Challenge No. 1: Write a history of conservative political life in the post-Roe v. Wade era -- focusing on the Republican Party in particular -- without mentioning the role of cultural and religious conservatives.
Do you think historians could pull that off?
Challenge No. 2: Write a news feature about the GOP race for the White House in 2016 without mentioning the role of religious conservatives -- white evangelical Protestants and traditional Catholics, in particular -- in the primary battles between Citizen Donald Trump, Sen. Ted Cruz, etc. Do you think journalists could write such a story without including strong references to the prominent role of evangelical leaders in the #NeverTrump camp, as well as old-guard Religious Right folks in team Trump?
Actually, we sort of know that political-desk journalists at the Washington Post can meet that challenge, or one very similar to it. You see, they have already done that. See this earlier post: "Hey Washington Post czars: Evangelicals and Catholics are irrelevant in #NeverTrump camp?"
Now, here is Challenge No. 3: Go to Denver and cover the RedState Gathering for conservative leaders -- note that Trump was not invited -- and produce a report that includes zero information about the views of #NeverTrump religious and cultural conservatives.
Yes! The Washington Post political-desk pros are up to that challenge as well! See the recent feature that ran with this headline: "Once in control of their party, conservatives agonize over the election and beyond."
What does the word "conservative" mean in that equation? Honestly, after reading the story several times, I have no idea. Here is the overture:
DENVER -- Glenn Beck had traveled across the country to stop Donald Trump from winning the Republican nomination. He didn’t succeed.
Pacing the stage here at the RedState Gathering, a conference for conservative activists being held this weekend, Beck acknowledged that many Republicans would vote for Trump to stop Hillary Clinton from winning the presidency.
“I know, as a recovering alcoholic, that the truth will set you free,” Beck said Friday. “This election is between two choices that suck.”
Hundreds of conservative activists and bloggers cheered. None of them booed. With fewer than 90 days to go before the election, an annual event that usually revs up Republicans had become a therapy session on the agony of 2016.
At the heart of this story is the idea that there are people who are more loyal to a core set of conservative causes and principles than they are to the Republican Party, as an institution. Forced to choose between their beliefs and party loyalty, these people are going to abandon the GOP ship or, at the very least, simply stay home on election day.
Note this quote:
“I’m a conservative before I’m a Republican,” said Matt Schlapp, the chairman of the American Conservative Union. “It’s our philosophy that guides us, not the elephant. I’m happy to help the elephant when he’s right. ..."
Now, what were the core issues that mattered the most to folks at the RedState Gathering? What were the issues that prevented them from biting their tongues and going along with Trump? This story contains zero information on that front, other than:
“The single greatest threat to national security is sitting in the Oval Office,” John Bolton, the former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, said at the end of a long indictment of the Obama administration’s foreign policy. “The second-greatest threat is coming right behind him, unless things change dramatically.”
Later there is a reference to free-market economic reforms.
So that's it? This story keeps talking about the Republican Party "base" and its loyal, grass-roots supporters. Yes, there are economic issues, and national-security issues, that drive many conservatives, but are those the only grass-roots issues worth mentioning?
To cut to the chase, the Post team -- in a story about conservatives who are shunning Trump -- found no one who was talking about religious liberty, abortion, educational issues and other cultural topics.
Yet note that the "highest-profile speakers," according to this report, were Beck -- a convert to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints -- and Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.), a hero of religious and cultural conservatives who was the dream #NeverTrump third-party candidate after Trump's victory in the primaries.
So I will ask: What did Sasse talk about? Were there quotes in his speech that focused on core conservative issues that separated the angry, mourning people at this gathering from enthusiastic Trump followers (as opposed to people who may vote for him with great fear and trembling)? By the way, if anyone out there has found Sasse's RedState text, I would -- as a religion-beat columnist -- love to look it over.
What about Beck? Did he focus on politics and politics alone, as opposed to moral and cultural issues? I would bet the bank that the answer is "no."
It appears that, rather than covering the actual topics discussed at the RedState Gathering, the Post editors requested a story based on a reporter walking around asking the same old political horse-race questions -- since that's the story readers were given.
But here is the key question, even if one is focusing on the GOP's political future: What are the largest groups in the party's ballot-box base, as opposed to its wealthy donor base?
This brings me back to Challenge No. 1. How do you write about the grass-roots base for conservative causes in American politics without paying at least some attention to moral, cultural and religious issues and the people who care about them?
At least one passage in this story seemed haunted by issues of religious liberty and freedom of conscience. Check this out:
Cruz did not attend the conference, telling organizers that he previously committed to a family vacation. But the 45-year-old senator’s political future was never far from the RedState discussion. Asked about Cruz’s speech at the Republican National Convention, at which he was heckled for refusing to endorse Trump, Beck said he had called to thank him for doing it. Cruz, he said, had acted in the tradition of Charles Sumner, the anti-slavery senator beaten with a cane by pro-slavery Democrats, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German pastor who returned home from America to oppose the Nazis.
So here's my final question: Why did Post editors send a reporter to cover the RedState Gathering if they were not interested in the actual contents of that meeting?
Don't Post editors understand that there are conservative people who care about religious, cultural and moral principles more than they care about the GOP and its prospects in a political horse race?
It would appear not.