"Bible thumper." "Jesus freak." "Intolerant idiot." Politicians who make their religious beliefs known have been called these-and worse-by their critics. But is it too much to ask for fair treatment from the media?
Not all journalists give religiously observant politicians a hard time, of course. Many strive to treat all alike. But as a journalism student who is also a devout Christian, I'm troubled by the approach some members of the "Fourth Estate" take when they cover these politicians.
Take the way many of them reacted when then-candidate George Bush said Jesus Christ was the philosopher he most respected. More than a few editorial writers questioned his sincerity, implying-if not outright saying-that he was simply pandering to his conservative base.
Other journalists saw a threat. NBC's Tim Russert asked the candidate whether the millions of non-Christians in this country "should feel excluded from George W. Bush because of his allegiance to Jesus." He also wondered whether the governor "would take an expression like 'What would Jesus do?' into the Oval Office."
Tony Mauro, a USA Today Supreme Court reporter, echoed this theme in an op-ed he wrote after John Ashcroft was nominated to be attorney general. "Ashcroft will need to assure the nation that he can enforce the Constitution and the laws of Congress when they run contrary to the laws of Jesus, as they surely will," Mauro wrote. "Can a deeply religious person be attorney general?" (As if we've had an unbroken line of atheists filling the position for the last two centuries.)
To Russert's and Mauro's credit, they didn't belittle the intelligence of those who are "deeply religious"-which is more than one can say for other reporters. After one debate among Republican presidential candidates, MSNBC's Brian Williams asked Newsweek's Howard Fineman if the positions the candidates took weren't "rather strident … anti-gay, pro-Jesus, and anti-abortion and no gray matter in between?"
Most journalists are more circumspect with their insinuations. When California gubernatorial candidate William Simon appeared recently on the Trinity Broadcast network, the San Francisco Chronicle called it a "controversial religious cable network that has featured flamboyant faith healers and showy ministers." And only in the last line of this story did it quote Simon as saying, "I firmly believe in the First Amendment and the separation of church and state."
Other journalists take a smirking attitude toward religious politicians. Consider a brief profile of Jim Duggar, a Senate candidate from Arkansas, that appeared in the April 22 U.S. News & World Report. Entitled "God's candidate," it notes that "for some, there can be no higher calling than public service, but when God himself taps you to take the mound, well …" The unspoken conclusion is obvious: Duggar's a little nuts.
Why this hostility toward religious candidates? Why do many journalists fear the fundamentalist?
It could simply be because many in the media aren't particularly religious themselves. A study conducted two years ago by the Center for Media and Public Affairs found that 70 percent of journalists at mainstream national news sources seldom or never attend religious services. By contrast, nearly half of all Americans attend services more than once a month.
But whatever the reason, I think most people can agree that these candidates don't deserve to be dismissed automatically as loony. Their views, after all, are shared by millions of Americans, and many of them have had successful careers in the private sector that preceded their interest in public service.
Yet they're treated as second-class citizens-a trend that certainly can affect policy debates. Take the growing amount of social science research that shows the best way to reduce child poverty and increase child well-being is to promote marriage and that the best way to reduce teen sex is to emphasize abstinence. Woe to the politicians who highlight this unwelcome information.
They are ridiculed as prudes-or worse.
As long as these candidates win major party nominations, represent the views held by many (if not most) of their constituents, and understand the special relationship between church and state we have in this country, they deserve a fair hearing. They win elections, after all. Ask the president. Or the attorney general. Or any number of members of Congress.
Carin Larson, a graduate student at George Washington University in Washington, D.C., is an intern at The Heritage Foundation (www.heritage.org).
Distributed nationally on the Knight-Ridder Tribune wire