U.S. Supreme Court

Did America just undergo a massive pro-life lurch? Reporters should interpret polls carefully

Did America just undergo a massive pro-life lurch? Reporters should interpret polls carefully

Axios, always atop breaking news trends, posted a bold headline Feb. 24 that announced “New Poll Finds ‘Dramatic Shift’ on Abortion Attitudes.”

The February poll showed Americans are evenly split between those identifying as “pro-choice” and as “pro-life,” tied at 47 percent, while only a month before the same pollster reported pro-choicers outnumbered pro-lifers, 55 percent to 38 percent.  

The Axios article recycled a press release from the polls’ sponsor, the Knights of Columbus, that proclaimed "in just one month Americans have made a sudden and dramatic shift away from the prochoice position and toward a pro-life stance.” See January release here and February release here.

Abortion attitudes remain as politically and religiously potent today as they’ve been the past 46 years, so reporters are ever alert to trends. But should the media be reporting that thinking across the fruited plain lurched from a big gap to a tie between Jan. 8-10 and Feb. 12-17, the survey dates? 

What are the odds? Democrats’ recent advocacy for unpopular late-term abortions alongside intimations of infanticide might be driving a modest pro-life uptick, but 17 points? 

With polls, journalists always need to be careful and assess the full context. The Religion Guy’s hunch here is that the fat abortion-rights majority in January was an outlier, and the February tie is pretty much representative of American thinking.  Why? See below. 

Preliminaries: The Knights, who paid for both the January and February polls, are ardently pro-life Catholics. However, they hired the well-regarded Marist Poll to run the survey and crunch the numbers. Despite its Catholic name and origin, sponsoring Marist College is officially non-sectarian. Technical note: the Knights did not reveal the polls’ response rates, an all-important factor. 

The Religion Guy maintains that February’s 47-47 tie is interesting but not the big news as trumpeted.

Enter the Gallup Poll, journalists’ invaluable gold standard for asking consistent religious and moral questions across many years. 

Gallup’s comprehensive compilation on abortion attitudes shows this version of the Marist question, asked 32 times since 1995: “Would you consider yourself to be pro-choice or pro-life?”

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New podcast: What if President Jeb Bush, not Donald Trump, had picked Brett Kavanaugh?

New podcast: What if President Jeb Bush, not Donald Trump, had picked Brett Kavanaugh?

Halfway into the radio segment that turned into this week’s “Crossroads” podcast (click here to tune that in), host Todd Wilken asked a totally logical question.

Oh, by the way, this was recorded while Brett Kavanaugh was still offering testimony. I was following the story online, while avoiding the emotion-drenched reality show airing on cable-TV news.

Backing away from the current headlines, Wilken noted that, these days, it seems like EVERYTHING in American politics — good or bad, sane or insane — is linked to Donald Trump. Is it possible that the take-no-prisoners war over the U.S. Supreme Court confirmation of Judge Kavanaugh is just another one of those stories?

My answer was linked to piece of aggregated news that just ran at The Week: “George W. Bush is reportedly working the phones for Kavanaugh.” Here’s the overture:

President Trump isn't the only one standing by his man.

With Brett Kavanaugh's Supreme Court nomination coming down to the wire, The Washington Post reports former President George W. Bush in recent days has been calling key senators to whip up support. …

Although The Washington Post's report doesn't clarify whether Bush made any calls after Thursday's hearing, the former president's chief of staff confirmed to Politico after the testimony that he still supports Kavanaugh, who worked in the Bush White House as staff secretary and assisted in the 2000 Florida recount.

In the Senate, Kavanaugh needs 50 votes to be confirmed, and with 51 Republican lawmakers, only two would need to break from the ranks for the nomination to go up in flames. Some of the key votes include Republican senators who aren't necessarily the biggest Trump fans, which is where the 43rd president comes in. And Bush isn't the only one working the phones, as Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) confirmed to The Wall Street Journal that she has received calls from both the former president and the former secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice.

What does this have to do with a discussion of media coverage of religion angles in this agonizing story (click here for my first post on this topic)?

Well, note this throwaway line in the block of material: “Some of the key votes include Republican senators who aren't necessarily the biggest Trump fans, which is where the 43rd president comes in.”

That’s stating it mildly.

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Friday Five: Missionary muckraker, Kavanaugh hearing, McCarrick crisis and more

Friday Five: Missionary muckraker, Kavanaugh hearing, McCarrick crisis and more

See how this title grabs you: "The Biblical Guide to Reporting."

Marshall Allen's commentary in the New York Times sparked quite a bit of discussion on social media this week.

Allen spent five years in Christian ministry before becoming a journalist. Now covering health care for ProPublica, he explains in his op-ed how he believes his faith makes him a better reporter.

"Some people might think that Christians are supposed to be soft and acquiescent rather than muckrakers who hold the powerful to account," Allen writes. "But what I do as an investigative reporter is consistent with what the Bible teaches."

The piece is definitely intriguing and worth a read.

Interestingly, the column grew out of a speech that Allen gave last year at The King's College in New York City. Read the full text (.pdf here).

Now, let's dive into the Friday Five:

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Brett Kavanaugh's Georgetown Catholicity wasn't a huge factor in first-day coverage

Brett Kavanaugh's Georgetown Catholicity wasn't a huge factor in first-day coverage

Well, there was no lack of faith talk during President Donald Trump’s announcement yesterday of his Supreme Court justice pick, and all of it was perfectly normal.

We heard the name of the Catholic parish nominee Brett Kavanaugh attends and the fact that he coaches a Catholic Youth Organization basketball team. We heard a little bit about his inspirational Georgetown educational ties.

The bottom line: I wondered why the nominee was so upfront about his faith. Some media outlets picked this up, but a lot did not.

Mother Jones got the same impression I did in an intriguing piece about the nominee's subliminal efforts to appeal to the social justice crowd.

Kavanaugh’s speech diverged from his predecessors in one key aspect: extensive reference to his Catholic faith, including a special shout-out to one of Washington, DC’s most beloved religious leaders, Monsignor John Enzler. 

Justice Neil Gorsuch, who attended the same Jesuit high school as Kavanaugh, vaguely thanked “my family, my friends and my faith” but failed to mention his Catholic upbringing when he accepted Trump’s nomination last year. Neither did Chief Justice John RobertsJustice Sonia Sotomayor, or Justice Clarence Thomas in their first remarks as nominees. Not even the late Justice Antonin Scalia, a proudly devout Catholic who counted a priest among his sons, mentioned religion during his swearing-in ceremony.

Kavanaugh brought up Catholicism at several points in his 857-word speech, but reserved special attention for John Enzler, known as “Father John,” a legend in DC Catholic circles. 

America Magazine, with its Jesuit ties, offered the best summary of the nominee’s Catholic bonafides: 

During his remarks, Mr. Kavanaugh highlighted his Catholic faith and Jesuit connections.

 “The motto of my Jesuit high school was ‘men for others,’” Mr. Kavanaugh said, referencing Georgetown Preparatory School, from which he graduated in 1983. “I have tried to live that creed.”


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When profiling ADF's Kristin Waggoner, why not include facts about her Pentecostal roots?

When profiling ADF's Kristin Waggoner, why not include facts about her Pentecostal roots?

In late 2005, back in my Washington Times days, I visited the Scottsdale, Ariz., offices of Alliance Defending Freedom, the legal firm that is best known today for litigating Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission and a wave of other important religious-liberty cases before the Supreme Court.

I was very much aware of them, as they were beginning to outdo other stalwarts  -- such as the Rutherford Institute and Jay Sekulow’s American Center for Law and Justice -- in the Christian legal arena. I was researching a piece on ways legal groups were mounting annual campaigns to “defend Christmas,” which ran here. (My byline has been removed, but that is my piece. At the time, the ADF was known as the Alliance Defense Fund.)

It took other media nearly a decade to wake up and discover the ADF. There’s Think Progress’s 2014 piece on the “800-pound Gorilla of the Christian Right;" a similar piece, also in 2014, by the New York Times; a 2016 mention by Politico, a 2017 piece by The Nation on “the Christian legal army” behind the Masterpiece case and more.

So I was interested to see yet another profile on the group; this time a spotlight on Kristin Waggoner, who has litigated ADF’s most high-profile cases this year, by Washington Post feature writer Jessica Contrera.

There were delicious details but major gaps. For example, try to find any specific, factual information about this woman's faith. Some excerpts:

Two days before the announcement of Justice Anthony M. Kennedy’s retirement, a woman who stood to gain from it was on the steps of the Supreme Court once again. Kristen Waggoner’s blond bob was perfectly styled with humidity-fighting paste she’d slicked onto it that morning at the Trump hotel. Her 5-foot frame was heightened by a pair of nude pumps, despite a months-old ankle fracture in need of surgery. On her wrist was a silver bracelet she’d worn nonstop since Dec. 5, 2017, the day she marched up these iconic steps, stood before the justices and argued that a Christian baker could legally refuse to create a cake for a gay couple’s wedding.

Her job was to be the legal mind and public face of Alliance Defending Freedom., an Arizona-based Christian conservative legal nonprofit better known as ADF. ...

Then follows some back story, then a pivot to Waggoner’s personal life.

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Beyond Roe, Bork and Trump: Can Americans find a way to discuss hot moral issues?

Beyond Roe, Bork and Trump: Can Americans find a way to discuss hot moral issues?

I am old enough that I can -- if I focus my mind really hard -- remember what our public discourse was like before the Supreme Court became the only issue in American politics that really, ultimately, mattered.

How did America become a nation in which dialogue and compromise is impossible? Why is the U.S. Supreme Court always ground zero on all of this? What role is the mainstream press playing in this painful equation, especially when covering news linked to religious, moral and cultural clashes?

These kinds of questions are at the heart of this week's "Crossroads" podcast (click here to tune that in), which focuses on the painful state of political life in this age of Donald Trump, an age in which the status of the high court is even more controversial than ever, with Kennedy's retirement serving as another fuse on this bomb. 

But let's back up a minute, to when old folks like me were young. 

Yes, the 1960s were wild times, of course. The war in Vietnam was incredibly divisive and the nation was rocked by assassinations. Tragic divisions over race were real and could not be ignored. 

Still, everything changed for millions of Americans on Jan. 22, 1973. From that moment on the status of Roe v. Wade -- political wars over defending or overturning that decision -- loomed over every nomination to the U.S. Supreme Court and every presidential election, as well. 

Then came October 23, 1987 and the vote on the nomination of Judge Robert Bork to the high court. Bork was a former Yale Law School professor (former students included Bill Clinton and Hillary Rodham) who embraced and taught originalism -- the legal theory that the U.S. Constitution should be interpreted as written by the founders.

If you want to catch the flavor of the debate over Bork, here is the famous statement by Sen. Ted Kennedy: 


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Is the open U.S. Supreme Court seat a religion story? Do we even need to ask that?

Is the open U.S. Supreme Court seat a religion story? Do we even need to ask that?

If you live in Washington, D.C., or have sojourned there in the past, then you know that a high percentage of folks in the Beltway chattering classes wake up every morning with a dose of Mike Allen.

This was true in his "Playbook" days at The Politico and it's true now that he has moved on to create the Axios website, which is must-reading in this troubled Donald Trump era.

So if you want to know what DC folks are thinking about -- after King Anthony Kennedy announced his retirement from the U.S. Supreme Court -- then it's logical to do a quick scan of Allen's punchy offerings today in the "Axios AM" digital newsletter (click here to see it in a browser). At this here weblog, that means looking for religion-beat hooks. It doesn't take a lot of effort to find them. For example:

Behind the scenes: Trump doesn’t personally care that much about some of the social issues, such as LGBT rights, energizing the Republican base over the Supreme Court.

But Trump knows how much his base cares about the court. He believes that releasing his list of potential court picks during the campaign was a masterstroke, and helped him win.

What part of the GOP base is Allen talking about? That's obvious. However, journalists covering this angle really need to see if many cultural conservatives are all that interested in rolling back gay-rights victories at the high court.

Most of the people I know understand that this ship has sailed, in post-Christian American culture, and they are primarily interested in seeing a strong court decision defending some kind of conscientious objection status and/or a clear rejection of government compelled speech and artistic expression. In other words, they would like to see an old-school liberal ruling on First Amendment grounds.

As I have said here many times, I know very, very few religious conservatives who wanted to vote for Trump. However, I heard lots of people say something like this: I don't know what Donald Trump is going to do. But I do know what Hillary Rodham Clinton is going to do. I'm going to have to take a risk. They were talking about SCOTUS and the First Amendment.

Back to Allen:

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Wall Street Journal offers think-piece-level 'Culture Wars' chat with James Davison Hunter

Wall Street Journal offers think-piece-level 'Culture Wars' chat with James Davison Hunter

When you hear someone start talking about America and our torrid "Culture Wars," what do you think?

You probably think of headlines like this one: "Disney doesn’t want to offend anyone. But it’s getting caught in the culture wars."

Or here is another one from a current search in Google News: "Constitutional fluke gives rural states extra clout in the culture wars."

OK, here's one more captures the legal side of so much of this coverage: "How Due Process Became a New Front in the Culture Wars."

So "Culture Wars" equals political battles over, well, cultural issues, things like abortion, gay rights, textbooks in Texas, sitcoms that mention Donald Trump, "liberals" shutting down free-speech forums and so forth and so on.

The problem is that very few of these "Culture Wars" stories have anything to do with the actual ideas in the classic 1991 book "Culture Wars: The Struggle to Define America" by sociologist James Davison Hunter. To be specific, new journalists ever get around to explaining Hunter's definition of this term.

So before we get to this weekend's "think piece" -- a Wall Street Journal (beware, high paywall) piece entitled, "The Man Who Discovered ‘Culture Wars’ " -- let's flash back to my 1998 "On Religion" salute to Hunter's book. The key is that Hunter 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."

I noted that this has become a fault line that "runs through virtually every set of pews in contemporary religious life." There is way more to this than political conflict:


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Has religion's image in the mainstream news media gotten better or worse?

Has religion's image in the mainstream news media gotten better or worse?

KEN’S QUESTION:

Is the picture of religion in the media generally better or worse (or both) than it was 25–30 years ago?

THE RELIGION GUY’S ANSWER:

Unquestionably worse.

To begin, let’s acknowledge that the media inevitably report more about the bad than the good news. We take for granted countless acts of charity quietly performed by religious agencies and individuals while the scandals hit page one. The following comes from an American viewpoint, though affected by circumstances in world religions.

Sadly, there’s gradually increasing suspicion in the U.S. not only toward “organized religion” but the other institutions whose authority and credibility sustain society. The Gallup Poll is the go-to source because it has asked consistent questions for decades about regard for institutions and vocational groups, not precisely Ken’s topic but relevant.

A Gallup survey of U.S. adults last June found 23 percent expressed “a great deal” of confidence in “the church or organized religion” plus another 18 percent with “quite a lot,” totaling 41 percent. That was a better showing than (in descending order) the Supreme Court, medical system, public schools, U.S. presidency, organized labor, news media, big business and Congress. Religion was exceeded only by the military (72 percent) and police (57 percent).

Not bad. But that was the worst esteem for religion since Gallup first asked this question in 1973, and a notable drop from the 60 percent as recently as 2001.

The same pattern occurred last December with Gallup’s perennial question about rating “the honesty and ethical standards” of different vocational groups. With 42 percent expressing “very high” or “high” regard for the clergy, they were outranked by eight other vocations, the worst number since the first such poll in 1977 and a drop from 64 percent in 2001.

The broadest status scenario came in 2014 from political scientist Tobin Grant at Southern Illinois University.

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