The Press, the religious right and the wall of separation

by Saul Friedman, Neiman Watchdog

I often wonder why most of the mainstream reporters and editorialists don’t make the connection between the first two most basic guarantees in the First Amendment and their own responsibilities for making them whole: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press…”

I wonder about this because these journalists who are supposed to protect these rights seem to take seriously the views of presidential candidates who would trash the separation clause, which is inseparable from the rest of the Bill of Rights. How else to interpret the mainstream media’s coverage of the two leading Republicans, Mitt Romney and Mike Huckabee, who intend to wear their religions to their inaugurations?

Romney was highly praised for his College Station speech explaining his Mormon faith. And it was generally compared favorably to John F. Kennedy’s Houston speech in 1960. David Broder recalled in his column on Dec. 9 that Romney’s father, George, as Michigan’s governor and a presidential candidate in 1967 was also obliged to explain his faith. But I covered the elder Romney then and his Mormonism was never a serious issue, because the Republican Party had not yet sold itself to the ultra-religious right. There was never any question that Romney, a rather liberal, pro-civil rights Republican, would observe the admonition of the First Amendment.

But Broder concluded that Mitt Romney’s speech, like his father’s, proved his Mormonism should not be an issue because he demonstrated that “the Constitution means what it says: No religious test for public office.” That was not the issue or the problem. There is one test, which Kennedy made clear: “I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute.” Mitt Romney made no such declaration and it’s clear that the Christian Right doesn’t believe it.

Broder, among others, similarly anointed Huckabee in a column Dec. 2, suggesting an ideal Republican ticket would include Sen. John McCain for president and Huckabee as vice-president and president-in-waiting. Said Broder: Huckabee’s “combination of religious principles, good humor and clear passion on education complements McCain’s muscular foreign policy and aversion to wasteful domestic spending.”

Broder, of course is not the only mainstreamer who has had such kind things to say about front runners Huckabee and Romney. But the pundits, and straight reporters, so preoccupied with style, fashion and the horse race, seem to gloss over the connection between their rather fundamentalist religious views and their politics. Indeed, both, as well as other Republican candidates and their most fervent supporters seem to be battering at the wall of separation, competing as Christians and pushing their brands of Christianity into the public policy area.

They have similar views opposing legal abortion and same sex unions, belittling or condemning homosexuality as an aberration, opposing the use of human embryos for stem cell research, and denying the truth of evolution. Romney has changed his one-time moderate or enlightened views on abortion and gay rights to fit the Christianity campaign; he says he believes that God created evolution and is not opposed to its teaching. Huckabee does not believe in evolution and believes instead in the literal biblical creation story, but is willing for evolution to be taught if schools also teach creationism–which as one important court case held, is teaching religion, and a violation of the separation clause.

Not only during this election season has the press not done a decent investigative job on the beliefs of the religious right, some of them downright kookie. Most political reporters (aside from the blogs), over the months and years since the religious right has taken center stage in the political arena, have not called such unscientific, know-nothing nonsense by its right name, for fear of offending the believers. That may account for a revealing new Pew Research report of Dec. 18, on science, religious beliefs and public attitudes, which found that “while large majorities of Americans respect science and scientists” they don’t accept scientific findings that conflict with their religious beliefs.

For example, the poll in 2006 found that 42 percent of the American people don’t believe in evolution. And although 51 percent said they do believe that human and other beings “evolved over time,” 21 percent believed that this evolution was guided by a supreme being. Thus in 21st Century America, which the Pew Report called “the most religious of the advanced industrialized democracies,” only 26 percent of Americans believe in “evolution through natural selection.”

There was evidence in another part of the Pew poll that the press can make a difference on such public/scientific issues. Religious difference were considerably less significant on another controversial issue, global warming. Pew reported that “an overwhelming majority–79 percent–believe there is solid evidence” that the earth is warming and 79 percent say it is a serious problem. However, considerably fewer evangelicals–29 percent–regard it as a serious problem. At this writing the fundamentalist candidates have yet to be heard from on this issue.

The moral: If science tells us the earth is a globe or that it revolves around the sun, there is no other side of the story.

article originally published at http://blog.niemanwatchdog.org/?p=175.

The media's job is to interest the public in the public interest. -John Dewey