Cracks in the evangelical monolith myth: Gray Lady looks at post-Alabama soul-searching

After? After?!?

That was my first reaction when I read the headline on that post-election thumbsucker in The New York Times, the one that proclaimed: "After Alabama Vote, Soul-Searching Among Some Evangelicals."

Say what? I mean, anyone who has paid attention to evangelical conversations in social media -- even if all you did was follow the Most. Obvious. Evangelical. Voices. On. Twitter -- knows that debates inside American evangelicalism moved past soul-searching somewhere during the GOP primaries in 2016. Debates about the meaning of the word "evangelical" and damage to the brand's credibility have built month after month for a year or more.

But now these debates are real, because they have reached the great Gray Lady, even if this important, must-read story does make it seem like evangelicals didn't really get down to soul-searching until after (that is the word in the headline) Roy Moore lost. If you didn't read the story, you might even think that they were finally doing this soul-searching because Moore lost.

But then something hit me. Why, that headline also contained a kind of small journalistic miracle. You see, it contains the word "some."

Hallelujah! That word "some" could be read as a tiny recognition that the world of evangelical Protestantism -- even the accursed brand known as "white evangelicals" -- is not a monolith of Donald Trump-primary votin', praise chorus shoutin', Bill O'Reilly worshipin' bigots. Wait, that may be too harsh. In some media reports evangelicals are only idiots.

As you would imagine, the fallout from the Moore campaign was the main topic in this week's "Crossroads" podcast, following up on my post praising a New Yorker report (that would be "Roy Moore and the Invisible Religious Right") and Julia Duin's morning-after survey of some crucial coverage. Click here to tune that in, or go to iTunes and sign up.

So here is the opening of the Times feature:

The editor in chief of “Christianity Today” did not have to wait for the votes to be counted to publish his essay on Tuesday bemoaning what the Alabama Senate race had wrought.
Whoever wins, “there is already one loser: Christian faith,” wrote Mark Galli, whose publication, the flagship of American evangelicalism, was founded 61 years ago by the Rev. Billy Graham. “No one will believe a word we say, perhaps for a generation. Christianity’s integrity is severely tarnished.”
The sight of white evangelical voters in Alabama giving their overwhelming support to Roy S. Moore, the Republican candidate, despite accusations of racial and religious bigotry, misogyny and assaults on teenage girls, has deeply troubled many conservative Christians, who fear that association with the likes of Mr. Moore is giving their faith a bad name. The angst has grown so deep, Mr. Galli said, that he knows of “many card-carrying evangelicals” who are ready to disavow the label.

If you search carefully in this piece, you will see evidence of some of the evangelical divisions that I described earlier in the week. Once again, here is that political typology, which in many ways resembles what happened in the 2016 White House race.

* There were evangelicals who backed Moore, big time, and they were crucial to his primary base.

* There were some evangelicals who backed other candidates in the primaries and then they reluctantly backed Moore. Some did this publicly, while others did so silently – so that's really two different camps in there.

* There were evangelicals who opposed Moore from Day 1, but bit their lips and voted for him rather than casting a vote for Doug Jones, a Hillary Clinton-empire Democrat who could be described as a member of the Planned Parent All-Star team.

* There were evangelicals who could not cast a vote for Moore, so they wrote in another conservative name.

* There appear to have been lots of evangelicals who were so depressed by the whole drama that they stayed home.

* There were some white evangelicals who voted for Jones, along with waves of African-American evangelicals.

Now, after the election a very important debate broke out about that next-to-last option. Some folks on the political and religious left (and thus in elite newsrooms) argued that the number of evangelicals who boycotted Moore was small or perhaps even mythical.

If you want to dig a bit on that topic, you can start with the threads on these tweets:



French was reacting to this tweet, which started a must-read thread of debate:

This debate pivots on a crucial question: Are there significant political divisions inside white evangelical Protestantism? It's a debate about the myth of the evangelical monolith.

During the podcast, I argued that in some major newsrooms -- zones of anger and mourning following the defeat of Hillary Clinton -- white evangelical Protestants have become an all-purpose punching bag. You see, somebody has to be blamed for Trump. Personally, I blame (a) the GOP leadership, for not thinning the flock of primary candidates, (b) CNN and others for backing Trump with $billions worth of ratings-friendly publicity and (c) the Democratic National Committee, for nominating the only person Trump could defeat.

But I digress.

There is no question that some white evangelicals fit every stereotype that journalists toss at them. Take Moore (please). Perhaps many readers saw this Washington Post story about his reaction to his historic defeat? Oh that headline: "Roy Moore turns refusal to concede into religious crusade: ‘Immorality sweeps over the land’."

It was a four-minute fire-and-brimstone video about abortion, same-sex marriage, school prayer, sodomy and “the right of a man to claim to be a woman and vice versa.”
“We are indeed in a struggle to preserve our republic, our civilization and our religion and to set free a suffering humanity,” Moore said. “Today, we no longer recognize the universal truth that God is the author of our life and liberty. Abortion, sodomy and materialism have taken the place of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”
In the video issued by the campaign Wednesday evening, Moore said his campaign is still waiting for the official vote count from Alabama officials. He did not say he would necessarily seek a recount, for which his campaign would have to pay unless the margin turned out to be within half a percentage point. Alabama Secretary of State John Merrill has called it “highly unlikely” that Jones would not be certified as the winner.

As you would expect, there were some interesting reactions, on the evangelical left and right. Here's my favorite:

So let me end with another call for journalists to probe the fault lines inside American evangelicalism. One way to do that would be to round up reactions to Moore's actions post-defeat, as well as the efforts some evangelicals made to understand the meaning of his defeat.

I predict that these reactions are not, well, evidence of a cultural, political or theological monolith.

Enjoy the podcast.

P.S. Sorry, but I cannot help myself.

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