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Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life

The Press and Faith Based Politics

Stephen Burgard, School of Journalism, Northeastern University
Date: April 27, 2005
Location: 24 Quincy Road, Boisi Center

The Boisi Center held a lunchtime colloquium on April 27th with Stephen Burgard of the Northeastern University School of Journalism, whose topic was “The Press and Faith Based Politics.” Burgard’s talk explained why, notwithstanding increased coverage of religious topics, the press all-too-often overlooks the effect religious and moral values have on politics and public policy. There are two reasons for this paradox.

First, the media’s sharp focus on contemporary events discourages analysis of long-term trends and of the relationships between events. One example is the media’s treatment of the Bush Administration’s Office of Faith-Based Initiatives, which Burgard said should have emphasized the office’s origins in the “charitable choice” provisions of the Welfare Reform Act of 1996, signed by President Clinton. Press coverage should have shown that “religion-based initiatives have found support in both major parties for some time,” and that the long-term story regarding faith-based initiatives is really “mostly about differences in emphasis between the two parties.”

Second, the press has had difficulty understanding the “moral middle,” centrist voters of both parties whose faith informs their politics. Unlike the religious right, who link politics and religion in a high-profile way, the “moral middle” is difficult to identify without looking at sociological data, something reporters have shown little inclination to do. However, Burgard concluded that understanding the religious center is crucial, if there is to be intelligent and thoroughgoing reporting about issues such as gay marriage and stem cell research.