2016-07-27
As a practicing Christian, a political conservative and a professional journalist, I've long been amazed at how ignorant and uncurious my mostly intelligent and urbane colleagues are about conservatives, especially religious conservatives. Many have looked at me--their friend, despite my Catholicism and Republican Party registration--with the same slack-jawed incomprehension as elderly Southerners when they step off the tour bus in London and hear a black man speaking with a crisp British accent (I've seen this, and it's a hoot).

People like me--religious conservatives who are reasonably intelligent and sociable--aren't supposed to exist. You may recall the furor a decade ago when a Washington Post story described Christian conservatives as "largely poor, uneducated and easy to command." It's bad enough a reporter for one of the country's top newspapers made an error like that. It's staggering that it got through several layers of copy editing. For all the caterwauling about "diversity" in the media, you'd be hard-pressed to find the same uniformity of thinking in any Catholic church on Sunday as you'll find any day of the week in most American newsrooms.

True story: I once proposed a column on some now-forgotten religious theme to the then city editor of the New York Post. He looked at me like I'd lost my mind. "This is not a religious city," he said, with a straight face. As it happened, the man lived in my neighborhood. On his morning walk to the subway, he had to pass two Catholic churches, an Episcopal church, a synagogue, a mosque, an Assemblies of God Hispanic parish, and an Iglesia Bautista Hispana. He didn't see these places because he doesn't know anyone who attends them.

In the main, the men and women who bring America its news don't hate religion. In most cases, they just believe it's unimportant at best, menacing at worst. Because they don't know any religious people, they think of American religion in categories that have long been outdated.

My fellow reporters think I'm putting them on when I tell them I've been a practicing Catholic for 10 years and have only heard one sermon about abortion and none about contraception. Outside the Jewish community, Israel has no stronger supporters than among American evangelicals. That's been true for at least a generation, but the news has yet to reach American newsrooms, where there's a general assumption that these "fundamentalists" are anti-Semitic. Because journalists tend not to know religiously observant people, they see religious activity the only way they know--in terms of secular politics.

So what? Everybody knows that pro-life marchers and churches that resist gay "marriage" aren't going to get a fair shake from the newspaper. But this phenomenon is both broader and deeper than individual stories. In a media-driven society, the press sets the terms of public debate. It establishes the inescapable narrative of how society reacts to its challenges.

Anti-religious media bias also has profound implications for American politics. In an article published recently in "The Public Interest," social scientists Louis Bolce and Gerald De Maio say that journalists' parochialism blinds them to one of the biggest stories in American politics: how the Democratic Party has become a stronghold of fervent secularists, and how secularism "is just as powerful a determinant of social attitudes and voting behavior as is a religiously traditional outlook."

Among political journalists, what you might call the "official story" holds that religious conservatives bullied their way onto the American political scene with the election of Ronald Reagan, and rudely brought into the political arena the culture war that had been raging since the 1960s.

That's exactly wrong, say Bolce and De Maio, who attribute the "true origins of this conflict" to "the increased prominence of secularists within the Democratic Party, and the party's resulting antagonism toward traditional values."

Until relatively recently, both major parties were of similar mind on issues of personal morality. Then came the 1972 Democratic Convention, at which secularists--defined as agnostics, atheists, and those who seldom or never attend religious services--seized control and nominated George McGovern. Prior to that year, neither party had many secularists among its delegates. Democratic delegates were split between religious and moral traditionalists on one side, and secularists on the other. They fought over moral issues: abortion, women's rights, homosexuality, the family.

But in what Bolce and De Maio call a "secularist putsch," the non-believers triumphed, giving us what Richard Nixon mocked as the party of "acid, amnesty, and abortion," and instigating--with help from the Supreme Court on January 22, 1973--the long march of religious and moral conservatives to the GOP, which became the party of traditionalists by default.

By 1992, the parties had become thoroughly polarized around religious orientation. Only 20 percent of white Democratic delegates (N.B., this secular-religious antagonism is a white voter phenomenon, the authors say) went to religious services at least once a month, while over three times that number of white Republican delegates did.

But while the media have thoroughly reported the key role religious conservatives play in Republican Party politics, they've ignored the role militant secularists play in setting the Democratic Party's agenda. "Secularism," say Bolce and De Maio, "is no less powerful a determinant of attitudes on the contentious cultural issues than is religious traditionalism." Indeed, Republican traditionalists have not polarized politics by becoming more conservative, as conventional wisdom would have it. Instead, secularists (and to a lesser extent religious moderates) have become more liberal.

The divide has become so stark that the authors have discerned a new kind of voter: the "anti-fundamentalist." Twenty-five percent of white respondents in a survey called the American National Election Study expressed serious hostility towards religious conservatives, as opposed to only one percent who felt this strongly against Jews, and 2.5 percent who disliked blacks and Catholics to a strong degree. (Ironically, these are people who say they "`strongly agree' that one should be tolerant of persons whose moral standards are different from one's own.") Eighty percent of these voters picked Bill Clinton in 1996, with 70 percent choosing Al Gore in 2000.

In other words, if the country's first Catholic presidential candidate, Al Smith, ran for president today, his enemies wouldn't be the Bible Belt anti-Catholics rustics he faced in 1920, but today's urbane anti-Christian bigots of liberal coastal cities.

This could be the most important development in American party politics of the past 20 years, say Bolce and De Maio-and America's two leading newspapers, The New York Times and The Washington Post, have both completely missed it. In a search of the Lexis-Nexis database of domestic political news stories, op-eds, and editorials those papers published from 1990 to 2000, the authors found only 14 stories that mentioned the religious gap between the two parties.

During this same time span, the Times and Post published 392 articles on the gender gap-which represented a 9 percent differential in favor of the Democrats. The average religious gap in these same elections was 42 percentage points."

But their most striking finding was the near total lack of editorial and news coverage devoted to the increased importance of secularists to the Democratic Party. The numbers are mind-boggling: 43 stories on secularist Democrats, 682 stories on traditionalist Republicans. In 1992, the Times alone published nearly twice the number of stories about Evangelicals in the GOP than both papers did about secularists among the Democrats for the entire decade.

The bias is even worse among television journalists, who filled the airwaves with stories about the "Religious Right" and the Republican Party, but who didn't file a single story about the Secular Left's relationship to the Democrats.

I suspect that most reporters, editors, and producers would be shocked by these findings. They really do think of themselves as, to pinch a phrase, "fair and balanced." Yet Bolce and De Maio cite a poll showing that a majority of TV news directors and newspaper editors felt that Evangelical and fundamentalist Christians "have too much power." Fully one-third considered these believers to be "a threat to democracy." The same survey found that only four percent thought nonbelievers had too much influence, and the number of media professionals who perceived secularists as a threat was . zero.

America is a far different place from its newsrooms. Belief in God is, for most Americans, a sign of character. According to a March 2002 national survey conducted by the Pew Research Center, more than half of those polled thought negatively of "nonbelievers." Only half that number had a low opinion of the "Christian conservative movement."

Bolce and De Maio wonder if the media elite consciously do the Democrats a favor by not pointing out what, for all intents and purposes, they are: the Godless Party. "Perhaps it is for this reason more than any other," they write, "that we do not hear in election-night analyses and postmortems that Democratic candidates have shorn up their base among the unchurched, atheists, and agnostics, in addition to the ritualistic accounts and warnings about how well Republicans are doing with evangelicals of the Christian Right."


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