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Two Major Examples of Why We Can't Trust the Mainstream Media

A few not to be missed articles or blogs have appeared in the past few days. The first is by the conservative New York Times columnist, Ross Douthat. Most people, especially those who still buy the print edition, see his regular featured column. But fewer people read his blog, which appears only on the paper’s website, and for that, one usually has to search to find. Two days ago, Douthat wrote about the myth spread by many Democrats and liberals: that conservatives and Republicans want to institute a theocracy in America.

As Douthat points out,

[A] spate of recent articles have linked the Republican presidential candidates to scary-sounding political theologies like “Dominionism” and “Christian Reconstructionism,” and used these links to suggest that Christian extremism is once more on the march.

He wisely notes that

when candidates wear their religion on their sleeve, especially, the press has every right to ask how that faith relates to their political agenda.

But he goes on to caution the media that reporters and writers should not assume that

the most radical figure in a particular community is always the most important one, or the most extreme passage in a particular writer’s work always defines his real-world influence.

Because a column is limited in words, he did not present any examples, aside from referring to outgoing executive editor Bill Keller’s recent article in the paper’s magazine section, as well as the piece by Ryan Lizza in The New Yorker. But he was not able to cite and comment in detail on what in particular was wrong with either of their presentations. Addressing the usual double standard when journalists write about beloved figures on the Left, and how they write about those on the Right, he comments:

If you didn’t spend the Jeremiah Wright controversy searching works of black liberation theology for inflammatory evidence of what Obama "really" believed, you probably shouldn’t obsess over the supposed links between Rick Perry and R. J. Rushdoony, the Christian Reconstructionist guru.

Now, on his informal blog, Douthat expands at length in a way he could not in his column. In particular, he dissects Lizza’s highly influential article. One has to realize that the attitude Lizza expresses towards a strong, avowed Christian candidate like Michele Bachmann is going to be picked up and cited by scores of  readers, as well as the MSM, as proof that Bachmann is beholden to truly dangerous religious zealots.

First, Douthat acknowledges that Lizza was correct to ask Bachmann to talk to him about influences on her that led to her current outlook and especially to her political beliefs. This is fair ground. After all, many of us did the same when we urged journalists not to ignore the influences on Barack Obama of liberation theology and his own pastor, Rev. Jeremiah Wright. Clearly, in Bachmann’s case, as Douthat writes, there is a connection “between her ideological perspective and the particular cluster of evangelical institutions where most of her political education took place.”

But, he adds, Lizza also spent a lot of space linking her -- without real evidence -- to Francis Schaeffer, a 1970s evangelical activist, theologian, and scholar. Lizza’s point was to create a link between Bachmann and what is called “Dominionism,” the new boogey-man of the Left, which is supposed to take over the nation if someone like Bachmann or Rick Perry become our president.

What Douthat does is tear apart the bulk of Lizza’s conspiracy theorizing, showing that he even gets Schaeffer entirely wrong. As he writes, those beliefs “are a long way from the claim that Christians ‘alone’ are ‘mandated to occupy all secular institutions until Christ returns.’ Likewise, it seems rather strange to depict a writer who goes out of his way to critique the Constantinian settlement as a supporter of Christian ‘dominion’ over public life.” Schaeffer was accused by Lizza, for example, of wanting to propose the "violent overthrow” of the U.S. government if  the current abortion laws were not overturned . Douthat points out that Schaeffer actually “insisted that ‘the distinction between force and violence is crucial,’ warning Christians considering civil disobedience to remember ‘that overreaction can too easily become the ugly horror of sheer violence.’"

Unlike Lizza, Douthat’s blog gives his readers Schaeffer’s actual views to consider, not a parody of them. The man was closer in thought to Thoreau or Martin Luther King, Jr., than to any advocate of armed terrorism. He notes that most New Yorker readers take Lizza’s article at face value, and since they know nothing about evangelical thought, believe most of what he says. If Bachmann’s mentors are shown to be essentially nutty zealots, then she too must be the same.