The Codependency of the Media and Evangelicals

Mollie Ziegler Hemingway
Thursday, November 6th 2008
Nov/Dec 2008

Smack dab in the middle of a February 1, 1993, front-page Washington Post story on the avalanche of calls to Congress opposing the admission of openly gay soldiers into the military, reporter Michael Weisskopf dismissed the groundswell: "Corporations pay public relations firms millions of dollars to contrive the kind of grass-roots response that [Jerry] Falwell or Pat Robertson can galvanize in a televised sermon. Their followers are largely poor, uneducated and easy to command."

A few days later, Weisskopf called it "an honest mistake, not born of any prejudice or malice," and added that he should have said that evangelicals were "relatively" poor and uneducated.

It's no surprise that the mainstream media are something of a bogeyman to evangelicals.

But who, exactly, are evangelicals? In the 1980s, Scripps Howard religion columnist Terry Mattingly asked evangelical celebrity Billy Graham to define the term. "Actually, that's a question I'd like to ask somebody, too," Graham replied, saying the word had "become blurred." Historian D. G. Hart argues in Deconstructing Evangelicalism (Baker Academic, 2005) that "evangelical" isn't a legitimate category of religious expression that can be measured by social scientists or codified by systematic theologians.

How can the media possibly be expected to define the group any better?

Officially, the Associated Press Stylebook notes that "evangelical" once served as an adjective describing dedication to conveying the message of Christ. Today, it is a noun referring to a "category of doctrinally conservative Christians. They emphasize the need for a definite, adult commitment or conversion to faith in Christ. Evangelicals stress both doctrinal absolutes and vigorous efforts to win others to belief."

But one thing is clear. For much of the media, "evangelical" is less a religious term than a political designation.

Newsweek described movement conservative Paul Weyrich-an ordained clergyperson in an Eastern Rite Catholic Church-as an evangelical. The Washington Post called Senator Sam Brownback, a Roman Catholic convert, an evangelical. Time's 2005 list of the twenty-five most influential evangelicals in America included Father Richard John Neuhaus, a Roman Catholic priest, and Rick Santorum, a Catholic layman who was in the U.S. Senate at the time.

Sometimes "evangelical" is used as an aesthetic designation for media-savvy Protestants. That might explain how T. D. Jakes-a Trinity-denying preacher of the prosperity gospel-and the Emergent Church's Brian McLaren-an author who has the ability to write tens of thousands of words without betraying anything specific about where he stands on centuries of Christian faith-also made Time's list of top evangelicals.

The media don't get religion, but they do get politics and culture. Evangelicals, who love to mix it up in those two spheres, provide a constant source of material to journalists. On the other hand, evangelicals need the media to engage with the culture. And since evangelicals have no common confession of faith or set doctrine, they use the media to define and redefine themselves for market advantage. In short, the two groups are codependent to the core.

A quick look at media coverage over the last ten years further illuminates this rocky relationship. Take, for example, the media travails of one Rev. Jerry Falwell. Even though he was better described as a fundamentalist (a term that has a precise religious definition but is more commonly used to describe anyone with cultural views to the right of the New York Times' editorial page), Falwell was frequently described as an evangelical by the media. In early 1999, Falwell ousted Tinky Winky, the purple Teletubby of children's television. The press erupted: "The innocent world of the Teletubbies is under attack from America's religious right," reported the BBC. Falwell became the laughing stock of the media.

Falwell had, in fact, published an article in his Liberty Journal that warned that Tinky Winky was a gay role model. The thing is, the article was right. The purse-wearing purple Teletubby with an antenna shaped like a triangle had been adopted by the gay community. In fact, CNN reported in 1997 that Tinky Winky had "become something of a gay icon." In 1998, the Village Voice praised the Teletubbies for having a gay character. A month before the Falwell article ran, the Washington Post anointed Tinky Winky as "the gay Teletubby."

So why did the media act as if Falwell's was the first media outlet to suggest that Tinky Winky was gay? Because speculating about the sexual proclivities of a character on a children's television show is much more exciting to present as a matter of cultural conflict rather than as a humorous bit of pop-cultural ephemera.

Or what about the 2004 election? The media, which are overwhelmingly liberal, put much effort and energy into defeating President George W. Bush and electing Senator John Kerry. They came close, too. But Bush prevailed and the media needed to focus its venom somewhere. They picked evangelical "values voters." Early exit polls showed that 22 percent of voters named "morals" as a major motivating factor in their decision. Never mind that the percentage of so-called values voters had actually declined from 40 percent in 1996 and from 35 percent in 2000.

The New York Times' Maureen Dowd said Bush "got re-elected by dividing the country along fault lines of fear, intolerance, ignorance and religious rule." He was running "a jihad in America so he can fight one in Iraq-drawing a devoted flock of evangelicals, or 'values voters,' as they call themselves, to the polls by opposing abortion, suffocating stem cell research and supporting a constitutional amendment against gay marriage."

Another article titled, "The Day the Enlightenment Went Out," worried that people believe "more fervently in the Virgin Birth than in evolution."

Perhaps because of the media's sustained treatment of evangelicals as useful idiots, some in the Christian right seemed to buckle. Whether through conviction or a desperate need to be liked, some evangelicals began protesting that they weren't beholden to the Republican Party. They insisted they cared about things as or more important than the sanctity of human life and traditional marriage. These other issues-such as global warming and poverty-turned out to be much more popular with the media. Some embraced the Emergent Church, hoping to run away from the baggage of the evangelical movement. Since 2006, dozens of stories have appeared-everywhere from the New York Times to the Los Angeles Times, from CNN to National Public Radio-announcing the birth of liberal evangelicals.

Rev. Rick Warren personifies this new media relationship well. The best-selling author and church-growth methodologist successfully invited presidential candidates Barack Obama and John McCain to address his pet issues at an August forum.

Unlike the evangelical leaders best known for fighting abortion and same-sex marriage, Warren is mainly known in the political realm for his work battling poverty, AIDS, and global warming. He likes to tell reporters that he and many other evangelicals have moved past simply being anti-abortion and calls himself "whole life."

A bargain was struck. So long as evangelicals weren't just focusing on fighting abortion and same-sex marriage but giving a platform and legitimacy to the media's favorite candidates and issues, the coverage got better.

"I couldn't care less about politics, the culture wars," Warren told the New York Times in February. "My only interest is to get people to care about Darfurs and Rwandas."

Sure enough, media reports referred to Warren as a "prominent," "charismatic" evangelical leader "poised to take the helm of the evangelical movement," and someone who "has credibility across great swaths of the global Protestant community." Apparently Warren's followers aren't the poor, easily led types.

This idea that evangelicals are no longer voting Republican has caught on. Obama, no stranger to discussions of religion, has made a big deal out of his outreach to evangelicals. Dozens of major papers have run several stories each about how evangelicals are warming to Obama. One Newsweek piece in July was headlined: "Obama Campaign is Making Progress with Evangelical Voters; McCain leads with the group but the Democrat is doing all the right things."

In fact, a Pew poll released at the same time showed that for all his efforts, Obama was actually getting slightly less support among white evangelicals than Kerry had four years prior.

Because there's no systematic way to identify evangelicals, they must constantly define and redefine themselves against how they're portrayed. If "evangelical" is a meaningless term, "Emergent" takes inscrutability to a whole new level. But the Emergent movement, whether or not it is a post-evangelical embrace of the nuances of postmodernism, is clearly an attempt by Protestants to escape the baggage of evangelicalism.

Coverage of the Emergent and emerging church movements, which deemphasize absolute truth, have received generally positive coverage from the mainstream media. Take this characterization from an article published nationwide in May by Associated Press's Rachel Zoll:

Author Brian McLaren is among the most influential American religious thinkers of the last decade. His break with rigid orthodoxy and embrace of new worship styles is at the center of what is called the emerging church-a movement that has gone viral. The emerging church reclaims ancient practices and prayers and creates new ones, while re-examining Scripture to learn how modern-day Christians should live.

Confessional church bodies-presenting an unchanging church to a changing world-fail to generate headlines. Evangelicals, by contrast, have been remarkably adept at adapting worship styles, doctrines, and outreach attempts in an effort to convert and engage the culture. It remains to be seen whether or not Warren and McLaren maintain their popularity or favorable media coverage, but there's nothing to indicate that the dependence between American evangelicalism and the media will abate.

Thursday, November 6th 2008

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