Sepa­ra­tion of church and scru­tiny

Only ex­otic and ob­scure re­li­gions get a free pass from lib­eral press

The Washington Times Daily - - Opinion - By Daniel Al­lott

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.


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