Moore church-state wars: Can political reporters cover legal clashes between God and man?

So, you thought that members of the national political press had problems doing balanced, accurate coverage of wild-man candidate Donald Trump?

Get ready for the Handmaid's Tale 2.0 coverage of U.S. Senate candidate Roy Moore, the controversial (that overused term applies here) former Alabama chief justice. This guy can turn Acela zone reporters into pillars of salt just by standing at a podium and smiling.

Now, I realize that in this day and age many reporters have little or no journalistic incentive to listen to Moore and to try and understand what he is saying, from his point of view and that of his supporters. Frankly, this man makes me nervous, too.

However, I do think there are steps journalists can take in order to provide coverage of his candidacy that escapes the boundaries of Acela zone group-think. With that in mind, here is the thought for the day.

One may well ask: "How can you advocate breaking some laws and obeying others?" The answer lies in the fact that there are two types of laws: just and unjust. I would be the first to advocate obeying just laws. One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws. ...
Now, what is the difference between the two? How does one determine whether a law is just or unjust? A just law is a man made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God. An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law.

No, that isn't Moore. That's the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., in his famous "Letter from a Birmingham Jail."

No, I am not comparing Moore with King. I am also not saying that Moore's understanding of moral, just and, dare I say, even "natural" law is the same as that of King. However, don't be surprised if, during his campaign, Moore reads that Birmingham passage and praises it, big time. Reporters should get ready.

Thus, what I am saying that it would be good to get professional religion writers involved in this story. Right now. Why? Because arguments about conflicts between God's law and the laws of the state have been going on for centuries (including this famous First Things package in 1996) and this is a topic worthy of serious reporting. It would be good to have a reporter involved who (a) speaks that church-state language, (b) has solid contacts with articulate Moore supporters and (c) knows liberal and conservative church historians who are up to speed on this topic.

The bottom line: It's time to transcend shallow stereotypes. After all, this man is wild enough on his own. So reporters, how many conservative church-state experts do you have on speed dial? You also realize that, when it comes to Moore's views, there are multiple points of view on the legal and religious right?

So with that in mind, let's look at some of the language in elite-media coverage of Moore's primary victory. The CNN report opened like this:

Roy Moore, the bombastic evangelical Christian who was twice ousted as Alabama's chief justice, has beaten Sen. Luther Strange in a Republican primary.

OK, I think I'll pass on that one. Who is the religion-beat specialist at CNN these days?

Let's try The New York Times, even through coverage of Moore clearly brings that powerful newsroom's Kellerism doctrines into play. To my surprise, this opening salvo was somewhat -- repeat "somewhat" -- restrained. It also contained, near the top, a crucial angle for future coverage.

MONTGOMERY, Ala. -- Roy S. Moore, a firebrand former chief justice of the Alabama Supreme Court, overcame efforts by top Republicans to rescue his rival, Senator Luther Strange, soundly defeating him on Tuesday in a special primary runoff.
The outcome in the closely watched Senate race dealt a humbling blow to President Trump and other party leaders days after the president pleaded with voters in the state to back Mr. Strange.
Propelled by the stalwart support of his fellow evangelical Christians, Mr. Moore survived an advertising onslaught of more than $10 million financed by allies of Senator Mitch McConnell, the majority leader. His victory demonstrated in stark terms the limits of Mr. Trump’s clout.
Taking the stage after a solo rendition of “How Great Thou Art,” an exultant Mr. Moore said he had “never prayed to win this campaign,” only putting his political fate “in the hands of the Almighty.”

You have to love that "How Great Thou Art" musical detail, although it would have helped to let blue-zip code readers know that this song (think Billy Graham crusades) is about God, not Moore. I'm not sure many Manhattan folks could hum a few bars of that gospel classic.

A few paragraphs later there is this:

In a race that began as something of a political afterthought and ended up showcasing the right’s enduring divisions, the victory by Mr. Moore, one of the most tenacious figures in Alabama politics, will likely embolden other anti-establishment conservatives to challenge incumbent Republicans in next year’s midterm elections.

Yes! Yes, there are divisions on the right that matter here and, frankly, they aren't linked to Trump. The big story here is the growing schism between big-business libertarians and cultural conservatives. Also, and I stress, not all cultural conservatives like Moore's approach on some issues.

So, journalists, please offer serious coverage of the divisions on the moral, cultural, political and economic right. Get that long-promised New York Times heartland religion-beat specialist to work on that angle right now.

Over at The Washington Post, there was a summary of Moore pronouncements that is a sign of things to come. These are precisely the kinds of issues editors need to watch carefully and, who knows, they may even consider the radical possibility that they do not completely understand Moore's views. Thus:

... In significant ways, his campaign differed from any other Senate effort in recent memory. On the stump, Moore made his belief in the supremacy of a Christian God over the Constitution the central rallying point of his campaign. ...
In three books, Moore has described his legal opinion that the United States was founded as a Christian nation that ultimately answered to the “laws of nature and nature’s God,” a phrase contained in the Declaration of Independence. As a judge, Moore refused to obey a federal court order to remove from his courthouse a monument to the Ten Commandments he had installed to underscore his belief. He was removed from his job as a result.
In a 2002 legal opinion, he described homosexual conduct as “an inherent evil,” and he has argued that the 2015 U.S. Supreme Court decision that legalized same-sex marriage should not be considered the rule of law. He was suspended from Alabama’s court a second time for defying the higher court’s marriage decision, and he later decided to retire from the bench.

OK, here is a starting point. What is the difference between Moore's statement that homosexual conduct is "an inherent evil" and the statement in the Catholic Catechism describing homosexual sex as a "grave depravity," acts that are "intrinsically disordered." That is theological language, of course. Thus, is Southern Baptist Moore speaking in terms of sins or crimes when he uses this kind of language? Maybe a religion-beat specialist could ask him?

The Post also offered a sidebar with this headline: "A short history of Roy Moore's controversial interpretations of the Bible." There are no surprises there, which is, to my way of thinking, not a good thing for readers on the left or the right.

However, the Post team should get some applause for this remarkable passage in the main story.

In downtown Montgomery, Mable Greenwood, 58, said she voted for Hillary Clinton in the 2016 election but was now supporting Moore. “The world, I don’t think it’s going to be here too much longer,” she said, explaining her attraction to Moore’s religious message. “Everything that the Bible said is going to happen -- it is happening.”

What are the odds? I want a longer interview with that woman. Don't you?

In conclusion, here are some challenges for elite journalists as this story kicks into higher gear, since this man is almost certainly headed to Beltway land.

Can you name three Baptist church-state experts on the left? Can you name three Baptist church-state experts on the right?

Now, here is the hard part: Can you name two or three church-state experts who are moral and cultural conservatives, yet are ready to offer views of Moore that are serious, but critical? Never forget that some of the most articulate criticisms of Trump have come from religious conservatives.

Stay tuned.

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