“Don’t celebrate Richard Cizik as a new liberal, but as a rock-solid evangelical that has embraced creation care,” Jewell said to me, speaking of the reverend who has become a media darling in the last year due to his strong and very public opinion that America should take the lead in fighting global warming. The term “creation care” that Jewell employed is the perfect example of why journalists cannot underestimate the import of language as they cover this story. Evangelicals don’t like words like “environmentalism,” “environmentalist,” or “the environmental movement,” so they use “creation care” instead. Obviously, this is not a phrase that the press should embrace. Journalists must remember, however, that the more they use words like “left” and “environmentalist” in their stories on this subject, the more they are going to perpetuate the view among evangelicals that the media are a poor messenger. Many evangelicals leading the “creation-care” movement are, in fact, concerned that being seen as liberal collaborators will hurt their efforts, Jewell said.
Of course, this reluctance to move left has not stopped liberals from courting evangelicals. After Bush’s presidential victory in 2004, Democrats realized that they had a serious “God problem,” and journalists have duly covered their attempts to make amends. As David Kirkpatrick noted in his piece in The New York Times Magazine, “All three Democratic [front-runner] candidates are speaking very personally, in evangelical language, about their own faith.” Since, as Jewell explained, evangelicals are open to new messages, but remain wary of new messengers, politicians have a distinct advantage over the media in this regard. Where journalists will never employ “evangelical language” like “creation care,” politicians can say whatever they want as long as it sounds genuine.
Even the Christian media has given Democrats credit for employing language that resonates with so-called values voters. The Associated Baptist Press, a newswire, went so far as to report that Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama “speak fluent evangelicalese.” Obama, in particular, drew a fair number of headlines in the summer of 2006 when he gave an impassioned description of his faith to a conference of evangelicals in Washington, D.C. Despite the seeming sincerity their words, however, it remains to be seen just how far rhetoric will carry Democrats in the upcoming election. I asked Jewell if there really is such a thing as “evangelicalese.” “That’s shorthand for journalists,” he replied. “It means politicians are talking about their own personal faith in some way. But they don’t hit on the political issues, like a pro-life platform, that have been important to evangelicals over the years. And when a politician just uses words to connect with the public, people will eventually find out that the candidate’s platforms are not really in line with what they believe.”
If that is true, evangelicals may never accept Democrats, environmentalists, or the mainstream press as messengers. That, in turn, casts doubt on the idea that the 2008 election will produce a major political realignment, and it reinforces Jewell’s point that the press should take care to describe the organic elements of changes in the evangelical community. A 2005 article in The Washington Post about “The Greening of Evangelicals,” was one of the few to do this right. Writer Blaine Harden interviewed Reverend Jim Ball, the executive director of the Evangelical Environmental Network (and Jewell’s colleague), who explained that many evangelicals still feel ostracized by non-religious America. When it comes to addressing global warming with legislation, Harden paraphrased Ball saying, “Evangelicals themselves - not such groups as the Sierra Club or Friends of the Earth, with their liberal Democratic baggage - are the only ones who can do the persuading.”
Given that situation, journalists must be especially cautious with the language they use while trying to describe today’s mainstream evangelicals. On the one hand, reporters must not be too quick to call support for peace and the environment liberal. On the other, they must be equally careful of giving too much voice to the older and more conservative Christian leadership, as it did when Pat Robertson recently and unexpectedly announced that he was endorsing Rudy Giuliani (whose pro-gay marriage and pro-abortion platforms clash with “values voters”) for president. Some of that is to be expected. “The press’s handling of evangelicals has always been clunky,” Jewell told me, often going too far in either direction between new-liberal and still-conservative analyses. “I don’t think reporters do that on purpose, I just think they’ve grown up going to the Rolodex, looking up the Christian right, and finding Robertson’s name.”