Politics, faith and news reporting: The Democrats' perceived 'religion problem'

Politics, faith and news reporting: The Democrats' perceived 'religion problem'
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It’s the holiday season, a time for joy, feasts, family — and a deluge of articles about the problems that Democrats have with religion and faith.

That’s happened even more this year, as we head into the 2020 presidential primaries. Yet, most of this chatter misses the real issue: The problem is not with Democrats but with how the news media typically covers God and politics.

Just about every leading journalism outlet has a religion reporter who examines everything from theological debates to people in the pews. But that reporting usually is found deep inside the newspaper or website. Front-page stories about faith aren’t really about faith at all but about the intersection of religion and political power — which, most often, means the GOP.

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When it comes to broad questions about actual beliefs, Republicans and Democrats aren’t that far apart. One survey, by the Pew Research Center, showed 84 percent of Republicans and 72 percent of Democrats said religion was important or somewhat important in their everyday lives. That’s not a big gap, considering how often liberals are seen as lacking faith.

There wasn’t this “religion problem” in the 1960s and ’70s, when progressives often made common cause with faith leaders over issues such as nuclear arms, the Vietnam War and civil rights. President Jimmy Carter, a Democrat, was a born-again Southern Baptist.

Yet, by 1980, religious conservatives — led by Jerry Falwell and the “Moral Majority” — had aggressively stepped into politics themselves, especially Republican politics and the Reagan administration. That relationship has only gotten stronger over the decades — to the point now where evangelicals are arguably the single most powerful GOP constituency.

Demographics make clear why this religion-and-power dynamic developed in one party over the other — and it’s not about who loves God more.

The GOP is overwhelmingly Christian: Evangelicals, Catholics, mainline Protestants, and others. The Democratic faithful put up big numbers with Christians as well, but also include 69 percent of Buddhists, 64 percent of Jews and 62 percent of Muslims questioned in the Pew study.

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That diversity makes it hard for any one religious group to dominate Democrats the way that Evangelicals — now often in concert with conservative Catholics — wield power in the Republican Party. It’s difficult for the news media to report on progressive politics and religion: There is no left-wing equivalent to, say, the powerful Christian Coalition.

Reporters don’t just follow power, of course. They also follow its identical political twin, money. Here, too, religion and the GOP are a better story: Over the course of several decades, conservative Christian mega-donors have set up think tanks, media outlets and institutes, backed candidates and cultural issues. It is hard to find similar investments on the religious left that have shaped politics in the same way. That story just isn’t as sharply defined.

Religious diversity among Democrats also makes it trickier for progressive politicians to address faith on the stump. When Republicans talk about values, their audience knows they mean Christian, or Judeo-Christian, values. A Democrat doing the same has to worry much more about alienating non-Christian believers who vote blue. As a result, there isn’t as much reporting about faith on the Democratic campaign trail — which can confirm the impression that Democrats, by and large, just don’t care.

When religion reporting moves beyond myopic focus on the political power dynamic, a better picture of Democrats and faith comes into view. The Pew survey, for example, revealed Republicans and Democrats share many basic spiritual practices. Most surprising among those: The same number from each political party — 40 percent — say they meditate once a week.

And with impeachment and the election set to dominate the year ahead, that practice will no doubt come in handy — for both sides of the political divide.

Joe Ferullo is an award-winning media executive, producer and journalist and former executive vice president of programming for CBS Television Distribution. He was a news executive for NBC, a writer-producer for “Dateline NBC,” and worked for ABC News. Follow him on Twitter @ironworker1.