New York Times offers solid Religious Left update, with skewed headline that's LOL territory

Every now and then, newspapers need to go out of their way to correct errors found in headlines, but not in stories.

This would, for example, help news consumers understand that headlines -- 99.9 percent of the time -- are written by copy-desk editors who do not consult with the professionals who actually reported, wrote and edited the story in question.

My first full-time job in journalism was working as a copy editor -- laying out news pages, doing final edits and, yes, writing headlines. It's hard work and you rarely have time to visit the newsroom for debates with reporters about the wording of headlines.

Anyway, one of the big religion-beat stories of the weekend ran at The New York Times with this double-decker headline: 

Religious Liberals Sat Out of Politics for 40 Years. Now They Want in the Game.
Faith leaders whose politics fall to the left of center are getting more involved in politics to fight against President Trump’s policies

That top line is simply wrong. Anyone who has worked the religion beat in recent decades knows that it is wrong -- wrong as in factually wrong.

Read carefully, and note that the headline does not accurately state the primary thesis by religion-beat veteran Laurie Goodstein in this summary material up top:

Across the country, religious leaders whose politics fall to the left of center, and who used to shun the political arena, are getting involved -- and even recruiting political candidates -- to fight back against President Trump’s policies on immigration, health care, poverty and the environment.
Some are calling the holy ruckus a “religious resistance.” Others, mindful that periodic attempts at a resurgence on the religious left have all failed, point to an even loftier ambition than taking on the current White House: After 40 years in which the Christian right has dominated the influence of organized religion on American politics -- souring some people on religion altogether, studies show -- left-leaning faith leaders are hungry to break the right’s grip on setting the nation’s moral agenda.

I would question one piece of that statement. When did religious progressives (defined in terms of doctrine) ever "shun the political arena"? Has anyone ever covered a national meeting of liberal old-line Protestants (think "Seven Sisters") in which debates and statements about political issues were not on the docket, with clear implications for the political parties?

Plus, I have been reading stories about the rise or the rebirth of the Religious Left (let's go ahead and use capital letters) ever since Ronald Reagan defeated Jimmy Carter. I have written several of those myself.

But note how Goodstein actually defined the time element in this feature: The key is not a 40-year period in which the left was silent. It's the 40-year period in which the Religious Right was dominant, pretty much drowning out most efforts by religious liberals (other than in hopeful stories in elite media).

As I wrote in a GetReligion post during a flurry of debate about the Religious Left a few months ago (related to a Reuters report about etc., etc., etc.):

I have long argued that, without the beginning of the sharp statistical decline of the old religious left in the 1970s and '80s, you would not have had a large gap in the public square into which the Religious Right could move.
The key questions: "What is the religious left? Does one define this term using doctrinal standards, political standards or both? Is there more to this than the Democratic Party at prayer?"
Every now and then, mainstream reporters write a round of features about the return of the religious left. The rise of Barack Obama inspired one recent set of these stories. Now, Reuters has released a feature that, in Newsweek, drew this headline: "How the 'religious left' is emerging as a political force in Trump's America."

I would also like to note that this new Times piece focuses -- high in the story -- on a crucial tension within the Religious Left:

Frustrated by Christian conservatives’ focus on reversing liberal successes in legalizing abortion and same-sex marriage, those on the religious left want to turn instead to what they see as truly fundamental biblical imperatives -- caring for the poor, welcoming strangers and protecting the earth -- and maybe even change some minds about what it means to be a believer.

Of course, the ancient churches -- East and West -- would argue that defending the Sacrament of Marriage is a biblical imperative and that gender imagery is at the heart of any narrative of creation and the church. This is why there are tensions on the Religious Left about those issues, since you cannot discuss progressive religious causes without mentioning Roman Catholics.

Let me stress that Goodstein does not ignore these tensions on moral theology, especially since Catholics and young evangelicals are at the heart of her narrative. So are LGBTQ issues, since she is -- #DUH -- writing in The New York Times.

One other reality looms in the background, which is growing -- some researchers would say dominant -- clout of doctrinaire secularists (hello Sen. Bernie Sanders) in the modern Democratic Party. Might religious liberty issues be another fault line?

Read this long passage carefully: 

Issues on which the religious left is at odds with Democratic doctrine include military spending and the death penalty, though the most polarizing is abortion -- the main barrier, for many liberal evangelicals and Catholics, to voting as Democrats -- as could be seen when the party split recently over whether to endorse an anti-abortion Democrat running for mayor of Omaha.
Setting abortion aside, political appeals based on religious beliefs continue to carry risk for Democrats, given the growing numbers of Americans who claim no religion: Secular voters overwhelmingly vote Democratic, and younger voters are far more secular than older voters.
Still, Hillary Clinton’s snub of even moderate evangelicals in the 2016 presidential race squandered many opportunities to cut into Mr. Trump’s support. Where Barack Obama had worked hard in 2008 to show he would at least listen to evangelicals, Mrs. Clinton rebuffed interview requests from evangelical media outlets and signaled leftward moves on abortion rights that helped many conservative voters overcome their doubts about Mr. Trump.
“The fact that one party has strategically used and abused religion, while the other has had a habitually allergic and negative response to religion per se, puts our side in a more difficult position in regard to political influence,” said the Rev. Jim Wallis, the evangelical social justice advocate who founded the Sojourners community and magazine in 1971.
“Most progressive religious leaders I talk to, almost all of them, feel dissed by the left,” he said. “The left is really controlled by a lot of secular fundamentalists.”

The emphasis on young voters and the growing number religiously unaffiliated Americans is absolutely crucial.

Remember, please, these prophetic words from political scientist John C. Green of the University of Akron during the press event announcing the now-omnipresent Pew Research study that launched a million headlines about the "Nones."

Note: What issues bind secularists and the religiously unaffiliated?

The unaffiliated overwhelmingly reject ancient doctrines on sexuality with 73 percent backing same-sex marriage and 72 percent saying abortion should be legal in all, or most, cases. Thus, the "Nones" skew heavily Democratic as voters -- with 75 percent supporting Barack Obama in 2008. The unaffiliated are now a stronger presence in the Democratic Party than African-American Protestants, white mainline Protestants or white Catholics.
"It may very well be that in the future the unaffiliated vote will be as important to the Democrats as the traditionally religious are to the Republican Party,” said Green, addressing the religion reporters. "If these trends continue, we are likely to see even sharper divisions between the political parties."

These trends also cause problems for activists on the Religious Left, especially among Catholics, young evangelicals and in African-American churches. 

So, once again, what we have here is an interesting news feature with a terrible, inaccurate headline.

I thought it was interesting that a conservative voice in the world of mainline Protestantism -- Mark Tooley of the Institute On Religion and Democracy -- offered both a salute, and a take-down -- when discussing the Times package. You rarely get to see the IRD and the Times making similar points, in terms of core facts in a story:

The Religious Left of course has hardly been quiet over the last 40 years or 100 years. The IRD was founded in 1981, 36 years ago, in reaction to loud advocacy by Mainline Protestant and some Catholic groups for Marxist liberation and revolution by Nicaragua’s Sandinista regime and El Salvador’s FMLN guerrillas, among others. IRD’s founders preferred Christian advocacy for democracy and human rights.
I joined the IRD staff in the 1990s and recall high octane Religious Left activism against the new Republican Congress of 1994, including the National Council of Churches (NCC) solidarity visit with President Clinton. In 1995 Jim Wallis founded Cry for Renewal, endorsed by scores of senior church officials to energize liberal religious political resistance to the Religious Right and the new Congress. I attended the first rally. Months before, the Interfaith Alliance, also including senior church officials, organized for the same purpose, with endorsement from Walter Cronkite. I attended their first press conference.
These Religious Left exertions over 20 years ago, and more recently as Goodstein comprehensively describes, express frustration at the Religious Right’s ongoing higher profile and arguably more potent political influence. The common complaint is that conservative religious political activism is so pervasive that American Christianity is now associated with the political right.

However, Tooley makes one other observation that could (I would argue "should") have been mentioned. While Nones and the religiously unaffiliated are in growth mode, the institutions linked to the old Religious Left are in demographic free fall, with some of the key bodies losing 60 percent or so of their members in the past half century.

Plus, there seems to be a divide -- in white churches -- between people in the pulpits and those in the pews. Tooley notes: 

Fifty and sixty years ago Mainline church leaders could more vigorously espouse Religious Left themes. They had more cultural influence, more money, and a larger constituency that, even if ambivalent about the politics, was loyal across generations to their church brand. Today, denominational loyalties are almost dead, the Mainline has suffered over a half century of continuous membership loss, and its once great agencies are struggling. The NCC once had hundreds of employees and now has fewer than five.
Even today, most church going Mainline Protestants vote Republican. Mainline clergy, typically more liberal than congregants, know they face politically divided congregations and almost always avoid specifically political controversial political advocacy.

Read the whole Times report. It is a fine example of what happens when editors allow professional, experienced religion reporters to cover important topics in public life. Maybe this was also a case in which editors should have used the ink-on-paper headline in the online version, rather than botching a new one?

All of this raises another timely question: What is the status of the search, previously announced by the Times brass, to find another religion-beat professional, one who would be located outside Acela territory?

Just asking. For a friend or two.

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