I have been away from my computer keyboard, for the most part, this past weekend due to (a) what amounted to the major-league baseball playoffs starting early and (b) long flights from Southern California back to the hills of Tennessee, via Detroit for some reason known only to the airline gods.
It is that second activity -- sojourns in airports and airplanes -- that is relevant to my strong reaction to the USA Today political feature that ran under the headline, "A sharpened debate: Is it ethical to not vote this year for president?"
You see, I made that journey while wearing a t-shirt containing this statement about the current White House race: "Giant Meteor 2016 -- Just End It Already." By no means did this represent a scientific poll of the electorate, but it did spark some interesting conversations. (Yes, my #NeverTrump #NeverHillary stance remains intact.)
Here is the bottom line: I have no idea how USA Today published an update on the whole "lesser of two evils" angle of the current White House campaign without mentioning religion and, in particular, the plight of conservative Catholics, evangelical Protestants and members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Among frequent occupants of pews, the argument I keep reading and hearing can be stated like this: Yes, no one knows what Donald Trump will do since he is a reckless, unstable gambler with ethics as deep as an oil slick. However, on issues linked to the First Amendment and religious freedom (think U.S. Supreme Court) everyone knows that the only thing certain about Hillary Rodham Clinton is that she is a fierce warrior for the cultural left.
Here at GetReligion, we have been urging reporters to dig into the true Catholic swing vote -- which is Catholics who regularly attend Mass. I would assume the patterns there are similar to those found among evangelicals by Pew Research Center professionals when they did that poll showing (as covered by Christianity Today):
More than three-quarters of self-identified white evangelicals plan to vote for Donald Trump in the fall (78%). But they aren’t happy about it.
According to a Pew Research Center survey of 1,655 registered voters released today, more than half of white evangelicals said they weren’t satisfied with their ballot options (55%), reflecting the feeling of Americans at large (58%). And 45 percent of white evangelicals said they meant their vote as opposition to Hillary Clinton, not as an endorsement of Trump.
This is not, of course, the only "lesser of two evils" debate taking place in America right now. You just know that Bernie Sanders voters -- including many "Nones" -- are pretty torn up, as well.
But my point remains: How did the USA Today team end up with a story that ignored religious and cultural issues while probing the angst in large parts of the electorate? Here is the overture:
The most controversial presidential campaign in modern American history has sharpened a long-standing debate: Is it ethical to not vote?
More than 92 million Americans who were eligible to vote four years ago didn't cast ballots. But politics in the Age of Trump has prompted editorial writers, Democratic partisans and even some Republicans to argue that Donald Trump is so unacceptable as a potential commander in chief that citizens have a heightened duty to show up to cast their ballot against him.
Some Trump supporters, presumably including those who chant "Lock her up!" at GOP rallies, feel the same way about Hillary Clinton.
"Let's be clear: Elections aren’t just about who votes, but who doesn’t vote," first lady Michelle Obama said last week at a Clinton campaign rally at La Salle University in Philadelphia, with a cautionary message aimed at Millennials. "And if you vote for someone other than Hillary, or if you don’t vote at all, then you are helping to elect Hillary’s opponent. And the stakes are far too high to take that chance, too high."
Wait a minute. So only the "Lock her up!" pro-Trump crowd has strong feelings that Clinton has, during her ink-soaked decades in public life, shown that she is a truly unique lightning rod for questions about ethics, honesty and controversies of every shape and size? Is this USA Today blast -- in a news feature, not an analysis -- an accurate summary of the views of many evangelical and Catholic leaders who have consistently expressed dismay about Trump and Clinton 2.0?
When outlining the basic "lesser of two evils" formula, here is what readers were given in this story:
Trump's temperament -- criticism of Muslim-American Gold Star parents, a late-night Twitter storm against a former beauty queen -- and policy views that include skepticism of the NATO alliance and admiration for Russian President Vladimir Putin have fueled alarm even among some life-long Republicans about whether he should be trusted with the nation's highest office. Former president George H.W. Bush and 2012 presidential nominee Mitt Romney are among those who have said they won't vote for Trump.
But concerns about Clinton, including questions about her honesty and trustworthiness, have complicated the calculations by some voters about just whom to support. All that has boosted Libertarian candidate Gary Johnson, whose 7.3% level of support in the RealClearPolitics average of recent nationwide surveys is higher than any third-party candidate on Election Day since Ross Perot in 1996.
When both major-party candidates get negative ratings from most Americans, will more voters just stay home?
Let me be clear: I am not saying that religious issues are all that matters here. No way. I am saying that when you look at the American electorate, especially frequent voters, it's hard to ignore the fact that many religious believers are feeling conflicted in 2016. Some are mad at God, these days.
The USA Today team framed this story in terms of ethics and morality. For millions of Americans, might religion have something to do with that? Look at these Pew numbers:
In a Pew study released this summer ... two-thirds called the tone of the campaign too negative, and only four in 10 were satisfied with their choices, the lowest level in two decades. Just one in 10 said either candidate would make a good president. Four in 10 said neither would.
Those are stunning numbers. As I said in a column back in the spring, what people have been fearing is:
... the choice is between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. Period.
"That's the scenario people I know are talking about and arguing about," said Stephen P. White of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C., author of the book "Red, White, Blue and Catholic."
Many religious conservatives believe they "face a choice between two morally repugnant candidates," he added. "The reality of that choice is starting to drive some people into despair. … I understand that, but I think it would be wrong for people to think that they need to abandon politics simply because they are disgusted with this election."
How did the USA Today team end up with a faith-free piece on this topic? Maybe they have been reading the Washington Post political coverage?