From Day 1, your GetReligionistas have argued that the mainstream press in American doesn't do a very good job of covering the religious beliefs of people in doctrinally liberal faith traditions.
Every now and then I hear from people who think I am joking whenever I say this (and I made this point once again during this week's Crossroads podcast, with host Todd Wilken).
I'm serious. First, let's do the obvious and look at this in political terms. Run an online search for "Religious Right," inside quote marks, and you get something like 680,000 hits. Run the same search in Google News and, at the moment, you get 57,100 hits.
Now do the same with "religious left" and you get 91,900 in the general search and 4,500 in the "news" search. Now, surf through that "news" file and you'll find that very, very few of these references are in the news pages of mainstream publications. Most are in commentary pieces.
Why this massive gap in information and coverage?
Part of the problem, of course, is that the "Religious Right" is viewed as a political movement -- thus the uppercase "R" style. We're talking about something unique and dangerous and part of the real world, which is politics, of course.
There really isn't a "religious left" in the eyes of most reporters because liberal, or progressive, oldline churches are not new and unique. They are normal, "mainline" churches and, on their own (especially the Episcopalians), make lots of news -- especially when changing their doctrines and practices to move to the doctrinal and cultural left. Glance through this list of the annual Religion Newswriters Association poll to pick the year's Top 10 news stories and you will see what I mean.
So news consumers are hearing about the Religious Right all the time, creating a feedback loop that keeps producing news coverage. However, just because churches on the right are getting lots of coverage doesn't mean that the public is getting accurate information about what those churches believe or about the interesting and complex fault lines inside the world of conservative faith. That's part of what the whole "Donald Trump is winning the evangelical vote" fiasco is all about (take it away Bobby Ross Jr.)
What is happening over in the liberal pews? Well, the public primarily hears about politics there, too, only not via coverage of a large movement. The liberal religious groups are just sort of normal. And what do they believe about actual doctrinal issues that shape their actions in politics and culture? Apparently they have no doctrines that are not linked to political issues, especially matters of gender and sexuality.
This is why I jumped on that recent Washington Post story about the communications gap that exists between Americans on the left and right. Americans in blue and red zip codes, or in the two major political parties, no longer speak the same language or, when using common words, they use completely different definitions. And, to be blunt, they are WAY OFF when it comes to their knowledge of basic facts about people on the other side of many public debates.
I urged readers to check out some fascinating -- alarming, even -- charts in that report. I summarized a few facts taken from them:
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!
Where did these horrible inaccuracies and stereotypes come from? At the end of that post I noted:
Now journalists ... 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 ... and you add lots of partisan paranoia and you have a nation in which political discourse is all but impossible.
That drew this private response from a reader with tons of mainstream journalism experience:
I've followed (GetReligion), well, religiously, for years. Your commentary today is right up there with the whole Kellerism post -- and I'd argue even more so -- as the most important GetReligion has ever posted.
Let me end by point readers toward another Washington Post feature -- it's about politics and religion, of course -- that does offer readers quite a bit of information about an important development on the secular-and-religious left in recent years. No surprise that this story is about the "Nones," or the growing camp of religiously unaffiliated Americans (click here for the famous Pew Research Center survey that launched this discussion).
The headline on this "Social Issues" report, written by a Godbeat veteran, is: "Meet the ‘Nones,’ the Democratic Party’s biggest faith constituency." Here's the overture:
A “troubled atheist,” the retired Virginia accountant calls himself spiritual, celebrates Christmas and defines religious as the need to “do good.” He says organized religion -- Christianity as well as Islam -- has “gone off the deep end” and political candidates who emphasize the rightness of a certain faith turn him off. At the same time, Stone calls himself “religiously open-minded.”
When Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders told a New Hampshire town hall last month that religion is a way of saying all people are connected, Stone agreed. “He is speaking directly to me,” he said.
Stone is part of a massive group of Americans who reject any label or affiliation to describe their faith. At 23 percent of the U.S. population, this left-leaning group called “Nones” are the Democratic parallel to the GOP’s white evangelicals -- except without organization, PACs, leadership and a clear agenda. They do, however, have one big expectation of political candidates: Be ethical, and go light on the God talk.
So what happens when the religious views of the Nones -- they clearly have doctrinal views on matters of morality and social ethics -- clash with, let's say, African-American Christians, Latino Pentecostals, blue collar labor folks, Sunday Mass Catholics and other key members of this Democratic coalition?
It would have been good to talk to experts on the left and right when contemplating that kind of question. Trust me, there are cultural conservatives paying close attention to the impact of the new Democratic power center created by Nones, atheists, agnostics and doctrinally liberal religious believers.
Maybe, just maybe, that kind of diversity in sourcing will be seen in a future Post report. Maybe.
Still, this important report does offer this:
With their socially liberal viewpoints, Nones will pull the Democrats to the left -- which is already happening with Sanders, said Mark Rozell, dean of the government and policy school at George Mason University and author of multiple books on religion and politics.
“It will make a profound change in American politics in the long run. Put up a candidate who challenges people’s right to love who they want and make decisions about their own lifestyles, and see what happens among the unaffiliated. A lot of other issues go to the back burner,” Rozell said.
If Sanders or Democratic rival Hillary Clinton start talking too much about religion as the race veers South, among Nones that would be “dangerous,” he said.
Nones talk about tolerance, fairness, choice and “making the world a better place.” In interviews some describe their worldview as being more authentically holy than people who cite Scripture and denominational labels.
That's a start.