Make America great again? Washington Post essay shows a more complex evangelical viewpoint

It’s easy to feel depressed about the state of American journalism these days.

For starters, there is the digital advertising crisis, with Google, Facebook and others sucking up billions of dollars that used to go to local newspapers and broadcast newsrooms to provide coverage of local, regional and state news. To fight back, some of America’s top newspapers have mastered the art of hooking waves of digital subscribers by telling them what they want to hear about national news.

Meanwhile, many news consumers are completely confused about what is “news” and what is “commentary” or analysis writing. People talk about getting their news from television channels (think MSNBC and Fox News) that offer some traditional news reporting, surrounded by oceans of commentary. The Internet? It is a glorious and fallen mix of the good and bad, with many readers choosing to read only what reinforces their core beliefs.

What is news? What is opinion?

Well, the Washington Post recently ran a pair of articles that — in a good way, let me stress — illustrated why some of this confusion exists. Both focused on white evangelicals and their celebrated or cursed support of President Donald Trump. In this case, the news article and the opinion essay are both worth reading, but it was the opinion essay that truly broke new ground. Hold that thought.

First, the news. I am happy to report that the Post, in this case, let the religion desk handle a story about religion and politics. The headline: “He gets it’: Evangelicals aren’t turned off by Trump’s first term.”

There’s only one point I would like to make about this article. Read the following summary material carefully:

Trump enjoyed overwhelming support from white evangelicals in 2016, winning a higher percentage than George W. Bush, John McCain or Mitt Romney. That enthusiasm has scarcely dimmed. Almost 70 percent of white evangelicals approve of Trump’s performance in office, according to a 2019 Pew Research Center poll.

Interviews with 50 evangelical Christians in three battleground states — Florida, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin — help explain why. In conversation, evangelical voters paint the portrait of the Trump they see: a president who acts like a bully but is fighting for them. A president who sees America like they do, a menacing place where white Christians feel mocked and threatened for their beliefs. A president who’s against abortion and gay rights and who has the economy humming to boot. …

Evangelical Christians are separated from other Protestants (called mainline Protestants) by their belief in the literal truth of the Bible as well as their conservative politics on gender roles, sexuality, abortion and other subjects.

Wait, do most evangelicals — of all colors — have what are essentially POLITICAL views on abortion, sexual morality, gender, etc.? Wouldn’t be more accurate the say that they have theological views that, like many others, they struggle to defend when they enter voting books?

See this crucial quote, later in this piece:

For many, abortion was the defining issue of the last election. In Appleton, Wis., the Rev. A.J. Dudek sat with several leaders of men’s Bible study groups recently in his megachurch’s huge curving lobby.

“Do I enjoy his tweets? No,” Dudek said about the president. But he believes the agenda far outweighs that concern. “If Donald Trump will help save a couple million babies, that’s a good thing. My vote has to align with my view of God’s word — I should care for the baby in the womb.”

So is Dudek saying that his beliefs on abortion are essentially political? Of course not.

Now, on to the long, and essential, opinion piece written by editorial-page writer Elizabeth Bruenig. The headline proclaimed, “In God’s country: Evangelicals view Trump as their protector. Will they stand by him in 2020?

Lot’s a people in American call their home regions “God’s Country.” Few, however, say that with the fervor of millions of Texans. I say that as someone raised, in Texas, as a Southern Baptist.

One of the crucial themes in Bruenig’s piece is that evangelicals — white, black and otherwise — are more complex than they are usually portrayed in mass media. Right from the get-go, she notes the crucial division between white evangelicals who supported Trump in the primaries and the many others who voted, often reluctantly, for him in the general election.

Journalists who cover politics need to examine the careful wordings in the following summary material:

Evangelicals — typically activist, biblically focused Protestants with an emphasis on conversion, or being born again in Christ, as it’s often put — span several denominations, all races and plenty of American territory. In 2014, the Pew Research Center found that 31 percent of Texans consider themselves evangelical, forming the largest bloc of religious voters in the state of more than 28 million. A full 65 percent of those voters are white, 22 percent are Latino, and 8 percent are black.

Exit polls show that Trump carried 85 percent of evangelical voters here in 2016, a touch higher than the national white evangelical average of 81 percent. That in itself wasn’t surprising: For decades, evangelicals have been a reliable Republican constituency.

More intriguing was that a segment of white evangelicals had supported Trump all along — even during the Republican primaries, when more logical evangelical candidates, such as Texas’s own Sen. Ted Cruz, were still viable. At first, their numbers were relatively small and ill-represented among regular churchgoers. But since coalescing in 2016, evangelical support for Trump has remained consistently high — even among regular churchgoers, who started out skeptical but now approve of Trump at rates identical to or higher than less-regular attendees.

I would argue that many of those voters “approve of Trump” in the sense that (a) they approve of his actions on many issues that matter the most to them and (b) they approve of him in comparison to any options the modern Democratic party is offering them.

So what is going on here? Why do these strict moralists and believers salute Trump in any way? Here is another crucial block of summary material that many political-beat journalists need to study:

Theories about Trump’s connection with evangelical voters have long been dubiously elegant. The simplest, and perhaps most comfortable for Trump’s bewildered and furious opposition, is that evangelicals are and always were hypocrites, demanding moral rectitude from their enemies that they don’t expect from their friends. Others held that evangelicals must simply be ignorant, taken in by a campaign narrative that attempted to depict Trump as privately devoted to Christ, despite all the evidence to the contrary. Some argued that evangelicals just wanted an invincible champion to fight the culture wars, even if he didn’t share their vision of the good life. And then there was the transactional theory: Their votes were just about the Supreme Court.

There was probably some truth to every suggestion, with all the usual caveats about different individuals having different priorities, and all due distinctions made between the committedly vs. casually religious. 

This brings us to the most crucial material in this essay. Trust me when I say that I (along with many other scribes) was stunned by the contents of her discussions with the Rev. Robert Jeffress, pastor of the historic First Baptist Church of Dallas.

The basic media profile of Jeffress and other early-Trump adapters has been that they are theocrats who truly believe the whole Make America Great Again shtick. Their goal is triumph over the evil empire of Hollywood, Google, modern Democrats, etc.

Instead, we meet a conservative Southern Baptists who — like many other evangelicals (including me) — cast his first presidential vote, long ago, for Democrat Jimmy Carter. Then he found himself supporting the divorced Ronald Reagan.

Let’s just say that things have gone downhill from there, from Jeffress’ point of view. This brings us to the essay’s defining statement:

But one consistent trend in the relationship between evangelicals and their candidates did stand out in Jeffress’s telling: increasing disillusionment.

Does the following sound like triumphalism?

“As a Christian, I believe that regardless of what happens in Washington, D.C., that the general trajectory of evangelicalism is going to be downward until Christ returns,” he explained. “If you read the scripture, it’s not: Things get better and better and more evangelical-friendly or Christian-friendly; it is, they get worse and more hostile as the culture does. … I think most Christians I know see the election of Donald Trump as maybe a respite, a pause in that. Perhaps to give Christians the ability and freedom more to share the gospel of Christ with people before the ultimate end occurs and the Lord returns.” …

Jeffress didn’t see Trump pausing the disintegration of evangelical fortunes by way of personal virtue — or even cultural transformation. He spoke instead of “accommodation,” perhaps alluding to the kind of protections announced only a few weeks after our talk by Trump’s Department of Health and Human Services, which safeguards the jobs of health-care workers who object to participating in certain procedures for religious reasons. Rather than renewing a culture in peril, in other words, Jeffress seemed to view Trump as someone who might carve out a temporary, provisional space for evangelicals to manage their affairs.

Accommodation?

As in compromise? Some kind safe zone? Maybe a concept of freedom of conscience?

Bruenig runs down a quick list of poll statistics that show modern American veering away from cultural conservatism, as opposed to headed back to “The Handmaid’s Tale.” Here’s a statistic I had not encountered before:

… (A)ccording to a Pew Research Center survey released this year, roughly 50 percent of Americans believe evangelicals face some or a lot of discrimination, including about a third of Democrat-leaning respondents.

I would imagine that those Democrats are pro-life, African-Americans or older voters, perhaps with labor-union ties. Or all of the above. I don’t think many of them are on Twitter.

This brings us to the essential, gloomy, rather stoic statement of how Jeffress sees thing — as discerned by Bruenig in this opinion essay. In a way, some evangelicals see to be retreating to their pre-Carter cynicism about politics in general:

In some sense it seemed that Trump is able, by being less Christian than your average Christian, to protect Christians who fear incursions from a hostile dominant culture. But that paradox also supplies a handy solution to the question of whether Christians should direct their efforts to worldly politics or turn inward, shunning political life for spiritual pursuits. By voting for Trump — even over more identifiably Christian candidates — evangelicals seem to have found a way to outsource their fears and instead reserve a strictly spiritual space for themselves inside politics without placing evangelical politicians themselves in power. In that sense, they can be both active political agents and a semi-cloistered religious minority, both of the world and removed from it, advancing their values while retreating to their own societies.

“Advancing their values” or attempting to “defend” them?

Here is Rod “Benedict Option” Dreher’s take on this Post piece, which he agrees is essential reading in this tense day and age:

Judging by his comments to Bruenig, Jeffress does not believe that Trump (or anybody) is going to Make America Great Again. Rather, he’s become very pessimistic about the future, and believes that Trump at best is only going to forestall the inevitable. I don’t want to read too much into what he told Bruenig, but I think this is true.

Bruenig didn’t only talk to pro-Trump Evangelicals, let me be clear. What I found refreshing about her piece, particularly given her own politics (she’s a progressive Catholic) is that she allows for the possibility that Evangelicals who take the despairing pro-Trump line are … right. Right in the sense that they correctly see what the future looks like for people like them.

I cannot say this strongly enough: Read it all.

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