What's the quickest way for a candidate to make a national reporter squirm? Bring up religion. George W. Bush's decision in a December debate to name Jesus Christ as the philosopher with the most impact on him gave reporters the willies.
NBC's Tim Russert is a devout Roman Catholic who has spoken publicly and profoundly about his faith. Yet when the Republican candidates met again in January, he felt it necessary to question repeatedly if Bush's faith in Jesus somehow translated into Christian theocracy: "I think people watching, some want to hear your God is Jesus Christ, they don't have a God, or they have Yahweh or they have Allah. They want to know it's okay."
Russert went so far as to suggest that every Republican debate seems to mention Jesus, asking Gary Bauer, "Are you concerned that many people in the country are watching that exchange and saying, 'you know, that's a little more about religion than it is about politics and that concerns me?'" Russert's colleague Brian Williams added that the Republicans were "strident tonight: anti-gay, pro-Jesus, and anti-abortion and no gray matter in between."
What message is the public supposed to take away from this? It's the quadrennial network message: Republican primaries are polluted with the Christian right, and their Bible-toting intolerance will cost them in the fall. They're stridently pro-Jesus, and are frightening average Americans by dragging too much religion into the public square.
If reporters want to blame someone for ruining politics with religious talk, they ought to look in the mirror. Convinced that viewers will grab their remotes if they have to cover the compexities of Medicare Plan B, they put an enormous amount of attention on the candidates' lifestyles, personalities, and private likes and dislikes. If probing in this direction doesn't lead to talk of personal faith, then either the reporters or the candidates are missing something important.
The other interesting liberal media trend is that, for all of their mockery of religious conservatives having a direct phone line to God, some liberal journalists have claimed a true Christian would implement liberal policies.
On CNN's "Capital Gang," Wall Street Journal executive Al Hunt joked: "Now if Jesus is a political thinker, I assume he's for the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty - 'blessed are the peacemakers.' I assume he's pro-earned income tax credit - 'blessed are the poor.'"
In Time magazine, columnist Jimmy Breslin pretended that Christ was on the campaign trail in Iowa, and he was angry at Republicans like Bush for invoking his name while supporting the death penalty: "'How can he say he carries me, Jesus Christ, in his heart,' candidate Christ asked, 'when at the same time he stands by while people are put to death?'"
Breslin added that Gary Bauer was racist: "'Bauer uses the name in Iowa the most,' Nicodemus bristled. 'He is as white as cows being milked.Wait until he sees our candidate. I mean, you can see for yourself, our candidate is good and Middle East swarthy. When Bauer sees the color of Christ's skin, I'll tell you what Bauer does. He drops dead - no, I can't talk like that. What Bauer does is pass out right on his face.'"
Then there's National Public Radio, which can't see the point of bringing up Jesus unless someone's proposing a radical redistribution of wealth. On January 12, reporter Lynn Neary acted as a press agent for the leftist Industrial Areas Foundation, which assembled religious leaders to announce that faith without statism is "empty piety." Bishop David Benke of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod declared that if a candidate "is going to lead through a faith statement, then it'd better be a leading through action. That's authentic piety."
Rabbi David Saperstein said of Bush: "How do you invoke that name and still justify the inequities that plague this country? How do you invoke real name of religion and the words of religion and the dreams of religion and to sit by in good conscience and allow such inequities to continue?"
The Founding Fathers, who pledged their "sacred honor" in fighting for liberty, sought to prevent the state establishment of religion. George W. Bush doesn't threaten that with his personal revelations, and the voters warm to them. A CNN-USA Today-Gallup poll in December found one out of two voters would be more likely to support a candidate who talked about his relationship with Jesus. Only a quarter said they would be less likely.
After the St. Louis Rams won the Super Bowl, quarterback Kurt Warner was introduced as the Most Valuable Player. He told the crowd, "First, I want to thank my Lord and savior, Jesus Christ" - and the fans roared back their approval of his testimonial. The media probably said: there go those poor, uneducated, and easy-to-command types again.