Media allowed conservative religious leaders to define "moral values"; In five days following election, conservative religious figures made 15 media appearances to progressive religious leaders' five


Following the November 2 presidential election, Media Matters for America documented the media's largely unquestioning acceptance of the notion that "moral values" determined the election. In their acceptance, the media did not explain or define what voters meant by "moral values." MMFA found that during the five days after the election, network and cable news outlets gave conservative religious leaders a forum in which to provide that definition; these leaders often appeared without other guests to counter their claims.

Between November 3 and November 7, conservative religious figures appeared a total of 15 times on the major broadcast and cable networks (ABC, NBC, CNN, MSNBC, CNBC, and FOX News Channel, but not CBS) to discuss "moral values," while progressive religious figures appeared a total of only five times. MMFA excluded Newsday columnists Rabbi Marc Gellman and Monsignor Thomas Hartman of "The God Squad" from this tally of figures. Although the two authors and religious speakers did not openly endorse President George W. Bush's reelection, they did speak of the election results as an indicator of a deeply religious nation, of which the "secular" coastal states are "unaware."

Reverend Jerry Falwell, national chairman of the Faith and Values Coalition and Moral Majority founder, and Reverend Joe Watkins, a Bush-Cheney '04 campaign adviser and talk radio host, appeared four times each in the five days following the election. Reverend Jesse Jackson was the only progressive religious leader to make multiple appearances (three) in that time period.

Four conservative religious figures appeared without opponents on news programs between November 3 and November 7: Watkins, Christian Coalition of America founder Reverend Pat Robertson, Peter Sprigg, senior director of policy studies at the Family Research Council (which "promotes the Judeo-Christian worldview"), and Focus on the Family founder James Dobson. No progressive religious leaders appeared alone.

Further, when not appearing alone, conservative religious leaders were more often paired with Democratic or progressive pundits who are not religious figures than with progressive religious leaders. For example, on the November 4 edition of CNBC's Capital Report, Falwell was paired with syndicated columnist and MSNBC political analyst Bill Press. On the November 7 edition of CNN's Inside Politics with Judy Woodruff, Randy Tate -- former U.S. Representative and former executive director of the Christian Coalition (which identifies itself as "America's Leading Grassroots Organization Defending our Godly Heritage") -- appeared opposite U.S. Representative Barney Frank (D-MA). Watkins appeared three times opposite progressive pundits who are not religious figures (in his November 3 appearance on CNN's American Morning, he was not described as a "reverend" but as a "Republican strategist"). Progressive religious figures appeared only twice without conservative religious counterparts: Jackson appeared with conservative author and nationally syndicated radio host William J. Bennett on the November 7 edition of NBC's Today, and Reverend Al Sharpton appeared on a panel (on the November 3 edition of MSNBC's Hardball with Chris Matthews) that also included NBC News chief foreign affairs correspondent Andrea Mitchell, Newsweek managing editor Jon Meacham, and Republican strategist Ed Rollins.

Many of the conservative religious figures suggested that Bush's victory shows public support for Republican positions on issues such as gay marriage and abortion. As MSNBC host Deborah Norville pointed out, however, polling shows that Democrats are actually more aligned with the American public than Republicans are on those issues.

Here are some examples of conservative religious figures delineating "moral values":

  • Robertson claimed on the November 4 edition of FOX News Channel's Hannity & Colmes that voters' overwhelming opposition to gay marriage was the decisive factor in the election: "President [George W.] Bush ought to send roses to that bunch up there in Massachusetts [the Massachusetts Supreme Court]. I mean, they won him the victory. ... [T]o cater to a two-percent minority in the United States, to give them what they want [gay marriage] is insane. And the American people aren't going to do that."
  • Also November 4, Falwell asserted on CNN's American Morning that "because of the issues of faith and family, the unborn, the same-sex marriage, and the war on terrorism ... Mr. Bush had to go back [to the White House]." The same day, Falwell said on Capital Report that in addition to those issues, "questioning 'under God' in the pledge [of allegiance] and 'In God we trust' on the coinage" and "kicking the Ten Commandments out of schoolhouses, [and] courthouses" had also contributed to "awaken[ing] a sleeping giant."
  • In addition to anti-abortion issues, on the November 7 edition of CNN's Inside Politics, Tate included "a tax system where families can keep more of their own money to spend on themselves" as a "moral values" issue that benefited Bush at the polls.
  • On CNN Live Saturday on November 6, Sprigg added the "type of sex education" that students receive to "the unlimited abortion license and the issues of same-sex marriage" as crucial "moral issues" that determined the election.
  • Radio host and WorldNetDaily columnist Rabbi Shmuley Boteach claimed on the November 4 edition of MSNBC's Scarborough Country that another aspect was "the whole issue of a moral focus ... in foreign policy. Guys like me are sick and tired of the Democratic Party being apologists for tyrants."
  • On the November 3 edition of CNN's Paula Zahn Now, Watkins suggested that black Democrats' religious values spurred them to vote for Bush over Kerry: "I had callers calling in [to my radio program] saying, 'I'm an African American, I am a Democrat, and I normally vote Democrat, but this year because of my faith, I'm voting for George W. Bush.'" (According to exit polling, Kerry won 88 percent of the black vote.)
  • On ABC's This Week with George Stephanopoulos on November 7, Dobson warned that Republicans have a duty to implement the policies of "morality," or else "I believe they'll pay a price at the -- in the next election."

The claim that the election was a rejection of Democratic views on social issues was exemplified by a particularly skewed panel on the November 4 edition of MSNBC's Scarborough Country, which featured Rabbi Boteach, Catholic League President William Donohue, right-wing pundit Ann Coulter, former Republican presidential candidate and MSNBC analyst Pat Buchanan, Boston Herald columnist Mike Barnicle, and former Clinton Labor Secretary Robert Reich. The two religious leaders on the panel attacked and smeared the Democratic Party. Donohue declared, "I think that there's something in the Democratic Party. There's an absolute animus, a hostility to people who hold religion seriously. Either that or they were delirious, in which case, you have got to get the straitjackets. Put them in the asylum." Aside from his claim that Democrats are "apologists for tyrants," Boteach also claimed that "Robert Reich is being totally disingenuous when he blames the corporations rather than the Democrats for the smut in the culture." Host and former U.S. Representative Joe Scarborough (R-FL) suggested that his panel provided a balanced discussion of moral values because Donohue is Catholic and Boteach is Jewish -- but he failed to mention that both men hold highly conservative views: "Rabbi, let me -- we've been talking about evangelical Christians. Bill Donohue, obviously a Catholic. But this isn't just about being a Christian, is it? I mean, it goes beyond that." The "God Squad" appearance on CNN also featured a Christian and a Jew (Hartman and Gelllman) who presented a unified message on moral values and the election.

Boteach and Donohue were not the only conservative religious leaders to use the topic of moral values as an opportunity to attack Democrats. On the November 3 edition of CNN's Anderson Cooper 360, Falwell compared Kerry's unwillingness to oppose gay marriage through an amendment to the U.S. constitution to the unwillingness of many to strongly oppose slavery in the mid-19th century: "the fact that he [Kerry] would not support a federal marriage amendment, it equates in our minds as someone 150 years ago saying I'm personally opposed to slavery, but if my neighbor wants to own one or two that's OK. We don't buy that." (Kerry opposes same-sex marriage but he also opposes the proposed constitut ional amendment to ban it, which the U.S. Senate defeated in a procedural vote on July 14.)

The chart below summarizes religious leaders' network and cable appearances between November 3 and November 7:

Conservative Religious Leaders Program Channel Date
Reverend Jerry Falwell Anderson Cooper 360 CNN 11/3
Falwell American Morning CNN 11/4
Falwell Capital Report CNBC 11/4
Falwell Anderson Cooper 360 CNBC 11/5
Reverend Joe Watkins American Morning CNN 11/3
Watkins Paula Zahn Now CNN 11/3
Watkins Good Morning America ABC 11/4
Watkins Paula Zahn Now CNN 11/5
William Donohue Scarborough Country MSNBC 11/4
Rabbi Shmuley Boteach Scarborough Country MSNBC 11/4
Reverend Pat Robertson Hannity & Colmes FNC 11/4
Randy Tate Crossfire CNN 11/5
Tate Inside Politics CNN 11/7
Peter Sprigg CNN Live CNN 11/6
James Dobson This Week ABC 11/7
The "God Squad" Program Channel Date
Rabbi Marc Gellman CNN Saturday Night CNN 11/6
Monsignor Thomas Hartman CNN Saturday Night CNN 11/6
Progressive Religious Leaders Program Channel Date
Reverend Al Sharpton Hardball MSNBC 11/3
Reverend Jesse Jackson Anderson Cooper 360 CNN 11/3
Jackson Crossfire CNN 11/5
Jackson Today NBC 11/7
Nun and author Karol Jackowski American Morning CNN 11/4
We've changed our commenting system to Disqus.
Instructions for signing up and claiming your comment history are located here.
Updated rules for commenting are here.