The politics of partisan neutrality.

Author:Bolce, Louis
Position:Opinion
 
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Americans who want to understand conflicts between Democrats and Republicans during the election season have received precious little help from the media. While reporters usually recognize that there is some sort of problem about "values" and about "faith-based" principles, and that the Democrats and Republicans are often on opposite sides, writers and editors tend to publish news and analysis as if the situation were as follows: The Christian right, having infiltrated the Republican Party, is importing its divisive religious ideas into our public life, whereas the Democratic Party is the neutral camp of tolerant and pluralistic Americans.

This way of framing the matter predominates, not only because it reflects the personal beliefs of many journalists, but also because it draws upon a long American tradition of suspicion and fear of committed Catholics and evangelical Protestants. (In the elite newspapers and magazines, the number of journalists in either of those groups is tiny.) It is thus comfortable for journalists to conceive of religiously based political conflict in terms of an aggressive Christian right advancing upon a beleaguered neutral and pluralistic center and left.

What the journalists leave out of their accounts is the fact that the nonreligious have also become aggressive actors on the political stage and that they possess and promote, in fact, an overarching religious worldview of their own--one that can fairly be called secularism.

This point is strongly supported from the results of our analysis (using the Lexis-Nexis database) of how the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, and Washington Post wrote about the culture wars between 1990 and 2000. Over this ten-year period, these three newspapers published just eighteen articles linking the culture wars to the secularist-religious cleavage dividing the Democratic and Republican parties. During this same time span, however, these papers published 929 news stories about the political machinations of evangelical and fundamentalist Christians, while doing only fifty-nine stories about the pivotal role played by secularists in these conflicts. The press did not overlook the culture wars, just the involvement of secularists in them.

If the themes conveyed in headlines and magazine cover stories of the past several months--"The Religion Gap," "The God Gulf," "Howard Dean's Religion Problem," and so on--are indicative of the press' current take on the religious issue, then media elites appear to have been awakened, if only momentarily, to the secularist factor in American politics. Between mid-September 2003, around the time of the first Democratic presidential candidate debate in the 2004 primary and caucus season, and mid-February, the time of this writing, the New York Times and Washington Post published twelve news stories conveying to their readers that the Democratic and Republican parties were split along a secularist-religious divide. As a comparison, consider that these two newspapers published just two articles about the religious divide during the entire 2000 presidential election season. An interesting fact, which publishers of such religion-gap articles would do well to recall, is that when cultural conflict is framed as a clash between Democratic secularist values and Republican traditionalist ones, the Democrats suffer more in the people's estimation than do the Republicans, particularly in the South and Midwest. American National Election Survey (ANES) data and Pew Research Center polls support this point: more...

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