< Religious Wrong

Transcript

Friday, June 01, 2007

BROOKE GLADSTONE:
Over the years, we've often reported on the alternative media being produced by national Christian organizations. More often than not, these stories spotlight the so-called Religious Right, and mostly evangelicals, which has led some members of our staff to question whether we're neglecting the very significant block of American Christians who are not right-wing activists.

This week, the liberal media watchdog group Media Matters for America released a report that echoed those concerns. It counted quotes and interviews of 20 well-known religious leaders, 10 deemed conservative and 10 progressive, and it found that the conservative leaders appeared almost three times as often as their progressive counterparts – on TV, almost four times as often. Media Matters concluded that the imbalance is, quote, "consistently advantageous to conservatives."

Joining me now to discuss what's missing from mainstream religion coverage is the study's author, Paul Waldman. Hi, Paul.
PAUL WALDMAN:
Hi, Brooke.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:
Also, here is Jeff Sharlet, a journalist who has written extensively on the Christian right. Jeff, welcome back to the show.
JEFF SHARLET:
Hi, Brooke.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:
So, first of all, Paul, did I pretty much sum up the study correctly? Did I miss anything really important?
PAUL WALDMAN:
No. That was the conclusion that we came to. When you look at those people who are asked to kind of represent what religious opinion is, the conservatives show up a lot more often than the progressives. And in our opinion, that gives a kind of a skewed picture of what the state of American religion is.

When we say that it's advantageous to conservatives, what we mean is that, you know, that's one of the things that the Republican Party, I think, and many conservatives, would like people to believe, that there's an equation between being religious and being conservative or being Republican. And that's actually not true. Although there are lots and lots of religious conservatives, there are even more religious moderates or religious progressives.

So if you're going to accurately represent who religious America is, you can't just get those conservative voices.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:
So, Jeff, do you agree with Paul, that the Religious Right is getting a disproportionate amount of attention? Or do you think they deserve the attention that they get?
JEFF SHARLET:
I guess I disagree with Paul in this. I think they're not getting enough attention. I think they started to get attention after 2004. After 2006 election, the immediate sort of assumption that the press made, as it always does when Republicans lose, is that the Christian Right is a spent force in American life. They've been doing this since 1925 in the Scopes Monkey Trial.

Meanwhile, we see evangelicals building new conservative coalitions that aren't getting any attention. So, for instance, one of the biggest conservative issues right now is AIDS, and that's great that they're paying attention to AIDS. But we need to pay attention to how they're paying attention to AIDS, for instance, stopping condoms from being distributed in Africa, abstinence-only education in American high schools.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:
Now, we should point out, Jeff, that in the past few years you've made a living writing about [LAUGHS] the Religious Right and its leaders.
[OVERTALK]
JEFF SHARLET:
Yes. I have an incentive.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:
So why do you think these people deserve so much attention? Is it a matter of pure numbers, or is it something else?
JEFF SHARLET:
I think, having spoken to these leaders over the years, the answer that they would give, and they give often, is that, you know what? Abolitionists were a minority as well.
Now, I personally don't see the similarity in their cause and abolition, but they do, and they understand themselves as social activists. So for us to say, hey, these people aren't important because they're not the majority is, I think, to overlook the fact that they are able to push the agenda.
PAUL WALDMAN:
But, at the same time, you know, right now, progressive religious leaders are becoming more organized. The conservatives have a couple of decades of head start on them on this, but they are starting to form new organizations, they're getting more involved in politics, and I think that that's a story that's not really being told in the mainstream news coverage, particularly by political reporters who are based in Washington.
JEFF SHARLET:
I don't see this groundswell of progressive evangelicals. I see the people who buy Jim Wallis's book, Jim Wallis being a progressive evangelical leader. A lot of those people I've met, in fact, are conservative traditional fundamentalists who also like this idea of their God being bigger than left or right. But that's not a progressive position.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:
If this particular right-wing contingent is organized and does vote in a block, then regardless of their hard numbers, aren't they worthy, Paul, of extra attention from the media?
PAUL WALDMAN:
They sometimes do vote in a block, although not completely. But one of the reasons is that, you know, they consume media, too. And one of the messages that they get from the media is that if you are a strongly religious Christian, then you should be voting Republican, because that's what strongly religious Christians do.
JEFF SHARLET:
But that's not the message they're getting. When you spend time in conservative churches, the disdain for the Republican Party is so strong and has been since about the second year of Bush's presidency. And that was really when I started focusing on that. I'm sure it goes back before that.

They're voting this way because they're saying, look, you've got to vote this way if you're pro-life, and you've got to vote for the pro-life candidate. You know, that's Republican, you hold your nose because you don't like Republican ideas about how to deal with cities, and I encounter that all the time because cities are so important now to evangelicals.

They don't like the Republican legacy on race, but they say pro-life is an issue on which they can't compromise.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:
Paul, don't you think by evaluating the situation, as Media Matters' mission is to do, along political lines, that you're guilty of a little bit of reductionism when it comes to examining the coverage of religion in America?
PAUL WALDMAN:
Well, I think you could always uncover more and more layers of complexity. And one of the things that we wanted to do with this study was to just answer one very simple question, which is who is getting the attention when reporters try to write about religion and politics?

We wouldn't say for a moment that that answers every question you could answer, but it's a start. We were trying to initiate a conversation so that we could get started on the road toward encouraging a more complicated discussion of religion as it relates to politics.
JEFF SHARLET:
I mean, I'd love to see them go beyond talking heads altogether. I think Jerry Falwell got as far as he did because people didn't understand that he, for many years, was an independent Baptist. And I think people would have questioned it if they said, oh, he doesn't speak for all Baptists in America. He speaks for his church.

I hate to say this – I think the same thing would be said of Jim Wallis. I think there's this idea that Jim Wallis is at the head of an army of millions.

The other thing that bothered me about the list of 10 on one side and 10 on the other side is, well, Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council gets X number of mentions in the media and Jim Wallis is behind them. And we can fix this by bringing Jim Wallis up to speed with Tony Perkins, so we'll go from 10 talking heads to 20 talking heads. And I don't see that as changing anything.
PAUL WALDMAN:
Well, I think that would be a narrow solution to the problem, for reporters or producers to say, okay, well, when I quote Richard Lamm from the Southern Baptist Convention, then I'm also going to quote Bob Edgar from the National Council of Churches of Progressives.

That wouldn't hurt, but I think that once the reporters start talking to a broader range of sources, they begin to expand their perspectives on the issues that they're talking about, and they begin to look at things in more complicated ways.

So it's certainly one step to have a greater variety of voices that get quoted in the news, but that, I think, will in the end lead to a more nuanced and complex picture of these kinds of issues, hopefully.
JEFF SHARLET:
I respectfully disagree. I think it's going to lead to just the opposite. It's going to give us a false impression of fair and balanced. I would propose instead an unrealistic solution, a modest proposal -
[LAUGHTER]
- a moratorium on all 20. [LAUGHS]
BROOKE GLADSTONE:
All 20 of Media Matters' talking heads, 10 on one side, 10 on the other?
JEFF SHARLET:
Let's stop talking to these people. And I think Media Matters would love this, because then we would have to break this open and really go and talk to other people. You know, Jerry Falwell, as everyone within the Christian Right [LAUGHS] knows, should not have been speaking for the Christian Right for years and years.

I think I saw a study – and correct me if I'm wrong – that Bill Clinton actually rated higher in popularity amongst evangelicals [BROOKE LAUGHS] - conservative evangelicals than Jerry Falwell. I mean, everybody knows a jerk when they see one – not to speak ill of the dead.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:
Well, it's good. We really span the spectrum here from sort of left to very left.
[LAUGHTER]
Thank you both very much.
PAUL WALDMAN:
Thank you.
JEFF SHARLET:
Thank you, Brooke.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:
Jeff Sharlet is the author of Jesus Plus Nothing: A History of American Fundamentalism that's due out this fall, and Paul Waldman is a senior fellow at Media Matters for America and the author of Being Right is Not Enough: What Progressives Must Learn from Conservative Success.
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BOB GARFIELD:
That's it for this week's show. On the Media is produced by Megan Ryan, Tony Field, Jamie York, Mike Vuolo, Mark Phillips and Nazanin Rafsanjani, and edited – by Brooke. Dylan Keefe is our technical director and Jennifer Munson our engineer. We had help from Madeleine Elish and Andy Lanset. Our webmaster is Amy Pearl.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:
Katya Rogers is our senior producer and John Keefe our executive producer. Bassist/composer Ben Allison wrote our theme. You can listen to the program and find free transcripts, MP3 downloads and our podcasts at onthemedia.org and email us at onthemedia@wnyc.org. This is On the Media from WNYC. I'm Brooke Gladstone.
BOB GARFIELD:
And I'm Bob Garfield.
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