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.

Susan Q. Stranahan wrote for CJR.