On Wednesday's NBC Today, correspondent Peter Alexander noted how the Republican primary "has increasingly become laced with references to religion" and predicted that in the upcoming GOP debate on CNN, "[Rick] Santorum is likely to be peppered with questions about his remarks on what he called the President's 'phony theology.'"
Later in the report, Alexander touted Mitt Romney being drawn into the issue: "Romney has tried to narrow his focus to the economy. But at a town hall meeting on Tuesday he was asked how he would protect religious freedom and answered by attacking the President." After a sound bite of Romney describing how President Obama "hangs around" with people who have a "secular agenda," Alexander dutifully forwarded the White House defense: "The Obama campaign quickly fired back, calling Romney's comments 'disgraceful.'"
Throughout the segment, the headline on screen proclaimed: "Faith and Politics; Religion Takes Center Stage For Romney & Santorum." Making sure it stayed "center stage," Alexander conflated the Republican candidates with comments from evangelist Franklin Graham on MSNBC on Tuesday: "Reverend Billy Graham's son, praised Santorum for espousing what he called 'Christian values.' While casting doubt on the President's faith."
In the clip of Morning Joe that followed, co-host Willie Geist grilled Graham on whether he believed Obama was Muslim: "By your definition he's not a Christian?...But you do not believe he's a Muslim?...Categorically not a Muslim?"
Alexander did provide some balance, noting Sarah Palin criticizing the media:
ALEXANDER: Tuesday night Sarah Palin weighed in, blaming the media for what she considers a double standard that attacks conservatives for invoking the Bible, but ignores President Obama when he does the same, like earlier this month at the National Prayer Breakfast.
BARACK OBAMA: For unto whom much is given, much shall be required.
SARAH PALIN: The theology that he would adopt by reading the Book of Luke results in him being able to say we need to increase taxes on hard-working Americans? That's okay? But Rick Santorum talking about good and evil isn't okay?
On Tuesday, Alexander portrayed Santorum's recent mention of Obama's former pastor, Reverend Jeremiah Wright, as evidence of the former Pennsylvania Senator "fanning the flames" in the debate over religion and taking a "shot" at the President's faith.
At the end of his Wednesday report, Alexander actually corrected a mistake from his Tuesday reporting on Wright: "And a clarification on a story we reported here yesterday. During the 2008 campaign, Reverend Jeremiah Wright was not forced to resign for controversial comments. In fact, he had already announced his retirement from his church when those comments drew national attention."
Here is portion of Alexander's February 22 report:
ALEXANDER: An election that has increasingly become laced with references to religion. On stage tonight, Santorum is likely to be peppered with questions about his remarks on what he called the President's 'phony theology.'
SANTORUM [POINTING AT HIS HEART]: Because I'll defend everything I'll say because it comes from here.
ALEXANDER: On MSNBC's Morning Joe Tuesday, evangelist Franklin Graham, Reverend Billy Graham's son, praised Santorum for espousing what he called 'Christian values.' While casting doubt on the President's faith.
WILLIE GEIST: By your definition he's not a Christian?
FRANKLIN GRAHAM: Again, you have to ask him. I cannot answer that question for anybody.
GEIST: But you do not believe he's a Muslim?
GEIST: Categorically not a Muslim?
GRAHAM: I can't say categorically because Islam has gotten a free pass under Obama.
ALEXANDER: With his front-runner status in jeopardy, Romney has tried to narrow his focus to the economy. But at a town hall meeting on Tuesday he was asked how he would protect religious freedom and answered by attacking the President.
[ON-SCREEN HEADLINE: Faith and Politics; Religion Takes Center Stage For Romney & Santorum]
MITT ROMNEY: And, unfortunately, perhaps because of the people the President hangs around with and their agenda, a secular agenda, they have fought against religion.
ALEXANDER: The Obama campaign quickly fired back, calling Romney's comments 'disgraceful.' Earlier, Reverend Graham also questioned Romney's faith.
GRAHAM: Most Christians would not recognize Mormonism as part of the Christian faith.
ALEX WAGNER: So he is not a Christian?
GRAHAM: I'm just saying most Christians would not recognize Mormonism.