Parson me, while I dig into my deep file of GetReligion guilt. In this case, for a week or so I have been trying to decide how to write a post about a Washington Post political feature in which the charts are absolutely crucial to understanding the material I want to discuss.
The graphics themselves are crucial to this post, because they contain information about religious and cultural issues that really didn't make it into the story.
In other words, to put this in GetReligion language, the religion-news "ghost" that I think will interest journalists and news consumers see can be seen more clearly in these charts than in the quotable material in the Post feature itself, which ran with the headline, "What a divided America actually hears when Obama speaks." I cannot, of course, cut and paste the charts over into this post.
So here's what needs to happen. First we will look at the opening of the piece and then you'll need to click over to the Post piece -- which we always urge readers to do anyway, to see context -- and look at the charts themselves. The overture for this long piece is as follows:
As President Obama spoke of the country’s deepening sense of alienation and anger last month, a teacher in Michigan listened, her eyes fixed on the stone-faced Republicans in the House chamber who in her view represented the problem. “Let’s get over the party lines and work together!” she tweeted during the president’s State of the Union address.
In Maryland, a retired lawyer was listening to the exact same words. He, too, was worried about the anger and division gripping the country, but as Obama spoke, his resentment toward the president only swelled. “Hearing him complain about political rancor is frankly nauseating,” he wrote.
The two tweets flashed across the Internet within seconds of each other, each in their own way capturing the country’s mood and the challenge facing the president in his final months in office -- not simply a partisan divide, but a deep mistrust that has become so entrenched that it seems to affect the very way Americans hear the president’s words and see each other.
Instead of focusing on how people perceive Obama's words, the charts that ran with this piece focus on how Americans on the left and the right do not understand some of the basic facts that define their two camps. In some cases, Republicans do not even understand Republicans and Democrats do not even understand Democrats.
What am I talking about? Click here and go look the charts over.
Yes, there are issues here of race, age and income (look at that amazing chart on the stunningly inaccurate views on how many Republicans are rich). But look at the central role of questions linked to religion and moral/cultural issues.
Case in point: Republicans believe that 36 percent of Democrats are atheists/agnostics, while Democrats put that number at 25 percent. The reality: 9 percent.
Democrats believe that 44 percent of Republicans are evangelical Protestants, while Republicans put that number at 43. That's a rare moment of agreement. The reality: 34 percent.
Republicans believe that 38 percent of all Democrats are gay, while Democrats put that number at 29. The reality: 6 percent.
Look at those charts again. Look at the stereotypes built into them!
The Post piece goes on to argue -- hello sociologist James Davison Hunter -- that Americans on both sides of this moral and cultural divide simply do not speak the same language when they attempt to communicate (if they ever make the attempt).
I was reminded, of course, of Hunter's influential 1992 book "Culture Wars: The Struggle to Define America." Since that phrase -- "culture wars" -- has been abused and twisted so often, I think it's crucial to pause and look back at how Hunter defined the term.
This passage is from my 10th anniversary "On Religion" column in 1998, which was a tribute to Hunter. He is talking about the church-state legal battles of the mid-1990s.
"We were witnessing a fundamental realignment in American religious pluralism," said James Davison Hunter of the University of Virginia. "Divisions that were deeply rooted in our civilization were disappearing, divisions that had for generations caused religious animosity, prejudice and even warfare. It was mind-blowing. The ground was moving."
The old dividing lines centered on issues such as the person of Jesus Christ, church tradition and the Protestant Reformation. But these new interfaith coalitions were fighting about something even more basic -- the nature of truth and moral authority.
Two years later, Hunter began writing "Culture Wars: The Struggle to Define America," in which he declared that America now contains two basic world views, which he called "orthodox" and "progressive." The orthodox believe it's possible to follow transcendent, revealed truths. Progressives disagree and put their trust in personal experience, even if that requires them to "resymbolize historic faiths according to the prevailing assumptions of contemporary life."
That's a crucial point and that division is real and its getting worse, even in debates at the U.S. Supreme Court.
But here is my point today, looking at those two Post charts: Many of these bitter social and political wars are also being fueled by bad, inaccurate information about people on both sides.
Now journalists: Where would Americans get such horribly inaccurate information about basic religious and moral facts about the two political parties?
Do you think that American citizens are just making up these errors on their own? Or might these errors be built on how Americans on the left and right are being portrayed in news and entertainment media? Where else could this information, these nasty stereotypes, come from?
So then you take a set of flawed facts related to these stereotypes (Like, oh, American evangelicals from coast to coast are marching lockstep with Donald Trump) and you add lots of partisan paranoia and you have a nation in which political discourse is all but impossible.
I am not saying that media professionals, alone, are to blame here. But how do you get to the "facts" in those charts without the content of the news playing a major role?