2016 presidential race

Thinking 'evangelical,' again: As always these arguments pit theology against politics

Thinking 'evangelical,' again: As always these arguments pit theology against politics

Like many bitter dodgeball contests linked to religion these days, the fight began on Twitter.

On one side was a historian who has written several books on the roots of evangelicalism — defining the term (a) in doctrinal terms and (b) in a global context. When you put those two things together, you end up with lots of people, in lots of places, throughout Protestant history, who are “evangelicals.” It helps that the word is used this way around the world in many different church settings.

On the other side were other historians, as well as woke, post-evangelical voices. The key here? You guessed it: that famous 81 percent number, as in the percentage of white, self-identified “evangelicals” who — gladly or reluctantly — voted for GOP candidate Donald Trump (or against Democrat Hillary Clinton). Thus, “evangelicals” are white, conservative Republicans with racist roots (and lots of homophobia).

In other words, “evangelical” has evolved into semi-curse word that cannot be separated from contemporary American culture and Trumpian-era politics. We know this is true, because this is the way the term is used in most elite media coverage of politics.

The argument focused on an article at The Gospel Coalition website by Thomas Kidd of Baylor University with this title: “Phillis Wheatley: An Evangelical and the First Published African American Female Poet.”

The problem is that Wheatley is a black, heroic figure. Thus, it is wrong to identify her as an “evangelical,” even in an article that is striving to get modern evangelicals to pay more attention to the lives and convictions of evangelicals in other cultures and in other times. The piece ended by noting: “Evangelicals, of all people, need to remember her today.”

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If an evangelical crisis is truly on horizon, journalists should spring into action right now

If an evangelical crisis is truly on horizon, journalists should spring into action right now

How often have we been informed that the religious left is about to revive with new power, or that the Religious Right will fade?

That sort of political punditry occurs alongside periodic warnings — or hopes, among politicos and many journalists — that America’s sprawling network of evangelical Protestant congregations and agencies is destined for big decline.

If this is true, journalists should spring into action immediately.

Evangelicalism was often the most dynamic force in U.S. religion over recent decades, with impact worldwide, and generally managed to resist the serious slide that afflicted the evangelicals’ more liberal “Mainline” Protestant rivals beginning in the mid-1960s. (This article will bypass changes among Roman Catholicism, historically black Protestant denominations, and other religious sectors.)

A notable example of negativism was “My Prediction: The Coming Evangelical Collapse,” posted a decade ago by the late Michael Spencer, a popular blogger and self-described “post-evangelical Christian.” He predicted “a major collapse of evangelical Christianity” within 10 years, which means just about now, that would “fundamentally alter” the culture of the West.

Further, Spencer prophesied that within two generations this Bible-based empire would shrink to half its present scope, with scads of dropouts, sagging budgets, shuttered doors, and ruined careers, and “nothing” would restore former glory. Etc. Read it all for yourself

Some of this has in fact occurred, though not (yet) so dramatically, as reporters easily see in statistics of the largest evangelical denomination, the Southern Baptist Convention. Evangelicalism’s health is relatively stable despite cultural pressures. This brings to mind Mark Twain’s jest that “the reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated.”

But then last week — media pay close attention — pessimism was suddenly proclaimed by one of the most important voices in the evangelical establishment, Mark Galli, editor in chief ofChristianity Today magazine.

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Yet again, another take on those evangelicals and Donald Trump, this version from an insider   

Yet again, another take on those evangelicals and Donald Trump, this version from an insider   

Political reporters, pundits, and party strategists trying to understand U.S. evangelicals sometimes seem like David Livingstone or Margaret Mead scrutinizing an exotic jungle tribe they’ve stumbled upon. Analysts especially scratch heads on how those nice churchgoing Protestant folks could ever vote for a dissolute guy like Donald Trump. 

(Standard terminology note: In American political-speak, “Evangelicals” almost always means white evangelicals, because African-American Protestants, though often similar in faith, are so distinct culturally and politically.) 

That Trump conundrum is taken up yet again by a self-described “friendly observer/participant” with evangelicalism, Regent University political scientist A.J. Nolte. His school’s CEO, Pat Robertson, proclaimed candidate Trump “God’s man for the job.” Yet Nolte posted his point of view on Charlie Sykes’s thebulwark.com. This young site brands Trump “a serial liar, a narcissist and a bully, a con man who mocks the disabled and women, a man with no fixed principles who has the vocabulary of an emotionally insecure 9-year-old.” Don’t hold back, #NeverTrump folks.

Nolte, a Catholic University Ph.D. who belongs on your source list, did not vote for the president and remains “deeply Trump-skeptical.” He considers evangelicals’ bond with Trump  “unwise” in the long term and “almost certain to do more harm than good.” He thinks believers’ Trump support “is shallower and more conditional than it appears” and even muses about a serious primary challenge. The Religion Guy disputes that, but agrees with Nolte that evangelical women under 45 are the most likely to spurn the president next year. 

Nolte offers a nicely nuanced version of outsiders’ scenario that “existential fear” on religious-liberty issues drove Trump support in 2016 and still does.

Is this irrational?

Nolte says evangelicals have “a valid concern that religion and religious arguments will be pushed out of the public square altogether.”

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Merry Christmas to media critics: Elite German reporter visits American heartland and ....

Merry Christmas to media critics: Elite German reporter visits American heartland and ....

The following post doesn’t have anything to do with Christmas.

Well, wait. I can imagine that there are conservative critics of the mainstream press — especially in its most elite forms — who would see the following headline as a kind of Christmas present. And later on in this post, there will be a religion-and-politics angle to this scandal. So hold that thought.

But let’s start with the end of tale, care of this NBC News headline: “German reporter stripped of CNN 'Journalist of the Year' awards for fabricating stories.”

Hey fans of great journalism movies: We are talking about a kind of sequel to “Shattered Glass,” only with a reporter who was working for an elite news publication — Der Spiegel — as opposed to a liberal journal of editorial opinion, commentary and news. Here’s the top of that Associated Press, as featured by NBC News:

BERLIN — A German journalist who was found to have fabricated numerous articles is being stripped of two awards he received in 2014 from CNN International, the broadcaster said Thursday.

In a statement to The Associated Press, CNN International said the independent panel of judges who awarded Claas Relotius the Journalist of the Year and Print Journalist of the Year awards four years ago decided unanimously to remove them following revelations about his fraud.

German magazine Der Spiegel, where Relotius worked as a freelancer and later full-time, said Wednesday that he had fabricated interviews and facts in at least 14 articles.

The publication, one of Germany's leading news outlets, said the 33-year-old had committed journalistic fraud "on a grand scale" over a number of years, including fabricating elements of an article about an American woman who he said volunteered to witness the executions of death row inmates.

Now it’s time for the flashback to a feature at Medium that got lots and lots of attention — in America and, perhaps, in Germany. The headline: “Der Spiegel journalist messed with the wrong small town.”

The key is that one of the most celebrated newsrooms in Europe decided to probe the dark heart of Middle America in the age of Donald Trump. You know: How do solid, faithful, ordinary Americans in the heartland make peace with their support for a demon? That sort of thing.

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Evangelicals and Trump, again: Alan Cooperman says journalists should ponder four myths

Evangelicals and Trump, again: Alan Cooperman says journalists should ponder four myths

This just in: It appears that 81 percent of white evangelicals voted for Donald Trump and, thus, totally embrace his agenda to destroy all of humanity.

Or something like that. Also, it doesn’t matter that evangelical voters aren’t all that powerful in several of the key purple or blue states in which Hillary Clinton received way fewer votes than Barack Obama, thus costing her the election.

But let’s return to the great 81 percent monolith again, a number that hides complex realities among morally and culturally conservative voters. For more information on that, check out this survey by LifeWay Research and the Billy Graham Institute at Wheaton College. Also, click here for a GetReligion podcast on that topic or here for a “On Religion” column I wrote on this topic.

I bring this up because of interesting remarks made during a recent Faith Angle seminar, an ongoing religion-news education project organized by the Ethics & Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C.

The topic this time: “America’s Religious Vote: Midterms and New Trends.” Clicking that link will take you to a website containing a video of the event and, eventually, a transcript. I heard about this through Acts of Faith at The Washington Post, specifically its must-get online newsletter. In a recent edition, religion-beat veteran Michelle Boorstein pointed readers to remarks at that event by Alan Cooperman, director of religion surveys at the Pew Research Center (and a former Post reporter). The Christian Post offered a summary of what Cooperman had to say — focusing on four myths about evangelical voters.

This is interesting stuff, although it doesn’t really explore key fault lines and mixed motives inside that massive white evangelical Trump vote (click here for tmatt’s typology of six different kinds of evangelical voters in 2016 election).

… Cooperman outlined what he says are “straw men” arguments, or “myths,” that he hears being asserted in political discussions today. Four of those myths involve some common misconceptions about white evangelical voters.

Myth 1: Evangelicals are turning liberal or turning against Trump

While there certainly are some white evangelicals who are staunch in their opposition to President Donald Trump, he doesn't see any rise in their numbers in Pew data.

Citing aggregated Pew Research Center data compiled from 2017 to 2018, Cooperman stated that there is “a lot of stability” when it comes to Trump’s approval ratings among self-identified white evangelical or born-again Protestants.

“Right up before the election, aggregated data from our polls over the last several months [showed] 71 percent approval rating for the president [among white evangelicals],” Cooperman said. “If anything, party ID among white evangelical Protestants is trending more Republican. This notion that white evangelical Protestants are turning liberal, I don’t see. … I don’t see it anywhere.”

Now, here is the crucial question: Is saying that “party ID among white evangelical Protestants is trending more Republican” the same thing as saying that all of those white evangelical Protestants wholeheartedly support Trump?

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With elections looming, let’s freshen up that old evangelicals-and-Trump theme

With elections looming, let’s freshen up that old evangelicals-and-Trump theme

Time for reporters who cover politics, or religion, or both, to start planning those big-picture election analyses.

If they’re like The Religion Guy, desks and files are all a-clutter with clippings about why oh why so many evangelicals voted for President Donald Trump and why so many still support him.

Pardon The Guy for once again griping about media neglect of why, oh why, non-Hispanic Catholics also helped deliver the states that gave Trump the White House. Exit polling showed Trump was backed by 81 percent of white evangelicals (with 40 percent casting those votes reluctantly), but also 60 percent of white Catholics.

These numbers are very close to both groups’ Republican support in 2012, but increases from white Catholics’ 52 percent and evangelicals’ 74 percent in 2008.

The fresh angle to exploit is accumulating evidence of broad change across America, with today’s Trumpublican Party as a mere symptom. Presumably Nov. 6 will tell us more about alienated white Americans who resent elitists in education, economics and cultural influence. Here’s some material journalists should ponder.

Recall that in 2012 Charles Murray analyzed five decades of data in “Coming Apart: The State of White America” to profile the growing gap in behavior and values between a thriving upper class that he contrasted with an emerging lower class that suffers eroding family and community life, religion included.

That same year, University of Virginia sociologist W. Bradford Wilcox and colleagues issued a less-noticed but important academic study on the decline of religious and family life for the white working class, under the snappy headline “No Money, No Honey, No Church.”

In April, 2017, pundit Peter Beinart wrote a prescient piece for The Atlantic titled “Breaking Faith.” He contended that a secularized America with so many citizens lacking involvement in religious groups (yes, that much-discussed rise of the “nones”) means many identify the politics of “us” versus “them” in increasingly “primal and irreconcilable ways.”

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Here we go again: New York Times says White House door wide open for all 'evangelicals'

Here we go again: New York Times says White House door wide open for all 'evangelicals'

Before we dive -- yes, it's time to try again -- into another example of "Gosh, all those evangelicals sure do love Donald Trump" coverage, let's pause to, uh, separate the sheep from the goats.

If you understand that image, the odds are good that you are an evangelical or some other brand of Christian who has cracked open a Bible more than once.

Whatever. A few months ago, Sarah Pulliam Bailey of The Washington Post tweeted out a fun little link to a MereOrthodoxy.com "Are you an evangelical?" quiz that is kind of fun. Click here to take the test. (Or click here for her original tweet, which has some interesting comments.)

So I took the test, as a former Southern Baptist preacher's kid from the Jesus Movement era, and scored 10 out of 31. The site's judgement:

Spiritual but not religious: You are definitely not evangelical, but you might still have feelings that you associate with Jesus in some way when you are standing on a mountaintop or contemplating the ocean. 

Well, at least I know where I stand when writing about the press and its struggles to realize the complexities of evangelical identity in this day and age. I would have done better if it included a question asking how many Bruce Cockburn CDs are in my collection (I think I own every note the man has recorded).

Anyway, the New York Times recently (pre-National Prayer Breakfast) weighed in with another report on you know what. The headline: "Evangelicals, Having Backed Trump, Find White House ‘Front Door Is Open’." Once again, readers are told that all "evangelicals" backed Trump and, today, all of them are welcome at the White House." I am sure that will come as a shock to many.

However, this story is slightly better than that headline. At the very least, it acknowledges that even the early, core evangelical supporters of The Donald are a bit more complex than many would think. Hold that thought. First, here is a solid paragraph on why evangelical poll numbers remain high, when it comes to this White House. It starts with the prayer breakfast crowd, saying that the president stood:

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Former GetReligionista explains: Why voting for the 'lesser of two evils' is still evil

Former GetReligionista explains: Why voting for the 'lesser of two evils' is still evil

Often, painful lessons are the ones that matter the most.

That has certainly been the case, over the past two years, for many evangelical Protestants here in America. Could you imagine, in the past, a politician being hit with the kinds of accusations made against GOP Senate nominee Roy Moore -- some of them backed up with impressive on-the-record evidence -- and seeing large numbers of evangelicals claim that they were more determined than ever to vote for him?

At the same time, the Donald Trump era -- broadly defined -- has offered many journalists a chance to realize that evangelicalism, even in predominately white congregations, is not a political and doctrinal monolith.

We are seeing new attention given, at last, to the evangelical left. Many reporters are also learning that there is a difference between evangelicals who enthusiastically embrace a Moore, or a Trump (think primary voters), and those who cast votes for these kinds of men with agonizing reluctance, or refuse to do so at all (think general elections).

The bottom line: Some of the most devastating commentary on Moore, and Trump, has come from scribes with impeccable conservative credentials, in terms of politics and Christian doctrine (the later of which is more important, as far as I am concerned).

With that in mind, please read the following think piece for Joe "GetReligionista Emeritus" Carter, a former mainstream journalist who now edits the website of The Gospel Coalition. The headline: "The Nonpartisan Solution to Our Roy Moore Problem."

This is strong stuff. So let's get started with this summary material near the top.

Journalists and news consumers: As you read this, you should be asking whether or not you have seen this evangelical perspective included in mainstream news coverage of the train wreck in Alabama.

As we have discovered over the past two years, so long as the flawed candidate can be considered the “lesser of two evils” (i.e., not a Democrat), then some evangelicals believe we can vote for them and keep a clean conscience.

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Snowflake alert: New survey research on Americans’ religious identities provokes tweet mini-storm

Snowflake alert: New survey research on Americans’ religious identities provokes tweet mini-storm

The Religion Guy has often lauded the Pew Research Center for its valuable survey research on the state of religion in the United States and worldwide, for instance its new (July 26) report on attitudes of U.S. Muslims, a matter of keen interest for journalists.

But a younger think tank also based in Washington, D.C., the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) is also an important source.

It grabbed headlines this week with its report “America’s Changing Religious Identity.” PRRI proclaims its 2016 telephone poll in English and Spanish of 101,438 respondents  is the largest survey of U.S. religious identity ever. The margin of error is minuscule.

There's lots of news here, some of it old news. But it's still important material.

Key findings underscore the already well-documented rise of religiously unaffiliated “nones” alongside a decline in the preponderance of white Christians. (Protestants as a whole had ceased to be a majority of Americans back around the time of the Barack Obama-John McCain campaign.)

Though evangelical Protestantism long expanded or held steady as white “mainline” Protestant churches declined, evangelicals are beginning a delayed but similar slide, from 23 percent of Americans a decade ago to 17 percent currently. Meanwhile, African-American Protestantism is  largely stable.

A breaking news article on this by the carefully non-ideological Rachel Zoll (disclosure: The Religion Guy’s former beat colleague at The AP) provoked a tweet storm, featuring some snowflakes. One outraged tweeter charged that Zoll was “attempting to pass that off as journalism” and said her copy felt like “the type of garbage that fuels racism. Why do we need to know how many Christians are white?”

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