Religion Reporter Helping Leftist Nun Write Memoir Has History of Gauzy Reporting On 'Nuns on the Bus'

August 12th, 2013 4:39 PM

On Friday, I noted how ostensibly objective religion reporter David Gibson of Religion News Service has been tapped by Sister Simone Campbell to co-author her memoirs. Proceeds from the project will go into the coffers of NETWORK, Campbell's left-leaning "social justice" organization. Campbell, you may recall, addressed the Democratic National Convention last year and was a mini-celebrity on the Left for her attacks on Republican vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan and his signature Ryan budget plan.

A review of Gibson's writing about Campbell's anti-Ryan budget  "nuns on the bus" tour last year and this year's bus tour focused on immigration reform shows that Gibson's treatment of Campbell's politicking reads more like hagiography than objective journalism. Let's walk through a few samples. Here's Gibson from a September 6 item dutifully passing along highlights of Campbell's speech to the 2012 Democratic National Convention (emphasis mine):

(RNS) Sister Simone Campbell, who led the “Nuns on the Bus” tour for social justice this summer, called the GOP budget plan “immoral” in a spirited speech at the Democratic National Convention on Wednesday (Sept. 5).

“Paul Ryan claims this budget reflects the principles of our shared faith,” Campbell said, as she took direct aim at Mitt Romney’s running mate, who has often cited his Catholic faith as the underpinning of his fiscal policies. “But the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops stated that the Ryan budget failed a basic moral test, because it would harm families living in poverty,” she said.

The Romney campaign did not respond to requests for a response on Thursday.

Ryan has argued that his budget plan is informed by Catholic social teaching, and that reducing the federal deficit through budget cuts would help the poor and all Americans by allowing the economy to grow.

The bishops, with some notable exceptions, have countered that Ryan's budget in fact violates Catholic social teaching by emphasizing cuts in programs for the needy while reducing taxes for the wealthy. Ryan's plan has also been criticized as likely to expand rather than reduce the national debt.

By framing her critique in the context of her Christian faith, Campbell was using the kind of religious language that has been a hallmark of the GOP’s campaign to rally believers behind Romney and Ryan.

But she also sought to identify the sisters and the Democratic agenda with Catholic tradition at a time when Catholic voters – who comprise close to one-quarter of the electorate – are considered key to the November election.

Just as important, Campbell neatly folded her remarks in with statements from the Catholic hierarchy, which has had more than its share of disagreements with President Obama and the Democratic Party over issues like gay marriage and abortion.

“We agree with our bishops, and that's why we went on the road: to stand with struggling families and to lift up our Catholic sisters who serve them,” said Campbell, who heads a Washington-based Catholic social justice lobby called Network. “Their work to alleviate suffering would be seriously harmed by the Romney-Ryan budget.”

In her seven-minute speech Campbell did not address hot-button issues like abortion directly, but she earned the loudest ovation when she defended Obama’s health care reform law as a cause she considers “part of my pro-life stance and the right thing to do.”

Like many other speakers at the convention in Charlotte, N.C., Campbell framed the election as a choice between a philosophy of individualism championed by Republicans and a more communitarian approach to society building emphasized by Democrats.

She also underscored the plight of poor and working class Americans in the recession, and pointed to Democratic policies as both the most effective answer, and the most moral one.

“During our journey, I rediscovered a few truths,” Campbell said. “First, Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan are correct when they say that each individual should be responsible. But their budget goes astray in not acknowledging that we are responsible not only for ourselves and our immediate families. Rather, our faith strongly affirms that we are all responsible for one another.”

“I am my sister's keeper. I am my brother's keeper,” she said to applause.

The Washington Post’s Chris Cillizza listed Campbell as the second biggest “winner” of Wednesday night’s events, after former President Bill Clinton’s tour de force address, noting that she “got a raucously positive reception from the crowd and turned into one of the more unlikely stars of the night.”

Campbell has become well-known both for her advocacy of liberal issues but also as one of the targets of a Vatican crackdown on American nuns who Rome believes are too eager to disagree with church teachings on sexuality and gender while overemphasizing church teachings on social justice.

In June, Campbell did a star turn on “The Colbert Report” to rebut those charges, and the Democrats clearly wanted to take advantage of her appeal.

But the nun also told convention organizers that she would only speak if she could cite her opposition to abortion as well as her other views, according to CNN. She also rejected efforts to include language that sounded too “political” and told party operatives that she would rather give her prime time speaking slot to someone else. Her concerns were heeded.

At that point, Gibson then gave readers a transcript of Campbell's remarks as delivered. Yet even though Gibson said that Campbell insisted that she be able to "cite her opposition to abortion," there is nothing in the speech as delivered that challenged the Democratic Party's absolutist pro-abortion rights plank. A pro-life nun truly concerned with "speaking truth to power" might do something that gutsy, especially during a convention which prominently featured full-throated abortion-on-demand apologists like NARAL's president Nancy Keenan and which excised language from the platform which suggested abortion should, while remaining legal, be "safe" and "rare."

You'll also notice that while Gibson admitted there were "notable exceptions" among U.S. bishops on the Ryan budget, he failed to well, make note of those bishops who refused to pass a moral or theological judgment on a patently political proposition: the federal budget.

But wait, there's more. From October 16, Gibson painted the nuns as the victims of an angry Tea Party mob, through which they had to be "escorted":

(RNS) The “Nuns on the Bus” have been a consistently popular and effective faith-based tool for religious progressives this campaign season, but on Monday a group of demonstrators apparently organized by a local Tea Party affiliate met the nuns at a stop in Marietta, Ohio, and provided a far different welcome than the sisters usually receive.

Holding placards with slogans like “Bums on the Bus” and “Romney-Ryan Yes, Fake Nuns No,” the protesters focused their fire on the abortion issue, accusing the sisters of not being sufficiently anti-abortion.

Someone claiming to be a member of the local “We the People” chapter — that is the name used by some Tea Party affiliates in the region — posted a YouTube video of the counter-demonstrators taken before the half dozen nuns and some 100 supporters arrived. It says there were more than 175 marchers opposing the nuns and it shows the demonstrators praying the rosary and singing hymns before challenging the sisters.

“What could be more innocuous, unless of course the nuns happen to be a group of radical, feminist ideologues whose previous political actions have been so out of step with the teaching of the Catholic Church that they have been condemned by the Vatican,” the YouTube poster wrote in text accompanying the footage.

Sister Simone Campbell, who leads the Washington-based NETWORK, a left-leaning Catholic social justice group, has spearheaded the Nuns on the Bus tours and spoke against the budget drafted by GOP vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan during the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, N.C.

The Nuns on the Bus have stressed social justice causes in their tours of areas hard-hit by the recession, and many conservative critics and political activists say their message shortchanges the abortion issue.

The sisters reject that criticism, and one of the nuns on the bus, Sister Monica McGloin (in photo), on Monday told the protesters in Marietta that “we are 100 percent pro-life.”


Monday's confrontation came on the final day of a week-long tour by the Nuns on the Bus, at a morning stop near the local office of Republican congressman Bill Johnson.

The sisters had to be escorted through the protesters to reach Johnson's office, where they met with the congressman.

“Basically we wanted to talk to him about our trip … and express the concerns that we've heard,” McGloin told the Marietta Times. “People are really concerned about the notion that would give tax breaks to the wealthy while we're cutting funds that support programs that help people and communities.”

The positive press continued into this year, when Campbell (depicted below, photo adapted from NETWORK website announced she'd kick off another "Nuns on the Bus" tour, this time to promote immigration reform:

NEW YORK (RNS) The “Nuns on the Bus” are revving up their engines for another national campaign, only this time the Catholic sisters are taking their mobile platform for social justice along the country’s Southern border to push Congress to pass immigration reform.

“The ‘Nuns on the Bus’ is going on the road again!” Sister Simone Campbell, head of the social justice lobby Network, told an enthusiastic gathering of faith leaders and charity activists at a Manhattan awards ceremony Wednesday (May 1).


The “Nuns on the Bus” became both a cultural touchstone and a political rallying point for Democrats during the presidential campaign; the sisters were compared to rock stars and Campbell appeared on news shows and “The Colbert Report,” and she was a prime-time speaker at the Democratic National Convention that nominated President Obama.

Campbell believes the right moment and the right issue are coinciding again, and like many longtime immigration reform advocates she is willing to back the current bill despite reservations.

“We want to amend it, yes, but we want to pass it. We don’t want to nitpick it to death. That’s what we did in 2007,” she said, referring to the previous attempt to overhaul immigration, which ended in failure.

The new “Nuns on the Bus” tour could also provide an opportunity for a breakthrough in church politics, since the nation’s Catholic bishops have also thrown their weight behind immigration reform, pushing for changes but putting a priority on getting the bill passed.

Four weeks later, Gibson was at it again with a gushy report from the bus tour's kickoff. Gibson relegated criticism of the nuns to the closing few paragraphs of the article, which was packed to the gills with enthusiasm about Catholics and evangelicals moving together to push immigration reform:

JERSEY CITY, N.J. (RNS) With the Statue of Liberty as a backdrop, the “Nuns on the Bus” on Wednesday (May 29) kicked off a national tour for immigration reform aimed at giving a faith-based push to legislation that’s now hanging in the balance in Congress.

“We have got to make this an urgent message of now,” Sister Simone Campbell, head of the social justice lobby Network, which organized the tour, told a rally on the New Jersey side of the Hudson River.

“The next six to eight weeks is going to determine what we can accomplish,” Campbell said as she pointed to nearby Ellis Island, the American gateway for generations of immigrants. “The time is now for immigration reform.”

Champions of immigration reform believe they have their best opportunity to pass a comprehensive overhaul since 2007, when an effort backed by President George W. Bush was thwarted by members of his own party. After Republicans lost the Latino vote in last fall’s elections, GOP leaders said they would be open to an immigration bill that they think could help change that political dynamic.

A bill with bipartisan support is continuing to make its way through the Senate as backers look to win passage this summer before Congress shifts its focus to budget battles and then the 2014 election season next year. But opponents are going all out to block the bill, and believe they have a good shot to prevail in the House, where conservative Republicans have more influence.

With so much at stake and so little time, Campbell and Network revved up the “Nuns on the Bus” in hopes of replicating the media coverage and public appeal of their first tour last summer, when the sisters traveled 2,700 miles through nine states in a wrapped bus to protest Republican budget plans.

That trip made “Nuns on the Bus” a sensation. Campbell appeared on news shows and “The Colbert Report,” and she was a prime-time speaker at the Democratic National Convention.

This time the bus will travel a total of 6,500 miles over three weeks, stopping in 15 states. Most of them – like Florida, Texas and California – have large Latino populations and are on the front line of the debate about creating a path to citizenship for as many as 11 million undocumented immigrants. The tour is set to conclude on June 18 on Angel Island in San Francisco.

While the Catholic sisters are the face of the tour – seven are traveling on this first leg and total of two dozen will join in at various points – the current immigration push is uniting religious groups across the political and denominational spectrum.

Many religious communities have long backed justice for immigrants as an example of the biblical injunction to “welcome the stranger.”


But the “Nuns on the Bus” can still irk political conservatives in the Catholic Church.

As the tour left for stops on Thursday in South Jersey and then Washington, Bill Donohue of the Catholic League – which is supported by a number of prominent bishops – put out a statement blasting Network as “a Catholic dissident group” and dismissing “Nuns on the Bus” for never having more than seven sisters at a time on the coach.

So Sister Simone and publisher HarperOne clearly made a wise choice in tapping Gibson to assist in her forthcoming memoir, "A Nun on the Bus." After all, Gibson's got a flare for the dramatic and he's clearly convinced that her politics are not only right but righteous. He's the perfect scribe for writing a self-congratulatory, politically-minded memoir.

But that said, it's also abundantly clear that readers of the Religion News Service have been poorly served by Gibson's gauzy, largely one-sided reporting on Campbell and the "nuns on the bus."

No man can serve two masters, not even David Gibson, who should explain to RNS readers how he can continue covering his national news beat at RNS under the pretense of objectivity when his side project is promoting a leftist nun and her causes.