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When faith and politics meet

Times Insider explains who we are and what we do, and gives a behind-the-scenes look at how our journalism works.

The speech surrounding the background of Supreme Court Justice Amy Coney Barrett and white evangelical support for President Trump deepened political divisions in the country, and the conversations are two examples of why it is important to understand the conservative Christians and their impact. For our religious journalists, Ruth Graham and Elizabeth Dias, covering more political stories in the run-up to the elections has become inevitable. We asked them a few questions about exploring the facts about the rhythm of faith.

What challenges do you face in covering religion in the United States?

RUTH GRAHAM One challenge at this particular time is that the pandemic has made notification much more difficult. This is true with every beat, of course, but religious observance in particular has so many sensory elements that really need to be experienced in person: music, prayers, food, decor, incense, emotion. Calling people on the phone and asking direct questions about their beliefs will never capture everything.

ELIZABETH DIAS The polarized political climate has made the job of journalists more difficult everywhere. I have found that the Conservatives are increasingly hesitant to speak with us, whatever the story, from sexual abuse in evangelical churches to the appointment of Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court. This means that these important stories often take longer to complete, as access to accurate information is more difficult to obtain.

Religion and politics seem inseparable these days. Has that always been the case or has something changed?

GRAHAM I think they seem inseparable in part because ‘s election season, and as journalists we tend to see it that way ourselves. For ordinary believers, the connection is not always so clear. Some people make a clear connection between their faith and their views on national politics; others certainly not. I try to keep that in mind as a journalist and not to force every story into a political frame.

DIAS Religion and politics both reflect common and broader issues. They are both about power. They are both about people. They are both about how people structure life together. For centuries religion was political, and it is still the case today in many parts of the world – the Vatican is a city-state. Each generation makes its own relationship to these bigger questions and to history, and elections are just one way we see this unfolding now in the United States.

How is the coverage of religion in the 2020 election different from that of 2016?

DIAS So much was revealed in 2016: the political influence of prosperity gospel preachers, who connect faith with financial wealth; the full marriage of white evangelicals to President Trump; the depth of racial divisions within Christianity. Four years later, these themes are all present, but that does not necessarily mean that the election result will be the same. When the votes are counted, we will learn how the president’s religious coalition has and has not changed after four years.

QAnon would he ever get into your rhythm? What would it look like?

GRAHAM Yes, I’m currently starting to work on a story adjacent to Q. It’s a movement that has really taken off among Christian conservatives, and some have argued that QAnon itself is best understood as a local religious movement. So there is a lot of natural overlap in the rhythm of religion.

What considerations do you take when reporting religious groups who are suspicious of the media?

GRAHAM The growing mistrust of the media among a large number of conservative clerics is a major challenge, and one which will not go away. My starting assumption these days is always that I will have to work to convince conservative believers to speak with me. I do my best to acknowledge their mistrust and explain why I want to include their voice in the story. All I can do is try to build trust by continuing to produce work that takes religion and faith seriously.

DIAS Confidence grows over time, so I try to build long-term relationships with the people I interview and think about all of the work I build, relative to just one specific story. Deep listening takes place slowly and requires appropriate empathy. I also spend a lot of time talking with people in private, although that means I may have to do more interviews, because I want to learn from them in the way I can.

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