Since 2004, when righteous culture warriors took credit for
President Bush’s second term and for sweeping a Republican Congress back into
power, talking heads have painted moral rot as a liberal problem and the
"family values" GOP as God’s cleanup crew.
Embracing religion – understood to be inherently conservative – was to
But by framing sexual health and justice debates as battles between purity and perversion,
or virtue and vice, traditional media misses the progressive religious voices
that speak out for ethics, morality and faith with respect for the dignity and decisions of all families, all
individuals. "Mainstream press treats conservatives as the only authoritative
religious voice," says Rev. Deborah Haffner, director of Religious Institute on
Sexual Morality, Justice, and Healing. "If they bring someone in from the
religious right, they feel they’ve got religion covered."
Last spring conservative watchdog Media Matters for America
released an unprecedented report that shattered the false dichotomy that equates values with conservatives and liberals
with libertines. Left Behind: The Skewed
Representation of Religion in Major News Media presented a simple analysis of
the imbalance of conservative and progressive religious voices by counting who
showed up how much where. Combining newspapers and television, the report found
conservative religious leaders quoted, mentioned or interviewed in news stories
nearly three times as often as progressive religious leaders were. On TV
news, religious conservatives appeared nearly four times as frequently. The result
is a skewed perception that only the conservatives have religion or values.
"There are articulate, ready and waiting progressive religious voices not
getting called," says Karl Frisch, Communications Director for Media Matters.
"So if you’re pro-life, you’re a values voter. If you’re pro-choice, you’re
just someone with an agenda."
The most thunderous voice for the religious right comes from
President Tony Perkins of Family Research Council (FRC), a politically divisive
smear machine promoting "marriage and family and the sanctity of human life in
national policy." Despite the numerous global challenges to the FRC’s championed three Fs –
faith, family, and freedom – FRC and its partners wail almost entirely about progressive stands
on sex-based controversies. When FRC,
along with Concerned Women for America, denounced Congress for addressing
skyrocketing costs of hormonal birth control for college students and
low-income women, CWA’s Wendy
Wright used her platform to slime cultural foes, such as sexual
health educators: "In fact, they want to encourage [kids to have sex]," she
said on Fox News, "because they benefit when kids end up having sexually
transmitted diseases, unintended pregnancies and then they lead them into
having abortions, so you have to look at the financial motives behind those who
are promoting comprehensive sex ed."
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Other boisterous religious media stars are Catholic League’s Bill
Donohue and Southern Baptist Rev. Richard Land, named TIME Magazine’s 25 Most Influential
Evangelicals in America,
as was Bush cozy Rev. Ted Haggard, before his scandalous fall involving a male
prostitute and crystal meth.
A major cable news personality, who spoke off the record, admitted
the celebrity-driven corporate media "tends to use right-wing evangelicals as
examples of morality much more so than progressive Christians, who aren’t as
high profile and don’t seem to get as much air time." He adds, "As shows become
more popular and well known, they’re able to attract better-known guests, and
so the people we put on, whether for religious, moral or sexual issues, are
familiar faces to our audience. That creates a comfort zone, especially when
discussing controversial issues."
Not shy of addressing moral controversies, Rev. Deborah Haffner
agrees that authentic progressive religious voices that support sexual justice
are ignored. Haffner’s Religious Institute offers a declaration
endorsed by almost 2,700 religious leaders from more than 50 religious
traditions that reads, "Our culture needs a sexual ethic focused on
personal relationships and social justice rather than particular sexual
acts." But for controversial sexuality issues, mainstream media will pit a
religious conservative as the moral voice against a secular activist, but will
not match different faith perspectives. Haffner points to a PBS-related show
she was invited on, who would use her only if they didn’t have to identify her
as Reverend. " ‘We don’t want to confuse the audience,’ they said. Taking a
positive view on adolescent sexuality–on educating youth and giving needed
services–if they had to recognize me as religious, it would confuse the
audience," Haffner says. "Audiences expect religious leaders to be negative on
sexual justice. The show chose not to use me rather than to use my title."
The Left Behind report finds that Rev. Jim Wallis, head of
Sojourners: Christians for Justice and Peace, who signed on to the recently
released, and disdainful-of-"pelvic politics" Evangelical Manifesto, as the
progressive religious leader who gets the most play. But in Haffner’s book, anti-choice Wallis is actually negative about sexual health and rights.
"Progressive religious leaders used by the media, by and large, do not support
sexual justice issues," she says. "If you don’t care about women, if you don’t
care about adolescents, if you don’t care about GLBT, you don’t get to call
You might call Haffner’s position absolutist, but you can’t call
it morally relative: one of the media arrows most often shot by culture
warriors at sexual heath and justice advocates.
- Scott Swenson, Bill Donohue: The Bully’s TV Pulpit