02/12/2007 10:51 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

The Media's Dance with Religion

Today the Yale Center for Faith and Culture and the Yale Forum on Faith and Politics are co-hosting Voices and Votes: Religious Convictions in the Public Sphere, a conference on the intersection of religion and politics in America. I'll be liveblogging from the conference throughout the day.

The first panel, on "The Media's Dance with Religion", features Paul Baumann, editor of Commonweal Magazine; Richard Cizik, VP for Governmental Affairs, National Association of Evangelicals; David Neff, editor of Christianity Today; Peggy Wehmeyer, host of World Vision Report. The moderator is Michael Peppard.

PEPPARD: What is it that makes reporting on religion difficult in America?

WEHMEYER: There's an understanding that religion is private, and that therefore it shouldn't be reported. Yet if we can cover Clinton's sex life, surely religion isn't too private for coverage either. There's also an understanding that religion is hard to measure, that it's not concrete. If a candidate talks about religion, how can you prove the sincerity of their conviction? But now, after 9/11, that's less of an issue ... One other problem I should note is that the public doesn't want nuance when religion is covered. They want black-and-white, which is why it's often reported in the context of war.

NEFF: Religion is typically nuanced, but the time constraints that we in the print and broadcast media work under make it hard to do nuance. ... Another point is that we in the media tend to focus on institutional media news. We used to focus, for instance, on denominational news. Yet from the very beginning of America history, we have had a tension between the institutional and entrepreneurial in religious life. In recent years, I think the media has started to understand just how much the entrepreneurial -- the individual, the innovative -- informs our religious life, and we've started to cover it better.

CIZIK: Why would the media focus as it has on the tension between evangelicals and scientists? Because the media has stereotypes that they play off. It's possible for someone to play against stereotypes in order to bring a story to front page, to move it forward to where you want to go. There's also a soft bigotry of low-expectations when it comes to evangelicals ... Although most media today at least understand that evangelicals are not monolithic, take the example of Haggard recently, who was the NAE's president. His relation to Bush was hyped in order to try to bring Bush down ... Again, there's the soft-bigotry of low expectations.

PEPPARD: Peter Steinfels of the NYT noted that because there are, in his view, about 18 religious groupings, it's often thought that religion is too complex to report without simplifying - and yet he also notes there are 30 pro baseball teams, and millions of semi-literate teenagers follow them just fine. [laughter] Can any of you relate to that?

WEHMEYER: You'd be shocked to know how religiously illiterate most people in the broadcast media are. There's both a distaste for religion and a misunderstanding of it.

BAUMANN: There isn't any group that doesn't think reporters are idiots about religion. There knowledge really is an inch deep and a mile wide. ... But there's something about the news business that makes it inherently reductionistic. It's also an ongoing business; you can't look at a story on one day and expect to get the whole thing. All stories are ongoing and religious ones are no exception.

CIZIK: Take for example the traditionalist human rights movements. Hersky claims that there's a kind of anti-Chrstian bias, from Wilberforce on. Any time a Christian leads a human rights issue it tends to get played down, although it is getting better.

PEPPARD: Is there a tension between evangelicals gaining political influence on the one hand, and not primarily defining themselves as political on the other?

NEFF: You have to go back to the 1950s. Many of the institutions within the evangelical movement were founded as a response to liberal Protestantism then. Very few of those institutions were formed with an eye to politics. When the religious right emerged several decades later, that was largely an ad hoc response to what was seen as government intrustion, for example in schools. The politicians tried to co-opt that impulse, and now today there's something of a backlash within evangelicals against that. Most evangelicals are not primarily about politics.

CIZIK: This movement is so rapidly moving that it's hard to talk about consistently. But it's important to remember that religion is always leading politics. Candidates are a reflection of what's already happening ... For instance, I think corporate side of the GOP has won out over evangelicals, and evangelicals know that now. And that will determine who will get elected now.

WEHMEYER: For the majority of evangelicals, the amount of time they think about politics and religion is miniscule compared to other things ... Also there's a tendency in on the East coast, particularly in media, to view every story in terms of politics, of power structure. So the most important thing to report about evangelicals was their political views, but that's not what was most important to them.... So it's also lack of ideological diversity in news rooms.

PEPPARD: I'd like to switch gears for a second and talk about the media and Islam. There was an op-ed recently that said Allah should be translated as "God" in the media. Do any of you think so as well?

NEFF: Islam's commitment to Arabic as a fundamental vehicle of revelation means that perhaps Allah should not be translated, that perhaps it's more respectful to leave it in the original.

CIZIK: This is a lead-in to bigger 21st century issues, such as whether we believe in the same God, how we should respectfully interact. We need to reach out to moderate Mulsims, to build a basis for dialogue. ... The language that we use is really important, and the language that reporters use to describe it is really important.

Q from audience: How is technology changing capacity for media to deliver nuance?

WEHMEYER: I'll be blunt. I don't think people really want nuance. There's little market for it.

NEFF: I think the internet is interesting phenomenon because it can actually lead to polarization; with no face-to-face interactions, you can really go after people. But then on the other hand, there's a great potential for nuance, such as in Wikipedia.

PEPPARD: You talked about types and media, and that what sells are stories that break types. Are there current stories that do that?

CIZIK: Look at what evangelicals are doing in human rights. We're starting to look at larger world and reclaim Wilberforce's vision.

Q from audience: What of Iraq and the media? Why aren't the media reporting on the Christians against it?

WEHMEYER: It's what's novel and different, not what you would expect. A lot of producers wouldn't see any story in that.

NEFF: The really misunderstood problem was the role of religion in Iraq. Neither the state department nor the military nor the public understood how religion functioned in Iraq.