The Religious Left is Left Out by the Commercial Media

A new study by Media Matters for America shows that when the topic is religion, the media looks disproportionately to hard-line right-wingers for comment.
People can attach a thousand different meanings to words like "faith" and "values," yet when it comes to religion and politics, we've been conditioned to understand that they have a narrow and decidedly right-wing tilt. When pundits speak the phrase -- often in reverent tones -- we know they're not talking about the pacifism valued by Quakers, the environmental stewardship valued by Wiccans or the act of caring for the hungry, poor and sick that's valued by almost all faiths.

So after the 2004 election, when exit polls found that more people identified "moral values" as their most important issue than any other, it led to endless hand-wringing among liberals and Democrats about how they could win back "values voters" and a thousand columns about how progressive America is largely a secular, even God-hating America and would therefore always be a marginal part of the body politic. The electorate, we were told, was divided between pro-choice, gay-tolerant "blue," and anti-choice, gay-bashing "red."

Later, post-election surveys showed that gay marriage and abortion had in fact had little or no effect on the independent vote, the vote in battleground states, or the vote in states with anti-gay marriage initiatives on the ballot. It wasn't until an exit poll conducted by Zogby after last year's midterm elections found that the "moral issue" cited most by voters was the Iraq war that the particular piece of conventional wisdom was abandoned by many political junkies, but it persists today among too many reporters.

How did that happen? How is it possible that political reporters routinely and without irony refer to people who have no moral qualms about bombing another country as a matter of choice rather than necessity as "values voters"? How do those same people wear the "values" label even while supporting one of the last death penalties in the industrialized world? How is it that self-proclaimed "Men of God" can call for the assassination of foreign heads of state, blame the 9/11 attacks on Americans' promiscuity and lobby to keep vaccines against deadly cancers out of the hands of young women and still claim to represent the moral compass of spiritual America?

"Left Behind," a new study by the watchdog group Media Matters for America helps answer those questions. It found that "conservative religious figures dominate the media's coverage of religious issues, while religious progressives and representatives of mainline religious institutions, who regularly make statements on controversial issues, went relatively ignored."

The study's key findings tell the tale:

  • Combining newspapers and television, conservative religious leaders were quoted, mentioned, or interviewed in news stories 2.8 times as often as were progressive religious leaders

  • On television news -- the three major television networks, the three major cable new channels, and PBS -- conservative religious leaders were quoted, mentioned, or interviewed almost 3.8 times as often as progressive leaders

  • In major newspapers, conservative religious leaders were quoted, mentioned or interviewed 2.7 times as often as progressive leaders.

As the report notes, "the decisions journalists make when deciding which voices to include in their stories have serious consequences." In the case of religion, the consequence is a dominant but largely misleading narrative about the role of religion in political life.

Even the broad label "evangelical" is used almost exclusively to describe religious conservatives, despite the fact that leading voices within the religious left -- people like Sojourners founder Jim Wallis -- are themselves evangelicals, as are a large number of (mostly liberal) African-American Christians:
… despite media depictions, evangelicals are a heterogeneous group with varying priorities: For example, in 2006 only 10 percent of evangelical Christians said abortion and gay marriage would be the most important factor in determining their vote. This heterogeneity of political views among religious Americans applies across varied religious denominations and traditions.
In choosing who speaks for faithful America, the media both embrace and create a misleading narrative of our religious culture. "Values," after all, are what motivates most of us in our political choices, but Americans know that when a pollster asks how important "values" are, the question is really about abortion, gay marriage and a handful of other issues that the leading lights of the religious right uses to fire up their followers.

The truth is that a majority of religious communities are either centrist or prrogressive. The Media Matters study cites a 2006 survey by the Center for American Values in Public Life that found that only 22 percent of Americans are "traditionalist" in their religious beliefs. Almost 9 in ten Americans say they are religious -- to one degree or another -- but a majority of them reject the kind of nationalistic and chauvinistic theism of those most frequently quoted about the subject in the mainstream press.

Which leads to a question: What would our media landscape look like if it were widely reported that only half as many voters say that abortion or gay marriage is "the most urgent moral crisis in American culture" than point the finger at "greed and materialism or poverty and economic justice"?
Joshua Holland is an AlterNet staff writer.
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