No one wants to ask “What would Jesus Do?” on the campaign trail…

By Bob Smietana

The conventions were still weeks away when President Bush’s campaign started linking John Kerry to a Nazi in a web campaign video. Whether that’s a step up or down from the Reagan years, when Democrats were Communists is unclear. But it’s not a good omen of things to come. Maybe we’ll have our first Presidential debate/smackdown before it’s all over.

A religion writer covering the campaign might at least ask the president to explain how this Nazi ad fits with his admiration of Jesus as a political philosopher. Jesus, you may recall, is the one who said that calling your brother “a fool” could land you in hell. I don’t even want to think about where calling him a Nazi would land you. The Bush campaign website’s response to the criticism was something like “the liberals did it first.” That doesn’t sound much like “turn the other cheek.”

One of the most frustrating moments of the last presidential campaign—at least for religion writers—was hearing then-Governor Bush give his “Jesus changed my heart” response, and having no one ask a follow up question like, “How does that affect your policy decisions?” There was an awkward silence after Bush gave that answer. No one wanted to ask “What Would Jesus Do” on the campaign trail, or even better, in the Oval Office.

It’s still a valid question now— as valid as the questions about the conflict between SenatorKerry’s Catholic faith and his voting record. We’ve got a faith-based President. Let’s line up the teachings of his faith and his actions as president and see how they compare.

At least we’d be assured of a story that didn’t have the word “attacked,” “slammed,” “accused,” “denied,” or “blasted” in its first sentence. Here in Chicago, at least, that’s standard practice for most campaign stories. Here the big campaign news came when Republican Jack Ryandropped out of the Senate race against Barack Obama after the local media sued to have the files from his divorce unsealed—revealing that his wife accused him of being interested in kinky sex.

That’s what passes for front-page news in this 24-7, relentless world of campaign journalism. A religion journalist, whose world runs by a different clock, would at least bring a pair of fresh eyes to the campaign trail and look for stories that aren’t driven by sound bites or scandal.

A religion writer would also remember the old City News Service adage, “If your mother says she loves you, check it out.”

The same applies for politics—just because a candidate says something, or a national newspaper reports it, doesn’t mean it’s so.

That’s becoming increasingly true, argues Bryan Keefer in the Columbia Journalism Review, as campaigns are using a “toxic tsunami” of misleading information to swamp reporters and get their version of the facts in the news.

Here’s how Keefer described it: “President Bush, Senator Kerry, and their operatives are deliberately using a cynical combination of calculated deception, speed, and volume to exploit the press’s reluctance to call a lie a lie. Rather than sorting through the facts and pointing out what is true and what is not — something good reporters are qualified to do — we too often treat the truth as something the reader or viewer should be able to discern from competing bits of spin.”

To put another way, instead of “he said, she said,” we get “he lies, she lies.” And as Keefer points out, the lies often stay in the news for weeks at a time, because no one has time to fact check and weed them out.

Here’s where a religion writer might help. Religion, like sports, is filled with nit-picking details, that if you get them wrong—like misquoting a Bible verse or calling Episcopalians “Episcopals” instead—you’ll get an earful from readers and religious leaders. Religion writers who don’t do their homework, go back to their sources, and get the details right are in a lot of trouble.

Two quick examples: The LA Times ran a story in June about a new set of political guidelines being drafted by the National Association of Evangelicals, which included “progressive” causes like caring for the environment and just wages for the poor. As Kathryn Joyce points out in The Revealer, other news sources picked the story up and angled it as if it heralded “a new era of ‘kinder, gentler’ evangelicals, who were about to make a mammoth shift to the left.”

Unfortunately, as Joyce and Ted Olsen of Christianity Today pointed out, it appears that none of the other news sources read the NAE draft. If they did, news of the left-swinging Evangelical revolution would have died quickly.

The same is true in the coverage of stem cell on the campaign trail. Soon after Ronald Reagan’s passing, John Kerry gave the national Democratic National Radio Address. He cited Nancy Reagan’s support for stem cell research and the claim that it held great promise of curing Alzheimer’s disease. The only thing is, as The Washington Post reported a few days before Kerry’s radio address, stem cellshold little promise for Alzheimer’s.

“I think the chance of doing repairs to Alzheimer’s brains by putting in stem cells is small,” stem cell researcher Michael Shelanski, co-director of the Taub Institute for Research on Alzheimer’s Disease and the Aging Brain at the Columbia University Medical Center in New York, told Rick Weiss of the Post.

Then Weiss found another stem cell researcher who admitted that while the Alzheimer’s claim is doubtful, it makes good PR. “To start with, people need a fairy tale,” Ronald D.G. McKay, a stem cell researcher at the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke told Weiss. “Maybe that’s unfair, but they need a story line that’s relatively simple to understand.”

Still, in Thursday’s speech at the Democratic convention, Kerry touted stem cells as a way to cure Alzheimer’s.

Because stem cells has already been spun to fit the Galileo model—religious conservatives standing in the way of scientific progress—no one’s asking hard questions of stem cell supporters.

Would a religion reporter be able to thrive in the 24/7, cutthroat, spin -driven world of political reporting? I don’t know. Perhaps they, like everyone else, would get swamped by the toxic tsunami.

The religion reporters I know have at least one advantage over political reporters. They are aren’t afraid to call a lie a lie, and are used to looking for the truth — not the spin — in their stories.

And, if nothing else, they wouldn’t let candidates — who say that their faith shapes their lives — get away with calling each other Nazis.

Bob Smietana, voice of God-of-Small-Things, is a features editor of The Covenant Companion, the monthly magazine of the Evangelical Covenant Church, and a contributing writer to Christianity Today and other publications. He lives outside Chicago.

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