The urge to demonise the American Right is almost impossible to resist, no? Poking fun at the Republican presidential candidates basically takes up about 70% of my conversation these days, as this blog attests, but the duty to be accurate mustn’t be ignored. Perhaps surprisingly, the contributors to the Guardian’s comment pages, and a number of reporters on the BBC have done a pretty woeful job of reporting the US election with an objective eye for detail. A good example is the flurry of features in the last couple of days which inaccurately describe Rick Santorum as an ‘evangelical Christian’.
Now, there is a story here, it’s just that they’ve missed it. Santorum is deeply religious, and has run a very right-wing campaign, so it’s perhaps unsurprising that his extreme opinions on contraception, same-sex marriage and abortion have endeared him to the socially conservative voters of Iowa (a hell-forsaken place, seemingly, if these views are rife). But what is interesting is that Santorum is not an evangelical Christian after all, he’s an orthodox Catholic, and in previous years an orthodox Catholic would generally be said to have a greater chance of passing through the eye of a needle than of winning the support of an evangelical constituency.
Now to those of us with no religious instinct, the differences between a hard-right Catholic and an evangelical Christian might not appear too great, but the two movements are quite different, with social justice much more central to the former branch of the faith than the latter. Accordingly, Santorum has, in practice, been much more willing to allow the state to intervene in addressing poverty than, say, a true evangelical like Michelle Bachmann. And although he himself is pretty hardline on topics like global warming (he’s a solid denier) and evolution (he says he believes in it, on a ‘micro level’), his church is far more tolerant of dissent on these topics than the famously fundamentalist evangelical Church.
So why conflate, or confuse, the two religions? It’s tempting to speculate its just bad research, and more tempting too to wonder if it’s a deliberate attempt to ignore the nuance so as to provide a simpler, less complex narrative. Either way, it’s bad journalism.
What would be really interesting is to ask if these evangelical Christians, so united in their disdain for Roman Catholicism in previous elections, why they’ve taken Santorum to their hearts. The answer would probably be complex – pragmatism, social conservatism, disillusionment with the other candidates – but it should be enough to nail the story that evangelical Christians care more for scriptural accuracy than they do for their innate conservatism. Accordingly, one wonders if on on one level or other, the press doesn’t continue to underestimate Santorum; we’re told, wrongly, that his natural constituency is evangelicals, which is why he did well in Iowa - when in reality it may be somewhat broader.
For the record, I don’t think so. He’ll have a tough job convincing the people of New Hampshire, even the Tea Partiers, that birth control is the number one issue they face. But having said that, an orthodox Catholic with a chequered record of fiscal conservatism would be said to have had a hard job winning over evangelical Christians. But he did it.
If only the media would explain as much.