OK. I get that for lots of people, Donald Trump’s cabinet picks seem like a freak show line-up.
But can we at least try to maintain a little bit of journalistic objectivity when we describe these folks? Yes, this is a debate that's raging all over the place right now. Just ask New York Times executive editor Dean Baquet. And remember the Fixer-Upper couple bouhaha that BuzzFeed tried to ignite two weeks ago (which I wrote about) that blamed the two home remodelers for the views of their pastor?
Lots of folks condemned that sort of damned-by-association style of journalism. In this latest wrap-up of Trump’s cabinet, I see it again in this RNS story.
(RNS) An education secretary who supports school vouchers to get more children into private religious schools. A White House strategist whose ex-wife accused him of anti-Semitism. A national security adviser who called Islam “a political ideology hiding behind a religion.”
After a campaign in which President-elect Donald Trump was accused of trafficking in bigotry and hatred, and of changing his views to win the conservative religious vote, he is choosing Cabinet members who have made controversial statements on religious and ethical issues.
I get the second half of the sentence, but was the first part (on “bigotry and hatred”) necessary? Yes, it is a statement of fact about attacks by Trump critics on the left and right, but still, that is stacking the deck. The article then goes on to list several cabinet nominees:
Pruitt is a member of First Baptist Church of Broken Arrow, Okla., where he has served as a deacon. First Baptist is affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention, which has opposed marriage equality, reproductive rights for women and LGBTQ rights, including bathroom access for transgender people.
My goodness, are these people villains or what? The Southern Baptists also took a strong stand against racism, for refugees and repudiated the Confederate flag at their June meeting. I guess that wasn’t good enough.
Next comes Ben Carson. After mentioning that this apparently Neanderthal man actually believes in a literal six days of creation:
Other controversial opinions he voiced during the campaign were that he “would not agree with” electing a Muslim to be president and that Islam was not consistent with the U.S. Constitution. “Dr. Carson’s views on Islam, American Muslims and the world are dangerously ill-informed and could negatively impact any government agency he heads,” said Nihad Awad of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR).
Could we choose a spokesman from something a bit more centrist than CAIR? How about also quoting someone who likes the guy and who thinks it’s actually progressive of Trump to name a Seventh-day Adventist to this position?
The next person named, James “Mad Dog” Mattis, gets plaudits from the writer (in this news piece) because he disagrees with Trump’s desire to ban Muslim immigration. In the three paragraphs allotted to him, Mattis gets to speak for himself. Helpful, that.
It’s a mixed bag further down the piece. Reince Priebus gets no criticism for being Greek Orthodox. The paragraphs describing Steve Bannon describe him as an anti-Semitic white nationalist although near the end, he’s allowed to speak for himself.
Then comes the summary of Mike Flynn. The middle paragraph reads:
Flynn is a retired intelligence officer and member of the board of advisers for ACT For America, which the Southern Poverty Law Center has called the “largest grassroots anti-Muslim group in America.” He has referred to Islam as a political ideology hiding behind a religion, according to The Dallas Morning News, and tweeted that it is rational to be afraid of Muslims.
Read this Politico story if you want a much more nuanced view of this man; why he views radical Islam as more political than religious and why he is cited as the “the best intelligence officer of his generation” near the end of the piece.
Next come paragraphs describing Jeff Sessions (a Methodist), Mike Pompeo (a Presbyterian) and Betsy DeVos (Reformed); all with varying degrees of criticism with only one quote praising DeVos; Nikki Haley and Tom Price get fairly even treatment. Then comes Steve Mnuchin, who is described thus:
Mnuchin, 53, has been described as “a very smart guy” by Lloyd Blankfein, the CEO of Goldman Sachs who, like Mnuchin, is Jewish, and who, unlike Mnuchin, was the subject of a pre-election advertisement supportive of Donald Trump that some criticized as anti-Semitic.
Ah yes, the anonymous "some" people. Why are we tying Mnuchin with a Trump campaign ad he had nothing to do with? This tie-in is unfair. If any of us were nominated for such a position, it wouldn’t take much for some folks to line up all our bad or questionable points while ignoring the good ones.
So here we have a cabinet with quite a spread of religious diversity from Judaism and Seventh-day Adventism to several varieties of mainline and evangelical Protestant, a former Sikh and a few Catholics thrown in.
The latest pick, Rex Tillerson, is apparently a member of the National Association of Congregationalist Christian Churches. Before we attach his name to any hate groups, remember that he helped implement the Boy Scouts’ decision to allow in openly gay youths. I’m not sure that will persuade some people, but I hope others will realize these Cabinet picks aren’t the one-dimensional personalities they’re portrayed as here.
If you think this RNS story is an outlier, read a similar piece with two bylines that ran the same day. If you think a headline that reads "Evangelicals in Trump's Cabinet: Choice of Pruitt alarms scientists, environmentalists," raises the alarm of flat-Earthers taking over the U.S. government, you're right.
Hey, I personally was aghast at Trump's EPA pick as well, but is it fair to always link evangelical Christianity to climate-change deniers? Yet, the article states:
Pruitt’s pick intensifies concern among science and education professionals about the impact Trump’s Cabinet picks -- many of them evangelical Christians -- could have on the environment, the advancement of science and teaching standards.
Vice President-elect Mike Pence and Dr. Ben Carson, Trump’s pick to head the Department of Housing and Urban Development, are both evangelical Christians and known creationists who adhere to the biblically supported belief that the Earth is only 6,000 years old...
Writing in Scientific American, Devin Powell quotes science education advocates warning that “the legitimization of such nonscientific views at the highest levels of government could trickle down to local policies.”
Like allowing creationism a voice along with evolution? Is that really the end of the world?
It’s easy to paint people with a broad brush and present the cabinet nominees as a bunch of religious fanatic Luddites. It’s better journalism to search out the grey areas, treat people as the complex personalities they are and not link them with the extremist wings of their group. Oh, and is this coverage basically advocating a religious test for who can and who cannot hold public office?
RNS clearly wishes to not do so with their coverage on Muslims. They should extend Christians the same courtesy.