Religion took center stage on Tuesday, Sept. 16, as a panel of media professionals weighed in on its role in the 2008 presidential election.
Speaking at “Sinners and Winners: How the Media are Covering Religion, Morality and the 2008 Campaign,” national religion reporter Peggy Fletcher Stack lambasted media coverage of Mitt Romney’s Mormonism and other candidates’ religious leanings and affiliations, calling it a distraction. Others agreed.
“I was appalled by the way Romney was treated by the press,” said Stack, senior religion writer for the Salt Lake Tribune, “I do not believe every adherent should be responsible for his pastor’s or church’s belief. I wish the questions posed [by the media]were more directly related to the job, especially in this time of national urgency.”
Don Wycliff, veteran journalist for the Chicago Tribune and other newspapers, said he first noticed the media’s sensational treatment of religion in campaigns when candidate Jimmy Carter was labeled a “born again” Christian.
“I sometimes think we haven’t made any progress since then as a media industry,” he said. “A lot of [the coverage]is like a trip to the zoo—see the crazy Mormon here, the wild black pastor there. There is no appreciation of what religion means to people.”
Moderator Ray Suarez, senior correspondent on PBS’s NewsHour with Jim Lehrer, questioned whether there should be limits to probing politicians’ religious views in a nation that separates church from state in government. He cited his personal discomfort at watching Hillary Clinton try to describe to a reporter “when she felt the Holy Spirit in her life,” or John Edwards asked to describe his worst sin during a debate.
“Some of the most potent truths in a person’s life were being asked in the way you would ask about a garbage pickup or a national service requirement,” Suarez said. “Religion as part of the conversation . . . is this something [the media]should be deploring or celebrating?”
According to panelist Andrew Kohut, president of the Pew Research Center, religion is integral to American politics in shaping one’s cultural identity, but its importance in predicting voter behavior is often exaggerated. Kohut cited the perception that “moral values” drove the election of George W. Bush in 2004, when, in fact, polls showed it was Bush’s winning over of religious moderates.
Early in the 2008 campaign season, Kohut said, there had been indicators that religion was playing much less of a role than it did even in the Bush-Kerry race.
But a Pew poll released in mid-September, he said, shows that the “Sarah Palin factor” has substantially raised the interest of evangelical Christians in the presidential race.
As for the Catholic vote, Kohut said that it is split largely along age between Barack Obama and John McCain. “Catholics do not have the cohesiveness that we see among evangelicals,” Kohut said. “They are really torn between these [two]candidates.”
Washington Post syndicated columnist E.J. Dionne Jr., said that the media needed to steer the topic of religion toward a “broader constructive role” in the coverage of political candidates.
“Yes, the truth will set you free,” he said. “But we have to pray that it will still sell newspapers and draw advertisers.”
The event was sponsored by the Fordham Center on Religion and Culture.