As you would imagine, I am still digging through stacks and stacks of emails and (digital) news clips in the wake of the Election Day earthquake and the news-media meltdown that followed. You don't even want to know the size of my email in-box right now.
While doing that, I came across a think piece on the election results -- from Australia, of all places -- that contained a useful typology that journalists might want to study. This is especially true for reporters who are sincerely interested in what happened with American evangelicals, especially those in predominately white congregations.
It helps to know that the author of this piece. the Rev. Michael Bird, is an Anglican priest and theologian, linked to Ridley College in Melbourne, who also blogs and writes essays of this kind for the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. The bland and rather wonkish headline on this particular piece was: "US election: Why did evangelicals vote for Donald Trump?"
The key to the piece is that this is not the question that interested him the most. The heart of the essay focused on another question that should be more interesting to journalists: Who are these Americans who everyone keeps calling "evangelicals" and leaving it at that?
Early on, Bird notes that he was in Houston during the GOP primaries and delivered a lecture attended by quite a few conservative Christians.
I began my talk by asking three questions: Why don't Americans use the metric system? Why is the cheese orange? And who are the evangelicals who are voting for Donald Trump?
I got a response of riotous laughter because just about everyone there supported Ted Cruz and hoped a local Texan would defeat the vulgar New Yorker. I asked the last question because, among my hundreds of American evangelical friends, colleagues, and acquaintances, I could count all of the Donald Trump supporters I knew on one hand.
So when Trump won the election, like many of my American evangelical friends, I was both shocked and despondent. But as the electoral fog clears, I now think I'm figuring out which evangelicals voted for Trump and why.
Answering his question about evangelicals -- again, we are talking about voters in predominately white flocks -- turned out to be more complicated than he expected. It appears that he was reading much of the same material online and hearing from some of the same evangelical voices as some of your GetReligionistas.
The key: (a) Some evangelicals wanted to vote for Trump. (b) Some evangelicals didn't want to vote for Trump, but believed that they simply had to defeat Hillary Rodham Clinton, no matter what. (c) Some evangelicals could not stomach voting for Trump or Clinton and found various third options.
With that as a backdrop, here is Bird's analysis of the state of American (white) evangelicalism in the wake of this election.
Trump has clearly divided evangelicals, particularly between the old guard religious right, and the new generation who is eager to embrace multi-ethnic America and move forward in a confident pluralism in which America's Christian heritage is respected. Given those divisions, the evangelical voting bloc can be divided into three basic tiers.
First, the "America, God, and guns" evangelicals. These people are "evangelical" in a political and cultural sense.
They might only have limited or spasmodic church attendance, and rudimentary knowledge of Christianity, but they identify conservative religion as an indelible part of the overall cultural conservatism to which they are committed.
This fits well with the early reporting from World magazine, Christianity Today and others. Many of these evangelicals were, to be blunt, cultural evangelicals in rural areas in the Bible Belt and Midwest.
Journalists, note the emphasis on concern about the impact of Trump's campaign on race relations -- which can be seen as a concern about the public witness of evangelical bodies that are making genuine efforts at racial reconciliation. For example, as I have stressed before: You cannot understand what is happening in the Southern Baptist Convention at the moment without paying attention to the growth of its predominately African-American and Latino congregations.
Second, "hold the nose evangelicals". These are the people who personally eschewed Trump's behaviour and racist rhetoric, but regarded him as the lesser of two evils.
They were concerned that Hillary Clinton would appoint activist judges to the Supreme Court, attack religious liberty, expand federal funding for abortion, and end democracy as they knew it. For them, Trump is a necessary evil.
In other words, everything begins and ends with the growing power of the U.S. Supreme Court in shaping American life, accompanied by waves of executive orders from the White House.
Finally, there was this:
Third, what I call the irenic evangelicals: those committed to the same beliefs and ethics as former generations, but who do not prize political influence at the expense of electing a morally compromised candidate who is likely to inspire resentment of racial and ethnic minorities.
They would rather have elected an inclusive democrat than a xenophobic demagogue with a history of sexual harassment.
I am not sure about that final statement. I kept looking and I never met any evangelicals (here in Tennessee or in New York City) who welcomed a Clinton 2.0 era. I met many who simply could not, in good conscience, pull the voting-box lever for either candidate.
In other words, did Bird -- in the end -- get a bit simplistic and combine the world of progressive evangelicals (and they do exist) with that of the #NeverHillary #NeverTrump evangelicals who were arguing that the church was being tempted to bow down and worship at the altar of partisan politics?
Let me end with one other note for journalists -- a name journalists might want to add to their Twitter feed. Yes, let me note that Dr. Anthony B. Bradley is a colleague of mine at The King's College in New York City, but he shows up in this essay in a major Australian media forum.
Back to Bird:
All of that said, my impression is that religion was not the single biggest factor shaping the vote for Trump by white evangelicals. This election was mostly a rural versus urban phenomenon. ...
Like most people, I assumed Trump would be trashed on November 8. However, a man I know, Dr Anthony Bradley, an African-American scholar at the evangelical King's College, has been telling everyone all year to watch out for the rural white vote.
Bradley has pointed to books like Not Quite White: White Trash and the Boundaries of Whiteness by Matt Wray, and Hillbilly Elegy by JD Vance, to explain what is happening in American society that has led to the Trump phenomenon. It seems Bradley was right.
So what is the take-away here? Cultural evangelicalism still matters, especially in Bible Belt and rural America. But wise reporters will keep their eyes on evangelicals who are working to promote cooperation and reconciliation between evangelicals -- black, white, Latino and otherwise.
What is happening among urban evangelicals? Hint: It's not all about politics.