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Scary Evangelicals
What's unsettling is the way our 'elite media' manipulate political coverage.

Political pundits tell us that we're due for a federal election in the fall and some of our country's elite media outlets have already given hints as to how they are going to cover the imminent campaign. The Globe and Mail, for instance, recently ran a front page story with the headline: "Christian activists capturing Tory races."

It's common to see news stories about Evangelical Christians … punctuated by references to bigotry and racism.

The story was about Evangelical Christians who had won, by democratic means, the federal Conservative nomination in their respective ridings. However, by describing what was a fair-and-square victory as a "capture," the Globe chose to insinuate that the win was achieved by force or trickery. The Globe reporter certainly tried to push that perspective.

Later in the story she hinted that the Evangelicals exploited the naivete of immigrants to win the nominations saying they "persuaded parishioners, particularly new Canadians, to join the party and vote for recommended candidates."

(Funny, when non-Evangelical candidates recruit new Canadians as party members they are applauded for introducing newcomers to the democratic processes of our nation.)

Yes, the Globe's story is indicative of things to come. After the summer lull, readers should prepare themselves for a full slate of reports about members of the Conservative Party who are Evangelical Christians—and get ready for the overarching theme: "These people are scary."

The scary Evangelical politician is a familiar theme. Remember the 2000 federal election featuring Canadian Alliance leader and Evangelical Christian Stockwell Day? The national media made him out to be such a terrifying boogeyman that religious leaders from other faiths collectively issued a statement pleading for religious tolerance and respect.

Here's how the scare-ification process works: with an air of authority and illusion of objectivity, journalists covering a campaign imply at every opportunity that Evangelical politicians are to be feared because they hold views and values that are extreme or, at the very least, outside the mainstream.

The implication is always: They are not like the rest of us.

If Canada's elite journalists—those who work for the national TV news organizations and our country's largest-circulation newspapers—were simply referring to themselves when making the claim that Evangelicals are not like the rest of us, then they would be right.

Indeed, Canada's national news personnel and Evangelical Christians have very little in common.

A recent study by researchers Lydia Miljan and Barry Cooper has shown that our top news people are the most irreligious and most socially permissive people in the country—the direct opposite of Evangelicals.

(By the way, "elite media" is not a term I made up. It's part of the parlance of communication studies. They are deemed to have elite status because they and their companies tend to set the news agenda of smaller news outlets.)

But are the views and values of Evangelical Christians really so radically different from the population at large? Are they so extreme as to be characterized as scary?

No. In fact, polling data suggests that on most social issues Evangelicals are singing from the same hymn book as a majority of Canadians.

It's common to see news stories about Evangelical Christians and, in particular, Evangelical politicians punctuated by references to bigotry and racism. Certain of our national media outlets have propagated the myth these conservative Christians are some of the most intolerant people in Canadian society. However, survey data collected by the Pew Charitable Trust shows that there is virtually no difference between Evangelical and non-Evangelical Canadians when it comes to attitudes toward race. When asked if they would be pleased to have someone from a race different other then their own living next door, 83 percent of Evangelicals and 86 percent of non-Evangelicals agreed. The three percent difference, researchers say, is not statistically significant.

Another poll conducted in 2004 by the Centre for Research and Information on Canada discovered that 67 percent of the general population would vote for a Muslim political leader. Asking a similar question, the Pew Charitable Trust found that 65 percent of Canadian Evangelicals would vote for a Muslim political leader.

Evangelicals and those who side with them politically have also been portrayed in the elite news media as "extreme" and "outside mainstream opinion" for their stand against changes to the traditional definition of marriage. In this case I have to ask: how are the elite media defining "mainstream opinion"?

A poll conducted this year by Environics showed 52 percent of the general population is against changing the definition of marriage to include same-sex unions. Surely an opinion is not on the fringes when it's supported by over half the country?

Of course the scariest thing about Evangelicals and their political representatives (so says the national news media) is that all of them are fanatically obsessed with outlawing abortion.

And on the abortion issue Evangelicals are subjected to a double-whammy—they're also made out to be dimwitted. The elite journalists implicitly chide: "Don't you people realize that the rest of us normal Canadians agreed years ago that the issue was settled? We simply don't want to discuss it anymore."

These perceptions are popular … but neither is correct.

Canadian sociologist Sam Reimer cites survey data showing a majority of Canadian Evangelicals think legal abortion should be available in specific instances. For example, 72 percent think the procedure should be available if the mother's life is in danger and about 53 percent think abortion should be an option for a woman who has been raped.

Just as all Evangelicals aren't categorically anti-abortion, a strong majority of the population-at-large think our present situation—where a woman can legally terminate her pregnancy—is far from acceptable and would like to see it change. An Environics poll conducted last year and a Compas poll conducted four years earlier, found that 68 percent of Canadians would welcome greater restrictions on abortion. Perhaps more interesting, the Environics poll found that a larger portion of the population falls into the hardcore pro-life camp than into the hardcore pro-choice camp.

… Evangelicals and the rest of Canadians are not so far apart on this issue …

Thirty-three per cent of the general public thought life should be protected from the moment of conception but only 28 percent supported the current system of unlimited abortion on demand.

In no way are the Evangelical stats on abortion indicative of a burgeoning pro-choice constituency within that faith community, nor do the stats on the population-at-large suggest that our society is on the verge of outlawing abortion. What the numbers do show is that Evangelicals and the rest of Canadians are not so far apart on this issue of abortion as some in our national news media would have us believe.

The facts are clear that, contrary to what one reads and sees in a great many news reports, the social views and values of Evangelicals are not fringe opinions but instead are shared by a majority of Canadians. By extension, it's also clear when elite journalists portray Evangelical politicians as people to be feared they are reflecting their own personal biases and not an objective perspective.

Evangelicals, be they in the House of Commons or the house next door, are not scary. Elite journalists' manipulation and suppression of facts in order to further their own (hidden) agenda … now that's scary.

David Haskell is assistant professor of journalism at the Brantford campus of Wilfrid Laurier University. His research interest is religion and the news media.

Originally published in The Hamilton Spectator, June 25, 2005, and Toronto Star, June 25, 2005.




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