Baptism by fire

Matt Philbin Managing Editor, Culture and Media Institute
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You’re a network reporter. You’ve drawn the short straw and have to cover a prayer rally led by a conservative politician and involving representatives from a group whose social views you abhor. “Even some mainstream Christians are concerned about the event,” you report. To prove it, you could interview a Catholic priest or even a gay Episcopalian bishop.

But if you’re David Kerley of ABC News and you’re covering a Houston prayer rally led by Texas governor and soon-to-be GOP primary contender Rick Perry, you go to the real religion experts: People for the American Way.

Yep. Why not go to a Hollywood-based left-wing group founded specifically to oppose conservative Christianity to let your viewers know that, by including the American Family Association in his rally, Rick Perry is unworthy of their votes?

That’s what Kerley did in August, and sadly, it’s indicative of how the networks have dealt with the GOP candidates and their religion this year.

The Culture and Media Institute compared ABC’s, CBS’s and NBC’s coverage of the 2012 Republican presidential candidates’ religious faith during the first 10 months of 2011 to their coverage of the 2008 Democratic presidential candidates’ faith during the first 10 months of 2007.

The faith of the GOP candidates was mentioned seven times more than that of the Democratic candidates. And network reporters were 13 times more likely to challenge, criticize or focus on controversy when dealing with conservatives’ religion.

Why would the networks talk so much about the Republicans’ faith? Simple: They’ve got to keep their man in the White House, but he hasn’t given them much to work with. High unemployment, a stagnant economy, massive debt — with the exception of the deeply unpopular Obamacare, the president has few accomplishments to tout and 2012 is coming up fast.

Instead of toasting Obama’s achievements, the networks remind their viewers that the alternative is religious zealots and weirdoes. There’s no other explanation for mentioning Mitt Romney’s Mormonism more than 100 times in 10 months (40 times in two October weeks alone), or for Bob Scheiffer to ask Michele Bachmann whether God told her “to run for the Minnesota State Senate or something like that.”

CMI studied the networks, but the strategy was best laid out in The New York Times (surprise!). It came in August, apropos of nothing — social issues associated with religion have barely registered with voters this year. Undeterred, former editor Bill Keller penned an essay so disdainful and condescending it reads like a bad parody of elite liberalism.

Keller compared religious belief to belief in space aliens and wrote that he was worried “a candidate is going to be a Trojan horse for a sect that believes it has divine instructions on how we should be governed.” Perry’s and Bachmann’s evangelical Protestantism, along with Rick Santorum’s conservative Catholicism, “raised concerns about their respect for the separation of church and state, not to mention the separation of fact and fiction.” Charming.

But Keller has a point. The religious beliefs of others often make us uncomfortable. For instance, black liberation theology, with its redistributionist doctrine and explicit racism, should give many people pause. Why, any candidate for office would come under intense media scrutiny for attending any church where such things were preached. Wouldn’t they?

Not if that candidate is named Barack Obama. It took nearly a year for the networks to report on the outrageous statements of Jeremiah “God damn America!” Wright, pastor of Trinity Church in Chicago, where Obama boasted membership for two decades. They told the story of Wright only after Obama had largely secured the nomination, and then reluctantly and incompletely.

And orthodox Catholics would be out of purgatory before they heard that Catholic Democrats Joe Biden, Chris Dodd and Bill Richardson enthusiastically support abortion, in clear violation of Church teaching. In 2007, the networks never mentioned it.

Did you know that Hillary Clinton’s deep religious faith has sustained her through all her trials, marital and otherwise?

Nor did I. But that’s what Carl Bernstein told CBS’s Harry Smith back in 2007. Hawking his biography of then-candidate Hillary, “A Woman in Charge,” Bernstein said that “Faith has always been a huge part of her life.” To which Harry Smith replied with … nothing.

Really? Hillary Clinton, who for the better part of two decades was the face of secular liberalism in America — Hillary, the abortion absolutist, feminist icon, pal of Marian Wright Edelman and Eve Ensler (she of “The Vagina Monologues”)? The suggestion that she’s piety in a pants-suit merits at least a spit-take. Harry Smith didn’t even register a double-take.

You see, when liberals talk faith (their own or other liberals’), savvy media types nod and wink and move on. Had Bernstein said Hillary has the stigmata and once fed an entire African village with just a package of English muffins and a haddock, Smith would have responded, “Hmm. Speaking of villages, Hillary wrote a book on childcare … ”

By taking the assertion at face value, Smith lets the church ladies watching in West Wherever know Hillary is okay to vote for, without getting into the icky and perhaps implausible details.

Religion is all a show for the yokels anyway, and sometimes it’s even useful, like when it preaches “social justice.” Among liberals, it’s understood that nobody much believes that sky-god hokum, certainly not in a way that would impact policy.

What scares them, and causes them to bring it up continuously, is that Republicans actually may.

Matt Philbin is the managing editor at The Culture and Media Institute.