Last week CNN devoted nearly five days of prime time broadcasts to discuss religion in the United States. Catholics, Protestants, Evangelicals and Jews each had some representation. By my count there were at least five different specials, repeated strategically during the holiday weekend. This network has not historically had a pro-evangelical editorial bent. Therefore, many members of the faith community have felt that FOX or other networks were more supportive of their values.
CNN’s most recent religious specials mark a departure from their typical modus operandi. Evangelicals often expect poor treatment and stereotyping from the liberal press. These programs, however, seemed extremely even handed and objective in their journalistic style and approach. At times they even seemed faith affirming and inspirational. Suffice it to say, their approach to the Easter holiday season may yield many new viewers for their news programs.
CNN’s programs ranged from quasi-documentary pieces to issue oriented discussions. One comprehensive presentation was a two part series hosted by the network’s primary news luminary, Anderson Cooper. "What Is a Christian?” explored the tension between science and faith. The segments were diverse, fast paced, and informative. The tone of each vignette was, for the most part, very objective and civil - despite the occasional outburst of impassioned debaters. Cooper, himself, displayed intellectual curiosity and openness to each presenter. One question seemed to be a unifying thread to the presentation, “How is the faith community in the U.S. changing in both force and focus”?
A second, well-produced program was entitled “What Would Jesus Really Do”? The program was engaging and the host, Roland Martin, was utterly charming. Although this program was more overtly critical of the evangelical Christian movement, the host asked important questions about evangelical views on global warming, the Iraq War, and the divide between the rich and poor. Martin featured Bishop T. D. Jakes, Pastor Paula White, Rick Warren, Rev. Jerry Falwell, and other evangelical ministers. Without blatantly declaring that there is a major difference between the majority of black evangelical clergy and their white counterparts, Martin (an African American) gave space for new faces to present their positions. Martin is to be commended that he resisted the temptation to trot out Jessie Jackson and Rev. Al Sharpton as “black experts.”
I really believe that the work CNN did this past week was exemplary. They did a great job at presenting classic positions as contrasted with new societal questions. The only thing that Cooper and company failed to pick up on last week is that a generation of pioneer evangelical leaders are about to pass from the scene. Therefore, the entire Christian right movement is in transition. The pioneer patriarchs of the moral majority are all in their seventies or eighties. When these influential giants step down in the next few years, a new generation of technically-savvy, policy geeks with the Bible in one hand and a laptop in the other, will ascend into even greater authority than their predecessors.
The Dobsons, Falwells, Kennedys, Weyrichs, and Robertsons of our day have spent their entire public careers fighting the moral chaos of our culture. Through the power of prayer and biblical faith they have risen from obscurity to national fame and then from fame to national influence. This pattern is similar to that of the Old Testament prophet Elijah who, in his later years, transferred his important work to a second generation (Elisha) who ultimately performed twice the miracles of his mentor.
Perhaps CNN is beginning to court the sleeping giant– the evangelical, faith community. This courtship may not be based upon conviction alone. The bright people at CNN are obviously aware of the fact that the faith community, along with crunchy conservatives, helped catapult FOX News into cable news stardom. In this defining moment in our culture, CNN is looking for a new approach, or at least a silver bullet, to fire at their programming adversaries.
Once fearful of the religious right, the liberal media now wants to frame the religious debate in the nation. Further, many of them feel empowered to complain about the historic, policy agenda of evangelicals. Only time will tell if the producers of these programs are beginning to have a real spiritual awakening. For all we know, both liberal television and print outlets may simply be attempting to play a sophisticated game of divide and conquer. In light of the strange realignment of media voices, the Trojan horse story of old offers a clear lesson - sometimes gifts from old enemies can be “problematic.”
The moral majority will rise again in 2008 and beyond with a new message, new vitality, and new leaders. I hope CNN, FOX News, and others are ready for it!