On Rick Perry, Michelle Bachmann, and Reporting on Religion : NPR Ombudsman What We're Reading: Reporting on religion and politics at the same time is doubly dangerous. Musing on Perry, Bachmann and the religious divide in America.
NPR logo American Theocracy: Fear and Loathing in the Press

American Theocracy: Fear and Loathing in the Press

Could the religious rhetoric in the current presidential campaign season begin blurring the separation between church and state? istockphoto.com hide caption

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Could the religious rhetoric in the current presidential campaign season begin blurring the separation between church and state?


Like many Americans, I have conflicting thoughts about the role of religion in public life, and never more so now that some of our Republican presidential candidates are making an issue of it. I worry whether NPR and the news media are up to covering it correctly.

Rick Perry and Michele Bachmann have set off a storm of news stories and opinion columns as if the second coming were imminent. The question is whether the United States could become, if not a theocracy, at least a country with a much lower barrier between church and state than what we have now. The church is Christian, especially evangelical.

I had been following the debates around the country surrounding Muslim mosques, and read the splendid new book published this year by my then-Harvard colleague, Robert Putnam, on the state of religion in the country, American Grace : How Religion Divides and Unites Us.

This prepared me somewhat when Morning Edition host Renee Montagne launched me into my current mulling with a segment in August about Rick Perry in which she said a prayer rally that he held in Texas "has touched off a holy war with critics who claim that it's less spiritual than political."

The story itself was fine, but it's easy to imagine others will senselessly inflame divisions. Reporters may be good about covering politics, but few of them, frankly, understand much about religion beyond, perhaps, their own.

Several weeks ago the conservative New York Times columnist Ross Douthat weighed in with a column titled American Theocracy Revisited. He argued that the press has "every right" to ask candidates how "faith relates to their political agenda." But just because they personally hew to the Bible doesn't make them exteme or pushing to change American political decision-making systems.

Columnist Dana Milbank didn't see it that way when he looked at Perry last month in the Washington Post. "Rick Perry is a theocrat," he wrote flatly. Milbank wasn't alone. In Rick Perry's Army of God, the Texas Observer told the story of two pastors who prayed with Perry, and told him "A chain of powerful prophecies had proclaimed that Texas was 'The Prophet State,' anointed by God to lead the United States into revival and Godly government. And the governor would have a special role."

Charlotte Allen in the Los Angeles Times dismissed the warnings, saying "you'd think there was a tidal wave of millions of theocrats poised to crash over American democracy." You'd be very wrong, she said.

I finally turned to NPR religion correspondent Barbara Bradley Hagerty to make some sense of the coverage and how to judge it in the campaign going forward. Her words were helpful:

I don't want to be in the position of criticizing my colleagues, or other reporters, for that matter, but let me make a couple of observations. The first, very short one is that reporting on religion – whether by political reporters or religion reporters — has vastly improved in the past decade. In the 1990s, there were truly horrifying mistakes (where the Washington Post called evangelicals "poor, uneducated, and easy to lead").

Let me now say how I approach reporting on religion, whether religion and politics, or science, or law, etc. I try to understand the issue from the inside out, meaning that I spend a lot of time talking to believers rather than (just) critics. So, when I do a story about the debate among evangelicals about the historicity of Adam and Eve, then I talk to evangelicals on both sides of the debate. When I did a series on Muslim polygamy, I talked with Muslims in good and bad polygamous relationships, and when I reported on the Christian believers who thought the rapture would arrive on May 21, I tried to let the believers speak for themselves. I try to avoid having outside groups lob grenades of criticism at them.

Obviously, you can't always do that, especially with political stories, so that brings me to the next point. It's really helpful to know the nuances of religion. For example, everyone lumped Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson together, but in fact, their theologies are very different, and it actually explained a lot (Falwell was a fundamentalist, very conservative and buttoned down; Robertson is a Pentecostal who gets a "word from the Lord" and says whatever comes into his head). So when people are looking at Michele Bachman, Rick Perry, and Dominionism, it's important to see what Dominionism really says, the various shades of it, whether those political figures actually subscribe to it, and whether they have an affiliation with the more mainstream folks in the movement.

Or as Putnam wrote in American Grace:

"The current state of religious polarization has led social commentators to use heated, even hyperbolic, language to describe the state of American society...In an overused metaphor, America is supposedly in the midst of a war over our culture."

"And yet, when one ignores these venomous exchanges, and looks instead at how Americans of different religious backgrounds interact, the United States hardly seems like a house divided against itself."

Andrew Maddocks contributed to this post.