If a candidate asserts his faith vigorously enough, political writers will label him a “religious man” without asking what that really means…

By Amy Sullivan

Throughout the spring and early summer, photos of a church-going, communion-receiving John Kerry were still plentiful every Monday morning. While the “Wafer Watch” continued unabated, there was virtually no coverage of the worship habits of President George W. Bush, perhaps the most vocally religious president in our history.

The distinction highlights one of the most pervasive double standards in political journalism – the treatment of Democratic and Republican politicians’ personal faith.

Broadly speaking, most political reporters regard Democrats as not genuinely religious. When it comes to the question of a Democratic candidate’s faith, therefore, reporters typically retreat to the comfortable political game of “Gotcha,” trying to trip him up and expose his insincerity.Time magazine’s Karen Tumulty has presented as evidence of Kerry’s lack of faith the fact that he didn’t want to discuss papal infallibility with her. The fact that it really isn’t a issue on which voters should judge his qualification for the Oval Office did not seem to faze her. In the same vein, when Kerry attended Protestant churches during a springtime swing through the Midwest, campaign reporters feverishly speculated that it was because he was “afraid” to go to a Catholic church for fear of being denied communion. When, upon his return to the Northeast, Kerry resumed his attendance at Mass, these same reporters wondered if he was trying to make a show of defying Church leaders.

Perhaps Kerry should have taken a page from Bush’s playbook. What Republicans have learned is that if a candidate asserts his religiosity vigorously enough, political writers will label him a “religious man” without asking what that really means or why voters should care. This hands-off approach usually favors Republicans, who get a pass from reporters reluctant to engage in Scripture-quoting contests, but it can also be seen in the treatment of African-American politicians, who are assumed to be more sincere about their faith, and in the way the press approached Joseph Lieberman’s religiosity.

This kind of coverage is not only inherently unfair, but it cheapens political discourse and does a disservice to readers and viewers. Until religion reporters Laurie Goodstein of the New York Times and Alan Cooperman of The Washington Post lent their expertise to the “Is John Kerry a Good Catholic?” story, readers would have been excused for thinking that the issue was one that pitted Kerry on one side against the whole of Catholicism on the other. That interpretation fit neatly into the “John Kerry isn’t really a man of the people” storyline that has already been launched in the campaign. Both religion writers led the way in explaining that, in fact, the debate reflects a deep split within the Church and that more bishops have spoken out to oppose the denial of communion for political reasons than to support it. Badly-needed context for this ongoing debate gives voters better ways to assess Kerry’s role in it.

However, reporters shouldn’t necessarily draw the lesson that they should entirely avoid the topic of a politician’s faith. Because they shirk their duty just as much when they fail to ask tough questions of candidates who bring their religion into politics and make their religiosity one of their selling points for office. Does Bush dissent from the teachings of his religious tradition, the United Methodist Church? Yes he does, on some critical political issues. Has he been reprimanded by leaders in his denomination? Yes, particularly on the issue of war in Iraq. And if political reporters want to make this a question of who’s a good Christian, then it is fair to ask why President Bush rarely attends church. The candidate who has staked his domestic policy on the power of civil society and of good Christian individuals to change lives isn’t an active member of a congregation – the very kind of organization in which he claims to have so much faith.

The question of how a candidate’s faith informs and molds his political identity is a rich and potentially illuminating subject. Learning to explore the nuances of how religious faith informs a candidate’s political thought and behavior – rather than treating it as a cynical political tool – would enrich our political discourse and understanding of religion’s role in public life. And it would answer a crucial question for voters: Why should we care about a candidate’s faith?

Amy Sullivan is a doctoral candidate at Princeton University, an editor of The Washington Monthly and author of Political Aims.

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