Religion and Politics: The Media's One-Dimensional View

[From the July/August 1994 issue of Extra!, the magazine of the media watch group FAIR.]

In a recent keynote address to the Religion Newswriters Association, Bill Moyers noted, "For broadcast executives, news of the soul is no news at all." Such dissatisfaction with religion coverage seems to be shared by many Americans. Stewart Hoover has found that newspaper readers rated religion as an important topic for papers to cover (above sports, below education), but rated religion coverage as the one with which they were least satisfied (Nieman Reports, Summer/93).

In years past, religion coverage, or the "church page," has largely been the domain of cub reporters. The New York Times, according to Gay Talese's The Kingdom and the Power, used to assign clerks and copy boys who aspired to be reporters to cover sermons, with editors on alert "for any signs of irreverence that the church coverage might reveal."

Increasingly, however, religion has been given more importance as a beat. Religion stories are gaining more prominence, and ABC has hired the first network religion correspondent. An examination of this coverage, however, shows a clear pattern: Religion is covered almost exclusively as an argument for conservative political policies.

Religious Left Left Out

A widely covered report by the right-wing Media Research Center claimed that television news coverage "showed a pattern of anti-religious bias." One finding of the report, however, got virtually no coverage: In 1993, "with a handful of exceptions, the religious left went unnoticed and uncovered by the networks." The MRC found only two stories in all of 1993 that dealt with the religious left. By contrast, the religious right was covered in 15 evening stories, eight morning news segments and three TV magazine stories.

A two-part segment on World News Tonight (3/22-24/94) by Peggy Wehmeyer, ABC's religion reporter, on Bill Clinton and religion presented a good illustration of the media's religious blind spot. The first segment dealt with religious critics of Clinton -- all from the right.

Clinton's "outspoken support for homosexual and abortion rights alarmed evangelicals," Wehmeyer reported. The segment featured religious right leaders like Pat Robertson: "When Bill Clinton talks about family values, I don't believe he's talking about either families or values."

The second segment (3/23/94) featured Clinton talking about his own personal faith. "The God I believe in is a God of second chances," he says, referring to his own shortcomings. If progressive religious figures had been included in the discussion, they might have point out the irony of Clinton citing the Christian virtue of "forgiveness," when his crime bill vastly expands the federal death penalty, and has a three-strikes-you're-out provision that will send many young offenders to jail for life.

The media's prevailing definition of "religious issues" seems to center on gay rights, abortion and school prayer -- the issues focused on by the Christian right (though never mentioned by Jesus in the Bible). Other questions, like economic justice or anti-militarism, are rarely mentioned in a religious context.

"A scripturally based by progressive perspective is just not known in the mainstream," said Karen Lattea of Sojourners, a progressive Christian monthly. "The message of scripture is terribly radical -- non-violence, equality among people, abolishing injustice. If taken seriously, it's revolutionary."

Though mainstream media gave them little coverage, churches in the '80s played key roles in such issues as Central America and the nuclear freeze -- so much so that Democratic Socialists of America's Michael Harrington remarked (Z, 1/94) that the "religious left is the only left in America." When Nelson Mandela visited the U.S. in 1990, he declared that American churches have "been in the first line of the struggle ever since I can remember." (National Catholic Reporter, 4/22/94) Church-based activism continues around such issues as health care, human rights, Haiti, ending the blockade against Cuba and cutting the military budget, but still receives scant attention.

"Since the religious right bought up the airwaves, they've convinced the mainstream that there's a Republican God," said Tom Roberts of the progressive National Catholic Reporter. Today, Christian broadcasters, overwhelmingly right-wing, control more than 10 percent of U.S. broadcast licenses. Religious broadcasting used to be done largely by the mainline Protestant denominations, but starting in the 1970s, the FCC began allowing stations to fulfill public interest requirements by selling time to fundraising-oriented televangelists -- who typically have a right-wing political agenda.

Strange Analysis

The invisibility of the religious left lead to some strange political analysis. "In spite of efforts by some candidates to make religion, or issues of morality, factors in their selection of a candidate, there are some indications that voters are not buying it," the New York Times wrote during the 1992 election (10/31/92). The proof? Clinton was leading in polls among Catholics. The idea that some Catholics -- whose church hierarchy condemns the death penalty and nuclear weapons proliferation -- might be motivated by their religion to choose a more liberal candidate was not considered. While some religions leaders were backing Bush, according to the Times, "the other side of the religious spectrum" was calling for a separation of religion and politics

Black churches, which are of profound political significance in the African-American community, receive little prominent coverage. Black clerics are mostly visible when they talk about themes promoted by white media pundits, like "black-on-black" violence or the dangers of rap. Otherwise, they make news when a (white) politician addresses them, as when Clinton spoke to a convention of black ministers in Memphis in November 1993.

Clinton's speech was widely lauded by journalists: "The president spoke in prophetic tones about youth violence in the black community," the Washington Post later recalled (3/10/94). Eleanor Clift commented (Crossfire, 12/31/93) that Clinton "didn't really set a moral agenda until that speech in Memphis, when he discussed black-on-black crime."

But Clinton's much-praised comments on Martin Luther King, Jr. show how poorly the views of King, and other progressive black church leaders, are understood by politics and the press alike. Clinton claimed that King would be pleased at how the military was "elevating people of color into the ranks" and that "we won the Cold War." He said King would be ashamed of inner-city violence, and imagined him saying, "I did not fight for the right of black people to murder other black people with reckless abandonment."

The words Clinton put in King's mouth would ring hollow if mainstream reporters had checked what King -- a critic of U.S. foreign policy during the Cold War who encouraged conscientious objection to military service -- had said on the matter. The Nation did so (12/6/93), quoting King's 1967 speech at New York City's Riverside Church: "I could never again raise my voice against the violence of the oppressed in the ghettos without having first spoken clearly to the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today -- my own government."

Fitting the Mold

Sometimes religious groups receive coverage for social and political concerns that fit in with the media stereotypes, while they are ignored on issues that don'[t fit the mold. When the Catholic Bishops Conference drafted a letter on health care that called for universal coverage, spoke out against a two-tier system (such as the Clinton plan), and opposed funding for abortion, the press focused only on the abortion issues. "Many media outlets focus quickly on abortion," said John Carr of the U.S. Catholic Conference. "There's a tendency to reduce the Church's advocacy to a one-issue approach."

While Catholics are often pigeon-holed on abortion, Jews get the same treatment with Israel. Despite a long tradition of Jewish activism on civil rights and other progressive causes, reporters use the term "Jewish lobby" when they [seem to] mean "pro-Israeli lobby." Meanwhile, Islam, with its emphasis on social justice and racial equality, has been caricatured as violent, irrational and bigoted.

Occasionally media take note of the progressive politics of mainstream inter-denominational groups like the National Council of Churches and the World Council of Churches -- only to use it as an opportunity for old-fashioned red-baiting. A Readers Digest article (2/93) "The Gospel According to Marx," attacked the WCDC for sending humanitarian aid to official enemies like Vietnam. The piece rehashed material presented in the Digest in 1982 ("Karl Marx or Jesus Christ?," 8/82), the basis of a strident 60 Minutes attack on the National Council of Churches (1/23/83).

In and exceptional segment of ABC's World News Tonight (8/10/93), Forrest Sawyer noted, "Whenever we hear about Catholic religious leaders getting involved in a major political issue, its is usually to back a conservative cause, such as the battle against abortion.... [But] the church is far more often in the corner of the liberals." The unusual report noted the Bishops Conference position on such issues as the Gulf War, child labor, and family and medical leave. Such reports, which give a richer sense of the relationship between religion and politics, are few and far between.

[originally published at on Dec. 2, 2004]