What denomination is the GOP actually representing with their horrifying displays of hypocrisy and greed?
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When you think of a religious leader, it’s likely that person is Christian, male, politically conservative, willing to jump in front of a camera.
Someone like New York Roman Catholic Archbishop Timothy Dolan, for example, or Rick Warren, the Southern Baptist megachurch pastor.
Often this man is not the leader of a particular congregation, denomination or faith at all, but is simply a member of a conservative group that calls itself religious, like Ralph Reed and the Christian Coalition. Pat Robertson and the Moral Majority. James Dobson and Focus on the Family. Tony Perkins and the Family Research Council.
These media-friendly veteran quote machines, who have been around for 30, 40, 50 years, have been shaping the narrative and shifting the public perception of “religion” into a slick, well-produced opponent of things like LGBTQ rights and abortion access, amenable to Republican politicians and anathema to unmarried women.
But the ubiquity of these men has less to do with any suitability to speak on behalf of religious people—there are many religious leaders who’d be just as suited to do so—and more to do with the willingness of corporate media to give them platforms, prominence, and, most importantly, the benefit of the doubt as to the sincerity of their faith.
Nowhere was that more apparent than during coverage of the overturning of Roe v. Wade. The relegation of abortion access to state governments was seen as a victory for Christians and, story after story, presumed their opposition to abortion was rooted not in a desire for power or political victory but in obedience to God.
“As the Catholic Church, as the pro-life movement, generally speaking we celebrate the end of Roe but we also have a lot of work to do in our home state, too,” said Brittany Vessely, executive director of the Colorado Catholic Conference.
For those who do not support abortion, today is seen as a major victory.
“Roe v. Wade is done,” said Vessely. “Now it’s in the states and what’s going to be very interesting is we’re going to see a lot of pro-life states start getting stronger and promoting a sanctity of life and a lot of pro-abortion states like Colorado doing the complete opposite.”
Reporters took their words about prayers and supposed reverence for the sanctity of life at face value, while questioning the very real consequences of various states’ abortion bans.
Non-Christian religions or Christian denominations whose adherents don’t oppose abortion were relegated to “well, not ALL religious leaders think this is great news” stories that implied they were exceptions to the rule, aberrations, and that the majority opinion was the more relevant one.
Corporate media has followed this formula on countless issues: marriage equality, trans rights, access to birth control, fairness in any and all accommodation to faith. “Religion” is presumed to motivate, if not require, opposition to equality. When the Supreme Court ruled in favor of same-sex unions, the Tampa Bay Times quoted six Christian “leaders” and two Jewish ones, and seven of the eight sources were against it.
Some faith traditions welcome and honor gay and trans people, while other faith traditions say little about sexual mores. Many religions require as strenuous an effort to care for the poor as they do to restrict women’s roles—but all these nuances are often lost in quick-hit coverage that has room for one “religious” leader to give one quote.
Economics plays a clear role here. A general lack of knowledge about religious issues pervades journalism; just last month a major market research survey found that few newsrooms consider specialized reporting in religion a necessity, and that “hollowing out” of knowledge creates coverage rife with stereotypes and misapprehensions about the role various faith traditions play in public life.
So does political propaganda. The religious right isn’t a new force in American politics and the editors and producers working today at the highest levels of corporate journalism were raised in the overwhelming era of ref-working against the “liberal media” with charges that all journalists were anti-religious. The religious left—including the Roman Catholic cohort that marched for Civil Rights and campaigned to end apartheid—all but disappeared from coverage in the 1980s as abortion rose to prominence in GOP circles as the issue to motivate religious voters.
But none of these forces excuses reporters from accountability for the sources they use and promote. The nature of their job dictates skepticism toward any and all powerful actors in and upon society, including religious ones. Granting the credibility that comes with the label “faith leader” is something news stories do every day without anyone thinking twice about it. It’s well past time they began subjecting these same religious figures to the scrutiny they’d give an average politician or leftist activist.
America’s religious picture is much more diverse, ideologically and otherwise, than the average “religion versus Democrats” stories would have audiences believe. Many different faith traditions promote women into leadership, solemnize same-sex unions, and even within those who do not the adherents to those traditions are often more liberal than not. A majority of U.S. Roman Catholics believe abortion should be legal in most circumstances, and one quarter of American abortion patients are Catholic.
By treating people of faith who favor abortion rights or LGBTQ equality as if they do not exist, the corporate media creates a picture of religion that doesn’t match the experience most people have of others’ faith and their own. Corporate media create the impression that if you are a liberal who attends church or believes in God, there aren’t any others out there like you, pushing back against the white male leadership that gets the headlines.
Pseudo-religious charlatans have existed since the dawn of time, making golden calves and suggesting people worship them as gods, but assignment editors should let their calls go to voice mail.
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