Last week, my post got picked up by Pastor Dan over at Streetprophets. Great! However, both Pastor Dan and one commenter on Faithfully Liberal had an interesting reaction to my post: blame the media.

In the case of Pastor Dan: “Because the Beltway Villagers have decided in their wisdom that the religious left is all about chasing the votes of awesome Evangelicals who aren’t actually liberals.”

In the case of Cameron, a commenter here:

I’d prefer to take the ‘left/right’ out of the equation, but I suspect the answer is this: some people want to have a whinge, and others want to do something useful. When it’s a matter of other people’s private morality, you can only really complain. The media likes to pick up on that.

On the other hand, if you see a problem and do something to help, it doesn’t generate the sound bites the media wants. In religious terms, this is about pleasing God, not the media. So when we do see these folk letting their light shine, we can praise our Father in heaven for their good work (Matt. 5:16)

Most of these activities are simple consequences of the Golden Rule. I think the problem lies in the fact that ‘the left’ has become (in the popular mind) synonymous with ‘anyone who shares.’ I suspect it’s more to do with the way ‘left’ and ‘right’ are delineated in the media.

Okay… fine. But, why the immediate jump to the ‘Beltway Villagers’? Organizations, movements, and people on the religious left are working in communities across the country – heck, across the world. Why do so many people seem to forget that the churches, mosques, synagogues, temples, and so forth in their own neighborhood are doing the kind of work for charity and justice that most of the left supports? Certainly, the media plays a role in shaping the cultural landscape, but I suspect there’s something more going on here… and that something more is precisely the thing that the religious left actually has the power to change.

That being said, I can now follow on last week’s post and re-ask the question: Why don’t people know what the religious left is doing?

Okay, well, obviously the media have something to do with it. After all, the media – especially that beast known as the Mainstream Media – have a huge influence on the public perception of people, issues, ideas, events, and so forth. When the media play it as though religion is a province of the right, and focuses on the relation of religion to homophobic and anti-choice movements, we shouldn’t be surprised that so many people seem to perceive religion the same way.

Let’s face it, when you mention ‘religious leaders’ to most people in America, they think of religious conservatives. Everyone can name more than a few religious conservatives – people like Pat Robertson, James Dobson, Jerry Falwell (though he’s dead), Tim Lahaye, Ralph Reed, John Hagee, Fred Phelps, etc. People can also name organizations of the religious right: The Christian Coalition, the American Family Association, the Eagle Forum, Operation Rescue, and so on. This shouldn’t be a surprise, according to a 2007 study by Media Matters for America, conservative religious leaders were quoted, mentioned, or interviewed 2.8 times as often as liberal/progressive leaders in newspaper and television combined (3.8 times as often on television and 2.7 times as often in newspapers). Need a religious person’s perspective on an issue? Then you turn to the conservatives… at least, you do if you work for a major newspaper or television news outlet. This despite the fact that most religious Americans are moderate or liberal. Of course tilted media coverage on this is going to shape the public perception of religion.

Of course, some not-so-conservative (but not necessarily really progressive) religious leaders get the occasional spotlight: Jim Wallis, Tony Campolo, Brian McLaren, and Jay Bakker, for example. Of course, none of these names are as well recognized as those on the right. Moreover, I’m not sure that any of these people are really on the left as much as they’re not in the pocket of the right.

We can, naturally, place the blame on the media, on the Beltway Villagers. It’s easy to do that, and certainly there is some blame to be placed there. However, there are two important things to remember when assigning that blame: First, while the media have a large amount of influence, it isn’t the sole influence on public perception. According to a recent Pew survey, 83% of Americans are religiously affiliated and 92% of Americans believe in God. When asked to describer their political positions from among the choices of conservative, moderate, and liberal, Protestants, Catholics, and Mormons broke, overall, toward the conservative end. Other religious groups tended toward moderate or liberal, many describing themselves as moderate.

This self description belies an important point: On actual issues there are a lot of liberal positions being taken by religious people. When asked to identify their party affiliation, members of most religious groups are either Democratic or lean Democratic (Evangelical Christians and Mormons being the exceptions). A surprising number of religious groups are either closely split about preferring a larger government with more services or a smaller government with fewer services, or prefer the larger government. On abortion, most Christian groups are fairly evenly split on legality/non-legality (Evangelical Christians, Mormons, and Jehovah’s Witnesses being the major exceptions), while other religious groups support legality in most cases at the least. Most mainline Protestants appear to be pro-choice. Except for Evangelical Christians, members of historically Black churches, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and Muslims, pluralities or majorities of religious groups believe that homosexuality should be accepted. Pluralities or majorities of most religious groups worry that the government is getting too involved in issues of morality (though without a definition of ‘morality’ the question is kind of meaningless). Majorities of every religious tradition believe that we should do more to protect the environment. Majorities of all religious traditions except Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses are religiously pluralistic (at least to some degree, though there may be some issues with the question). The same is true on the question if intra-religious pluralism (is there more than one way to interpret the teachings of one’s own religion). Among all religious traditions pluralities or majorities believe the government should do more to help the poor, even if it means going deeper into debt (mostly majorities).

This is, of course, a quick glance at the statistics, so please excuse (and correct) any errors you fine. But it appears that, despite the religious left not being well-known or widely recognized, a huge number of religious people, perhaps most, are members of it, at least on some issues. Perhaps there is something to what Pastor Dan says – maybe the media do focus mostly on the 26 to 27% of the population that is Evangelical Christians.

The second point, and it’s important, is that the media are not representative voices. At least, what we think of as the mainstream media are not. They do not act democratically, allowing a voice to all people, even though there is sometimes that pretension. The mainstream media have their own interests, and are owned by corporations that have interests, and tend, I rather suspect, to represent those interests. They are simply another set of voices in democratic discourse, and we need not rely on them in order to get our voices heard, nor should we rely on them. It is perhaps for this reason that so-called new media – especially blogs – have been so advantageous to the religious left: they have opened up the media landscape somewhat.

What I want to suggest is not that we on the religious left somehow need to build our own media empires, though utilizing alternative media is good, nor that we should concentrate on delivering votes as Pastor Dan suggests in the first comment on his post. What I think we should do, and what I will begin discussing next week, is build the educational infrastructure necessary to successfully produce political theologies on the left in a democratic fashion and work to alter the sort of conversation that appears on the left when religion is discussed.

But more on that later.