This just in! New York Times probes old, old, old divisions among American evangelicals

If I remember correctly, I wrote my first major feature story on growing divisions among American evangelicals in about 1986, while at The Rocky Mountain News (RIP). It focused on the work of Evangelicals for Social Action, a group that was relevant in Denver because of the work of the late (great) Denver Seminary leader Vernon Grounds (my next-door-neighbor, in terms of office space, while I taught there in the early '90s).

The group's most famous leader is Ron Sider, author of the highly influential book "Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger" -- first released in (note the year) 1978.

The basic idea in the Rocky feature was that there was a growing number of evangelicals who simply did not fit under the already aging Religious Right label. In fact, many -- like Grounds and Sider -- never were part of that movement in the first place.

Folks in this "JustLife" crowd (with a few exceptions) were orthodox on essential doctrinal and moral issues, especially abortion and the defense of traditional marriage, but they were fiercely committed to economic justice, racial equality and peacemaking. They were already struggling to find political candidates -- Democrats or Republicans -- they could support in national campaigns. There were quiet arguments about whether it was right to support third-party candidates or to boycott some elections.

Does any of this sound familiar?

You got it! This is now breaking news in The New York Times, months after that wall-to-wall national media "Evangelicals Love Trump!" thing that helped create momentum for the Donald Trump brand in the GOP primaries. The headline at the Gray Lady proclaims: "Donald Trump Reveals Evangelical Rifts That Could Shape Politics for Years."

Let me stress that this is a good Times story, even if it is very, very, very old news. The basic idea could be summed up like this: All of the old-guard religious conservatives whose names our Amtrak Acela corridor editors recognize are still backing Trump, but there seem to be these other Christian conservatives of various brands who (a) never supported him in the first place or (b) have decided to be more vocal about their opposition to the Donald at this moment in time.

Thus, the Times has spotted a trend. Here is the overture:

When Jen Hatmaker speaks to stadiums full of Christian women, she regales them with stories about her five children and her garden back in Austin, Tex. -- and stays away from politics. But recently she took to Facebook and Instagram to blast Donald J. Trump as a “national disgrace,”and remind her legions of followers that there are other names on the ballot in November. ...
In the nearly four decades since Jerry Falwell Sr. founded a group called the Moral Majority, evangelical Christians have been the Republican Party’s most unified and reliable voting bloc in November presidential elections. The leaders of what came to be known as the religious right were kingmakers and household names, like Pat Robertson, James C. Dobson, Ralph Reed.
But this year, Ms. Hatmaker’s outraged post was one small sign of the splintering of the evangelical bloc and a possible portent of the changes ahead. While most of the religious right’s aging old guard has chosen to stand by Mr. Trump, its judgment and authority are being challenged by an increasingly assertive crop of younger leaders, minorities and women such as Ms. Hatmaker.

So what is the news here? Yes, all of the old evangelical divisions that started showing up a third of a century ago, or earlier, are still there. The crucial Times issue now is -- sit down, because this will be a shocker -- whether young evangelicals will compromise on issues linked to 2,000 years of Christian doctrine about sexuality.

Bet you never saw that one coming, right?

Again let me stress that this Times piece includes quite a few important names from these debates. This piece is a step forward, when it comes to rounding up some important facts and viewpoints about the whole warped "Evangelicals Love Trump!" media fiasco. For example, note the fact that the conservative World magazine (an early source of #NeverTrump facts and trends) and the "moderate" Christianity Today have openly rejected Trump.

But what is the Times thesis? Let us attend (and note the lack of attribution clauses):

The big names who sit atop organizations that function largely as lobbying groups and mobilization squads for the Republican Party have stuck with Mr. Trump despite the lewd comments he made in a 2005 recording, even though he was never their preferred candidate. He wooed them and convinced them that he would appoint Supreme Court justices in the mold of Antonin Scalia, the conservative who died in February. To these pragmatic players, the election boiled down to only two issues, both that could be solved with Supreme Court appointments: stopping abortion and ensuring legal protections for religious conservatives who object to same-sex marriage.
But the evangelicals now challenging the old guard tend to have a broader agenda. They see it as a Christian imperative to care for immigrants and refugees, the poor, the environment and victims of sex trafficking and sexual abuse. Many support criminal justice reform and the aims of the Black Lives Matter movement. While ardently opposed to abortion, some are inclined to be more accepting of same-sex marriage.

Guess what! Most of the progressive #NeverTrump evangelicals I know and read -- the folks with the wider cultural agenda -- are just as worried as ever about stopping abortion and defending the First Amendment, as in free speech, freedom of association and the free exercise of religion. There are even doctrinal conservatives who don't oppose same-sex unions as political and social policy, yet who are equally concerned about defending the rights of religious believers to dissent and follow the doctrines of their faith.

Many are worried about Clinton's impact on America. However, they are even more worried about Trump's impact on the world.

At this point, let's flash back seven months. It will really help -- especially for journalists -- to take the time to watch the Phil "Bob the Tomato" Vischer podcast at the top of this post. Vischer is a very funny, yet serious, man and he is very plugged into the evangelical Christian media subculture that he, ultimately, as transcended.

Listen to all of the nuances that are in this podcast -- from seven months ago -- that are not in the new Times piece. I realize that Times people cannot know everyone and they do not have room to cover all of these points of view. That would be like, oh, asking World to cover a dispute of come kind among Brooklyn hipster spiritualists, academic secularists, liberal Catholics, Upper West Side ecumenical Protestant elites and liberal Jews. There are worlds within our worlds.

Still, it's good that the Times is tuning into the evangelical splits and debates, finally, after several decades. Honest. Please hear me say that.

But there are now larger issues in play that GetReligion has been talking about since Day 1. The basic question remains: What does the word "evangelical" mean? What is the core set of doctrinal (not political) convictions that evangelicals unite to defend?

Yes, it has come to this. It is time for journalists to ask the following doctrinal questions -- the old tmatt trio questions -- among "evangelical" leaders. The questions (as worded in a discussion with the late George Gallup, Jr.):

* Are biblical accounts of the resurrection of Jesus accurate? Did this happen?
* Is salvation found through Jesus, alone? Was Jesus being literal when he said, "I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life. No one comes to the Father except through me."
* Is sex outside of marriage a sin?

Once upon a time, the evangelical answers would have been rather predictable. But now?

Trust me, there are stories lurking between the lines of this Times report.

Stay tuned.

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