By William Fisher
As if the pollsters and the media who analyze and report on their findings didn’t make enough mistakes in the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary, here’s another:
The folks who conducted the exit polls following the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary asked departing Republican voters if they were evangelicals." But they didn’t ask the same question of exiting Democrats – apparently assuming there weren't any evangelicals voting for Democrats.
That’s because the conventional wisdom is that Evangelical = Republican.
It’s that wisdom that appears to have been accepted by the outfits that conducted the exit polls.
But it just ain’t so, says Katie Barge of Faith in Public Life. She says it’s “an assumption that is demonstrably not true.”
She notes that polling organizations and media experts on religion explain to us that “evangelicals care mostly or only about abortion and gay marriage, and not about other issues.” And that, she says, “is even more mistaken.”
She explains: “The issues that most concern evangelicals today, especially a younger generation, include poverty, the environment and climate change, human rights, and the morality of a foreign policy where war is the first resort.”
She adds, “This year those issues are drawing a growing number of evangelicals to consider the Democratic candidates.” This broadening agenda, she says, has made the evangelical community “increasingly diverse politically.”
Barge is not alone. Michelle Boorstein and Jon Cohen, writing in the Washington Post’s “The Trail,” remind us that since nearly eight in ten white evangelicals voted for President Bush in 2004, Democrats have been plowing thought, money and time into changing the story line. They have faith advisers, faith forums and faith strategies that show there is such a thing as a progressive evangelical.”
Not unreasonably, a group of leading progressive evangelicals was upset enough by the acceptance of old stereotypes and caricatures that they fired off a letter to the polling and political directors of media outlets represented in the National Election Pool.
The signatories included such luminaries as Dr. Joel Hunter, Senior Pastor of the Northland Church in Orlando and head of The Christian Coalition, an organization once synonymous with the Religious Right; David Neff, Editor of Christianity Today; Rev. Jim Wallis, best-selling author and founder of the Sojourners; Paul Corts, President of the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities, and other equally high-profile clergymen and theologians.
Here, in part, is what they wrote:
“Religion is playing an unprecedented role in the 2008 presidential campaign; the need for accurate and thorough information about religious voters is difficult to overstate. Thus far, the National Election Pool’s exit poll surveys have pigeonholed evangelicals, reinforcing the false stereotype that we are beholden to one political party.
“Your entrance and exit polls at the Iowa caucuses asked Republican caucus-goers if they were 'born-again or evangelical Christian(s)', but did not ask the same question of Democrats. This omission left a substantive hole in subsequent news coverage of the caucuses. Based on your polling, the public helpfully learned that born-again or evangelical Christians played a central role in Mike Huckabee’s victory, but received no information about the impact of evangelical voters in the Democratic race.
“As reported by numerous news organizations, candidates of both parties spoke explicitly of their religious faith while campaigning in Iowa and have robust faith outreach operations. By omitting the question of evangelical/born-again identification from the Democratic polls, you prevented the public from seeing the full picture of how the bipartisan courtship of evangelical voters affected the outcome of the first contest of the 2008 campaign and perpetuated the misperception that all evangelical Christians are Republicans.
“No party can own any faith.”
The letter closes by noting, “With voters entering polling sites in Michigan, Nevada and South Carolina in the coming days and weeks and Super Tuesday following shortly thereafter, it is imperative for you to remedy the imbalance in your exit polling immediately. Evangelicalism is not a monolithic movement that fits neatly into one party.”
The reaction from the recipients thus far?
Chuck Todd from NBC -- the only one to respond so far -- wrote back, "I will share this with the team... thank you for your concern."
No word at all yet from any of the other networks. Michael Mokrzycki, AP's director of polling, declined to give details about how the group came up with its questions, but said "if you've seen the questionnaires it is clear we're working with limited real estate and thus must make judgments about priorities."
Given the Jerry Falwell-Pat Robertson-James Dobson history of religion in politics, the idea of an Evangelical Democrat may well seem counter-intuitive.
But we have a right to expect that the people whose work informs us about our political landscape -- and the journalists who use that work as the rationale for many of their own conclusions – keep their knowledge base current.
The times, they are a-changin'.
Or are they?
There is a larger point to this debate. Here’s how it’s seen by Rev. George Hunsinger, a professor at the Princeton Theological Seminary:
“I think the essential point would be that there are no religious qualifications for holding public office. JFK made that point years ago while Romney recently fudged it.
“Whether there should be questions about religious affiliation in exit polling is less clear. In exit polling as it is currently conducted, perhaps best not.
“But the larger problem of exit polling and superficiality, like the problem of TV candidates' debates and superficiality, is the real nub. If we take the Lincoln-Douglas debates as a standard, we can begin to gauge how far our public discourse has fallen.
“The superficiality of our public discourse -- and especially the slide toward tabloid news coverage -- can hardly be seen as an accident. Our rulers clearly want a general public that has no interest in genuine thought. That way we, the people are more easily manipulated and controlled. Call it creeping Orwellianism.”