Dispatches From: Inside the Beltway

Old plotlines die hard, especially when they have the seductive clarity of binary divides: right vs. left, Republican vs. Democrat, Us vs. Them. Nowhere is this tendency truer than in stories about religion. We have witnessed a real sea change in the relationship between religion and progressive politics since 2004, and some of these shifts have been noted in major news stories, such as the growing coverage of the complexity of the white evangelical community. Still, all too often the mainstream media tries to cram the current complexities and realignments into an outdated script.

In my former life as a software designer, we lived by the mantra, “garbage in, garbage out.” Media storylines about religion and national elections, and thereby public perceptions, are driven by two major factors: exit polls (controlled by the major media outlets) and the sources reporters select for their stories. There is mounting evidence that much of the mainstream media is operating with a perversion of this mantra, a kind of “garbage in, gospel out” approach that begins and ends with its own self-verifying, dated stereotypes about religion in American public life.

The heart of the old script was the mythology of the so-called “moral values voters”—voters who were highly religious, Republican, and supposedly cared about prohibiting same-sex marriage and abortion above all else. We now know that despite the hype, the single exit poll question upon which those conclusions were based in 2004 was deeply flawed.

In a New York Times Op-Ed four days after the 2004 election, Gary Langer, director of polling for ABC News and a dissenting member of the team that drafted the questionnaire, cautioned that the inclusion on the exit poll of “this hot-button catch phrase” created a deep distortion—one that threatens to misinform the political discourse for years to come. A series of subsequent polls, such as the American Values Survey (AVS), which I directed at the Center for American Values in Public Life in 2006, showed how distorting these assumptions were. AVS found that Americans in fact think mostly about “the honesty and integrity of the candidate” when voting their values. Even among white evangelicals, the group that was supposedly synonymous with “moral values voters,” only 1 in 5 (19 percent) thought primarily about the hot-button issues of abortion and same-sex marriage when voting their values.

Since 2004, much of the mainstream media has unfortunately continued to reinforce the assumptions that religion is only relevant to conservatives and Republicans. A recent study by Media Matters for America, “Left Behind: The Skewed Representation of Religion in Major News Media,” documented the continued bias in linking conservative politics and religion. The study found that while media coverage of religion has increased significantly since 2004, conservative religious leaders were quoted, mentioned, or interviewed in news stories nearly three times as often as were progressive religious leaders.

Despite these well-known problems, in the exit polling in the 2008 primaries so far, the major media news outlets have once again pulled out their dog-eared script on religion and politics as they constructed the exit polls. In Iowa and Michigan, Democrats weren’t asked about religion at all. In New Hampshire and South Carolina, more questions were asked of Republican voters on faith than Democratic voters. And nowhere have Democrats been asked if they were evangelical or born again, despite the fact that in 2006 white evangelicals made up 11.3 percent of the Democratic house vote nationwide, casting slightly more votes for Democratic candidates for example than black protestants.

Even noting the source of objections to this practice is a testimony to the new religious landscape. Leah Daughtry, Chief of Staff of the Democratic National Committee (and herself an ordained Pentecostal minister) recently lamented in a Washington Post Op-Ed that the biased exit polls drive media stories that “often fail to acknowledge that people of faith are and can be Democrats.” Similarly, a group of prominent evangelical leaders also objected to this prejudicial polling, declaring that these surveys “pigeonholed evangelicals, reinforcing the false stereotype that we are beholden to one political party.”

As these leaders attest, this skewed coverage is damaging both to politics and to religion and diminishes our understanding of American public life. It is time for the media to update their script with more equitable exit polling and balanced sources heading into Super Tuesday and on through the home stretch of the election cycle.