The RNA is one of the oldest and largest societies of reporters covering religion in the world, with members in the U.S. and Canada as well as other countries. The three day conference , which Religioscope attended, included speakers and panels discussing the events and trends of today’s religious scene, with a special accent on politics.
One session featured Michael Gerson, the former speechwriter for President George W. Bush, and Amy Sullivan, a writer for Time magazine who has covered what has been called the “God gap” in the Democratic Party. Sullivan has had to revise her optimistic view that young evangelicals were moving toward the Democratic Party. She admitted that events since last summer, especially starting with the Democratic and Republican conventions, have sent many evangelical voters back to a 2004 mindset, where Republicans received the bulk of evangelical support. She noted that the significant drop in Republican identification among young evangelicals, declining from 52 percent in 2004 to 40 percent in 2008, may have meant that they were becoming independent or undecided rather than going to Democratic candidate Barak Obama.
As Gerson said his address, it was the selection of Sarah Palin as running mate to Republican candidate John McCain that has bolstered evangelical support of the Republican Party. In supporting this thesis, religion and politics specialist John Green presented a new survey showing that the basic patterns set in 2004 still hold: evangelicals are the most supportive of McCain just as they were of George W. Bush, and Barak Obama has made few inroads into the evangelical community. The political configurations of mainline, Catholic and non-affiliated Americans also are similar to that of 2004.
But there were some surprising changes revealed in the survey, which was conducted in the summer of 2008, according to Green. Hispanic Catholics and Protestants swerved back to a Democratic preference after showing some Republican sympathy in 2004. There was also a shift among all respondents toward stressing economic rather than social and foreign policy issues, especially among “traditionalist Catholic” voters. In fact, it is in the way these pressing economic matters, especially the current crisis on Wall Street, can be addressed in the framework of religious values which may be decisive for voters from many faith groups, Green added.
Since Green found, somewhat to his surprise, that Obama had as little impact among evangelicals as John Kerry had in the 2004 election in his summer poll, than it might be expected that the selection of fellow evangelical Sarah Palin as McCain’s running mate would solidify that pattern. A new survey by the Pew Research Center released during the conference does show that among all groups, it was the evangelicals who became the most favorable toward McCain as a result of the Palin selection. The percentage of voters saying they back McCain strongly climbed from 17 percent in August to 25 percent currently, with the strongest growth being among white evangelical Protestants and Catholics. In fact, 27 percent of white evangelical supporters of McCain say they almost wish Palin could be the presidential nominee.
Along with panels on immigration and the “new atheism,” a few sessions were devoted to the changes taking place in the media and how religion journalists can maintain their presence in this new environment. On one hand, there are a growing number of outlets and opportunities for writing about religion, due both to the expansion of the media and the new interest in the role of religion in American society. This was clearly seen in the record number of registrants at this year’s RNA conference—close to 400. But, on the other hand, it was not uncommon to overhear journalists half-humorously greeting each other with queries about whether they still had a job. The closing and shrinking of many newspapers due to a loss of readership among young adults more likely to get their news off the Internet is a national, if not a worldwide, phenomenon.
One session advised journalists that while the traditional “religion page” in newspapers may be endangered due to the “shrinking of newsprint,” there are innovative ways to link their reporting to online versions of the news. This can mean that religion news once confined to a page or section isolated from other news can find a wider readership when such articles are linked to blogs and related “secular stories” on a newspaper’s electronic version, according to Cathy Grossman, religion reporter for USA Today.
David Waters, editor of the online religion section called “On Faith” of the Washington Post and Newsweek asked attendees how many had already switched to writing mainly for the online versions of their newspapers. Only a minority raised their hands. When he queried how many expect to be making that change in the near future, most of the reporters’ hands shot up. He said that aside from news coverage, commentary and editorials are rapidly moving online, in some cases, replacing paid commentators and columnists with public figures and experts who are eager to put forth their views for little or no money.
But for “speed, immediacy, and depth,” with few space restrictions, it is difficult to beat the new online news and commentary versions. Waters added that the new challenge will be for religion journalists to also work with multi-media, including video and podcasts.
Richard Cimino is the founder and editor of Religion Watch, a newsletter monitoring trends in contemporary religion. Since January 2008, Religion Watch is published by Religioscope Institute. Website: www.religionwatch.com.