Let’s pretend it is Oct. 1, 2005.
After a long, long September of storms, Hurricane Wilma misses the Keys and veers into the Gulf of Mexico. It heads straight for Louisiana.
After a long, long day in the newsroom, you sit on the couch flipping from one cable news channel to another. Then you see a familiar face in an MSNBC tease and hear, “We’ll be back, live, with the Rev. Pat Robertson, who says that this new hurricane is more evidence that God is angry at New Orleans because …”
Pause for a minute.
When you hear these words do you experience (a) an acidic surge of joy because you are 99.9 percent sure that you know what Robertson is going to say, or (b) a sense of sorrow for precisely the same reason?
If you answered (a), then I would bet the moon and the stars that you are someone who doesn’t think highly of Christian conservatives and their beliefs. If you answered (b), you are probably one of those Christians.
In other words, we have reached the point where some journalists are happy to see Robertson’s face on television screens, because every time he opens his mouth he reinforces their stereotype of a conservative Christian. And they may sincerely believe that he remains a powerful leader among American evangelicals, someone who provides an appropriate “conservative” voice during coverage of controversial events.
If this is true, then why is it so hard to find mainstream evangelicals and traditional Catholics who defend Robertson? Outside of a cable TV niche, where are his legions? In short, I’m convinced it is time for journalists to drop Robertson from their lists of “usual suspects.” That he ceases to be someone they turn to for quotes from “evangelical leaders.” He is a straw man.
Don’t get me wrong. I know that Robertson makes great headlines. As my GetReligion.org colleague Douglas LeBlanc put it, after the Hugo Chavez affair: “Reporters recognize a good coffee-spewing remark when they see one, and I will not fault them for jumping on this one.” Amen.
Still, you have to ask: Are journalists missing good stories and ignoring solid sources because they remain fixated on this fading evangelical alpha male? These days, it’s hard to find evidence of Robertson’s clout in the public square. His influence was nowhere to be seen in the months leading up to the 2004 election, although he tried to create news.
Back up another four years. During the media storm following the 2000 election, the Ethics & Public Policy Center held a forum about the role religious faith played in that election (click here to see a transcript). Michael Barone of Fox News, during a conversation about the faith-based stories that journalists missed during the campaign, made the most interesting point.
One of the overlooked stories, he said, was the behind-the-scenes effort by Bush campaign insiders to keep the old lions of the Religious Right out of the news. This could not have been easy, seeing as how Jerry Falwell, Robertson and others crave camera time. But someone cut them out, or convinced them to stand down. In their place, new faces emerged — such as Rick Warren and Kirbyjon Caldwell.
Someone bluntly said: “I wonder who managed to get Pat Robertson to shut up?” Right, I replied. That task would have required a miracle worker.
Maybe that person should have been interviewed by Chris Matthews. That would have been a story worth uncovering.
Yes, it helps when publications such as Time go out of their way to identify major religious leaders, known and unknown. The recent list of the top 25 evangelical leaders in America included some still-rising leaders, such as Michael Gerson and Brian McLare. It also noted the older alpha males that still have clout, such as James Dobson and Chuck Colson.
But who comes next?
It’s time for more journalists — especially television journalists — to find the new and overlooked voices.
Does anyone know Lee Strobel? Pastor Tony Evans? How about Lauren Winner? John Mark Reynolds? Marshall Shelley? Barbara Nicolosi? Chris Seay? Roberto Rivera y Carlo? David Gushee? Charles Chaput? Nancy Pearcey? William Romanowski (no, not the football player)? Kenneth Myers? Albert Reyes? Janice Rogers Brown?
OK, so you have heard about Judge Brown. You may know a lot more about her in a matter of days. But do we need to know what Pat Robertson thinks about her?
Give it a rest.
Terry Mattingly (www.tmatt.net) is senior fellow for journalism at the Council for Christian Colleges & Universities. He writes the weekly “On Religion” column for the Scripps Howard News Service in Washington, D.C., and leads the GetReligion.org project focusing on religion news in mainstream media.