There’s a problem in newsrooms today that you may not have heard much about: bias against religious people. It is typically ignored when journalists start talking about encouraging “diversity” in their workplace, because people of faith aren’t viewed as an oppressed minority. But it’s time to realize that being prejudiced against religious believers -- often dismissed as the “religious right” -- is just as bad as being prejudiced against anyone else.
One way the bias shows up is when people of faith are portrayed in news reports as sharing similar, conservative values. That’s why a recent Lexus search showed 651 uses of the phrase “religious right” in the last three months of 2001. “Religious left” was used only 10 times. Does that mean there are no religious liberals? Or just that they aren’t being reported on as often as religious conservatives?
When the phrase “religious right” is used, it’s often given a negative spin. One way that’s done is to lump everybody on the “religious right” with its most extreme members. On Dec. 23, for example, Boston Globe columnist Ellen Goodman wrote: “In recent years, our religious right has talked feverishly of cultural wars. Fanatics like pro-lifer Randall Terry have said, ‘I want you to just let a wave of intolerance wash over you. Yes, hate is good . . . ‘”
Of course, few people who call themselves Christians agree with Randall Terry’s endorsement of hate. But all Christians are fair game for Goodman’s labeling, just as if they actually agreed with Terry.
You’ll see more of this soon. On the front page of the Dec. 27, 2001 New York Times, Douglas Jehl wrote about how the Saudi Arabian government, “shied away from a crackdown on militant clerics or their followers, a move that would have inflamed the religious right, the disaffected returnees from other wars and a growing number of unemployed.”
In this context, “religious right” has two possible meanings, both bad. One is that Jehl is equating Saudi Muslims who support attacks on the United States with the “religious right” -- usually conservative Christians -- in this country. The other is that he’s using the term to refer to conservative Muslims inside Saudi Arabia. But even if that’s true, he’s still using it as a loaded term and giving it a negative spin.
The New York Times isn’t the only organization that’s playing the association game. Newsweek’s Howard Fineman says Democrats hope to do the same thing in the coming year: “The GOP is out of the mainstream, some Democrats will argue next year, because it’s too dependent upon an intolerant ‘religious right.’ This is an incendiary battle plan -- essentially comparing the GOP right with the Taliban -- designed to draw an outraged response from the president. Then Democrats would have Bush just where they wanted him: in a fire fight at home.”
The first shot has already been fired: President Bush is being portrayed as the leader of a “religious right” that the media treats as being outside the mainstream. On Dec. 24, Washington Post White House reporter Dana Milbank began a news story by asserting that, “Pat Robertson's resignation this month as president of the Christian Coalition confirmed the ascendance of a new leader of the religious right in America: George W. Bush.”
Never mind that Bush himself denies any religious leadership role. As a senior aide told Milbank: “(Bush) does not believe he was chosen for this moment. He just views himself as governing on his beliefs and his promises. He doesn't look at himself as a leader of any particular movement.”
In fact, those who are portrayed in the media as leaders of the “religious right” are often quoted only when they are spouting views contrary to those of most Christians and conservatives. On Sept. 13, the Rev. Jerry Falwell ludicrously suggested that “pagans, abortionists, feminists, gays and lesbians, the ACLU and People for the American Way” helped pave the way for the terrorist attacks against our country.
He was quickly rebuked by conservatives for those comments. As Ramesh Ponnuru wrote in National Review Online the next day, “To use the attacks as a pretext to continue our culture wars is disgraceful. Even worse would be to suggest that America had it coming because it's sunk in sin. Conservatives, and especially Christian conservatives, should be glad that Robertson and Falwell are long past their prime as leaders.” In the Oct. 1 Weekly Standard, Noemie Emery called Falwell’s remarks “disgraceful”.
That sort of condemnation wasn’t enough for Jonathan Alter. On Dec. 16, the MSNBC.com commentator and Newsweek columnist was still claiming that, “the larger conservative movement has done little or nothing to repudiate the founder of the Moral Majority (Falwell).”
Former CBS News correspondent Bernard Goldberg tells a story in his best-selling book “Bias” of a Washington producer who described presidential candidate Gary Bauer as “the little nut from the Christian group.” The remarkable thing about the comment is that no one involved in the meeting thought to challenge the slur.
Could she have called someone “a little nut from a Jewish group” or “a little nut from a Muslim group” and escaped unscathed? Of course not. In the mainstream media, too often it’s acceptable to make negative comments about Christians that never could be made about any other religious group. That must change.