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Why it matters that many journalists struggle to grasp religion's role in 'Alienated America'

Why it matters that many journalists struggle to grasp religion's role in 'Alienated America'

In the spring of 2016, Wall Street Journal reporters went hunting for the heart of Make America Great Again territory and ended up in Buchanan County, Va., near the borders of Kentucky and West Virginia.

Based on a variety of political and economic factors, the Journal called this corner of coal country, "The Place That Wants Donald Trump Most."

But there was a crucial fact about this Appalachian county that didn't fit into this political parable, noted Timothy P. Carney of The Washington Examiner, in his book "Alienated America: Why Some Places Thrive While Others Collapse."

 "Out of 3,143 counties in America, Buchanan County ranks 3,028th in religious adherence," he wrote. "Economic woe, social dysfunction, family collapse and community erosion all characterized the places where Trump was strongest. … So did empty pews."

But what about the statistic that became a mantra for journalists explaining the New York billionaire's rise -- that 81 percent of white evangelicals voted for Trump?

"There has been a strong drive in the mainstream press to establish that white evangelicals don't actually have any greatly held morality," noted Carney, in a recent telephone interview. "The idea is that these evangelicals use religion as a cudgel to beat on other people. Their support for Trump is supposed to show that their beliefs are political -- not religious."

The most revealing faith-based numbers in this White House race came during the primaries, not in the "general election (when religious voters had only two choices, and the specter of Hillary Clinton hung over their heads)," wrote Carney. The question reporters need to keep asking is this: "Who gravitated immediately to Trump, and who turned to him only when the alternative was Hillary?"

Research into primary voting, he noted, revealed that the "more frequently a Republican reported going to church, the less likely he was to vote for Trump." In fact, Trump was weakest among believers who went to church the most and did twice as well among those who never went to church. "Each step DOWN in church attendance brought a step UP in Trump support," noted Carney.

Reporters could have seen this principle at work early on in Sioux County, Iowa, where half of the citizens claim Dutch ancestry.

A widow's thoughts on ministry, after an Ashley Madison tragedy

Christi Gibson knew that her husband, the Rev. John Gibson, was working himself to the point of physical collapse, while fighting depression at the same time.

There was his faculty work at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, where he taught communication in the undergraduate Leavell College, including a "Ministry Through Life Crisis" class. He was served as the pastor of the First Baptist Church of Pearlington, Miss.

As if that wasn't enough, he kept volunteering -- working in New Orleans' brutal heat and humidity -- to repair cars for seminary students and others who couldn't afford mechanics.

"John stayed busy to the point of absolute exhaustion," said Christi Gibson, in a telephone interview. "I often came home expecting to see signs that he had worked himself into the ground and collapsed."

She knew about his struggles, but didn't expect to come home on Aug. 24 and find his body, dead at age 56. There was a suicide note in which he confessed that his name was among thousands released after hackers hit the Ashley Madison website that promised to help customers arrange sexual affairs, with complete anonymity.

Since then, Christi Gibson and her grown-up children, Trey and Callie, have struggled to work through their grief. They have also tried to use their terrible, unwanted moment in the public spotlight -- including a CNN interview -- to urge fellow believers to be more honest about the pain and brokenness found in pews and pulpits.

New battle in the old media-bias wars? #LoveWins #ReligiousLiberty

When the U.S. Supreme Court announced its 5-4 decision backing same-sex marriage, gay and straight journalists at The Patriot-News in Harrisburg, Pa., were in a celebratory mood, sharing hugs, laughter and tears.

Then online reader comments began arriving -- some calm, but others angry.

Opinion editor John Micek responded with this policy statement: "As a result of Friday's ruling, PennLive/The Patriot-News will no longer accept, nor will it print, op-eds and letters to the editor in opposition to same-sex marriage." His Twitter take, complete with a typo, added: "We would not print racist, sexist or anti-Semitc letters. To that, we add homophobic ones. Pretty simple."

Welcome to the latest battle over media bias, one linked to decades of debate about whether journalists do a fair and accurate job when covering news about religion, morality and culture.

The Patriot-News policy ignited another online firestorm and Micek soon tweaked it to say the newspaper will "very strictly limit op-Eds and letters to the editor in opposition to same-sex marriage" and "for a limited time, accept letters and op-Eds on the high court's decision and its legal merits."

The problem is that while some livid readers rushed to call Micek and his colleagues "fascists," others argued that the Obergefell v. Hodges decision would soon clash with the First Amendment's right to the "free exercise" of religious convictions.

Two voices on opposite sides of the ultimate cancer issues

As millions of people now know, Brittany Maynard's husband Dan Diaz will celebrate his birthday on Oct. 26. They will gather with friends and family and then, days later, the 29-year-old Maynard plans to take the prescription drugs that will end her life.

The couple cleared legal, professional and financial hurdles to move from California to Oregon, where she is eligible for physician-assisted suicide. The clock was ticking -- due to a malignant brain tumor -- toward a "nightmare" she did not want her loved ones to have to endure with her.

As a spokesperson for Compassion and Choices, which evolved out of the old Hemlock Society, she shared the details of her diagnosis and choice at TheBrittanyFund.org and then through major media.

"Now that I've had the prescription filled and it's in my possession, I have experienced a tremendous sense of relief. ... It has given me a sense of peace during a tumultuous time that otherwise would be dominated by fear, uncertainty and pain," she wrote, in a CNN.com essay.

"Now, I'm able to move forward in my remaining days or weeks I have on this beautiful Earth, to seek joy and love and to spend time traveling to outdoor wonders of nature. ... When my suffering becomes too great, I can say to all those I love, 'I love you; come be by my side, and come say goodbye as I pass into whatever's next.' "