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Public Theology: Washington Post Unfairly Characterizes President's Prayer Breakfast Speech
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Washington Post Unfairly Characterizes President's Prayer Breakfast Speech
Liberal journalists engage in a typical practice of excluding mainline Protestants in major articles on religion. They end up propagating only conservative views.

By Ed Knudson

An article in the washington Post provides an example of a typical practice found in the so-called mainstream media (or "liberal" or "driveby" media as Rush Limbaugh calls it), especially when the topic is anything having to do with religion. The practice makes it nearly impossible for a liberal president to get his message across even when presented in news and not opinion articles. I will here explain why this is so.

On February 2, 2012, David Nakamura and Michelle Boorstein write an article about President Obama's speech at the National Prayer Breakfast. You can listen to the speech with the embedded video presented below. You will notice that the president speaks in a very casual and easy manner about his own Christian faith and its influence on his decision making. He approaches the whole matter with a sense of humility, not making large claims. As a Lutheran pastor I was impressed with his understanding of basic biblical references, the fundamental message of Jesus, and his sense of living within "the simple grace of God." (Lutherans place lots of emphasis on grace.) He was not claiming self-rightous, absolute knowledge of moral absolutes but called for all of us to respect one another even if we disagree on matters of faith.

But the Nakamura and Boorstein article is under the headline "At prayer breakfast and with birth-control decision, Obama riles religious conservatives." In speaking of his own faith these writers claim Obama "riles religious conservatives." The focus is on religious conservatives and how they would hear the speech. The writers are assuming a background audience here, they are giving to religious conservatives the benefit of any doubt as to the content of the Obama speech. They give to conservatives the authority to determine whether the speech is acceptable. They themselves choose to contact such spokespersons as Ralph Reed, a completely partisan actor of the religious right, to comment on the speech and in the process attack Obama for using his faith for partisan purposes as if the religious right never does this. In fact, the writers simply assume that Reed and conservative religionists have the right to speak about faith, not a person like Barack Obama.

The writers also quote some persons who they consider liberal spokespersons who also question whether Obama should speak about his own faith. These persons are also thinking about the background audience of conservatives, especially Catholic conservatives. The writers choose to include the debate over contraceptive services in health care insurance in their analysis of the speech, simply assuming that this is appropriate as well, as if Obama is primarily addressing this question in his speech, which he did not. The assumption is that Barack Obama does not have a right to speak of his own religious faith as a basis for policy decisions, only the religious right and conservaive Catholics have that option according to these writers. If Obama speaks of faith he is entering forbidden territory, he is a "liberal" after all and liberals should not appeal to faith, that is the assumption of these writers. It is quite remarkable.

Barack Obama became a Christian through his involvement with a mainline Christian denomination, the United Church of Christ (UCC). Nakamura and Boorstein did not even think it might be interesting to readers to find out what UCC leaders might have thought of the speech. They could have contacted The Rev. Geoffrey A. Black, General Minister and President of the UCC for his opinion. But that doesn't make news. The writers don't care what mainline folks think, they don't care about the truth that there are a whole lot of people out there who might want to hear a more honest presentation about the speech. It is "news" only when conservative religionists are the background audience so stories are written which favor that audience and propagate its understanding of things. In the process the public consciousness is allowed to be influenced by conservative voices, even when the president himself has spoken so earnestly about his own faith. It is, indeed, quite remarkable.

And it is a typical practice. I see it over and over again. Liberal journalists (persons who are educated and probably liberal in their orientation) feel they must write about a liberal president from the perspective of a conservative audience in order to be fair. Now, if they are writing about a conservative president that president gets his points across, because the liberal journalist says to himself or herself: I am liberal so I must show I am fair by fairly quoting this president. But when it is a liberal president the liberal journalist says: I am a liberal so to be fair I must give the other side of the story and quote the conservative perspective. In the process the liberal president cannot get his perspective fairly reported. The liberal media cannot allow the liberal president to get his or her view clearly presented.

And think about what this means for the primary Protestant denominations in this country, the so-called "mainlines" such as Presbyterians, Lutherans, Episcopalians, Methodists, American Baptists and others associated with one another in the National Council of Churches. These denominations are declining, supposedly, and no wonder, they are literally screened out of existence by journalists and others. These denominations all have what would be called more liberal positions on matters of the role of government in social welfare, peace, and the importance of regulation to protect the environment. But even so-called liberal journalists don't care about the existence of these historic Protestant churches, they make no effort to include them in articles about religion. When is the last time you heard about any of these major primary Protestants in the public media?

That's one reason I have proposed that these Protestants should form a new Protestant Council and create strong, effective communication agencies to establish a more prominant presence within the public sphere. Then journalists would know who to call to get the views of the mainline Protestants. And avenues to communicate with and create solidarity among the Protestant groupings could be generated. Without a more clear and compelling public identity and communication capacity the significant and responsible theological orientation of these bodies has no chance of being heard within current public and social media.

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Date Added: 2/4/2012 Date Revised: 2/8/2012 4:09:03 PM

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