Well, at least the Dallas Morning News was kinda nice to Liberty University. In the lede to its story on Ted Cruz in New Hampshire, the newspaper called it a "huge evangelical Christian college." Once upon a time, many mainstream media routinely slapped Liberty with the "F" word: "Fundamentalist."
But the paper doesn't prove its claim that Cruz sounded less evangelical, more secular in his New Hampshire visit to sound more presidential. It therefore pushes a related stereotype: that Americans don’t particularly like evangelicals.
DMN paints Cruz as a conservative's conservative as well as an evangelical's evangelical. It says the believers' bloc can be active and ardent, but that Cruz will have to broaden his appeal to win the White House:
Cruz’s initial focus on the evangelical vote made tactical sense. In a large, splintered Republican field, having a base to build from could be critical. But there’s a pitfall: By focusing so tightly on social conservatives, he could alienate others, ending up with a very enthusiastic sliver of the electorate.
“People I’ve talked to are excited about him. And yet there are some who are nervous, because of what he’s saying,” said Kathleen Lauer-Rago, chairwoman of the Merrimack County GOP.
The story tries to back up the assertion by citing exit polls in 2012, which showed that equal numbers of New Hampshire people (22 percent) are "very conservative" and "born-again Christians." However, it blurs the fact that "born-again" is not the same as "evangelical," a fact long brought out in Barna polls.
DMN also doesn't report whether the poll said it was the same people in both categories. The most we get is a Cruz supporter who says he and his family are "very conservative" and "conservative Christians." That doesn't prove, of course, that they're all alike.
Other Republican candidates are sized up as well in this story -- Scott Walker, Mitt Romney, Mike Huckabee -- but it mentions evangelical support only for Huckabee. In fact, as sociologist Tobin Grant has pointed out, as many believers voted for Romney in 2012 as for the more "evangelical" candidate, Rick Santorum.
The DMN piece comes close to promoting another stereotype, of the gruff, aging conservative Christian. The main photo shows pot-bellied old men in VFW hats clapping at a conservative rally in Merrimack, N.H. And quoted sources are said to be 47, 64 and 69 years old. Only at the very end does the story add a 20-year-old college student in Cruz' camp.
At least we get a good sampling of the issues Cruz has been highlighting: taxes, national security, the national debt, gun rights, religious freedom and repealing Obamacare. But we learn little on how he supposedly played these up while downplaying faith matters.
Even after setting up evangelicals as radioactive beings that could taint Cruz' presidential chances, the DMN story quotes Kathleen Lauer-Rago, the GOP officer, that New Hampshire voters share Cruz' talking points. "I don’t think he’s pigeonholed himself at all," she concludes. Well, then, who has been trying to pigeonhole Ted? Political writers, perhaps?
Sociologist Grant challenges the whole image of religious Republicans, saying bluntly, "There is no evangelical movement within the GOP." Blogging for the Religion News Service, Grant says that evangelicals hold some beliefs in common, and they have strong leaders who try to muster political clout. But he says they're not organized as, say, Sierra Club or the NAACP.
Grant even starts sounding like we often do at GetReligion:
This idea that evangelicals would somehow back a candidate simply because some religious-turned-political celebrity said so is more than myth. It is an insulting, offensive stereotype of evangelicals as sheep who believe and act in response to what they’re told. They couldn’t be thoughtful voters (or as thoughtful as any other voter) who decide to back candidates without the aid of pastors or pundits. Evangelicals as loyal, dim-witted followers is a stereotype that continues to exist despite clear evidence to the contrary.
I'll have to say that the Dallas story is more even-handed than some. The Daily Beast ran a dim appraisal for Cruz, by Jacob Lupfer, a political science student at Georgetown University. He says that "party insiders" always ending up choosing who runs for president.
"Unfortunately for Cruz, there is little reason to believe that the Republican Party is going to nominate someone who looks and talks like a televangelist," Lupfer says snidely. "The nominee ends up being someone the party feels is a safer bet for the general election but whose religious commitment evangelicals greet with private, and sometimes public, skepticism."
But neither Dallas nor the Beast reflect actual American views of religious groups. A Pew Forum survey last year found that most feel warm toward evangelicals, just a point or two south of Jews and Catholics. Lowest on the totem are Muslims and atheists.
The DMN story has so many holes, so many assumptions, I'm tempted to say it has social and political variants of tmatt's original religious "ghosts." Perhaps the writer felt free to analyze more freely because the story ran under a "Politics" label. But it would have been packaged better as opinion or commentary.
Photo: Senator Ted Cruz speaks at the 2014 Conservative Political Action Conference in National Harbor, Md. Image via Shutterstock.