Despite Hannity's claims to the contrary, many more supporters than detractors noted Roberts's Catholicism


On the July 26 edition of Fox News' Hannity & Colmes, co-host Sean Hannity touted a Nexis search that he claimed demonstrated an inappropriate focus by media outlets and potential opponents of Supreme Court nominee John G. Roberts Jr. on his Catholic faith and the role it would play in his decision-making. Hannity compared the 193 results turned up in one week "if you Lexis-Nexis Judge Roberts's name with being a Catholic" to the "less than a dozen stories about her [Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg's] religious faith" in the entire year of Ginsburg's nomination. But Hannity's comparison of the media mentions of the respective nominees' faith found in the Nexis database was faulty for at least two reasons.

First, in reporting that "less than a dozen stories" were written about Ginsburg's Judaism, Hannity ignored many broader news articles that mentioned her religion as part of her biographical information. Media Matters for America's own search found 79 articles mentioning Ginsburg's religion in the first week after her nomination.

Second, in asserting that his Nexis search was evidence of anti-Catholic discrimination, Hannity inaccurately represented the nature of most references to Roberts's faith. It is true that Roberts's religion, unlike Ginsburg's, has frequently been raised in the media as potentially relevant in assessing how he might rule on controversial cases. But of the approximately 200 instances Media Matters identified in which media mentioned Roberts's religion, more than 50 were instances -- involving more than 25 different individuals and organizations -- of Roberts's supporters touting his Catholic faith or baselessly attacking Democrats for alleged anti-Catholicism. This number is roughly equal to the approximately 50 instances in which news reports independently raised the question of whether his religion would influence his actions on the court. By contrast, Media Matters found only 16 reports of Democrats or Roberts critics questioning how his religion might influence his decision-making on the court, of which 14 were references to a question Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-IL) allegedly asked during a meeting with Roberts.

Hannity's comparison of mentions of nominees' faith was flawed

Hannity's comparison of Nexis findings appears skewed to support his argument that Roberts critics and members of the press have paid greater attention to Roberts's faith than they did to Ginsburg's. Hannity apparently identified all mentions of Roberts's Catholicism in the week following his nomination to the Supreme Court. But, by his own description, he performed a much more restrictive search on Ginsburg, limiting the scope to "stories about her religious faith" -- presumably stories that focused specifically on her faith -- over the course of 1993, hence the disparity.

Media Matters conducted a Nexis search that compared mentions of the nominees' faith in the week following their respective nominations. Because Nexis transcripts from 1993 are not available for NBC -- and Fox News and MSNBC did not exist at the time -- Media Matters limited the scope of the comparison to "U.S. newspapers and wires." Under these parameters, Media Matters found that newspapers across the country paid a comparable degree of attention to both nominees' religion.

Between July 14 and 21, 1993, 79 newspaper articles noted[i] that Ginsburg was Jewish. Between July 19 and 27, 2005, 138 separate newspaper articles referenced[ii] Roberts's Catholicism. Of those 138 articles, however, 49 appeared in newspapers[iii] that were not included in the Nexis database in 1993. Examples of such outlets include The New York Daily News, The Miami Herald, The Philadelphia Inquirer, The New York Sun, The Baltimore Sun, the St. Paul Pioneer Press, and the Kansas City Star. A search limited only to newspapers available on Nexis in 1993 yielded 89 articles noting Roberts's Catholic faith. Compared to the 79 references to Ginsburg's religion, the "disparity" no longer appears so wide.

Hannity's assertion of anti-Catholicism was baseless

When guest and Christian author Max Lucado responded to Hannity's flawed comparison by saying, "[T]hat's what we're trying to avoid, any type of discrimination or singling out of anyone's faith," Hannity replied, "But that's what's happening, clearly, isn't it? Otherwise, it would have happened the same with Ruth Bader Ginsburg. And I don't think it should happen to anybody. I don't think it's any of these senators' business what his faith is, or to go after him clearly the way they are, creating this litmus test."

But Hannity's assertion that his Nexis results were evidence of anti-Catholicism by critics of Roberts's nomination was false. Media Matters' Nexis search* (for "News, all") revealed a total of 208 mentions of Roberts's Catholicism in the week following his nomination to the Supreme Court. While this result resembles Hannity's figure of 193, roughly two-thirds of these citations fell into three categories: purely biographical mentions of Roberts's religion; Roberts's supporters who touted his Catholic faith; and Roberts's supporters who criticized Democrats for unspecified attacks against his Catholicism or who warned Democrats not to engage in such attacks. In fact, Media Matters found 56 instances (involving more than 25 individuals and organizations) in which Roberts's supporters discussed his religion in television appearances, columns, and newspaper quotations. This is equal to the 56 media stories that raised Roberts's religion as an issue in his confirmation without citing either Roberts's supporters or critics.

By contrast, Media Matters' Nexis search uncovered 16 references to Democrats or Roberts's critics raising his Catholicism as a potential problem. The vast majority of these were news reports about allegations that Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-IL) asked Roberts what he would do if the law came into conflict with the teachings of the Catholic Church. Durbin has said that he was quoted inaccurately.

Media Matters' Nexis search revealed only two other instances in which Roberts's critics seemed to suggest that his faith would interfere with his work as a Supreme Court justice.** On the July 20 edition of National Public Radio's (NPR) News & Notes with Ed Gordon, New York Daily News columnist E.R. Shipp said, "He's been on the record seeming to be against Roe v. Wade. He's very much a devout Catholic. He seems to have some concerns about flag-burning as a means of protest, and issues such as that. So I think if more of the replacement judges on the Supreme Court are of those views, there is something to worry about."

In a more ambiguous case, on July 23, CNN Saturday Morning anchor Betty Nguyen read an e-mail from "Cindy from Virginia," who wrote, "If being a devout Catholic would have an influence on any Roe v. Wade decisions, this is very important." Nguyen added, "She wants to know that from Roberts."

Roberts's supporters raised Catholicism as an issue as often as reporters did

Media Matters' Nexis search uncovered roughly 50 instances in which media outlets suggested on their own that Roberts's Catholicism might affect how he would rule on the Supreme Court -- usually in reference to his views on abortion and Roe v. Wade. A typical example of this occurred on the July 20 edition of CNN International's Insight:

JONATHAN MANN (anchor): Let me jump in and just ask you one last quick question. He is a Catholic. His wife, according to The Boston Globe, is involved with a group called Feminists for Life, it's an anti-abortion group. Fair to assume that he is against the law as it now stands in the United States as it now stands when it comes to access to abortion?

AMY WALTER (guest): I don't think we're ever going to know that. And I think that nominees now to the court have a very good script in front of them that they do not deter from. I don't think you're going to hear the answer to that or any of these other social questions during these hearings.

In addition, Michael McGough of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and Ed Williams of The Charlotte Observer wrote op-eds suggesting that senators should ask Roberts about potential conflicts between the teachings of the Catholic Church and his duties as a Supreme Court justice. On July 24, Williams wrote, "Their [Catholic Bishops'] position on John Kerry and abortion makes questions about Judge Roberts' views on separation of church and state in his own life not only relevant but, I would think, mandatory in his confirmation hearings in the Senate." In a July 25 op-ed, McGough wrote that "Democrats on the Judiciary Committee would be foolish to interrogate Roberts about his personal beliefs about abortion and how they were shaped by his religion. But it is fair to ask any nominee how he would react if he saw a conflict between his religious duties and his public ones."

But Media Matters' Nexis search revealed a comparable number of instances in which conservative commentators and supporters of Roberts's nomination have discussed his Catholicism in the debate over his nomination. As Time magazine noted in a July 26 article, "White House allies also noted his [Roberts's] wife's antiabortion work, got conservative friends to vouch for him and offered testimonials to his Catholic Church attendance" in order to convince religious conservatives that he "will be on their side." And The New York Times reported that "two well-connected Christian conservative lawyers -- Leonard Leo, chairman of Catholic outreach for the Republican Party, and Jay Sekulow, chief counsel of an evangelical Protestant legal center founded by Pat Robertson," won support for Roberts from social conservatives "with a series of personal testimonials about Judge Roberts, his legal work, his Roman Catholic faith, and his wife's public opposition to abortion."

Leo, who also serves as executive vice president of the conservative Federalist Society, told CNN on the July 25 edition of Inside Politics, "My goal is to make sure that the Catholic community and others involved in Republican politics understand who Judge Roberts is and who are in a position to -- and are in a position to support him." And a July 19 press release from the Committee for Justice, a conservative group supporting Roberts's nomination, noted, "Roberts is 50, married with two children, and a Roman Catholic."

In his July 21 New York Times column, David Brooks wrote, "Roberts nomination, how do I love thee? Let me count the ways." He answered, in part:

Confirmation battles have come to seem of late like occasions for bitterly divided Catholics to turn political battles into holy war Armageddons. Most of the main Democrats on the Judiciary Committee are Catholics who are liberal or moderate (Kennedy, Biden, Durbin, Leahy), and many of the most controversial judges or nominees are Catholics who are conservative (Scalia, Thomas, Pryor). When they face off, you get this brutal and elemental conflict over the role morality should play in public life.

Roberts is indeed a Catholic (if he's confirmed, there will be four on the court, three Protestants and two Jews), but he's not the sort to spark the sort of debate that leads to bitter Catholic vs. Catholic meshugas. He's not a holy warrior, and his wife is active in the culturally heterodox Feminists for Life.

In a July 26 column in the Fort Worth, Texas, Star-Telegram, Don Erler lamented that Roberts probably would not vote to overturn Roe v. Wade but added that "there is at least one ray of hope: Roberts is said to be a 'devout' Roman Catholic, and his wife belongs to Feminists for Life." Roberts, Erler wrote, might therefore "be willing to reconsider the most barbarous decision since Dred Scott: 2000's Stenberg vs. Carhart case," which overturned a Nebraska law prohibiting so-called "partial-birth abortion."

On the July 19 edition of CNN's Anderson Cooper 360, guest-host Heidi Collins asked CNN political analyst Robert D. Novak if "we really know that Judge Roberts does want to overturn Roe v. Wade[.]" Novak responded, "I'm sure he does. He's a devout Catholic. I think he's pro-life. His wife is a pro-life activist." As Media Matters has previously noted, other prominent conservatives, such as Sen. Tom Coburn (R-OK) and Media Research Center president L. Brent Bozell III, have referenced Roberts's faith in the context of his suitability to serve on the Supreme Court.

Notwithstanding the dearth of Democrats and Roberts critics raising his religion as an issue, Media Matters' Nexis search revealed numerous examples of Roberts's supporters criticizing liberals and Democrats for supposedly attacking Roberts's faith or for their alleged plan to do so. For example, a July 22 Knight Ridder article that appeared in The Philadelphia Inquirer and several other newspapers reported:

Catholic groups warned against making an issue of his [Roberts's] faith.

Said Joe Cella, president of Fidelis, a Catholic group formed to support conservative judges: "A person's religious faith, and how they live that faith as an individual, has no bearing and no place in the confirmation hearing."

From the July 26 edition of Fox News' Hannity & Colmes:

HANNITY: Hey, Max, don't you think it's a little odd, if you Lexis-Nexis Judge Roberts's name with being a Catholic, in one week it shows up 193 times on Lexis-Nexis, but yet Ruth Bader Ginsburg, in the entire year in which she was nominated, there's less than a dozen stories about her religious faith? Doesn't that seem to be a little bit of a disparity there for you?

LUCADO: Yes, absolutely. And that's what we're trying to avoid, any type of discrimination or singling out of anyone's faith as an albatross, potential albatross around their --


HANNITY: But that's what's happening, clearly, isn't it? Otherwise, it would have happened the same with Ruth Bader Ginsburg. And I don't think it should happen to anybody. I don't think it's any of these senators' business what his faith is, or to go after him clearly the way they are, creating this litmus test. Isn't that what's going on here?

Results of Nexis search conducted July 27 for "(John w/2 Roberts) and catholic! and supreme court" in "News, all" from July 19-26:

I. Biographical mentions of Roberts's religion 81
II. Democrats/liberals/Roberts opponents raising concerns about Roberts's Catholicism 16
A. Coverage of Durbin's alleged question about Roberts's faith 14
B. Other instances of expressing concern about Roberts's religion 2
III. Mentions of Roberts's religion in the context of supporting his nomination 56
A. Republicans/conservatives touting Roberts's religion 35
B. Democrats/liberals touting Roberts's religion 2
C. Roberts's supporters accusing Democrats/liberals/opponents of anti-Catholic bias 18
IV. Roberts's Catholicism raised as a possible issue by other media without specific references to II or III. 56

[i] Search terms used in Ginsburg Nexis search of "U.S. newspapers and wires": "(Ruth Bader Ginsburg) and (jew! or Judaism) and supreme court"

[ii] Search terms used in Roberts Nexis search of "U.S. newspapers and wires": "(John w/2 Roberts) and catholic! and supreme court"

[iii] New York Daily News, Fort Worth Star-Telegram, Kansas City Star, Wichita Eagle, Charleston Daily Mail, Miami Herald, New York Sun, St. Paul Pioneer Press, San Jose Mercury News, Scripps Howard News Service, University Wire, Akron Beacon-Journal, Charlotte Observer, Contra Costa Times, Dayton Daily News, Grand Forks Herald, Green Bay Press-Gazette, Myrtle Beach Sun-News, Omaha World-Herald, Philadelphia Inquirer, Sacramento Bee, Dubuque Telegraph Herald, Albany Times Union, Tacoma News-Tribune, Baltimore Sun, Centre Daily News, Cox News Service, Detroit Free Press, Lexington Herald Leader, Monterey Herald, Tallahassee Democrat, Duluth News-Tribune, Fort Wayne News Sentinel, Investor's Business Daily, Newhouse News Service, Ventura County Star

* Search terms used in Roberts Nexis search on News, all: "(John w/2 Roberts) and catholic! and supreme court"

** Media Matters conducted an additional search for "(john w/2 roberts) and body ((roberts) w/20 (faith or religion or church or God)) and supreme court and not (catholic!)" on "News, all" from July 19-26. This search revealed a letter to the editor from Lee Baker of Minneapolis in the July 26 issue of USA Today. Baker wrote:

Let us not be fooled regarding the nomination of John Roberts. If he quacks like a duck, walks like a duck and is a member of a church of ducks, and if his closest friends are ducks, then no matter how quietly he quacks, he is still a duck. Specifically, an ultra-conservative duck.

If he's confirmed, down will go women's rights, workers' rights, gay rights, citizens' rights, the environment, and down will go America. Quack, quack.

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.