National Prayer Breakfast

2020 and the religious right: 'If Trump loses evangelical support, you can stick a fork in him'

2020 and the religious right: 'If Trump loses evangelical support, you can stick a fork in him'

Frank Lockwood is not your ordinary Washington, D.C., correspondent.

His career trajectory has featured a mix of political reporting and stints as religion editor for the Lexington Herald-Leader and later the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

At one point, he was known — as GetReligion’s archives attest — as the “Bible Belt Blogger.”

So when my Google News Alert for mentions of “evangelicals” turned up a Lockwood piece on President Donald Trump’s cozy relationship with evangelical leaders, I wasn’t surprised to find an insightful piece.

Lockwood, who has reported for the Democrat-Gazette from the nation’s capital since 2015, gets politics and religion. And he works for a newspaper that still strives hard to report stories such as this in an impartial, balanced manner — as in, no snark concerning Trump and the religious voters who make up such a crucial part of his base.

The Democrat-Gazette’s lede:

Evangelicals, who were crucial to President Donald Trump's election, are pleased thus far with their White House ally, prominent leaders say.

The New York Republican is counting on his Christian conservative base to help him win a second term.

"I love the evangelicals. And they love me," Trump said in February, repeating a line he had also employed during the 2016 campaign.

The strength of that relationship will matter on Election Day 2020, pollsters say.

Without a fired-up white evangelical voting base, Trump's possible pathways to a second term narrow considerably, according to pollster Robert P. Jones, CEO of the Public Religion Research Institute.

"They're a quarter of all voters and they vote 80 percent Republican, so it's a very important constituency on the Republican side of politics," said Jones, the author of The End of White Christian America.

Why report this story now?

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Concerning Trump and the National Prayer Breakfast: Here's a byline you'll be glad to see again

Concerning Trump and the National Prayer Breakfast: Here's a byline you'll be glad to see again

I clicked the link and couldn’t help but smile at the byline.

Sarah Pulliam Bailey, an award-winning religion writer for the Washington Post, took several months off after the death of her baby girl.

Those on the GetReligion team have prayed often for our friend and former colleague, who was one of the regular contributors when I first started writing for this journalism-focused website back in 2010.

So I was pleased when I clicked the link to the Post’s coverage of today’s National Prayer Breakfast and saw Bailey’s byline again. The Godbeat has missed her exceptional reporting skills and insight.

Here is the lede from Bailey and fellow Post religion writer Julie Zauzmer:

Since his campaign, President Trump has taken a page from President Reagan’s playbook.

“I know you can’t endorse me,” Reagan famously told a room full of evangelicals in 1980. “But . . . I want you to know that I endorse you.”

Whenever he takes the stage in front of conservative Christians, Trump uses those opportunities to remind them of his promises, like appointing Supreme Court justices who could help overturn Roe v. Wade and making “Merry Christmas” a more common greeting during the holidays.

“We’re going to protect Christianity,” Trump said during a 2016 speech at Liberty University.

On Thursday morning, during an address to the National Prayer Breakfast, Trump was explicit. 

“I will never let you down. I can say that. Never," he told leaders from all over the globe, including clergy, diplomats and lobbyists. The annual event at the Washington Hilton especially attracts conservative evangelicals jockeying to rub shoulders with Washington’s elite. Every president since Dwight D. Eisenhower has attended the event that draws several thousand people, and this year’s event was co-chaired by Sen. James Lankford, (R-Okla.) and Sen. Christopher A. Coons (D-Del.).

Coons, by the way, was the focus of a recent Religion News Service profile by national correspondent Jack Jenkins. The headline: “In polarized Washington, a Democrat anchors bipartisan friendships in faith.” Earlier, I profiled Lankford, an ordained Southern Baptist pastor, for RNS.

Keep reading the Post story on the National Prayer Breakfast, and Bailey and Zauzmer offer helpful analysis from experts on Trump’s relationship with evangelicals and how his positions on certain issues resonate with them.

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In Russia coverage, the National Prayer Breakfast is a convenient whipping boy

In Russia coverage, the National Prayer Breakfast is a convenient whipping boy

I covered the National Prayer Breakfast once or twice, which sounds glamorous, but it was a thankless job in that the organizers loathed the media and the only sure way to get access was to be part of the White House press pool.

One rises at some ungodly hour to get to downtown Washington, D.C., through the security at the White House and into the press room, where we were all crammed into three black SUVs at the end of a long line of cars headed for the Washington Hilton.

Reporters were ordered into one corner of the room, then told to leave as soon as the president took his leave. This was confounding in that I’d been told I needed to report on the main speaker, which the president doesn’t always linger to listen to. During my first time at this event, as the pool headed out the back door, I leapt into the audience where I grabbed an empty seat. The Secret Service was not happy with me.

You see, I knew that the real story of the gathering wasn’t so much the massive breakfast, but all the wheeling and dealing going on before and afterwards. A lot of foreign officials showed up, with the mistaken impression they could get face time with the president, while a small army of people did their best to introduce these foreign contingents to Christianity. 

Which is why I was pleased to see the recent New York Times story on the machinations behind the breakfast. Unfortunately other publications have chimed in by alleging that what’s behind the breakfast is actually a right-wing conspiracy involving the Russians.

The truth is more complex. Here is the top of the Times piece:

WASHINGTON -- With a lineup of prayer meetings, humanitarian forums and religious panels, the National Prayer Breakfast has long brought together people from all over the world for an agenda built around the teachings of Jesus.

But there on the guest list in recent years was Maria Butina, looking to meet high-level American officials and advance the interests of the Russian state, and Yulia Tymoshenko, a Ukranian opposition leader, seeking a few minutes with President Trump to burnish her credentials as a presidential prospect back home.

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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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National Prayer Breakfast finally gets the intelligent coverage it has long deserved

National Prayer Breakfast finally gets the intelligent coverage it has long deserved

Covering the National Prayer Breakfast, always on the first Thursday of February, is a lot tougher than it looks. First, you have to be up before the crack of dawn to drive downtown, find a parking place and make your way to one of the White House gates where you have to go through a security check before sprinting over to the press briefing room in the West Wing where you’re directed to a convoy of about 20 cars.

The reporters and photographers (along with camera equipment) all have to cram into the last three cars for the mile-or-so long ride to the Washington Hilton, where some 3,800 people are waiting for the President to arrive. While he strides onstage, the press pool gets to pile off to one side. After the president makes his remarks, he then leaves, taking the reporters with him.

I was always tasked with covering the religion angle of the event, so returning to the White House with the event only half over wasn’t in my best interests at all. I ended up leaping from the stage onto the ballroom floor and finding an empty seat, much to the consternation of Secret Service folks who yelled at me for breaking some obscure protocol. (Apparently if you come with the president, you’re expected to depart with him).

One of my aims was to put together something interesting about the prayer breakfast, itself. You see, very few media bothered to cover it –- or at least cover it well -- back in the George W. Bush era, which was when I was there. More than a decade later, I’m glad to see the coverage has gotten much more sophisticated, no doubt because the evangelicals organizing the breakfast have become power players in their own right.   

So I want to call attention to some of the more creative ways the breakfast was covered this year. It’s no secret that the prayer breakfast is part of a multi-day conference that involves a lot of secret gatherings that reporters know about, but rarely can sneak into. Michelle Boorstein of the Washington Post found out about an alliance of evangelicals and Muslims connected with the breakfast. 

The best paragraphs were the following:

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Is everything just politics? How The New York Times, others viewed death of evangelical Doug Coe

Is everything just politics? How The New York Times, others viewed death of evangelical Doug Coe

Barely four weeks after the February 2 National Prayer Breakfast he managed for so many years, evangelical lay pastor Doug Coe died on February 21 of complications from a heart attack and a stroke. He was 88, and had for 48 years led the Fellowship Foundation, referred to in some accounts as the International Foundation and as a private group also known as The Family.

The late German novelist Thomas Mann is credited with first saying "Everything is political," and one might derive that impression from looking at The New York Times and other media accounts of Coe's life and work, something a GetReligion reader noted in calling our attention to the Gray Lady's obituary.

Take it away, Times:

Mr. Coe was regarded by many political and business leaders as a spiritual mentor who blurred the line between religion and philosophy. Many in his orbit, including presidents and members of Congress of both major parties, described him as a quiet organizer who used spirituality to build relationships, often with unlikely allies.
In her 2003 memoir, “Living History,” Hillary Clinton recalled Mr. Coe as “a genuinely loving spiritual mentor and guide to anyone, regardless of party or faith, who wants to deepen his or her relationship with God and offer the gift of service to others in need.”
As a senator from New York, Mrs. Clinton was also a frequent attendee of a smaller weekly prayer group for members of Congress that Mr. Coe led personally for years.

Yes, but did that have an impact on party politics?

It's not possible, I suppose, that someone could merely work privately to advance an understanding of their religious beliefs. Nope, there has to be something else behind it, right?

Saith the Times

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What is news? NASCAR America collides, at National Prayer Breakfast, with politics of NPR America

What is news? NASCAR America collides, at National Prayer Breakfast, with politics of NPR America

About a third of a century ago, back when I was doing graduate work in mass communications at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign, I started calling up editors and asking them a simple question: Why doesn't your newsroom -- mostly newspapers, back then -- do more to cover religion news?

These interviews ended up being part of my graduate project, which was edited down and ran as a massive cover story -- "The Religion Beat: Out of the ghetto, into the mainsheets" -- at the professional journal called The Quill

Editors gave me all kinds of reasons for their limited coverage of the Godbeat, but there were two reasons that I heard more than any other:

(1) Religion news is too boring (and no one wants to cover it).

(2) Religion news is too controversial (and causes our readers to get too riled up and they write too many leaders to the editor).

And there you had it: The world was just full -- too full, it seemed -- of boring, controversial religion stories. Between the lines, these journalists seem to be saying that religion was boring to THEM, yet they could not figure out why THEIR READERS seemed to care so much about it. Thus, the strange blend of boredom and controversy.

I thought about that this week when "Crossroads" podcast host Todd Wilken and I were talking about that controversial speech that President Barack Obama gave at the recent National Prayer Breakfast.

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Who is calling who a 'crusader'? Obama enters a minefield at the National Prayer Breakfast

Who is calling who a 'crusader'? Obama enters a minefield at the National Prayer Breakfast

There is an old saying in baseball that "nothing good ever follows a walk."

In the world of religion, that's how I feel about references to the Crusades and the Inquisition. (Oh yeah, and comparing public figures to Adolf Hitler.) We are talking about very complicated and controversial historical subjects, here. It's hard to turn the Crusades and Medieval theological disputes (yes, some leading to combat) into modern one-liners.

President Barack Obama and his speech-writing team are learning about that right now, after he used the Medieval C-word in his address at this year's National Prayer Breakfast. Here is a key early slice of The Washington Post report:

... At a time of global anxiety over Islamist terrorism, Obama noted pointedly that his fellow Christians, who make up a vast majority of Americans, should perhaps not be the ones who cast the first stone.
“Humanity has been grappling with these questions throughout human history,” he told the group, speaking of the tension between the compassionate and murderous acts religion can inspire. “And lest we get on our high horse and think this is unique to some other place, remember that during the Crusades and the Inquisition, people committed terrible deeds in the name of Christ. In our home country, slavery and Jim Crow all too often was justified in the name of Christ.”
Some Republicans were outraged.

Note how the piece immediately turns this into a political story. That's refreshing, isn't it?

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Obama erases the 'scare quotes' around religious freedom?

In recent years, there has been quite a bit of discussion at GetReligion about the ways in which mainstream journalists use “scare quotes” as a way to suggest which causes they see as questionable, as opposed to social, political, cultural or religious causes that they believe are serious concerns. Consider, for example, the terms “religious liberty” — a very common term in First Amendment law and studies — and “religious freedom.”

You may recall that Washington Post headline not that long ago that ran above a relevant Religion News Service piece:

Activists gather to plot defense of ‘religious liberty’

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