Ronald Reagan

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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The mainstream faith of Bush 41: At what point did 'personal' become 'political'?

The mainstream faith of Bush 41: At what point did 'personal' become 'political'?

If you want a summary of what mainstream news professionals think is important — especially the elite scribes who cover politics — all you need to do is read the obituaries published after the death of a president.

What really matters? What subjects are secondary? It’s all there.

With that in mind, I urge readers to work their way through the stunningly faith-free New York Times obituary covering the life and times of former President George H.W. Bush: “George Bush, 41st President, Dies at 94.”

I would offer some commentary on the religious content in this massive feature — but there isn’t any. It would appear that the “personal” is not the “political.”

The bottom line: If you want to know what is real, what is “news,” then you need to study the political. You can see that by comparing the content of the Times obit with the newspaper’s fine sidebar that ran with this headline: “ ‘I Love You, Too’: George Bush’s Final Days.” Here is the overture to that:

George Bush had been fading in the last few days. He had not gotten out of bed, he had stopped eating and he was mostly sleeping. For a man who had defied death multiple times over the years, it seemed that the moment might finally be arriving.

His longtime friend and former secretary of state, James A. Baker III, arrived at his Houston home on Friday morning to check on him.

Mr. Bush suddenly grew alert, his eyes wide open.

“Where are we going, Bake?” he asked.

“We’re going to heaven,” Mr. Baker answered.

“That’s where I want to go,” Mr. Bush said.

Barely 13 hours later, Mr. Bush was dead. The former president died in his home in a gated community in Houston, surrounded by several friends, members of his family, doctors and a minister.

The minister at the former president’s bedside — Father Russell J. Levenson Jr. — was the pastor of the rather traditional Episcopal parish in which Bush was a leader. The same parish received quite a bit of attention when Barbara Bush died. The Times piece noted:

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Religious mystery at heart of Jonestown: Why did this madman's disciples follow him?

Religious mystery at heart of Jonestown: Why did this madman's disciples follow him?

Whenever I think about the Jonestown massacre in 1978, I always think of one question.

No. It’s not, “Why did he do it?”

The Rev. Jim Jones was a classic “cult” leader in every sense of the word, in terms of sociology and doctrine (click here for background on that tricky term). He was an egotistical control freak who was used to having his own way. He took a congregation that started out in liberal mainline Protestantism and then took it all the way over the edge.

No, the question that always haunted me was this one: “Why did THEY do it?”

Why did 900-plus people, to use the phrase that changed history, “drink the Kool-Aid”?

What happened inside their heads and their hearts that led them to follow their preacher into what he called “revolutionary suicide,” rather than face legal authorities?

Yes, they were following a madman. But what was Jones preaching that created this hellish tragedy? WHY did they follow him?

That’s the mystery that host Todd Wilken and I explored during this week’s GetReligion “Crossroads” podcast. Click here to tune that in.

It’s pretty clear that religion was at the heart of this tragedy, even though very few mainstream news organizations — especially those blanketing TV screens with the ghoulish images from Jonestown — saw fit to explore that fact. Few, if any, religion-beat specialists got to cover that story.

Why did editors and producers settle for a splashy, simplistic take on Jonestown? That was the question that I explored in my earlier post on this topic: “Thinking about the Rev. Jim Jones: A classic example of why religion reporters are important.”

As I wrote in that earlier post:

There was no logical explanation for this gap in the coverage (especially in network television). To me, it seemed that newsroom managers were saying something like this: This story is too important to be a religion story. This is real news, bizarre news, semi-political news. Everyone knows that “religion” news isn’t big news.

Yes, there was a deranged minister at the heart of this doomed community. Journalists described him as a kind of “charismatic” neo-messiah, using every fundamentalist Elmer Gantry cliche in the book. OK, so Jones talked about socialism. But he was crazy. He had to be a fundamentalist. Right?

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More Washington Post editorial-page news: Stunning Reagan letter about faith and eternity

More Washington Post editorial-page news: Stunning Reagan letter about faith and eternity

I was never a Ronald Reagan fan. Like many blue dog, pro-life Bible Belt Democrats, I found it impossible to vote for him. One of my closest graduate school friends said that he lost his Christian faith (I am not joking) because he could not worship a God who allowed Reagan to reach the White House.

Reagan was a B-grade actor, a talented but shallow politico. Thus, I was surprised when the evidence began to emerge that Reagan did most of his own reading and writing. It turned out that all of those pre-politics Reagan radio commentaries were not produced by ghost writers and then read on the air by a PR pro. Reagan wrote them, in longhand. He wrote those punch lines. He wrote the paragraphs summarizing all of those books and journal articles.

As a Jimmy Carter-era evangelical, I also had doubts about the depth of Reagan’s Midwestern, old-school mainline Protestant faith.

I say all of that because of an amazing feature that ran the other day in The Washington Post under this headline: “A private letter from Ronald Reagan to his dying father-in-law shows the president’s faith.” It was written by editorial-page columnist Karen Tumulty.

Once again, we face a familiar question: Why was this a topic for an editorial-page feature, instead of the front page or, perhaps, in the newspaper’s large features section? Where would this feature appeared if a letter had emerged containing revelatory information about Reagan’s views on the Soviet Union, his thoughts on aging or even his views on abortion?

Don’t get me wrong. This is a fine essay and the subject material is gripping. The overture:

Something tugged at Ronald Reagan on that otherwise slow August weekend in 1982.

“Again at the W.H.,” the president noted in his diary. “More of Saturdays work plus a long letter I have to write to Loyal. I’m afraid for him. His health is failing badly.”

Loyal Davis, Reagan’s father-in-law and a pioneering neurosurgeon, was just days away from death.

Something else worried Reagan: The dying man was, by most definitions of the word, an atheist.

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Thinking politics, and pop culture, on July 4th in this today's tense and wired America

Thinking politics, and pop culture, on July 4th in this today's tense and wired America

Stop and think about the following question: During the upcoming apocalyptic war over the empty U.S. Supreme Court seat, which group of public intellectuals (and I use that term very loosely) will play the larger role shaping public opinion among ordinary Americans?

(a) Scribes who write New York Times editorials.

(b) Law professors at America's Top 10 law schools.

(c) The writers and hosts of late-night comedy/news talks shows.

(d) The latest blasts from America's Tweeter In Chief, who is a former reality TV show star.

Now, if you've been around for a half century or so, you know that politicians have always paid close attention to the satirical offerings of Saturday Night Live and the late Johnny Carson always had way more political influence than he let on. Who was more skilled when visiting a late-night television show during pre-campaign work, former B-movie actor Ronald Reagan or whoever tried to knock him out of the headlines?

The power of pop culture in politics is nothing new -- but it's on the rise.

With that in mind, let's look at a special 4th of July think piece written by DC Beltway think-tank scribe Mark Rodgers, a former high-ranking GOP staffer in the U.S. Senate. He is probably one of the few people I know with U2's Bono in his smartphone favorites list.

The headline, featuring a popular active verb:

Has (Pop)Culture Trumped Politics?

You need a thesis statement? Here it is the overture:

It’s been a long time coming.

Almost 20 years ago, while working on the Hill and hosting a conversation with UVA sociologist James Davison Hunter over lunch, I recall waking up to the growing impact of the popular culture, and its inevitable trajectory to surpass education, family, faith and journalism as the dominant worldview shaping force in 21st century America, and possibly the world.

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Journalists exploring U.S. evangelicals’ political impact also need to look overseas

Journalists exploring U.S. evangelicals’ political impact also need to look overseas

The Religion Guy has previously complained that the media fixation on socio-political agitation by U.S. evangelical Protestants tends to overlook “mainline” and African-American Protestants, Catholics and Jews, whose congregations over-all may actually be more politicized.

Also neglected is evangelicals’ important political impact on like-minded churches overseas --  and vice versa.

Background on a half-century of activism comes from Melani McAlister, a U.S. foreign policy specialist at The George Washington University who belongs on your sources list. Her “The Kingdom of God Has No Borders: A Global History of American Evangelicals” is great for background or a story theme and the release in August, allowing  relaxed summertime reading. Reporters seeking galleys can contact Oxford University Press: emily.tobin@oup.com or 212-726-6057. 

There’s perennial debate over how to define the term “evangelical.” For starters, they uphold  standard Christian doctrines such as the divinity of Jesus Christ, but McAlister finds three distinct emphases:

(1) An “authoritative” Bible as “central, foundational, believable -- and true.”

(2) Personal faith in Jesus’ death for one’s sin as “the only path to salvation.”

(3) Passion for “evangelizing the world.”

Please note: McAlister includes U.S. Protestant “people of color,” who are heavily evangelical in faith, though analysts usually treat them separately.

Looked at internationally, she says, “evangelical politics are not just about abortion and same-sex marriage but colonialism and neocolonialism, war and global poverty, religious freedom and Islam.”

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Preparing for real #SBC2018 debates -- It's not 'moderates' vs. 'fundies,' these days

Preparing for real #SBC2018 debates -- It's not 'moderates' vs. 'fundies,' these days

If you look at a timeline of events in American culture, there is no question that the great revolt by Southern Baptist conservatives was linked -- in part -- to Roe v. Wade and the rise of Ronald Reagan and his mid-1970s campaign against the GOP country-club establishment. 

But if journalists want to understand the priorities of the current leadership of the Southern Baptist Convention, they need to back up and look at some other events as well. It's important to understand what young SBC conservatives (male and female) want to change and what they don't want to change.

OK, let's start back in the 1940s, '50s and '60s, when SBC conservatives became worried that theological trends in liberal Protestant denominations were seeping into their own seminaries. Truth be told: There were not many truly liberal Southern Baptists out there -- on issues such as the virgin birth and resurrection of Jesus -- but they did exist.

Southern Baptists who were worried about all of that, and SBC agencies backing abortion rights, kept running into institutional walls. They were called paranoid "fundies" (short for "fundamentalists") and hicks who lived in the sticks and they had little input into national SBC committees and agencies.

In reality, there was a small SBC left and a larger SBC hard right, framing a vast, ordinary evangelical SBC middle. But the "moderates" were hanging onto control.

Then the Rev. Jimmy Allen organized an establishment machine that pulled his own loyal "messengers" into the 1977 Southern Baptist Convention, insuring his election and control over the committee on committees that shaped SBC institutions. He won again in 1978.

Leaders on the right -- like the (now all but exiled) Rev. Paige Patterson, Judge Paul Pressler and others -- took careful notes and decided they could play that game before the fateful 1979 Houston convention. They built a church-bus machine that beat the old "moderates," then they did that again year after year.

Now, what does that have to do the big issues in the current crisis? Let's walk our way through a passage in a pre-SBC 2018 background piece at The Washington Post, a story that also details recent events linked to the fall of Patterson from power.

... Patterson knew how to make things happen in the late 1970s and ’80s when he and others on the far right grew increasingly worried about the convention becoming more moderate on the key question of the Bible’s inerrancy, including on the place of women and the family.

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About that Michael Gerson think piece: Why (many) evangelicals got hooked by Donald Trump

About that Michael Gerson think piece: Why (many) evangelicals got hooked by Donald Trump

Here is a really obscure fact about American politics that you may not have heard about: Did you know that lots of white evangelical Protestants voted for Donald Trump in 2016?

I know. It's really strange, but it must be true -- because it's in all the newspapers, week after week after week after week.

As I have noted before, it's true that there were evangelical "early adopters" who helped Trump get the 30 percent votes that he needed to gain momentum in the early primaries. As his candidacy became inevitable, many other evangelicals bit their lips and signed on -- many keeping their hard choice private. The best story to read remains this feature at Christianity Today: "Pew: Most Evangelicals Will Vote Trump, But Not For Trump."

Why has the press been so focused on white evangelicals? Trump isn't president today because lots of evangelicals -- for various reasons -- backed him. He is president because lots of blue-collar and labor Democrats voted for him in crucial states. Many of them were white Catholics. Where is the tsunami of coverage of those crucial niches in American politics?

I bring all this up -- again -- because this weekend's think piece is the must-read Michael Gerson cover story at The Atlantic that ran under this double-decker headline:

The Last Temptation
How evangelicals, once culturally confident, became an anxious minority seeking political protection from the least traditionally religious president in living memory

The key part of that headline is the reference to "seeking political protection." Hold that thought, because we will come back to it. Meanwhile, here is the overture:

One of the most extraordinary things about our current politics -- really, one of the most extraordinary developments of recent political history -- is the loyal adherence of religious conservatives to Donald Trump.

 

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New York Times offers solid Religious Left update, with skewed headline that's LOL territory

New York Times offers solid Religious Left update, with skewed headline that's LOL territory

Every now and then, newspapers need to go out of their way to correct errors found in headlines, but not in stories.

This would, for example, help news consumers understand that headlines -- 99.9 percent of the time -- are written by copy-desk editors who do not consult with the professionals who actually reported, wrote and edited the story in question.

My first full-time job in journalism was working as a copy editor -- laying out news pages, doing final edits and, yes, writing headlines. It's hard work and you rarely have time to visit the newsroom for debates with reporters about the wording of headlines.

Anyway, one of the big religion-beat stories of the weekend ran at The New York Times with this double-decker headline: 

Religious Liberals Sat Out of Politics for 40 Years. Now They Want in the Game.
Faith leaders whose politics fall to the left of center are getting more involved in politics to fight against President Trump’s policies

That top line is simply wrong. Anyone who has worked the religion beat in recent decades knows that it is wrong -- wrong as in factually wrong.

Read carefully, and note that the headline does not accurately state the primary thesis by religion-beat veteran Laurie Goodstein in this summary material up top:

Across the country, religious leaders whose politics fall to the left of center, and who used to shun the political arena, are getting involved -- and even recruiting political candidates -- to fight back against President Trump’s policies on immigration, health care, poverty and the environment.
Some are calling the holy ruckus a “religious resistance.” Others, mindful that periodic attempts at a resurgence on the religious left have all failed, point to an even loftier ambition than taking on the current White House: After 40 years in which the Christian right has dominated the influence of organized religion on American politics -- souring some people on religion altogether, studies show -- left-leaning faith leaders are hungry to break the right’s grip on setting the nation’s moral agenda.

I would question one piece of that statement. When did religious progressives (defined in terms of doctrine) ever "shun the political arena"?

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