MINDING THE GOD GAP IN PRESIDENTIAL CAMPAIGNS: HOW THE MEDIA FAILED TO COVER FAITH IN 2012 AND 2016
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Recent coverage of faith in the American political discourse has yielded a dominant image of American religion as increasingly polarized and defined by a few strident voices. In particular, the coverage of American political discourse in presidential campaigns fails to capture the diversity and depth of faith that pervades American life as well as misses an opportunity to elevate public debate. To analyze the extent to which presidential campaign news captures the varied expressions of faith represented in the United States, this study examines the coverage of candidate faith and religion as an issue in the two recent presidential elections of 2012 and 2016. Faith as expressed by the four final candidates in these elections differs in meaningful ways. Using content analysis of The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and USA Today, this study examines how the campaigns present candidates’ religious identities, how the candidates themselves portray issues of faith, and how religion emerges as an issue in campaign coverage. In addition, the study identifies and analyzes key frames used in news coverage of candidate faith in U.S. campaigns The analysis shows that political party plays a significant role in what little coverage a candidate’s faith receives. For Republicans, because candidate faith plays a more central role throughout the campaign and especially during the early primaries, the coverage reports extensively on candidates’ use of their religious identities to appeal to religious voters. In the coverage of Democrats, the discussion of religion more commonly emerges in relation to a news item, such as an approach to a contentious policy, that has a religious dimension. A common reality reflected in the coverage of both parties is that a candidate’s long-term authentic religious devotion does not translate into strong campaign strategy regardless of the party of the devout candidate. Overall, analysis of the coverage of faith in 2012 and 2016 reinforces the idea that religious expression and practice differ significantly along political party lines. By recasting campaign coverage to reflect more thoroughly on issues of faith, the media could improve voters’ understanding of religious pluralism as a founding American ideal and help raise levels of trust and interest across both party and religious lines. Deepened appreciation of religious pluralism could help revitalize the public forum to support competition among different ideas, value productive compromise, and reduce the determination of any single group to dominate.