Religion in Conservative Media Muddies the Political Waters

For the first time since Steve Bannon was fired, far-right leaning media outlets are back in the headlines.

A recent tweet by Donald Trump Jr. accusing CNN of exaggerating coverage of Hurricane Florence has sparked outrage within some media circles. Anderson Cooper dedicated ten minutes of his show to address the claim. The core of this issue; however, is not whether CNN exaggerated their coverage, nor is it the media’s response. It’s Trump Jr.’s source: Breitbart.

Trump Jr. cited a Breitbart article claiming that CNN’s ratings have decreased by 41% – this Breitbart reference is not terribly surprising.  President Trump’s reliance on far-right leaning media outlet is well-known. For example, on the campaign trail, Trump used a Breitbart article to support his claim that thousands of Muslims cheered in the streets after 9/11.

The Trump Administration’s reliance on right leaning media provides a glimpse into an interesting political phenomenon. One particular area of conservative media that may go unnoticed, but plays a significant role in the mindset of conservative Americans, is the relationship between right leaning media groups and religion. To illustrate this relationship, there is a case study: PJ Media.

A quick glance across the site menu on the home page of PJ Media reveals something unusual: a link titled “Faith.” Articles in this section include “Does God Really Want Us to Embrace All Body Types?”, “7,000 Christians Send Powerful Biblical Rebuke to Social Justice Warriors” and “Newly Discovered Letter From Ronald Reagan to His Father-in-Law Proves His Faith Was Genuine.”

PJ Media has over 340,000 likes on Facebook, and a 2016 study indicates that PJ Media is the 9th most visited conservative media site on the web. But PJ Media, which admittedly provides the most obvious illustration of this style of reporting, is not the only example of a media outlet producing articles lost in the twilight zone between religion and politics.

The opinion section of The Daily Caller, the 3rd most visited conservative news site, has its fair share of religious pieces. A recently posted article, “Opinion: Can Christ’s Followers Retreat From Martyrdom,” is a passionately written article which calls Christians to reject the idea of a “post Christian nation” and continue to profess their faith.

On The Conservative Tribune, the 4th most visited conservative news site, the top trending article discusses Chick-fil-A, a fast food chain well known for its outspoken Christian values, which opened its doors to feed emergency response personnel in the aftermath of Hurricane Florence. A quote from the article states that “it’s not a stretch to say that Chick-fil-A’s charitable actions are directly tied to their Christian values. And yet that’s the same reason the far-left seems to hate the chicken chain so much.”

Even Breitbart, the most visited conservative media site and a frequently used source by Donald Trump, has recently published articles that could be interpreted as using pro-Christian sentiments for political gains.  A short article, “Putin: Christianity is the Foundation of Russian Nationhood and Cultural Identity,” was published shortly after Trump’s controversial meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

These are just a few recent examples of such articles, but it is important to recognize that, for the most part, they represent a small portion of the content published on these sites. Still, it isn’t surprising that these outlets tend to use faith to cue readers. A 2017 study shows that white Christians make up 54% of the Republican Party. Naturally, media outlets need to appeal to their demographic.

However, these articles raise serious questions regarding the responsibility journalists have to the public. America is built on many core principles, one of which is the separation of church and state. While the media is not bound to such a rule, some may argue that it has become more entrenched in politics, and therefore, the state, than ever before.

When the president of the United States uses articles from the same sites which, from time to time, blur the lines between personal religious convictions and political views and equate certain political stances with morality, should the public be concerned? Does the public even have the right to dispute the reportings of a free press if they are factually sound? Perhaps future coverage of the Trump presidency will answer these questions.

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