Playing the Trump card: Newspaper spots evangelical 'identity crisis,' with little evidence

"New school" evangelicals lean toward Donald Trump. Old-liners like Ted Cruz. That shows a "crisis" among evangelicals.

A guy in Washington said so. That's good enough for a newspaper advancing the South Carolina primary. Even if its own report doesn't bear that out.

Evangelicalism, "like the Republican party itself, finds itself in the midst of an identity crisis," an article in Bloomberg declares confidently. That "fact" will split their votes between "new school evangelicals," who lean toward Trump, and more traditional believers who prefer Ted Cruz.

Dang, this story is pretty sure of itself:

In new school churches, altars are often replaced by elaborate stages with light shows that rival backdrops from "American Idol" performances. Holy water fountains are converted into jacuzzi-sized baptism pools. For the purveyors of this flashier packaging of Christianity, it's all part of an effort to shepherd disenfranchised Christians back to Jesus, much in the same way that Trump is able to convert his own celebrityhood and financial success into a political following that attracts first-time voters.
"There's a self-identifying factor these new school evangelicals have with Donald Trump," said Dean Nelson, chairman of the Douglass Leadership Institute, a socially-conservative Christian coalition network based in Washington D.C., that is not affiliated with any candidate.
Cruz, meanwhile, is going after more traditional evangelicals, many of whom frown upon the material trappings of the emerging new school movement. Nelson said that they focus more on the Bible's teachings and place less emphasis on personal wealth. It's a church culture, Nelson said, that's more akin to ultraconservatives like Bob Jones and they're more likely to be conservative hard-liners on social issues, just like Cruz.

What's wrong with this appraisal? Well, gee, what isn’t?

The article, also published in the Kentucky-based Messenger-Inquirer, offers no studies or surveys to prove its case. Nor does Nelson, the think-tanker in the above excerpt (and we'll get back to him in a moment). I've known about the "emerging" contemporary evangelicalism and the so-called prosperity gospel for at least four decades. And two examples in the article contradict its own thesis.

Bloomberg says white evangelical voters in South Carolina prefer Trump over Cruz -- 42 to 23 percent, according to a CNN poll this month. Do the Trump lovers affiliate with "new school" evangelical churches? The story doesn't say. The only South Carolina Trump supporter cited here is Pastor Mark Burns -- as the newspaper admits, "an African American pastor who previously voted for Barack Obama." That hardly makes him a typical white evangelical.

Burns was probably picked as Exhibit A because he founded the prosperity-oriented NOW Network, which broadcasts in upstate South Carolina, northern Georgia and western North Carolina.  But the article makes him sound more old-school gospel:

"Millions of people have declared, 'What are you doing? Why in the world are you supporting someone that the whole world says is a racist? That the whole world may say is a bigot? That the whole world may say is wrong?'" Burns, an African American pastor who previously voted for Barack Obama, shouted from the pulpit.
"It is called listening to the voice of the Holy Spirit," said Burns, reaching for a towel to wipe sweat from his scalp. "Even those who declared, 'Hosanna, Jesus has come, the Messiah has come,' were the same people who said, 'Crucify him.' "

Still trying to show an evangelical crisis of some kind or another, Bloomberg cites the Hartford Institute for Religious Research, which counts more than 30 churches with weekly attendance of more than 2,000 people in South Carolina. The assumption here is that megachurches fall into the "new school evangelical" category, putting less stress on the Bible and more on wealth. Yet nobody comes out and says so. And some big, big Baptist churches -- like First of Dallas and First of Hammond, Ind. -- are famous for their resolute conservatism.

But the book is by no means closed on white evangelicals. Monmouth University in New Jersey this week said one-third of them support Trump, versus 17 percent for Cruz -- a big difference from CNN's numbers. And how many are purported new schoolers isn’t itemized. The Monmouth study came out on Wednesday, but the Messenger-Inquirer doesn't account for it, although its article ran yesterday.

At least one megachurch pastor does agree with the newspaper on who votes for whom. "Ted is going after the more traditional evangelical vote and Donald Trump seems to be going after the more contemporary vote,"  says Pastor Perry Noble of NewSpring Church in Anderson, S.C.  But Noble doesn't equate megachurches with the contemporary vote. He hasn't even endorsed anyone himself.

So who likes Cruz? The article cites Mark Harris, "the prominent North Carolina pastor who vehemently fought against same-sex marriage." Harris says he's endorsing Cruz because he believes people "hunger for a wise commander-in-chief, a leader who respects our Constitution and fears the Lord."

OK, that sounds pretty traditional. But it says nothing about Harris' ministerial style, the size of his church or his beliefs about prosperity.  

A worse example in the article is Cruz's appearance last week with Glenn Beck at MorningStar Fellowship Church in Fort Mill, S.C. "Too many people are looking at a guy like Donald Trump and believing that he ever opened up a Bible," Beck says at the rally. "That is the biggest crock of bullcrap that I have ever heard."

An avowed Mormon using language like "crock of bullcrap," and that's supposed to show Cruz' overtures to traditional Christians?

I doubt that anyone who knows much about MorningStar would confuse it with a traditional congregation. It is very much a neo-Pentecostal, "full gospel" church, blending conservative social beliefs with emphases like prophecy. MorningStar is actually a conglomerate, including a TV channel, an online magazine and a podcast. The Rev. Rick Joyner has written several books, on topics like inspiration, prophecy and Bible study. And the very site of the church is the former site of the Rev. Jim Bakker's Heritage U.S.A. All of that fits the "new school" mode more than any image of tradition.

The only good part of this story is quoting an alleged expert for its thesis, rather than having a reporter say it himself. But although the Douglass Leadership Institute studies public policy from a black Christian Republican perspective, I don’t see any research on its website supporting Dean Nelson's opinions.

Finally, Bloomberg doesn't account for the public endorsement on Wednesday by South Carolina's governor, Nikki Haley -- neither for Cruz nor Trump, but for Marco Rubio. Writing in The Week, Sarah Posner says the real fault line in evangelicalism is between Cruz and Rubio. She says Cruz stands for the older "dominionist" belief that Christians must take political power, while Rubio wants government to back off and allow "human flourishing."

That's mainly Posner's opinion, although she specializes in writing on religion and politics. Then again, her piece was clearly labeled "Analysis." The Bloomberg article was not.

Video: Ted Cruz and Glenn Beck at MorningStar Church on Feb. 11. Thumb: Trump/Cruz cartoon, copyright James Francis via Shutterstock.

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