Another Perspective

Welcome to the Monkey House

Most journalists, ignorant of religion, focus on Romney and Huckabee. What about Obama?

By 1.21.08

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Barack Obama, John Edwards, and Hillary Clinton have coasted in one important respect so far this election season: none of them has had much practice fielding challenging questions about the policy implications of their religious beliefs.

No such respite has been given to Mike Huckabee and Mitt Romney, who together get most of the "religious ink" in mainstream reporting about the people competing for the Oval Office. Many people would like to know: Why the double standard?

Disingenuous observers who claim that religion is a private affair with no bearing on public conduct can be safely ignored here, because they are usually too exasperated by the enthusiasm of a devout few to notice the tenor of reporting on religion. Those who argue that Huckabee and Romney have only themselves to blame make a better case. After all, one of those men is an ordained Baptist minister and the other wants to be our first Mormon president.

But neither biographical detail nor Ronald Reagan's fabled courtship of the religious right a generation ago explains why Republicans today are expected to disavow plans for an American Christian theocracy while Democrats exhort the rest of us to justice in stump speeches from inner-city pulpits.

One proposed reason for the mainstream reluctance to press Democratic candidates about their religious beliefs is that many big-time journalists treat religion as personal baggage. Add to that the partisan angle: Because journalists typically vote Democrat, they want Democrats to have an easier time with any baggage than their Republican rivals, and shape questions and stories accordingly.

So Democrats are entitled to the convenience of curb-side check in, while Republicans are banished to the nether regions of a big terminal, trudging endlessly through security checkpoints with oversize luggage that skycaps are unwilling to relieve them of. Why? Because one does not reward churchgoing union-busters who never want to raise the minimum wage.

That metaphor-stretching interpretation misses the mark by overlooking ignorance as an explanation for how people in newsrooms behave. My suspicion is that Huckabee and Romney have double-teamed the few neurons that most reporters allocate to recognizing religious influence in life.

One result of this is that Rudy Giuliani can't buy a religious angle in wire service copy unless some hack salutes him for supporting a "right to choose" that the church in which he was raised considers a serious sin. For those of you playing at home, the takeaway is that journalists understand ambition, but faith in Jesus Christ leaves them befuddled.

INABILITY TO SEE beyond here to the hereafter explains why journalists treat Hillary Clinton as a known quantity while lumping devout Christians of any type with Muslim al Qaeda operatives in a startlingly ecumenical "religion wing" of the monkey house that is American politics.

If more journalists understood religion, for instance, they would not be as quick to applaud Barack Obama for parading his own ignorance of Christian history as though it were a merit badge for deep thought.

When asked by a member of the editorial board of the Chicago Sun-Times whether he was an evangelical Christian, Obama said, in effect, "Yes and no. But that kind of nuance is a black thing you wouldn't understand." You can judge for yourself whether my paraphrase is fair: What Obama actually said was, "I came to Christianity through the black church tradition."

Did he mean the Christian tradition as mediated through black culture? Nobody in his audience thought to ask. Someone familiar with Christian history could have pointed out that Augustine of Hippo was a 5th-century bishop in North Africa, Martin de Porres followed Jesus in 17th-century Peru, and the Martyrs of Uganda held fast to their Christian faith in the 19th century. Francis Cardinal Arinze of Nigeria has a much better claim to black Christian leadership than Al Sharpton or Jesse Jackson.

But the scarlet thread connecting each of these people is a person, not a common culture or a "black value system" of the kind touted by Obama's church.

Let it be remembered that although the African Methodist Episcopal church, for example, has beautiful roots in the 19th-century anti-slavery movement, the Rev. Doctor Martin Luther King, Jr. preached with equal felicity from any Christian pulpit that would have him, without regard for the peculiarities of Baptist, Methodist, Presbyterian, or Pentecostal theologies.

Let it be hoped that Obama's theology, whatever it is, makes room for what Saint Paul wrote in his letter to the Galatians: "All of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek; there is neither slave nor free person, there is not male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus." That assertion is one of the great catholic statements in a collection of sacred books rife with them.

As smart bloggers like Ed Driscoll and the appropriately named Cassandra have pointed out, we have reason to be both curious and cautious about what Obama believes. The Pharisee in me can't help but think that what Obama has is not a "nuanced" Christian faith but an unexamined one. Identifying too closely with a "black church tradition" rather than the universality of the Christian message gives short shrift to that divine imperative known to Christian theologians as the "Great Commission."

It also encourages separatism and strife. Smooth as he is, even Obama can't preach harmony on one side of the church door after listening to racialist sermons on the other. We need more journalists with faith and spine enough to address concerns like these.

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About the Author

Patrick O'Hannigan is a writer in North Carolina.