"Consider the major poll of those who attended the Iowa caucuses; it was done at the behest of the four major television networks plus CNN and the AP. Republicans were asked two questions: whether it mattered that the candidate shared his or her religious beliefs and whether the voter would describe himself or herself as a ‘born-again or evangelical Christian.' Democrats were asked – well, they were not asked anything about their religious beliefs or lack thereof." – Mark Stricherz, Getreligion.org, Jan. 5
Getreligion.org is one of my favorite Web sites, not because it's Catholic or pious – it's neither – but because it asks the right questions. Founded by journalist and media scholar Terry Mattingly and several reporter colleagues, getreligion.org subjects the mass media's religion coverage to the same hard review that the news media provide to American culture at large.
The results aren't comforting. The evidence gathered by getreligion.org shows again and again that the press doesn't "get" religion as a story. Denver is unusual in having two major newspapers, both with capable religion coverage. But overall, major news organizations tend to cover religion poorly, predictably and too often with a negative undercurrent. As we enter yet another election year, Catholics should remember that what we read in the newspapers, hear on the radio and see on television is often useful, but it's always a selective taste of reality. Deciding about a candidate based on the latest headlines, or about an issue based on the latest reported poll, is a recipe for trouble.
Anyone who needs proof can simply check out a Jan. 5 getreligion.org story by Mark Stricherz ("Are Democrats not religious?"). Stricherz's report is not just another argument for whether Democrats or Republicans are good or bad; obviously, plenty of very good people, including many religious believers, inhabit both political parties.
Rather, Stricherz's point is this: The way the major news media frame or ignore religion's role in American public life can be deeply misleading. If delegates from one political party are asked questions about their religious faith in an Iowa caucus poll, and delegates from the other political party in the same poll are not, we can reasonably ask why – and what the consequences might be for news coverage. This is exactly what happened in Iowa last week.
Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton and John Edwards have all spoken quite publicly about their religious faith in recent months. Yet as Stricherz notes, the recent Iowa caucus poll supported by all four major TV networks, CNN and AP was framed in a way that presumed religion is a major factor for Republicans and not for Democrats. Maybe that's true; maybe it's not – but we won't ever know from the poll results, because the right questions weren't asked.
As we move into 2008, we can expect another round of professional media worrying about the "unhealthy interference" of religion in American politics. We need to ignore it – or better yet, we need to answer it with the overwhelming evidence of American history. Religious faith, religious believers and religious leaders have always played a major role in informing American public debate, to the betterment of the whole community.
Ultimately, every voter has the duty to follow his or her own properly formed conscience. And we all have an obligation to respect the dignity of others. But the best way to be "faithful citizens" is to put our beliefs about God, moral character and common sense before every other loyalty. We have nothing to offer our political party or our nation if we agree to downplay our religious and moral convictions when we come to society's toughest issues. Today and always, we pursue our vocation as American citizens best by living our Catholic faith authentically first.