Talk about a bad headline! What do you think when you read a headline like this one on the National Public Radio website? A recent "It's All Politics" feature proclaimed: "True Believer? Why Donald Trump Is The Choice Of The Religious Right."
For starters, the "Religious Right" label says more than "evangelical voters." It implies that top leaders on the moral right are jumping onto the Trump mini-bandwagon (with 30-plus percent in polls) in the swarm of GOP White House candidates. It implies, at the very least, that some leaders of big evangelical organizations -- think Concerned Women for America or groups linked to the Southern Baptist Convention -- must be offering muted praise for Trump.
Thus, I assume that this NPR feature was simply the latest in a mainstream media wave linking the vague term "evangelical" with Trump's early surge, a trend I wrote about in a recent "On Religion" column for the Universal syndicate (and the "Crossroads" podcast is here).
That's kind of how this NPR report began, with more of the same old same old.
... Trump is winning over Christian conservatives in the current Republican presidential primary. That's right -- the candidate currently leading among the most faith-filled voters is a twice-divorced casino mogul, who isn't an active member of any church, once supported abortion rights, has a history of crass language -- and who says he's never asked God's forgiveness for any of it.
If that sounds like an Onion story, it's not. His blunt talk against a broken political system in a country rank-and-file evangelicals believe is veering away from its traditional cultural roots is connecting. He pledges to "Make America Great Again," a positive spin on the similar Tea Party refrain of "Take Our Country Back."
That redeeming message -- and his tough talk on immigration, foreign policy and the Republican establishment -- is quite literally trumping traditional evangelical concerns about a candidate's morality or religious beliefs.
Note that the report claims that Trump is "winning over Christian conservatives," as opposed to winning with some Christian conservatives at the local level.
So what does the rest of this NPR report actually show? Actually, key chunks of it totally undercut the headline, providing evidence that key evangelical leaders are, quite frankly, not in Trump's camp and they may be trying to find ways to warn believers about the man's live and work. In fact, the story notes that Trump's rise has " left prominent evangelical leaders in disbelief."
Take this quote, for example, from the Rev. Russell Moore, the articulate leader of the SBC's office in Washington, D.C.
"Trump has made his living as a casino mogul in an industry that preys on the poor and incentivizes immoral and often criminal behavior," said Dr. Russell Moore, head of the influential Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission.
Moore offered a searingly blunt assessment of the current GOP front-runner in an interview with NPR. "He's someone who is an unrepentant serial adulterer who has abandoned two wives for other women," he added. "He's someone who has spoken in vulgar and harsh terms about women, as well as in ugly and hateful ways about immigrants and other minorities. I don't think this is someone who represents the values that evangelicals in this country aspire to."
Whether evangelical voters -- who have been so key to national Republican presidential success -- will heed that message or stick with a candidate who seems so anathema to many of their core beliefs will be tested as the campaign wears on.
The story does quote self-identified evangelicals at rallies who say they hope or believe that Trump is one of them, but who also demonstrate that they don't know much about his religious history and beliefs. NPR does a rather bracing summary of Trump's shaky attempts to talk about sin, Communion, the Bible and his own (maybe) home church.
The key is that, among evangelical voters, Trump is still hovering at the 32 percent mark in the early polls. If he has been anointed by the Religious Right, wouldn't those numbers be rising?
Once again, it's crucial that Trump is a TV celebrity who is bluntly attacking the country-club Republican establishment and that stance seems to appeal to some voters who, well, watch TV more than they go to church. It also appears that some evangelicals want to believe that Trump is on the right path and may, well, be converted. Note this interesting quote from newsman David Brody of the Christian Broadcasting Network:
"They like his boldness. ... It's a kinship in a strange sort of way. Here's the point with evangelicals: they'd rather someone be honest about their views about God. The honesty resonates with them and you know what evangelicals will probably end up doing? Instead of hating Trump, they'll put him on a church 'prayer chain' and get on their knees themselves and pray that Donald Trump draws closer to God through this process."
But, once again, what about the actual leaders on the moral and cultural right?
The NPR story points readers toward a World magazine poll of evangelical leaders that, sure enough, has Trump ranked near the bottom. And near the end, there was this:
Moore contends that polls showing Trump ahead may be inaccurately identifying evangelicals and not differentiating among people who are committed, regular churchgoers. ...
Trump's lack of support among leaders may be because they are skeptical that he's a true believer. In addition to his past support for abortion rights, his divorces and inability to identify Bible verses, questions remain about his moral conviction on abortion and same-sex marriage. And there are holes in his story about something as basic as where he goes to church.
Trump recently agreed with an interviewer's suggestion that a good Supreme Court nominee would be his sister, Maryanne Trump Barry, a judge on the Third Circuit Court of Appeals. But she supports abortion rights. Many of Trump's rivals and conservative groups, like Concerned Women for America, pounced.
So, what about that headline? When it comes to the Religious Right, as a movement, is there a difference between enthusiastic people at a rally and the recognized leaders of major faith-based organizations? This NPR story demonstrates that there is and other journalists would be wise to follow its lead.
Tip: Make a list of the major evangelical denominations and parachurch groups, then list their leaders. Try to find out what they are saying and doing in the months ahead. Find out what issues matter the most to them. Listen to what they have to say, especially if Trump's percentage of the "evangelical" vote ever tops 40 percent and begins to affect people in pulpits and pews, as opposed to holding posters behind rope lines.