By Jeff Sharlet
Julia Duin at The Washington Times is a tough, sharp-eyed religion reporter, alert to the broader political and cultural significance of intra-denominational squabbles and the kind of religious pronouncements that at first blush seem empty of meaning. That’s why her report in today’s Times on Redeem the Vote, a group created to register young voters at evangelical pop concerts, is so disappointing.
Duin dutifully reports the group’s claim that it’s nonpartisan, but although she notes that it’s staffed by students of the ultra-conservative Patrick Henry College and endorsed by such Christian right luminaries as Gary Bauer, James Dobson, and Charles Colson, Duin fails to ask tough questions.
Redeem the Vote is a conservative counterpart to Rock the Vote, another ostensibly nonpartisan youth voter drive that’s transparently Democratic. The latter lists as “partners” liberal stalwarts such as ACORN, the NAACP, and the Service Employees International Union, the powerhouse of the labor movement. Rock the Vote’s president is Jehmu Greene, a former Democratic National Committee political director.
Redeem, meanwhile, lists as partners such “non-partisan” outfits as Pat Robertson’s CBN, Focus on the Family, and, of course, FOX News — with Sean Hannity tagged for special mention.
Redeem’s website features a video in which Christian rapperTobymac declares “One nation under God!” and Christian “rockers” Building 429 chime in with “Let’s keep it that way!” — a literally conservative message that would nonetheless be neutral were it not delivered by artists backed by political preachers — openly partisan ones at that, men* who’ve done their best to turn the presence of religion in the public square into a wedge issue split along Republican / Democrat lines.
Would reporting as much threaten Duin’s neutrality? No — it’d give her readers a smarter story. I don’t think she failed to do so because she works for the Times, a paper owned by the Rev. Moon and claimed by many conservatives as their “voice” in Washington. Rather, she falls for the same master narrative that guides many journalists when it comes to the “vote” as an abstract concept.
Voting, the story goes, is always good. Voter registration, therefore, is good — i.e., it transcends politics, just so long as the group behind the drive tells us they’re “non-partisan.” A corallary of this tenet of civic religion is that Young People Should Vote More. Any group that promises to help them do so is considered almost by definition above the fray. Thus groups such as Redeem the Vote — or Rock the Vote — escape mainstream press scrutiny.
One must move to the partisan edges for perspective. Jonah Goldberg, for instance, of The National Review, slams Rock the Vote as a “trojan horse” for the Democratic Party with refreshing vigor: “I despise youth politics,” he begins, and then he gets nasty. Outing Redeem, meanwhile, is left to liberal Alternet.
But National Review and Alternet are political forums. For the most part they ignore the role of religion — civic or divine. Rock the Vote is suffused with the former; in that sense alone it can be said to be the more conservative of the two groups, since it’s squarely within political tradition.
Redeem is something else entirely, a copycat club that’s added new DNA to the original concept. Redeem might even be a new religious movement — a perfect storm of politics, culture, and religion, building up to full strength beyond the media’s radar.
Jeff Sharlet is editor of The Revealer and co-author of Killing the Buddha.
*Redeem the Vote’s board, “management team,” and advisors are almost all male, although each includes one woman: a North Carolina Bush campaigner; an events director; andStephanie Acosta-Inks, a former Miss Michigan Latina who campaigns for abstinence with a“chastity ring” on her “wedding finger.” “Mrs. R. Randolph Brinson” is listed next to her husband, Dr. R. Randolph Brinson, the group’s founder.