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Why the Mainstream Media Are Clueless About the Religious Right

Though it has shaped American politics for the last 40 years, the religious right still baffles reporters.
 
 
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Every four years, just as a presidential campaign kicks up, legions of media types who make their living outside the right-wing echo chamber emerge as a militia of Margaret Meads, descending on flyover country, trying to make sense of that exotic phenomenon, the religious right. In the end, those who actually get it are few.

From the attitudes shown by media toward the religious right, you'd never know that more than one-quarter of the U.S. population identify as evangelicals, according to a 2007 survey by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, and among white self-identified evangelicals, 62 percent told Pew in 2006 that they believe the Bible to be the literal word of God.

These, by and large, are the people who determine the outcome of the Republican presidential primary, thanks to the early stacking of states heavily populated by evangelicals, and the propensity of most evangelicals to align with the Republican Party. And yet, we who cover these races often know very little about the voters whose person-on-the-street interviews they're recording, except to know that these people are very different from us in their view of the world. So as everyday doctrines come to light in one or another campaign incident, the media either find themselves aghast at the implications, or simply choose to ignore them.

Surprise

Take, for instance, Rep. Michele Bachmann's profession of the doctrine of " wifely submission." When a 2006 video of Bachmann surfaced showing her at a church gathering professing her submission to her husband, media types grew quite excited. At the Fox News debate in Ames, Iowa, last week, Washington Examiner columnist Byron York asked Bachmann, "As president, would you be submissive to your husband?" Before Bachmann could speak, York's question was met with a round of boos and hisses from the audience, whose members likely heard in his question a challenge to one of their fundamental doctrines. (Bachmann, aware that she was playing to a national television audience, dodged the question, saying that she and her husband respected each other.)

The doctrine of wifely submission is common to a number of evangelical faiths, espoused by faithful who range from dour fundamentalists who forbid dancing to writhing, tongues-speaking Pentecostals. The largest among these denominations is the Southern Baptist Convention, the second largest religious body in the United States. York was certainly entitled to his question, and the people of the United States were entitled to a better reply than that which Bachmann gave them. But what we in the media are not entitled to is any sense of shock that a conservative Christian such as Bachmann believes such things. Such surprise simply means we haven't been paying attention.

Denial

When media types aren't expressing surprise at the everyday beliefs of the ordinary Americans who comprise the Republican primary electorate, they often turn to denial. Take the curious case of Rep. Ron Paul, Texas, who came within 200 votes of Michele Bachmann's first-place finish in the Ames, Iowa, straw poll. Paul's perennial, quixotic presidential campaign (the 2012 contest marks his third run for the nomination) has clearly had a profound impact on the ideology expressed by all of the GOP presidential candidates, but Paul, even after winning the presidential straw poll at the Conservative Political Action Conference for a second year in a row, is just another Rodney Dangerfield to the media. The man just can't get no respect.

Yet, in consistently putting forward themes derived directly and indirectly from the doctrines of Christian Reconstructionists and the John Birch Society, Paul has made it safe for Texas Gov. Rick Perry to name as "treason" the printing of money by Fed, for former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney to spout off about states' rights and the 10th amendment, and for former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum to espouse a no-exceptions anti-abortion position.

While mainstream media dismiss Paul as a quirky, secular libertarian, progressive reporters sometimes express a certain affection for Paul because of his anti-war stance. But Paul's anti-war position stems from his far-right isolationist views, as expressed in such documents as the Institutes of Biblical Law, by Christian Reconstructionist founder Rousas John Rushdoony, and the platform of the Constitution Party, which, despite its secular-sounding name, seeks to implement "God's law" in the United States. (Constitution Party founder Howard Phillips is a follower of the late Rushdoony.)

Paul's 2008 shadow convention to the Republican National Convention in Minneapolis featured Phillips and John Birch Society President John McManus as speakers, and Paul is part Phillips' coalition against the non-existent North American Union (one of the far right's favorite conspiracy theories).

The fact is, if you lift up the covers on Ron Paul's beliefs and associates, it's all a bit creepy. Paul's ideology and apparent theological links to Reconstructionism represent nothing new in American politics; the ideology can be traced back to the backers of 1964 campaign of Barry Goldwater. But you'd never know that from reading the mainstream media.

The mainstream media -- and to an extent, the progressive media, as well -- are made up of elites, people who went to good schools, most of them raised on either the east or west coasts. To these elites, the thought of someone espousing the sort of frightening beliefs that Paul embodies having a serious impact on American politics is just too much to bear, so denial becomes the default position. It's not conscious -- not a deliberate attempt to cover something up, just something too weird and awful to be true, so the notion is simply dismissed. Yet if you look at Paul's positions and look at how successive GOP fields have moved closer to them (with the exception of the anti-war stance) over the last three election cycles, his impact is clear.

And the notion that regular Americans would buy into an ideology that seeks to implement biblical law as the law of the land really shouldn't come as a surprise to reporters. The Pew 2006 survey found that nearly one-third of Americans said they felt the law of the Bible should outweigh citizen preferences in the formation of civil law.

Differences Blurred

To mainstream reporters, Rick Perry's big prayer rally in Houston earlier this month looked like just another religious-right gathering. To their eyes, what made it unusual was that a sitting governor had used his official gubernatorial letterhead and Web site to promote it.

The greater departure, however, was the way in which the gathering represented a coming together of the New Apostolic Reformation, a far-right charismatic movement that seeks to defeat what its followers believe to be real-life demons located in certain geographical areas with the old-line organizations of the religious right, such as the American Family Association. Even James Dobson, the Focus on the Family founder who rarely makes public appearances anymore, appeared on Perry's stage, lending credence and political power to the demon-chasers. (If mainstream reporters view the doctrine of wifely submission with incredulity and surprise, the NAR doctrine, as described for AlterNet by Rachel Tabachnik, could cause apoplexy.)

In the New York Times' coverage of the rally, the name, New Apostolic Reformation, never appeared, even though one of the movement's more controversial organizations, the International House of Prayer, was among the event's organizers. (Although IHOP was named as an organizer by reporter Manny Fernandez, nothing about its place in the NAR was mentioned in the article. To his credit, though, Fernandez did note that the American Family Association has been named an anti-gay hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center.) But this enlargement of the religious-right coalition to include elements once deemed "fringe" even by fellow evangelicals is a major story, especially given the 50-state, cell-based "prayer networks" that are part of the NAR infrastructure.

Meanwhile, at the Washington Post, Jacques Berlinerblau, writing in the paper's "On Faith" section, tsk-tsk'd Perry for talking about Jesus too much, reading too much scripture and generally being unecumenical.

"If he intends on using the religion card effectively beyond the Iowa and South Carolina caucuses and primaries," wrote Berlinerblau, "Governor Perry will have to come up with something more inclusive than this."

Yes, but first he has to win the nomination -- and that will require the votes of millions of Americans who believe that biblical law should supplant the will of the people, and who think the Bible is the literal truth. Right now, they're the ones who matter. And no reporter should be surprised by that.

As a nation, we've been headed down this path for more than 40 years. As the economic fortunes of the U.S. turn downward, we should expect the attraction of right-wing religion, especially its more charismatic and viscerally-felt forms, to expand. Anyone who doesn't just hasn't been paying attention.