NPR’s Ron Elving on growing up Covenant, this weird election year, and what the media gets right about the church
July 11, 2016
Before he was a nationally known political journalist, Ron Elving was a Covenant pastor’s kid. He remembers his dad, the late Dwight Elving, as both a devoted husband and father (“the pillar of my world”) and a powerful presence in the pulpit (“His sermons were literate, lucid, often poetic”). Today, Ron is the senior editor and correspondent on the Washington Desk for NPR News, where he is frequently heard as a news analyst. Recently the Companion asked him about the current political climate, the role of mainstream media, and how the church engages politics.
The Current Political Scene
It’s an interesting time to be covering politics in America. What do you make of the current presidential race and the political mood across the nation?
One cannot miss the outpouring of pent-up frustration from the electorate this year. There’s usually a lot of ferment after a two-term presidency, especially in the party out of power. But I think you have to go back to 1968 to see a comparable degree of tumult and talk of revolution in both parties. It all seems oddly out of place in a way, given that we are not at war and are enjoying low unemployment and low energy prices. But this year’s angst has less to do with immediate policy issues and more to do with deeper insecurities and dislocations.
People are disturbed about jihadism, about immigration they see as out of control, about demographic and social attitude changes that make the country seem less and less like the America they grew up in. Young people are increasingly disaffected with the economic and political order they see as rigged against them. Some may blame Wall Street, others the White House, but it has some of the general anti-institutional emotion I remember from the 1960s.
How have presidential elections changed over the decades you’ve been covering them?
They have gotten much longer, and they raise and spend far more money. The media mix has shifted a great deal. Newspapers and magazines once mattered quite a bit, even after network TV became the dominant medium. But the contest now is driven largely by the cable networks, which devote an inordinate amount of time to it. It’s their best way to drive ratings, especially during the daytime hours. At night, their debates and town halls and vote coverage sweep across the weekly schedule. Social media also make the campaign a constant competition for eyeballs. The process now resembles a reality TV show more than a traditional presidential campaign.
Are you optimistic about the future of the American political system?
After more than thirty years in Washington I am less optimistic than I once was. The system designed in the late 1700s is showing its age as the country changes and as the way we live and communicate changes. When I got here in 1984, there was still a working centrist mechanism in Congress, a means by which even highly partisan people could come together. There would be ups and downs, but things balanced out. The institutions of government worked to maintain an equilibrium. That is now largely gone. Still, I try not to be cynical, believing that what can get worse can get better. And the system has proven itself resilient in bad times in the past.
The political system designed in the late 1700s is showing its age as the country changes.
The “Mainstream” Media
Many people—especially politicians—blame the media for its bias on news and politics. In your experience, what is the media’s influence in shaping narratives and public opinion?
We all blame the media for spinning news and politics when we hear or see something we disagree with. As a rule, we are less offended by spin, or do not perceive any, when we see something we like. The most basic bias in the media is the bias toward the story—the version of the reality of events that will be most likely to attract and hold an audience. That means the media seek and emphasize the elements of a compelling story—conflict, personality, human interest, urgency.
For much of the twentieth century there were efforts made to “objectify” the news or at least balance the presentation of political news to make it “fair.” This was done in part to serve a vision of objective truth, and in part to offend as few people as possible in pursuit of high ratings and high circulation. In more recent years, as the media market has been shattered into smaller pieces, the competition has focused more on niche audiences, and news organizations often find it profitable to appeal to one side or the other.
National Public Radio has a reputation among some as being a paragon of the liberal news media. How do you respond to folks who come at you with that belief?
In my experience, people who tell me how liberal NPR is often turn out to be people who do not listen to NPR. They get their news elsewhere, but they have often been told that NPR is liberal. Or they listened at some point and heard something they found one-sided. If they are interested in a larger discussion, we often point out that about 30 percent of our listeners identify themselves as conservative.
Granted, the share of self-identified liberals in our audience is larger than in the general population. To some degree this proceeds from our history as educational radio and our affiliation with colleges and universities. It is also a product of the impression left by some of our on-air personalities over the years.
In my opinion, what we currently do on air and online represents the varieties of viewpoint in the American mainstream. But I recognize that not everyone would agree.
What stories do not get told because there’s not enough time or audience interest? What questions should we be asking about politics and public policy that we aren’t?
Budget questions. Long-term spending priorities. How will Social Security and Medicare be saved, if you intend to save them? How will you achieve your goals given the realities of gridlock in Congress and gridlock in the system generally? What is your plan for the 11 million people in this country illegally? Do you think the current system most states use to draw congressional districts is a good one, or would you support a non-partisan commission to minimize gerrymandering?
The Church and Politics
Sometimes the media lumps all evangelical Christians into the same basket, but there actually are many different varieties that comprise evangelical Christianity. In general, what do the secular media get wrong—or get right—about religion and politics?
One thing we can thank Donald Trump for, I suppose, is shattering the previous notion of unanimity or uniformity among “evangelical Christians.” It is hard to imagine someone less likely to attract the votes of the evangelical or born-again Christians who raised me. Yet Trump either won or split that so-called demographic consistently in the early months of 2016.
What the media always look for is a ready handle or easy label that can facilitate analysis and comment. In this case, I think the term is more facile than facilitating. The media are right to think religion matters to people. It does. And frequency of church attendance is highly correlated with party identification.
One thing we can thank Donald Trump for, I suppose, is shattering the notion of uniformity among ‘evangelical Christians.’
But I have been arguing for years that “evangelical” is not a good identifier because it means different things to different voters, including the Evangelical Covenant Church. We may or may not match the profile people are talking about on CNN.
Covenant folks have long attempted to strike a balance between living faithfully as Christians while being gracious and engaged members of the wider culture. What would you say to Covenanters who are striving to be good citizens in the midst of today’s political polarization?
I like your description of what Covenanters have done. That was certainly my father’s ideal and what he tried to live as well as preach. He was fond of the “render unto Caesar” formulation, which can of course be read many ways.
My hope would be that the term Christian could come to mean something closer to the teachings of Jesus, the spirit of the Sermon on the Mount. At present it is too easy for the media to identify “Christian” with the politics of one specific kind of churchgoing voter, as if this subgroup is entitled to define the term more than the life of Jesus did.
Family and Childhood
Your father was a longtime Covenant pastor. How would you describe him as both a father and a clergyman?
My father managed to be two quite different pillars of my world as a child. He was the dominant presence in my home life but in no sense domineering. He defined the idea of devoted husband, he and my mother were as close to one person as two can be. He also wanted to be more of a gentle and nurturing father than his own (a rather gruff old Swede) had been.
But he was also “the minister” seven days a week. So he was torn between the intimacy of the immediate family and the demands of the role he fulfilled for the church. And on Sunday, of course, he became in effect the voice of God. I was always enormously proud of him in the pulpit or in other duties of his calling. His sermons were literate, lucid, often poetic and fervently delivered. He could be strikingly loose and charming in social situations, and he could give himself over to laughter and merriment. But ultimately, he was always in character, always obedient to the calling that was his life.
My guess would be that most pastors’ kids grow up feeling that they were somehow special by extension of their parent’s calling. Maybe mixed in with that would be some sense that we had to share him (or her) with too many other people, too much of the time. But there is a sense that this person was experiencing life and faith in an exceptional way, and that sharing in that life was exceptional too.
What led you to your career as a political journalist?
When asked over the years why I did not follow my father and grandfather into the ministry, I have said that I did not hear the call. As a very young boy, I used to lie awake wondering if I would hear a voice in the night like the prophet Samuel. It didn’t come. Later, of course, I realized that was not to be expected. But I still thought there might be something similarly unmistakable, something more on point than an irresistible urge to talk.
Watching people in all manner of political activities fascinated me from my earliest years. I watched every minute of the 1960 political conventions and I was hooked. In college, I was a debater and studied history and literature and creative writing. The lit part was fortunate because it led me to grad school at the University of Chicago and I met my wife on the very first day there.
My dad married us two years later in the San Francisco Covenant Church on Delores Street, and not long after that I was going to grad school in journalism at Berkeley. When I got to my first paper, The Milwaukee Journal, they put me on the County Board beat the first week. This is now my fortieth year doing government and politics.
Do you view your job as a calling?
It’s not a religious vocation, to be sure. But there are those who consider journalism a mission. And if there is such a thing as high-minded or ethical journalism (a debatable proposition), then that might be viewed as a calling. Some people have real reverence for our system of government, our flawed democracy with all its failings. For them, at least, the study and explication and defense of that system becomes a moral cause.
For me, that does not quite reach the realm of religion, however. Moreover, the injection of religious orthodoxy into civic affairs makes me uneasy. So yes, if we can say that teaching is a calling, or medicine or the law, then perhaps at its best journalism can be a calling too.
How would you describe your “mission” as a journalist?
My goal is to give people as much good information as possible with which to make decisions affecting their lives. People are usually more sensible, and even more generous, than we give them credit for. But they typically have to understand government and political events without having much to go on beyond TV images and preconceived impressions. Good journalism should be about reliable facts, useful context, and thoughtful framing of issues. Like teaching, it should ultimately enable people to think and find answers for themselves.
What would people be most surprised to discover about the job of a political journalist?
My guess: They would be surprised to learn how much political journalists get criticized from all sides – or at least from several different perspectives. It’s a common presumption that a given commentator is popular in one camp and loathed in the other. Actually, it’s often the case that such a person disappoints the friendlies as often as he or she enrages the other side.
What sort of conversations did you have with your father about your respective lines of work?
He wanted me to be a minister, of course. With all his reservations and disappointments about it, the ministry was his life. It would have been deeply gratifying for him to see his son make the same commitment. But his was the kind of love that does not insist on its own way. He would say things like, “Have you given any thought to North Park?” when he obviously knew that had been hovering over every conversation we’d had since my adolescence. No pressure.
But I didn’t go to North Park. He thought if I did not become a minister I might be a professor. He himself liked teaching and always harbored the thought that teaching music would have been a nice life.
But he allowed as how a good journalist might be a force for good, “leading people in the right direction” as he put it. I do not think he saw this happening with most journalists, by the way, but he was willing to allow for the possibility.
What are you planning to do after the November elections?
Take some time off. Decide how much longer I ought to try to do this. Spend more time teaching.