Journalists implicitly excuse extreme political positions by labeling them as “personal”

GOP Senate candidate Ken Buck is telling reporters that his support of a ban on abortion, even in the case of rape and incest, is a personal belief.

In response to this, a fair-minded journalist – even a commentator – shouldn’t set up a false dichotomy between Buck’s self-described “personal” political views and all the rest of his policy positions.

That’s what Denver Post opinion writer Chuck Plunkett did in a Spot blog post Aug. 13. He wrote:

“Some of Buck’s personal beliefs will hurt him. If he doesn’t get out in front of the labeling game, they could hurt him a lot. [Plunkett linked to a story about Buck's abortion stance.] But his central interest – what truly animates him – isn’t the social-issue stuff that drove old-school conservatives in Colorado like Marilyn Musgrave.”

I asked Plunkett via email if he thought it was factually accurate to separate Buck’s position on abortion from his other policy positions, by describing it as “personal.”

I mean, any political belief can be defined as personal, as guided by ethics or religious morals, or at least a politician can claim that it is-just like a candidate’s belief about abortion.

The “personal” label unfairly implies that the issue should be taken off the table, or at least partially ignored.

Plunkett responded quickly, saying he’d amplify later but the short answer is that Buck’s abortion positions “stem from religious beliefs – so, beyond just ‘personal.’”

This gave me the opportunity to point out to Plunkett that Buck told KHOW’s Craig Silverman that his position on abortion wasn’t derived just religion anyway but from a combination of his “upbringing,” “faith,” and “life experiences.”

I wrote Plunkett that this looks like the same process I use as the basis for some of my own political views, and I’m an atheist. (So I’d re-define “faith” to mean “faith in fellow homo sapiens.”)

Ethics or religious morals can be tied up with almost any legislative decision, like, for example, whether everyone has a right to health care or how much money to spend on education or whether we should house the homeless. As Jim Wallis likes to say, the federal budget is a moral document.

Plunkett responded:

“I don’t think the way a person’s religious beliefs affect his views on abortion is the same – at all – as how that faith shapes his approach to policy issues involving the homeless, or educating children or ensuring that everyone has access to quality health care. There are many ways to approach those issues, but if you believe that life begins at conception and that it would be murder to end that life, what are you supposed to do? You don’t have a choice but to advocate for that fertilized egg to follow its natural course. If that means a baby is born, that means a baby is born – even if that child is the result of an unholy union brought on by a rape or incest.”

Trouble is, any ideology can control a person, whether it’s religious or, as I pointed out to Plunkett later, antinuclear.

I’ve seen this conviction in non-religious activists on the left, who come out, for example, against the entire nuclear fuel cycle from mining and uranium processing to nuclear weapons, nuclear power, and x-rays.

I mean, think of a political issue, from homelessness to education, and you can find an ideological advocate, often principled ones.

How about the hunger activists who says America’s wealth is unconscionable and we have no choice but to spend a tiny fraction of our federal taxes to feed the millions of children who die annually from Hunger? A personal view? Ideological? Whacko?

So Buck’s ideological religious faith shouldn’t give journalists the right to put his abortion views in a separate “personal” category, just like you wouldn’t expect journalists to label the marginalized views of ideological hunger or antinuclear activists as “personal.”

Plunkett, who’s pro-choice and finds Buck’s view “too extreme” yet “understandable,” didn’t accept my argument, but I think he hit the nail on the head when he wrote back:

“I could argue to you that anyone who lets their no-nukes belief get in the way of beneficial uses – like green (minus the radiation) energy – is a whacko. But in our society, if you want to be taken seriously, it’s difficult to say that about people with religious faith.”

He’s right, unfortunately, even if religious people make marginalized, whacko arguments like abortion should be banned if a father rapes his daughter.

But journalists shouldn’t implicitly excuse them by calling these beliefs “personal.”

25 Community Comments, Facebook Comments

  1. greality says:

    they’re not simply “personal” beliefs.

    Drawing from one of your earlier diaries, “CO reporters, who’ve essentially ignored Buck’s abortion stance, should follow lead of radio host:”

    Craig: And would it transfer into the legal world. You’re going to be a legislator if you’re voted into the United States Senate. Would you create a law that would prohibit abortion in the cases of rape or incest?

    Buck: I would favor that position in law, yes.

    When a candidate says they would favor a certain policy position on an issue, it is no longer a personal opinion. It is unfair to the voters of this state for Ken Buck to get a free pass on his extreme and radical viewpoints regarding abortion by simply calling it “personal.”

    Great diary, Jason.

  2. GalapagoLarryGalapagoLarry says:

    I usually don’t get concerned about other people’s personal beliefs, because we all have them and follow them in some sphere of life or another, without thought and little damage. Obviously, Buck’s got a right to his. Until he attempts to propel them into the public arena in an attempt to coerce others to follow them.

    I’d be willing, perhaps, to allow him his political reliance on personal belief were he to bolster it with rational argument, either of his own devise or from factual evidence of others. Unfortunately for him and his radical judgements about abortion, that’s impossible.

    Without such support he loses his right to even attempt to impose his position on the rest of us, and for this reason alone, frankly, he is unfit for for a position of public power. I say journalists should not only probe any crossover of a politician’s personal beliefs into intended political action, but challenge him to support his beliefs with evidence or rational argument that such beliefs are for the public good.

  3. VoyageurVoyageur says:

    “I am personally opposed to abortion but” [relentlessly in support of legalized abortion as a matter of law.]  This is the Ted Kennedy dodge.

    • Jason Salzman says:

      The pro-choice politicians aren’t trying to excuse themselves from responsibility for their votes on abortion. They’re saying their personal opinion differs from their policy position. But they are taking responsibility for their votes on abortion. You know, pro-choice activists and politicians like to say that the personal is political.

      The anti-choice politicians like Buck are trying to say their position is personal and therefore somehow different from all their other policy positions. I think this is factually wrong because any policy position can be construed as personal.

  4. sxp151 says:

    I’d think people like BJ would be pissed that he’s now saying, “I didn’t really mean all that,” which is what this latest bucktracking sounds like.

    Seems like BJ and other Buck supporters don’t really mean it either. Just whom do they all think they’re fooling?

  5. H-man says:

    Or where they his personal views?

    Just askin’.

  6. Ray SpringfieldRay Springfield says:

    Dems can either get on board in the CO Senate race, or support outlawing abortion, supporting mass detentions and deportaions,racial profiling, and fed cuts that Colorado cannot make up due to TABOR

  7. jpsandscl says:

    Has anyone here actually read that decision. It is really an amazing document. In this case, the Supreme Court performed a task akin to the untying of the Gordian Knot. They used background material from history, science, medicine and religion and philosophy, as well as established constitutional concepts to make their decision. It is rather extraordinary.

    And on the side opposing abortion, we have the semantical argument that human life begins at conception. Period. That’s it. Nothing else. No argument brooked.

    Says who? What evidence do they promote to support their argument? Obscure biblical verses I think are it. That’s all. No science. No medicine. No history. No philosophy. Nothing.

    It is the attempted establishment of theological doctrine in a nation based on the precept that we will never be a theocracy.

    And I personally abhor abortion. It is a horrendous method of birth control. But to out myself slightly, as a male I am not the one who has to carry and give birth to that blastocyst, am I?

    • H-man says:

      It is a belief, not science.  So what?  They are certainly entitled to that belief, just like you may be entitled to believe that there is no God, for example.  

      At some level people make assumptions about things they do not understand.  Everyone does it, unless you are an agnostic, where everyone else will agree you are sure to go to hell. :)

      • jpsandscl says:

        people who believe something based on their religious beliefs are entitled to the freedom to believe whatever their consciences indicate. What the anti-abortion crowd does however is attempt to take their personal convictions and belief and translate that into law for the rest of us who don’t hold those beliefs. It is quite another thing!

      • ajb says:

        Thanks for clarifying that, H-man.

        • Diogenesdemar says:

          those who believe life begins at conception base the belief in scripture

          Belief is a self-expanding universe.  One belief leads to the next, which leads to the next, and the next, and the next.  The basis for that belief?  Well, of course, my belief.  Because it’s what I believe.

          What they can’t understand is why this spongy-headedness doesn’t sway everyone else by the sheer magnitude of its logic.

          So it’s the duty of conservative Christians to impose their religious beliefs on the rest of us?

          Precisely, because . . . that is what they believe.

  8. botw says:

    I agree with Jason 100% that …

    … a fair-minded journalist – even a commentator – shouldn’t set up a false dichotomy between Buck’s self-described “personal” political views and all the rest of his policy positions.

    If a politician expresses “personal” views, s/he should be asked what impact, if any, those personal views have on his/her votes.

    A politician could say that they are against abortion as a personal matter, but that they believe in choice.  (See, e.g., Ted Kennedy)  ”Personal” or religious views can have an impact on a politician’s votes — or not — and asking for both is fair game, appropriate, and necessary, even essential, isn’t it?

    • botw says:

      If a politician (like Kennedy) says I am personally against abortion but I will VOTE for pro-choice judicial candidates (or not) that’s fair.  I think voters have a right to know whether a candidate says s/he will be guided by their personal views in their votes, or, alternatively, whether their votes are different than their personal views.  The two may not always be the same (see, e.g., Ted Kennedy on abortion).

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