The Godless Party
Media Bias & Blindness—And the Big Story They Missed
by Rod Dreher
As a practicing Christian, a political conservative and a professional journalist, I often find myself explaining how newsrooms work to my fellow believers, and trying to disabuse them of the notion that reporters and editors begin their days thinking, “How can we trash Christianity and/or conservatism today?” Even at this late date, over a year into the Catholic sex-abuse scandal, it is possible to find stalwart Roman Catholics—not only bishops, believe it or not—who are convinced that the whole thing is a put-up job by the Godless Liberal Media. Look, I say, of course the media are prejudiced against political and religious conservatives, but it’s not as simple and clear-cut as you might think. There will always be diehard conspiracy theorists who cannot be reasoned with, but I find most conservatives are open to a more nuanced, accurate view of the media-bias phenomenon.
I wish I could say the same for most of my former newsroom colleagues. I have long been amazed at how ignorant and uncurious even intelligent and urbane journalists I’ve worked with are about conservatives, especially religious conservatives. They are, if anything, stauncher believers in the monolithic and uncomplicated evil of religious conservatives than vice-versa. Many erstwhile colleagues 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).
Ignorant of Religion
People like me and thee—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 that a reporter for one of the top newspapers in the country made an error like that; it’s staggering to think that it got through several layers of copyediting. They didn’t know any better. For all the caterwauling about “diversity” among media executives desperate to conjure up newsrooms that “look like America,” you will be hard-pressed to find in any Catholic parish on Sunday morning the same uniformity of thinking as you find in most American newsrooms on any day of the week. Try telling that to an editor or news director, though, and he’ll have no idea what you’re talking about. Believe me, I’ve tried.
True story: I once proposed a column on some now-forgotten religious theme to the man who was at the time the 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. To walk to the subway every morning, he had to pass in front of or close to two Catholic churches, an Episcopal church, a synagogue, a mosque, an Assemblies of God Hispanic parish, and an Iglesia Bautista Hispana. Yet this man did not see those places because he does not know anyone who attends them. It’s not that this editor despises religion; it’s that he’s too parochial (pardon the pun) to see what’s right in front of him. There’s a lot of truth in that old line attributed to the New Yorker’s Pauline Kael, who supposedly remarked, in all sincerity, “I don’t understand how Nixon won; I don’t know a soul who voted for him.”
In the main—and I’ve had this confirmed to me by Christian friends who labor elsewhere in the secular media—the men and women who bring America its news don’t necessarily 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. For example, to hear journalists talk, Catholics are berated from the pulpit every Sunday about abortion and birth control; reporters think I’m putting them on when I tell them that I’ve been a practicing Catholic for 10 years and I’ve only heard one sermon about abortion and none about contraception. For another, outside the Jewish community, there are no stronger supporters of Israel than among American Evangelicals, and that’s been true for at least a generation. The news has yet to reach American newsrooms, where I’ve been startled to discover a general assumption among Jews and non-Jews alike that these “fundamentalists” (i.e., any Christian more conservative than a Spong-ite Episcopalian) are naturally anti-Semitic.
In a further comment, that New York Post city editor inadvertently revealed something else important to me about the way media people see religion: As far as he was concerned, Catholics and Jews were the only religious people who counted in New York City (he himself is a non-practicing Jew), because they were the only ones who had any political pull. Because journalists tend not to know religiously observant people, they see religious activity in the only way they know how—in terms of secular politics. Thus, when your average journalist hears “Southern Baptist,” she immediately thinks of an alien sect whose rustic adherents lurk in the shadows thinking of cunning ways to manipulate Republican politicians into taking away a woman’s right to choose. The trouble is, she doesn’t think much further, and it is unlikely that anyone in her professional and social circles will challenge her to do so.
The Secular Party Emerges
So what? The bias of the news media against religious conservatives is by this point a dog-bites-man story of the first degree. Everybody knows that pro-life marchers and churches who resist gay “marriage” aren’t going to get a fair shake from the newspaper, and we’ve gotten used to that. But the importance of this phenomenon is both broader and deeper than individual stories. In a media-driven society, the press sets the terms of public debate, and in so doing establishes the narrative that will inescapably influence the way society thinks about and acts on issues and challenges.
Anti-religious media bias has profound implications for the future of American politics, or so say social scientists Louis Bolce and Gerald De Maio in “Our Secularist Democratic Party,” an important article published in a recent issue of The Public Interest. The Baruch College researchers say that the parochialism of journalists is blinding 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, the dominant paradigm—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 the authors, 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 of the party and nominated George McGovern. Prior to that year, neither party had many secularists among its delegates. According to a comprehensive study of survey data from the Democratic delegates, the party was badly 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 traditional family. What the authors call a “secularist putsch” 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. “What was first an intra-party culture war among Democratic elites became by the 1980s an inter-party culture war.”
Survey data from the 1992 national conventions show how thoroughly polarized the parties had by that time become 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. A fascinating set of statistics emerged when questioners polled each party’s delegates on their views of various subgroups among the other party’s activists. Both Democrats and Republicans were “significantly more negative toward groups associated with the newer religious and cultural division in the electorate than toward groups associated with older political cleavages based on class, race, ethnicity, party or ideology.” That is, Republican delegates felt much warmer toward union leaders, mainline liberals, blacks, Hispanics, and Democrats than toward feminists, environmentalists, and pro-abortion activists. For their part, the Democrats were more favorably disposed to big-business types, the rich, political conservatives and Republicans than toward pro-lifers and conservative Christians. Of the 18 groups covered by the survey, Christian fundamentalists came in as the most despised, with over half the Democratic delegates giving them the absolute minimum score possible. Put another way, Republican delegates thought more highly of those who favor the legalized killing of unborn children than their Democratic counterparts thought of people who believe in a literal interpretation of Scripture.
For their analysis, Bolce and De Maio defined secularists as “those who rejected scriptural authority, had no religious affiliation, never attended religious services or prayed, and indicated that religion provided no guidance in their day-to-day lives.” Traditionalists were “those who prayed and attended religious services regularly, accepted the Bible as divinely inspired, and said that religion was important to their daily lives.” Most people surveyed—two-thirds of the respondents in the American National Election Study (ANES), which polled a cross-section of the electorate—fall somewhere between these two extremes, with the remaining respondents evenly divided around the respective poles.
ANES data covering the last three presidential elections found that to be a secularist in America today is to embrace moral relativism—a position strongly rejected by traditionalists. And, say the authors, “secularism is no less powerful a determinant of attitudes on the contentious cultural issues than is religious traditionalism. In most instances, secularists consistently and lopsidedly embraced culturally progressivist positions”—the mirror image of traditionalists. The authors conclude that the increased polarization of cultural attitudes within the American electorate is, contrary to conventional wisdom, not because traditionalists have become more conservative, but because secularists (and to a lesser extent religious moderates) have become more liberal.
Indeed, religion has become such a galvanizing issue for both parties that, say the authors, “the religious gap among white voters in the 1992, 1996 and 2000 presidential elections was more important than other demographic and social cleavages in the electorate; it was much larger than the gender gap and more significant than any combination of differences in education, income, occupation, age, marital status and regional groupings.” The media have thoroughly reported the key role religious conservatives play in Republican Party politics; what they’ve ignored is the equally important role militant secularists play in setting the agenda of the Democratic Party—as the late pro-life Governor Bob Casey, denied a decent podium at the 1992 Democratic convention, could have attested.
The divide has become so stark that the authors have discerned a new kind of voter: the “anti-fundamentalist.” According to the 2000 ANES data, the hatred of religious conservatives long apparent among Democratic convention delegates has found a home among a disproportionate number of Democratic voters. Twenty-five percent of white respondents in the ANES survey 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. Conclude the authors, “One has to reach back to pre-New Deal America, when political divisions between Catholics and Protestants encapsulated local ethno-cultural cleavages over Prohibition, immigration, public education, and blue laws, to find a period when voting behavior was influenced by this degree of antipathy toward a religious group.” If Al Smith were to return and run for president today, his enemies wouldn’t be yesterday’s rustic anti-Catholic bigots of the Bible Belt, but today’s urbane anti-Christian bigots of liberal coastal cities dubbed (by the Wall Street Journal ) the Porn Belt.
The News Gap
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, whose influence on the reporting of other newspapers and TV networks cannot be overstated, have both completely missed it. In a search of the Lexis-Nexis database of every domestic political news story, op-ed, and editorial published in those papers from 1990 to 2000, the authors found a grand total of 14 stories that mentioned the religious gap between the two parties.
“The minimization of the religious divide between the parties is also apparent when compared to the amount of press attention devoted to other ‘gaps’ in the electorate,” the authors write. “During this same time span, the Times and Post published 392 articles on the gender gap. In the 1992, 1996, and 2000 presidential elections, white women on average gave Democrats 9 percent more of their vote than did white men; the average gap separating secularists and religious traditionalists 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 versus the role of traditionalists in the GOP. 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—not one—about the Secular Left’s relationship to the Democrats.
Why is this important? Because studies show that news media shape the way the public views social groups. The authors found that in the Times’ and Post ’s coverage, the connection between traditional religious belief and political conservatism was clearly drawn. The message was clear: Traditional religion makes people oppose abortion, vote Republican, and adopt intolerant attitudes. There was no similar connection between devout secularism and its link to pro-abortion fervor, Democratic loyalty, and anti-religious prejudice. “And thus it is not surprising,” say the authors, “that ANES survey results indicate that the more attention a person pays to the national political news media, and especially to television news, the more likely is that individual to believe that Christian fundamentalists are ideologically extreme and politically militant.”
And they’re more likely to see all religious conservatives in political terms, and make political decisions based on how they feel about religious conservatives. In other words, the more a person exposes himself to the news media, the closer he comes to adopting the viewpoint common in American newsrooms, which is one of suspicion and hostility toward orthodox religious believers. It is fair to say that our news media, through heavily biased reporting and analysis, are turning significant numbers of American voters against religious conservatives and are delegitimizing the place believers have made for themselves at the table.
I suspect that most reporters, editors, and producers would be shocked by these findings, and reject this conclusion. They pride themselves on being objective, and they really do think of themselves as, to pinch a phrase, “fair and balanced.” Yet there is the well-known survey Robert Lichter conducted a few years back, polling national reporters blindly about their political affiliation. Something like 90 percent answered “Democrat,” and a similarly large number said they voted for Clinton. Bolce and De Maio cite that Lichter study’s numbers on religious affiliation among the media elite, which reveal that half the journalists surveyed claimed no religion at all, and 80 percent said they seldom or rarely attend religious services.
The Godless Party
The authors also cite a poll showing that a majority of TV news directors and newspaper editors felt that Evangelical and fundamentalist Christians “have too much power,” and fully one-third of those surveyed considered these believers to be “a threat to democracy.” The same survey found that only four percent thought secularists and nonbelievers had too much influence over public life, and the number of media professionals who perceived secularists as a threat was . . . zero. You see in these numbers why my former New York Post editor concluded that our city was thoroughly secular and that covering religion was unimportant: The media elite think that marginalizing religion in one’s life is normal, and that those who are serious about faith are mad, bad, and dangerous to know.
When it comes to religion, America is a far different place from its newsrooms. Ours is still a religious nation, even if it is, in the main, a mild “church-of-your choice” civic religion of the sort President Eisenhower had in mind when he remarked, “Our government makes no sense unless it is founded on a deeply felt religious faith—I don’t care what it is.” Belief in God is, for most Americans, a sign of character. According to a March 2002 national survey conducted by the Pew Research Center and cited by the authors, 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 understand, deep down, that America has always been a country that reveres God, and 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.”
Rod Dreher is a columnist and editorial writer for the Dallas Morning News, where he edits the Sunday commentary section "Points." He lives with his wife and two sons in Dallas. He is a contributing editor for Touchstone.
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