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FORUM Sep-19-2008 (870 words) xxxn

Forum looks at how media covers religion, morality in elections

By Beth Griffin
Catholic News Service

NEW YORK (CNS) -- Candidates' religious views are a legitimate interest to the electorate, but are irrelevant unless they somehow inform an opinion or approach to policy, said panelists at a forum in New York.

They also concluded that the public discussion of religious faith in a campaign should elevate the conversation, rather than distract from the issues by digressing into details of theology and personal religious practice.

The comments were made during a discussion of "Sinners and Winners -- Election '08: Religion, Morality and Media." The Sept. 16 event, attended by more than 400 people, was held at Jesuit-run Fordham University.

"Americans want a president with faith," said Andrew Kohut, president of the Pew Research Center in Washington. "People want to know what candidates do or don't think about religion. 'Do they share my values?' It gives a sense of who the candidate is and is a legitimate way to size up a candidate."

E.J. Dionne Jr., a syndicated columnist with the Washington Post, said: "We want to know if a politician's religious faith is important to him, but the politician does have an obligation to explain his views in a way that can be understood."

If one is "a believing person," it is not enough "to say it's a good policy because my religion says it is," said Don Wycliff, former editor of the Chicago Tribune. "You have to talk to people in a pluralistic society and convince them on a rational basis that what you're proposing has merit."

Media covering campaigns should frame their questions to elicit responses about public policy and not theological views, said panelists.

Peggy Fletcher Stack, senior religion writer at the Salt Lake Tribune, said, "Beliefs are legitimate, but there are many theological questions that are irrelevant."

"I don't want to be asking politicians about their interior life," she said. "I want to know where it will take them, how it will bring people together and what they are going to do with their faith to help this country."

The panelists said a candidate who believed that the end times were near might approach foreign policy differently from someone who did not and if an official felt that war was a mission of God, then that would become a public question rather than a private belief.

They agreed it was immaterial whether a candidate denied evolution, unless the person tried to prevent the teaching of evolution.

They also agreed that a candidate who did not have a religious affiliation would not succeed at the national level.

Wycliff said reporters can ask how a candidate reconciles his call for spending on a particular item with his religion's position on that issue. And it is legitimate to ask if a person is "prevented by something in his or her religion from doing something that we feel needs to be done," he said.

Stack said contemporary media coverage of campaigns is marked by a tendency to closely scrutinize religions that are unfamiliar or unpopular, with questions veering toward irrelevant theological details.

Many reporters, she said, allow critics or former members to be their main sources of information about a particular faith. She added that the faith of former Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, a Mormon, was more often the subject of news stories than the faith of his opponents, even when such stories did not focus on policy positions.

"Rather than ask about polygamy, reporters could have asked Romney how the early Mormon experience with collective economics affected his career as a venture capitalist," she said.

Stack also suggested that reporters could ask Catholic politicians about their understanding of the late Pope John Paul II's encyclicals on work and the economy rather than focus on the church's position on abortion.

There is a difference between the public's need to know and its curiosity, which a candidate has no responsibility to slake, said Wycliff. "A lot of media coverage (of candidates' religious views) is like a trip to the zoo: 'See the crazy Mormon here! Look at the wild black pastor there!' There's no appreciation of what religion means to its adherents."

Kohut said, "Journalists are not very good tour guides when it comes to religion. Some are not religious people and are uncomfortable reporting on it."

The panelists agreed that religion reporting has improved in the past decade, but that good religion reporting remains a challenge.

Kohut said the effect of religion on voter behavior has been exaggerated in the media, but added that there is a significant overlap of religious and cultural forces in voting. Some religious groups are more cohesive than others, he said, citing white evangelical Protestants and Jews.

There is no "Catholic vote," said Kohut. "How can we take a diverse group and put brackets around them? White Catholics are a category, but it doesn't make them a voting bloc."

African-Americans are overwhelmingly evangelical, said Wycliff, but they vote as African-Americans with a clear set of interests, not as evangelicals.

The discussion was sponsored by the Fordham Center on Religion and Culture and was moderated by Ray Suarez, senior correspondent at PBS's "NewsHour With Jim Lehrer."


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