Beyond the Wafer Watch

By Susan Q. Stranahan

“Religion is the third rail of Democratic Party politics,” writes Amy Sullivan in a recent issue of the Democratic Leadership Council’s magazine Blueprint. The same can be said for journalism. For the mainstream media, religion just isn’t a comfortable fit.

Yet, religion pervades this campaign. An evangelical Christian occupies the White House, a president who proudly describes the role religion plays in his everyday life. Hoping to unseat him is a Catholic candidate who seeks to separate his politics from his faith.

But religion has largely been ignored or covered in simplistic and superficial terms this election season. That needs to change. Quickly. Campaign 2004 cries out for tough, analytical, skeptical coverage of the subject — coverage no different than that given the candidates’ fundraising or economic policies. The reporting requires careful examination of motives and behind-the-scenes players, just as any political story commands. And the coverage must be even-handed, evaluating the actions of all players, avoiding getting caught up in spin from any quarter. As of now, none of this has happened. The mainstream media has taken a walk, unwilling or unable to dig in.

Consider the Kerry communion watch:

On May 9, for example, the Associated Press’ Mike Glover reported that John Kerry attended a Mother’s Day Mass in at a suburban Pittsburgh church, where Kerry and his wife, Teresa Heinz Kerry, took communion. “Some Catholic leaders have said they would withhold communion from Kerry because he supports abortion rights,” wrote Glover. “The church itself opposes abortion. … Kerry declined to answer questions about his taking of communion.”

On Easter Sunday, the Kerrys also took communion at a service near their home in Boston. Reported the New York Times’ Katharine Q. Seelye: “Mr. Kerry’s decision to receive communion amounts to a challenge to several prominent Catholic bishops, who have become increasingly exasperated with politicians who are Catholic but who deviate from Catholic teaching.”

The media spotlight on John Kerry’s religious habits has angered some. “What next,” griped columnist Ellen Goodman. “Will there be a Holy Communion beat? A wafer watch?”

Amy Sullivan has followed the Kerry/communion flap on her blog at the Gadflyer, and complained about Glover’s May 9 article: “Missing once again was the accompanying story that begins, ‘Republicans George Pataki and Tom Ridge attended Mother’s Day Mass on Sunday and took communion although some Roman Catholic leaders say pro-choice politicians should not receive it because their stance violates church teachings.’”

Sullivan added: “Also no word on whether George W. Bush attended church over the weekend.” (Sullivan also took umbrage at a Campaign Desk posting on her comments.)

Sullivan accuses the media of a “double standard” in its coverage of the personal faith of Republicans and Democrats. So far, she writes, the Republicans have gotten a free ride:

As it is now, most readers would be excused for having the impression that this is a conflict with Kerry on one side and the whole of Catholicism on the other. In fact, Kerry is joined by a whole heap of pro-choice colleagues (both Democrats and Republicans) as well as a large percentage of the Catholic laity on one side; some traditional Catholics and a few church leaders are on the other.

Political reporters who want to write the truly fascinating story here should look at whether some Catholic leaders are using a sacrament as a political tool, whether the threatened sanction is being applied evenly to politicians from both parties or whether they are just focusing on the Democrats.

The press coverage began after St. Louis Archbishop Raymond Burke said in January that he would deny Kerry communion because of the senator’s views on abortion. The bishop of Camden, N.J., meanwhile, recently argued that the state’s Democratic Gov. James McGreevy should not be given communion because he is pro-choice, and the bishop of Colorado Springs recently declared that no Catholic should present themselves for communion if he or she voted for politicians who violate Church teachings, including support for same-sex marriage, euthanasia or stem-cell research, as well as abortion.

Within the past few days, both the Washington Post and the New York Times carried stories about a letter, signed by 48 Catholic members of the House of Representatives, alleging that the anti-communion threat by some clergy is “miring the Church in partisan politics.” (All are Democrats; Republican members were not solicited.) The letter was sent to Cardinal Theodore E. McCarrick of Washington, who heads a panel of bishops considering whether the church should take action against politicians who are at odds with church doctrine.

The House members also asked McCarrick why abortion appears to be the defining issue, rather than other political/ethical decisions that touch on Church teaching about respect for life, such as the death penalty or the war in Iraq, both of which have been condemned by Pope John Paul II and many U.S. bishops. One signer, Rep. Bart Stupak of Michigan, who opposes abortion, told the Post’s Alan Cooperman that the bishops “are making these statements thinking they’re undermining the candidacy of John Kerry, when what they’re really undermining is the Catholic Church.”

Wall Street Journal reporter Shailagh Murray, in one of the most comprehensive assessments of the simmering political/religious controversy, began a May 6 article this way: “As the U.S. Catholic Church tries to reassert authority over its flock, abortion-rights Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry has gotten caught in the cross-hairs.” She continued:

Church officials, who have been seeking to reassert authority and regain credibility after damaging sex-abuse revelations, hope the debate spurs a broader push to get Catholics off the unofficial “cafeteria plan,” under which many quietly pick and choose from the church’s teachings on matters such as abortion, the death penalty and sexual conduct. Mr. Kerry could become the key vehicle in their effort to do that.

As Gal Beckerman writes in the current issue of CJR, reporters have long had difficulties covering religion as they would any other beat.

Political stories with a religious dimension can go far beyond two candidates and their faiths. The American public places a high value on moral and ethical character of its leaders. Where they grow uncomfortable, however, is when religion seeps into the secular affairs of government. Or when it is used as a coercive tool to shape policy. When those lines become blurred it is up to the media to sound the alert, as they must with any special interest.

For party leaders, the stakes in this fight for the faithful are extremely high.

There are 63.4 million Catholics in the U.S., or about a fourth of the electorate, and as the Journal’s Murray reports, they have gradually shifted away from the Democratic Party in recent decades. Although in 2000, Catholics narrowly supported Al Gore over George W. Bush, they represent a critical block of voters now up for grabs, especially in swing states such as Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Arizona and New Mexico. The GOP, writes Murray, has made a concerted effort to win their votes in 2004. The Democrats, according to Sullivan, continue to bungle the job.

Will the media spotlight on Kerry’s Catholicism play a role in the election outcome? Will the church’s crackdown on acceptable conduct affect carry over into the voting booth?

Murray quotes John Zogby, who has tracked Catholic voting for years as part of his Zogby International polling. “Catholics are all over the place,” says Zogby. “The pope speaks, the bishops rule, but Catholics think their own way.”

If new polling numbers for New Jersey’s Gov. McGreevey are any indicator, voters want the Church to stay out of politics. Earlier this month, the governor stood on the steps of the State House in Trenton to announce that he would no longer take communion in public, to spare the church the “scandal” of turning him away. This week, a new Quinnipiac University poll showed the governor’s approval rating inching up, in part due to his support of property tax rebates, but also partly because of refusal to succumb to dictates from the Church.

Sixty-nine percent of New Jersey Catholic voters surveyed said it was wrong for church leaders to pressure politicians. “I am not surprised at the Catholic numbers because there is a deep-seated resentment among voters about the church getting involved in political issues,” said Clay F. Richards, assistant director of Quinnipiac’s Polling Institute.

Thus far, most of the media has focused only on the Kerry “wafer watch,” and for these reasons: It’s easy, it’s a controversy, and it can be summarized in about 500 words. Move beyond that, however, and the politics-and-religion story in this campaign is complex, controversial and inextricably intertwined in the election strategies of both parties. In other words, it’s a story that any hungry reporter should yearn to tackle.

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Susan Q. Stranahan wrote for CJR.