Separation of church and scrutiny
Only exotic and obscure religions get a free pass from liberal press
Of all the double standards that define the left-leaning political media, perhaps the most glaring involves the separate standards it uses in covering candidates’ religious beliefs. Candidates who are members of exotic or obscure religions regularly escape scrutiny. But faithful adherents to mainstream religions are heavily scrutinized and, at times, are attacked for their beliefs, which are routinely portrayed as strange or dangerous.
There has been a lot of talk about the prejudice and discrimination Mitt Romney would have to endure as the first viable Mormon presidential candidate, but details of the presidential front-runner’s faith have barely been discussed.
There seems to be an unspoken agreement in the media that Mormonism, which even Mr. Romney recently acknowledged “is an unusual religion in a number of respects” — is off-limits.
Mr. Romney is not alone. In 2006, Keith Ellison became the first Muslim elected to Congress. Only five years removed from Sept. 11 and with the U.S. engaged in two wars against Islamists, the Minnesota lawmaker might have expected his faith to be a liability during the campaign. But it may have helped him win.
“Ellison’s Muslim faith has generated no controversy in the campaign,” Minneapolis lawyer Scott W. Johnson wrote in the Weekly Standard before the election. “On the contrary, it has served to insulate aspects of his public record from close scrutiny in a city whose dominant news organ, the Minneapolis Startribune, is a paragon of political correctness.”
Protected from scrutiny of his religious beliefs and dubious past, including his relationships with the Nation of Islam and members of the Council on American-islamic Relations, Mr. Ellison has won each of his three elections by no less than 34 percentage points.
President Obama’s faith has similarly been deemed off-limits. For two decades before he became president, Mr. Obama attended the church of the controversial pastor Jeremiah Wright. Mr. Wright’s church, Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago, preaches black liberation theology, a religious philosophy whose goal is to liberate blacks from oppression.
Mr. Wright made numerous incendiary remarks from the pulpit during the time Mr. Obama attended, including a suggestion that America was to blame for the attacks of Sept. 11.
The press mostly ignored Mr. Obama’s association with Mr. Wright and his church, and berated anyone who brought it up. A pre-election New Yorktimes editorial argued that Mr. Obama’s “religious connection” with Mr. Wright “should be none of the voters’ business.”
In the campaign, Republican nominee John Mccain refused to mention Mr. Obama’s church or pastor in ads, interviews, speeches or debates. Because neither the mainstream media nor Mr. Mccain was willing to talk about Mr. Wright or Trinity, many voters never heard much about them.
Contrast this with the media’s treatment of candidates from mainstream faiths. According to the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, 26 percent of Americans identify as evangelicals, making evangelical Christianity the most commonly practiced religion in the country.
Despite the pervasiveness of their faith, evangelical Christian candidates routinely receive excessive negative scrutiny from the media.
Reporters swarmed to Sarah Palin’s former church, Wasilla Assembly of God in Alaska, the moment she was selected as Mr. Mccain’s running mate in 2008. Reporters interviewed church members about Mrs. Palin’s involvement in the church and dissected her former pastor’s sermons. “Palin’s church may have shaped controversial worldview,” read the headline to a story suggesting that a prayer Mrs. Palin had offered for U.S. troops was proof that religion would guide her foreign policy.
Bill Keller, as executive editor of the Newyorktimes, wrote in August that tougher questions were warranted of Rep. Michele Bachmann, Texas Gov. Rick Perry and other Republican presidential candidates who he said “belong to churches that are mysterious or suspect to average Americans.”
Because Mrs. Bachmann and Mr. Perry are evangelical Christians who believe in the inerrancy of the Bible, they were the subjects of extensive media coverage focused on their faith. Very little of it was positive.
When Mr. Perry ended his presidential campaign, his wife, Anita, said he had been “brutalized” by the media for his faith.
No candidate’s faith has been probed as thoroughly as Rick Santorum’s. The Republican presidential candidate is a Roman Catholic, a faith he shares with roughly 1 in 4 Americans.
Mr. Santorum may be a more committed Catholic than most others. But his statements about his beliefs that have generated controversy on the campaign trail — about artificial birth control and the existence of sin and Satan — reflect Catholic teaching. While some of his religious practices — including daily Mass and homeschooling his children — may not be typical, they are hardly unusual, let alone threatening.
But that is exactly how they have been portrayed. “Unlike Catholics who believe that church doctrine should adapt to changing times and needs,” a recent Newyorktimes profile stated, “the Santorums believe in a highly traditional Catholicism that adheres fully to what scholars call ‘the teaching authority’ of the pope and his bishops.”
Mr. Santorum’s “bold expressions of faith,” the Times continued, could “scare off voters uncomfortable mixing so much religion in politics.”
It would be easy to suppose that the media focus less on the religious beliefs of politicians like Mr. Obama, Mr. Ellison and Mr. Romney because faith plays less of a role in their lives and politics. But that’s not entirely true.
Mr. Obama regularly invokes God and his faith, while Mr. Ellison, a devout Muslim, has said that Islam guides his politics. Mr. Romney doesn’t talk a lot about his religion, but it’s clearly a major part of his life. He has donated millions of dollars to the Mormon Church and spent decades as a lay pastor, a vocation to which he says he devotes up to 40 hours a week.
A more obvious explanation for the double standard is that evangelical Christians and practicing Catholics usually embrace conservative positions on public policy issues, especially on social issues such as abortion and marriage.
In the end, for the mainstream media, the politics is all that matters.