Media Coverage of Evangelical Christians Ignores Blacks and Latinos

Special to Informer | 4/26/2012, 3:08 p.m.

With state and national Republicans emphasizing religious wedge issues, such as health coverage for contraception and separation of church and state, the media have frequently reported on the demographic most aroused by these issues -- evangelical voters. But have the media accurately portrayed these evangelical Christians?

For many, the answer is a resounding "no."

News reports often leave the impression that all evangelical Christians are white and usually support the most conservative Republican candidates. Totally overlooked is the fact that many African-Americans, Latinos and other people of color are evangelical Christians whose views are rarely cited.

With its narrow coverage of this demographic, the media may have an inadvertent impact on the political process. Evangelical Christians are portrayed as the most committed religious believers in America. Does this give the perception that God backs their positions on issues, including abortion and same-sex marriage? Does that give an unfair advantage to candidates aligned with issues supposedly receiving divine support?

People of color, a growing segment of the evangelical community, and their positions on issues are rarely seen or heard in the media. Religion scholars and experts say it's critical that the media quickly adjust coverage to include all evangelical Christians or risk giving an unfair advantage to candidates supported by the largely conservative, White evangelicals.

An example typical of the media coverage appeared last Dec. 18 as the primary election season approached. The Washington Post published a feature-length article suggesting that evangelicals were unsure about which candidate to support for president. All of them interviewed in the piece were white, and "the right to life" predictably surfaced among their top concerns. Such articles fuel the perception that evangelicals are a monolithic group politically and racially.

Lisa Sharon Harper, author of the book, Evangelical Does Not Equal Republican or Democrat and co-author of Left, Right & Christ: Evangelical Faith in Politics, says the term "evangelical" has a meaning different than what is portrayed in the mainstream media.

"The media would do well not to call [the religious right] evangelicals," says Harper, also director of mobilizing for Sojourners, a Christian social justice organization in Washington. "They're really thinking about a political bloc. They're not thinking about theological evangelicals."

Harper notes that political evangelicals tend to be white, live in suburban or rural areas and have a history of supporting a conservative agenda over the past 30 years. In contrast, she says theological evangelicals have existed for hundreds of years and have challenged the status quo.

She points to William Wilberforce, the evangelical Christian, who led the movement to abolish slavery in Great Britain in the late 1700s and early 1800s. Wilberforce also worked to end poverty and cruelty to animals and to expand educational access.

Harper says contemporary evangelical Christians strive to raise awareness about similar issues.

"What you're finding among theological evangelicals is there's such a broader spectrum of issues that they care about," she says. "It won't just be abortion or same-sex marriage. It will also be the prison industrial complex and how that impacts the Black community and the Latino community. It will be the issue of immigration."