Commentary: Why covering religion and politics is difficult

Religion, at election time, is one of those subjects the news media are all but destined to get wrong.

There are good reasons for that. Religion is both deeply personal and profoundly public. It offers a relationship with the sacred, and it also prescribes the terms of membership in a secular community of fellow believers. It counsels on timeless matters of personal belief, and it also advises people on responses to contemporary problems affecting the whole society, from abortion and same-sex marriage to inequality and war and peace.

So from the get-go, when reporters inquire into a candidate's religious beliefs they are poking into an area that may be genuinely revealing of values, predispositions, worldview -- but may also be stepping into matters that are none of their business. That's the private aspect of religion as, in Alfred North Whitehead's words, what individuals do with their solitude.

Politicians don't help. Often, they're eager to brandish their piety as evidence of their moral suitability for office, but bridle at questions about just how their faith makes its influence felt. The public is supposed to take comfort that an office-holder relies on prayer for guidance, yet shouldn't ask just how the politician benefits from this personal relationship with the divine. Everybody likes to say they heed the Almighty; nobody is eager to claim that God actually speaks to them. A thin line separates humility from arrogance (or psychosis).

Nor does it help that religions routinely traffic in nonsense. Maybe that's a harsh way to put it, but sacred texts contain plenty of tales that the faithful honor for the essential wisdom they convey, not their factual accuracy. Still, that means it's easy to make politicians who claim to be pious look foolish by confronting them with beliefs or practices that are technically part of their tradition, but which actually are embraced by only a tiny fraction of co-religionists.

These reflections were prompted by a thoughtful presentation I heard last week at an academic ethics conference. Titled Getting Religion Right, it was about the news media's sins in the coverage of politicians' religion. The chief focus of the authors, students from Brigham Young University was on the media's treatment of former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, who is a Mormon, deemed a likely 2012 presidential contender.

The students found that one-third of the coverage of Romney's 2008 bid for the Republican presidential nomination concerned his Mormonism. Much of that included questions about such long-repudiated practices as polygamy. (Mainstream Christians, they said, were unlikely to face similar questioning about, say, the immaculate conception.)

This handling, they argued, reflected wider problems with the media's approach to religion and politicians. Their recommendations: Don't report on religious doctrine. Don't force candidates to speak for their faiths. Treat candidates equally. Respect the way religions see themselves and give religious leaders their say. And provide voters with the information they need to make informed choices.

I sympathize with the students' sense of grievance, but I'm just not convinced it's sensible to draw the line quite so permissively. After all, the pious -- even politicians -- are guided by their faith. That, along with help in dealing with mortality, is pretty much the point of having a faith. So inquiring as to which aspects of a religion politicians who profess piety carry over into their public calling is not necessarily a pointless or bigoted exercise.

It seems reasonable, for instance, to suppose that a politician who regards the defense (or, for that matter, the destruction) of the state of Israel as the fulfillment of prophecy will approach policy decisions bearing on Israeli security differently from somebody who doesn't hold such beliefs.

Fine. But couldn't you still confine questioning to the politician's views on U.S. Mideast policy -- leaving out the Book of Revelation?

Sure. But if you're assessing the game plan why leave out the playbook? Is it irrelevant to a politician's fitness if he believes the world is 10,000 years old, a talking snake cost us paradise, humans once hid from dinosaurs -- or, for that matter, that we're descendants of a noble race from another galaxy?

If you believe in religious diversity, and tolerate -- even welcome -- the reality that our society is home to a multiplicity of religions, cults and gumball creeds, then perhaps the other side of the diversity coin is to ask the people who claim inspiration from them to submit to serious, hopefully fair-minded, scrutiny about what their beliefs might mean to the people who are asked to anoint them as leaders. Some of that scrutiny might be mindless, uninformed, mean-spirited. That's deplorable. But the alternative is a level of ignorance that's even more unacceptable.

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