Recently, someone sent me a story in the Houston Press by Julie Lyons, the former editor of the Dallas Observer and the author of the 2009 book “Holy Roller: Finding Redemption and the Holy Ghost in a Forgotten Texas Church.” Lyons is one of the few journalists who gets the Pentecostal-charismatic world, so I trust whatever she comes out with on religion.
Turns out she just penned a piece about evangelicals during this election season. If there’s anything that’s been overwritten about, it’s how the 25 percent of the populace who are evangelical are going to vote or why they all seem glued to Donald Trump.
Lyons’ newest piece shows us that this group is anything but predictable.
If we ever needed proof, we got it when Donald Trump opened his mouth at Liberty University and made his infamous reference to “2 Corinthians.” After wiping off the drool from laughing so hard, evangelicals knew with certainty that he was not one of us.
Every American evangelical spanning the generations, whether raised on “flannel boards” (google it) or VeggieTales, knows you say “Second.” Good grief, Hillary Clinton — the antichrist herself, if you listen to some of my evangelical friends — had no problem navigating this basic biblical concept when she gave her victory speech in South Carolina and quoted First Corinthians. So no, evangelicals are not fooled by Donald Trump’s assertion that he’s a “good Christian.” Those who support him have generally made a hard-nosed calculation that he is their best chance of countering the Democratic Party’s liberal agenda. That’s all.
With Trump and Ted Cruz as the remaining GOP frontrunners, she adds, readers can be forgiven for assuming ...
... that the vast majority of American evangelicals are white and Republican, marching in lockstep to register their continual alarm at the only two issues they care about, abortion and gay marriage …
What I can’t excuse is the lack of curiosity, the default to stereotypes, and the whiff of condescension and religious bigotry that often seem embedded in their reports. Just do your dang job and actually talk to some evangelicals, I find myself saying. Then you’ll discover we’re not some intellectually deficient, exotic sect, congregating with Duggar-like swarms of children at bad church potlucks, secretly plotting ways to institute Old Testament-era theocracy. We don’t plant bombs at abortion clinics, and we’re not all like your racist grandma.
Because media rarely do the legwork to find evangelicals, she continues, they’re missing what’s really happening on the ground with this group. One unreported fact is that much larger percentages of blacks and Hispanics are evangelical than whites, but who gets quoted? Usually a white Republican.
The article then swings into interviews with several Texas pastors who disagree on Trump: Henry Thomas, a black Southern Baptist in Houston; Robert Jeffress, who is white and also Southern Baptist, in Dallas; and Max Lucado, who is white and lives in San Antonio. Then she talks with a Jamaican woman who is a Dallas Seminary graduate, then drives to Houston to what should be the mecca of evangelicalism: Joel Osteen’s Lakewood Church in Houston.
What she found was one of the most racially diverse churches she’d ever encountered. Why, she wonders, is diversity never brought up in media accounts of evangelicals? The truth is out there, she says, if reporters would just get themselves and their laptops into a church.
Everything she says makes sense to those of us who’ve done any work on the religion beat. Why is it, that when many reporters want to meet evangelicals, they head for the South where they're more apt to meet someone who fits in with their stereotype? Or they read pieces like this Atlantic magazine article and conclude that evangelicals belong in cults? The article shows that even within red state Texas -- which is really not the South but a place in its own category -- there is a lot of diversity in evangelical churches.
Heck, there's diversity even at Liberty University, but you've got to go look for it. Again, this goes back to the kind of people most journalists are and who they hang around during off hours. I can list on one hand journalists I know who have social friends who are conservatives. If you have to report on a group that's alien to your worldview, you'll stick with trusted sources in your Rolodex.
But if you get out there, as Lyons is exhorting scribes to do, you'll find a whole other world.