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10 August 2004

“Religious men”

The Revealer has had some excellent essays of late on religion in political life.  Amy Sullivan pens one, and ponders the following:

Throughout the spring and early summer, photos of a church-going,
communion-receiving John Kerry were still plentiful every Monday
morning. While the “Wafer Watch” continued unabated, there was
virtually no coverage of the worship habits of President George W.
Bush, perhaps the most vocally religious president in our history.

The distinction highlights one of the most pervasive double standards
in political journalism – the treatment of Democratic and Republican
politicians’ personal faith.

Broadly speaking, most political reporters regard Democrats as not
genuinely religious. When it comes to the question of a Democratic
candidate’s faith, therefore, reporters typically retreat to the
comfortable political game of “Gotcha,” trying to trip him up and
expose his insincerity. Time
magazine’s Karen Tumulty has presented as evidence of Kerry’s lack of
faith the fact that he didn’t want to discuss papal infallibility with
her. The fact that it really isn’t a issue on which voters should judge
his qualification for the Oval Office did not seem to faze her. In the
same vein, when Kerry attended Protestant churches during a springtime
swing through the Midwest, campaign reporters feverishly speculated
that it was because he was “afraid” to go to a Catholic church for fear
of being denied communion. When, upon his return to the Northeast,
Kerry resumed his attendance at Mass, these same reporters wondered if
he was trying to make a show of defying Church leaders.

Perhaps Kerry should have taken a page from Bush’s playbook. What
Republicans have learned is that if a candidate asserts his religiosity
vigorously enough, political writers will label him a “religious man”
without asking what that really means or why voters should care. This
hands-off approach usually favors Republicans, who get a pass from
reporters reluctant to engage in Scripture-quoting contests, but it can
also be seen in the treatment of African-American politicians, who are
assumed to be more sincere about their faith, and in the way the press
approached Joseph Lieberman’s religiosity.

You can find the whole series of article from the Revealer here.

Here’s a hypothesis as to why one is religious-labeled and the other not.

Republicans and Democrats who are religious take very different
approaches to the religious lives that they lead, largely. Reps (where
Reps are religious)tend to be conservative evangelical Christians (of
various denominations), a group that places a high premium on
expressive, public announcement of religious beliefs and affiliation
and individual conversion. Dems tend to be Roman Catholic, “moderate to
liberal” Episcopalian, or mainline Protestant, groups that currently
and generally place more emphasis on communal redemption. You see this
perfectly represented in religious groups doing work in the Third
World: evangelical groups tend to focus on how many people have been
“saved” and the latter grouping above focuses more on service
provision, speaking about religious belief as the motivating factor
behind that provision.

The communal approach sits at odds with much of American political
ideology, and it’s still somewhat foreign to our idea of radical
individual achievement. It’s also quieter (no judgment is meant by
that, just that the communalists tend not to talk so much about their
religion as the individualists do).

I think the answer to the partisan divide over religious labelling
has two answers. I think that part of the explanation lies in a simple
volume issue. Evangelicals, who have allied with Republicans largely,
speak much more “loudly” in the public sphere about their religious
belief and affiliation. The press, like any of us, hears that nrrative
over and over and makes the (faulty) conclusion that people who have
faith talk about it all the time and that people who don’t, don’t. But
you can see the logical fallacy there. The conclusion they make is
faulty (just because a phenomenon is a marker of an identity does not
mean that it is definitive of an identity) and the evidentiary leap is
faulty, too (a lack of a particualr type of evidence for religiousness
does not mean that the people involved are irreligious).

The second reason seems to lie in the coalition that is the
Democratic party. Both religious and secularists exist in the
Democratic party, and their co-existence has been an uneasy one. But
combined with the general character of Democratic Christians, the
secularists have become the more vocal group in the Democrats, in
something of a mirror image of the Republicans. Again, however, this is
neither an entire nor entirely accurate vision of the Democratic

In both cases, I think that the answer lies largely in volume, not
in any real differences between the “true” religiosity of the party

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