As 2009 draws to a close, the Religion Newswriters Association took a moment to look back and vote on what they thought were the top religion stories of the year. President Obama’s landmark speech in Cairo was #1 on the list. Second on the list was the role of faith groups in the health care debate. From the results:
2. Health-care reform, the No. 1 topic in Congress for most of the year, involves faith-based groups appealing strongly for action to help “the least of these,” and others, such as the Roman Catholic bishops, for restrictions on abortion funding.
We’ve spent much of 2009 working to lift up the voices a wide swath of faith groups and leaders dedicated to making quality healthcare affordable for all American families; I’m glad the media took note!
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A recent survey from the University of Florida describes the emergence of a robust “religious left,” led mostly by Catholics and Mainline Protestants that has closed the “God gap.”
This latest research confirms trends we’ve seen in other studies, but it’s still not the dominant faith and politics story in the news every day.
Dan Schultz’s insightful post today at Religion Dispatches (following up on Candace Chellew-Hodge’s also very good post) hypothesizes why this is. It’s something we confront on a very regular basis here at FPL: what makes news. People of faith are doing critical work in their congregations and communities across the country, ministering to the needs of people who are neglected by virtually everyone else. For many vulnerable communities, faith-based organizations are the line of last resort– providing medical care, food, and shelter. Mainline Protestant and Catholic churches have been doing this kind of communitarian ministry for decades. (And they’re not alone– Jewish synagogues, evangelical churches, interfaith and ecumenical organizations, and other faith-based groups are doing much of this work as well.) The “communal faith” the Florida researchers describe as the hallmark of the “religious left” is extremely important to the life and health of communities and the pursuit of social justice, but it’s often not considered “newsworthy.” (Check out the links a few sentences back; some of this stuff does earn media coverage, but not nearly as much as we wish it did.) Dan writes at RD:
“…Communal faith is hard to bring into the news cycle. For one thing, its advocates (myself included) often preach the church as a community of justice over and against the wider culture. That doesn’t make us sectarian, exactly. But it does mean that we’re apt to work on ourselves before society: we use fair trade coffee, for example, or recycle, or structure our church investments to reflect our values. All of those are stances with public, even political, ramifications, but they’re not the sort of thing that will typically get you on the evening news, much less allow you to build a political base.”
He’s right. And sometimes this can be frustrating, especially for those of us who engage with the media every day. There are so many people of faith doing critical work that just doesn’t get noticed and, frankly, may never get noticed. The media thrives on novelty and conflict– so, it’s hard to get coverage for something that isn’t new and which doesn’t involve some sort of polarization or opposition.
For example, the media perked up when the National Association of Evangelicals took a public stance in favor of comprehensive immigration reform. The press is interested in evangelicals and their stance on immigration because they haven’t been social justice-oriented in decades past, but have begun taking more progressive stances on this issue and some others like climate change in recent years. This break from history and internal conflicts within the evangelical community over this new direction make this story appealing to journalists.
Does that mean the mainline or Catholic work on immigration is somehow less important? Of course not! The mainline community’s immigration reform efforts are critical. At the same time, it’s exciting that yet another contingent of the faith community is coming along on this important work. And sometimes, the “new” evangelical story can be the hook that lets us give journalists bigger picture of faith activism on this issue.
I think the takeaway is two-fold: first, not all faith-based advocacy efforts will be “newsworthy,” and that’s ok. There can be much value in work done behind-the-scenes and without notice. As Dan reminds us, most people of faith aren’t in it for the credit: “We may never be the flashy people out front, but we’ll be there in the back, addressing the envelopes, copying the fliers, and making the (fair-trade) coffee.”
Second, it is possible for more traditional justice-oriented faith communities to get noticed for their advocacy –we just have to find new ways tell an interesting story to the media. Maybe it’s setting up a “strange bedfellows” story, utilizing a new advocacy technique, or turning out huge numbers for our events. Or it can be just having great local angles for state and local reporters. Whatever the case may be, finding creative and novel ways to get the media to notice the faith community’s pursuit of the common good can be yet another communitarian effort.
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