No, they're not all alike: Associated Press explores evangelical divisions over Trump

We've been drowning in articles Trumpeting (sorry, it just slipped out) the relationship between evangelicals and the Republican presidential front runner. An in-depth piece by religion-beat veteran Rachel Zoll stands out in the crowded collection.

The Associated Press' veteran religion writer carefully, intelligently lays out why some theologically conservative Christians vote for Donald Trump -- and some don't. Just as importantly, she consults insiders who know evangelicals beyond the usual stereotypes.

The article just lacks one important ingredient. See if you can guess it.

For now, here is how AP maps the field:

As Trump's ascendancy forces the GOP establishment to confront how it lost touch with so many conservative voters, top evangelicals are facing their own dark night, wondering what has drawn so many Christians to a twice-divorced, profane casino magnate with a muddled record on abortion and gay marriage.
John Stemberger, a Trump critic and head of the Florida Family Policy Council, an affiliate of Focus on the Family, said many evangelicals have changed. Litmus tests that for so long defined the boundaries for morally acceptable candidates seem to have been abandoned by many Christians this year, he said, no matter how much evangelical leaders try to uphold those standards.
"Evangelicals are looking at those issues less and less. They've just become too worldly, letting anger and frustration control them, as opposed to trusting in God," Stemberger said.

Too worldly?

Yikes, them's fightin' words for evangelicals. At least, they used to be. But Stemberger himself is a card-carrying evangelical, in a state known for a fair number of them.

As AP says, Trump has won the votes of one-third of self-identified born-again Christians in Republican primaries thus far -- more than Southern Baptist Ted Cruz in eight of them. Even the Rev. Jerry Falwell Jr., son of the late fundamentalist crusader, personally endorsed Trump.

This is dismaying to evangelical leaders who remark that Trump "has never sought God's forgiveness for his sins, botches Bible references and, on a recent campaign visit to church, mistook a communion plate for a donation plate," the AP story says.

But many evangelicals don’t seem to care. A Southern Baptist pastor from northwestern Florida gives secular reasons for supporting Trump: "We're not electing a priest, a pope or a pastor. We're electing a president, a CEO, a commander in chief." And a musician in Virginia likes Trump for saying things "that a lot of people want to say but are scared to say because of this crazy political correctness."

Zoll notes, however -- and here is where assigning a specialist pays off -- that conservative rebellion isn’t news. Some tried back in 2012 to steer the GOP to nominate Rick Santorum as the presidential choice.

But once again we face the essential journalistic question: Are the Trumpers the evangelical mainstream?

In answer, the article reports an October survey from the Public Religion Research Institute that found Trump most attracts working-class whites who don’t hold college degrees or attend church at least weekly. "Cultural Christianity," Southern Baptist activist Russell Moore calls it, in which people identify as evangelical even if they're not observant. That, too, is something you won't often read in primary coverage.

Other leading Christians likewise denounce Trump's approach. P.R. specialist Mark DeMoss says scripture doesn't support Trump's demeanor or vocabulary. Hobby Lobby chief David Green says most Christians wouldn't want their children to grow up to be like Trump. Even the normally apolitical author Max Lucado faults a man who "calls on Christ one day and calls someone a 'bimbo' the next."

Not all of those quotes, mind you, are original; some are borrowed from places like Fox News and Christianity Today.  But Zoll still deserves praise for recognizing the names and spotting the pattern.

OK, have you guessed the gap in this story by now? Well, while chatting up evangelical divisions, the article neglects the basic question:

What's the definition of an evangelical? We heard from upset readers about this:

"The complaint is that the piece offers nothing to define the term, other than implied political content," tmatt told me after getting texts criticizing AP. Valid point. Many reporters and pollsters just allow people to classify themselves as evangelicals. Shouldn't they use standards a little more objective?

Of course, tmatt and the rest of our team has been writing on this over the past few days. One column quotes Nathan Finn of Union University, who says all evangelicals are "committed to the full authority and sufficiency of scripture, the necessity of personal conversion, the centrality of the atonement and the mandate to spread the Gospel to all people." But two caveats: Believers differ on the "finer points" of those, as well as social and political applications.

Finn adds that evangelical beliefs are also affected by things like region, income, frequency of church attendance, ethnicity and education level. This is, of course, why a third of them, rather than the majority of them, voted for Trump.

The other recent tmatt post quotes Christianity Today extensively. That article, too, checks off elements of evangelical belief: authority of the Bible, the sufficiency of Jesus' sacrificial death for salvation and the need to trust in him alone as savior.

One CT remark stuck out for me: "The desire to survey white evangelicals to determine their political interests inadvertently ends up conveying two ideas that are not true: that 'evangelical' means 'white' and that evangelicals are primarily defined by their politics."  If that's true, it becomes circular logic: trying to "learn" the politics of people whom you’ve already defined by their politics.

That said, the AP article does better than most at narrating the debate within evangelical ranks, rather than assume they're all alike and they're all for Trump. Zoll's piece is valuable for getting inside the diversity of the evangelical world, from Russell Moore in the top rungs to the musician at street level.

Still, there is one thing I would like to see explored: a way out, a way through, a view of the future -- both for Republicans and for evangelicals. There is, of course, no step-by-step plan at this point, when everyone is still trying to grasp the situation. But I'm sure leaders have discussed ideas. I would love someone, perhaps Zoll herself, to collect them in another in-depth.

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