When it comes to life inside the D.C. Beltway, veteran scribe Fred Barnes of The Weekly Standard (RIP) has seen a thing or two — to say the least.
So when Barnes describes a political scene as one of his favorite Washington vignettes, that’s saying something. In this case, a classic Barnes anecdote is a great way to introduce readers to this week’s “Crossroads” podcast, which focuses on media coverage — or the lack of coverage — of the persecution of religious believers.
It’s pretty clear that many journalists, perhaps following the lead of government officials, consider some stories about religious persecution to be more important than others. So why do some stories leap into A1 headlines or the top of evening newscasts, while others receive little or no digital ink at all (other than coverage by the religious press)?
So our symbolic mini-drama takes place in 1994, when President Bill Clinton and his political team was working to improve trade, and thus political ties, with the People’s Republic of China. The strategy was to focus less attention on human rights issues and more attention on communication and, well, bartering. I like the wording in this Slate article, noting that the “Clinton administration made a sudden about-face, declaring it would ‘delink’ Chinese trade policy from human rights.”
One would expect political liberals to protest this heresy. Correct? And one would expect that Republicans would welcome anything that improved the lives of American corporate leaders. Correct?
There was, however, a subject that changed the dynamics in this story — religion.
Many conservatives — that’s the Religious Right, in pressthink — opposed these Clinton moves because of rising concerns about the persecution of China’s growing underground churches (Catholic and Protestant). At the same time, many mainstream liberals were not comfortable clashing with a Democrat in the White House, especially if that meant standing next to religious fanatics.
However, there were still idealists on the cultural far left — think Hollywood, in particular — who stood their ground, due to their fury over China’s treatment of Tibetan Buddhists.
So the setting for this Barnes anecdote was a protest rally near the Clinton White House. On the rally stage, activist Gary Bauer of the Family Research Council approached another speaker — actor Richard “Pretty Woman” Gere. Now, Bauer is really short and Gere is rather tall. Also, Bauer is dressed in basic evangelical ministerial threads (plain suit and tie), while Gere is Hollywood cool, in a leather jacket and jeans.
Gere is facing the other way, so Bauer reaches up and taps him on the shoulder. The veteran Tibet activist turns around and, with a beaming smile, exclaims: "Gary Bauer! My main man!"
Why were these two men speaking at the same rally? Why was this fascinating encounter covered in the conservative press (by a reporter who is an outspoken Christian) and not the mainstream press?
So here is the big idea: Religious believers in China had the wrong allies and the wrong enemies.
Wrong allies? That would be religious people, especially evangelicals and conservative Catholics. And it really mattered that mainstream D.C. liberals couldn’t stand up to the Clintons, even in such an extreme clash between human rights and politics.
Wrong enemies? The oppressors in China were the good guys because political realities said so. Helping the Clintons with China was the “liberal” option here, even if that meant being weak on human rights.
This brings me to the wave of media coverage of the massacres in the New Zealand mosques and a wave of angry posts, tweets and emails about the tiny ripple of coverage (at best) of ongoing massacres of Christians in Nigeria.
My national “On Religion” column this week focused on the latest speech by Vice President Mike Pence about the persecution of religious believers — especially Christians — around the world. Here’s a key section of the column:
Pence has made similar remarks before, but these statements rarely gain traction outside the world of Christian media. The problem is that the words "religious persecution" -- especially when linked to suffering Christians -- remain controversial among some public officials and journalists.
In Britain, for example, immigration officials ruled against the asylum claim of an Iranian national who had converted to Christianity. Here's what made headlines: The Home Office backed this action with claims that Christianity is not a religion of peace, quoting Leviticus 26:7 ("Ye shall chase your enemies, and they shall fall before you by the sword") and the words of Jesus in Matthew 10:24 ("Do not think that I have come to bring peace on earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword").
Meanwhile, the Christian Broadcasting Network and other conservative groups have noted, in recent weeks, the deaths of an estimated 120 Christians in central Nigeria. This was the latest wave of bloodshed linked to disputes between Fulani militiamen, most of them Muslims, and farmers in Christian villages. Despite years of terrorist attacks, Nigeria ranks 12th on the Open Doors USA list of the world's worst countries, in terms of the persecution of Christians.
In the same time frame, the world was stunned by a white supremacist's March 15 attacks on two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, leaving 50 dead and 50 wounded. One of the victims was a 3-year-old child. While stressing the importance of those attacks, many conservatives have asked this question in social-media forums: Why has the slaughter of believers in Nigeria received little or no mainstream media attention?
Now, Pence had strong words about the New Zealand massacres, voicing what, in the past, would have been a “liberal” stance on religious freedom.
"People of faith should never fear for their safety in a place of worship. … An attack on the faith of one is an attack on the faith of us all."
The problem, of course, is that Pence is the wrong voice, to draw attention to this stance during America’s current political warfare. Pence is the “wrong ally,” if the goal is lots of mainstream media coverage.
Yes, there were alt-right voices who tried to deny the importance of the Christchurch mosque shootings — with its videotape testimonies by a raging white supremacist. But liberals and conservatives agreed that the New Zealand tragedy was a major news story — period.
But what about other cases of religious persecution? Where is the coverage?
Let me ask this question: If the goal is a burst of elite news coverage of religious persecution in Nigeria, who is more likely to draw the attention of journalists — Vice President Pence or First Lady Michelle Obama? You can look it up.