Cal Thomas

Info-silos and urban bubbles: What's wrecking public discourse on religion and culture?

Info-silos and urban bubbles: What's wrecking public discourse on religion and culture?

It was in 1993 that a Washington Post reporter — in a news report about religion and politics, naturally — wrote one of the most unfortunate phrases in the history of American public discourse.

Discussing the rise of cultural conservatives inside the D.C. Beltway, he opined — in an hard-news story, not an opinion column, and with zero attribution for his facts — that evangelical Christians are known to be “largely poor, uneducated and easy to command."

Fax machines in the Post newsroom were soon humming as evangelicals sent in surveys noting that this was not true. Some provided photocopies of their graduate-school diplomas and similar credentials. Conservative columnist Cal Thomas, writing for the Los Angeles Times syndicate, had this to say:

The Post ran a correction the next day, saying the conclusion had no "factual basis," but the damage had already been done. … The caricature of evangelical Christians as inherently stupid because they believe in an authority higher than journalism, the government or the culture (the unholy trinity of rampant secularism) would be repugnant to all if it had been applied to blacks or women or homosexuals. But it seems Christian-bashing is always in season.

At the post, ombudsman Joann Bird made a crucial point about this fiasco, one that — as quarter of a century later — remains sadly relevant to the conversation that “Crossroads” host Todd Wilken and I had this week while recording the podcast. (Click here to tune that in.)

I quoted Byrd in a piece for The Quill journal at the time of that nasty train wreck, in a piece entitled “Religion and the News Media: Have our biases fatally wounded our coverage?

… Byrd made the following point: ``When journalists aren't like, or don't know, the people they are writing about, they can operate with no ill will whatsoever and still not recognize that a statement doesn't ring true. It may be even harder to see how deeply offensive a common perception can be.''

What's the problem? In the Lichter-Rothman media surveys in the early 1980s, 86 percent of the ``media elite'' said they rarely if ever attend religious meetings and 50 percent claimed no religion, at all. Polls indicate about 40 percent of the U.S. population regularly attends worship services, while about 90 percent claim some religious affiliation.

Some of those statistics have changed a bit, of course, and I think it’s safe to say that very few mainstream journalists these days are willing to answer lots of survey questions about their views on religion and morality.

But the media-bias debates go on, even as America — and our increasingly partisan news media — divide into warring armies with blue-zip codes squaring off with those flyover country red-zip codes. This brings us back to that heat-map analysis at The Atlantic that ran with this double-decker headline:

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Must we keep talking about Citizen Trump and evangelicals? We must, we must ...

Must we keep talking about Citizen Trump and evangelicals? We must, we must ...

First things first: Why the nod to the classic farce "Blazing Saddles" at the end of the headline for this post?

Well, why not? Don't you sense the hand of comedy genius Mel Brooks behind the scenes in this election year? Believe me when I say, "I do, I do."

Thus, People keep asking me things like, "Why are we still talking about Donald Trump and the evangelicals?" Of course, the word "evangelicals" in this case has little or nothing to do with theology. It is a reference to one camp -- stress, one camp -- of mostly white evangelicals who at this point in time are either supporting Trump or who have not made up their minds on the issue.

We are still talking about them because no Republican has a chance to reach the White House in the era after Roe v. Wade without a massive turn out by these highly motivated voters. Republican winners also need strong support from conservative (think daily Mass) and middle-of-the-road (think Sunday Mass, most of the time) Catholics, but that's an issue very few people seem to be talking about. Has anyone heard a word from a U.S. Catholic bishop about anything for about six months?

We are also talking about Trump and this one camp of old-guard, white evangelicals (many can accurately be defined as "fundamentalists") because other evangelicals are talking about them, from the other side of a bitter and painful divide in pulpits and many pews. At this stage, even Trump's evangelical advisory team is packed with people who have not endorsed him.

So, once again, "Crossroads" host Todd Wilken and I, during this week's podcast, talked about the slow-motion train wreck that is Trump's campaign to get right with the God voters. Click right here to tune that in.

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