunity for a quote or two that might support the thesis stated in the headline:
A young man walked up.
“So what do you all think about Akin?” he asked.
“Well, he’s our candidate,” Barnes said once again.
“I mean about what he said,” the young man persisted.
“We’ve moved on,” Barnes said, and soon it was 5 p.m.
Now, raise your hand if you think that "We've moved on" represents support for Akin's view on rape. To me, it sounds like these women are supporting his candidacy in spite of what he said, not because of what he said. You know, kind of like African-American churchgoers who will pull that lever and vote for President Barack Obama, even though they disagree with him on most issues linked to marriage, family and culture. These GOP women know what Akin said about rape and it appears -- based on their words -- that they disagree with him on that issue, but still plan to vote for him.
So where in the world did that Post headline come from? If you are going to let believers talk, it really pays to listen to what they actually have to say.