Evangelicals and Trump, chapter 666: In which The Washington Post misses one crucial detail


Let's talk about evangelical Protestants and Donald Trump, shall we? After all, that has been one of the two or three dominant storylines of the entire Republican race for the White House. Your GetReligionistas have poured out an ocean of digital ink on press coverage of this topic.

But now the reality is beginning to sink in, out there in some pews and pulpits, that this race is really going to come down to Trump vs. Hillary Rodham Clinton. Viewed as a political choice, that is agonizing. Viewed as a theological choice, things are even worse for Christians who embrace centuries of church teachings on moral theology.

If you peel off the layers of political language, the Washington Post has offered a piece -- "‘There’s nobody left’: Evangelicals feel abandoned by GOP after Trump’s ascent" -- that features a few key voices describing this agonizing puzzle in their own words.

In terms of journalism, this is business as usual. In terms of coverage of doctrinally conservative believers, this is called progress. Still, this story is sadly simplistic. Hold that thought.

The key voice early on is the Rev. Gary Fuller of the Gentle Shepherd Baptist Church in Lincoln, Nebraska, who was a supporter of Sen. Ted Cruz. By the way, in this piece it would have helped to have known that Fuller is not a Southern Baptist (it took two clicks to find that out), since other key voices in this piece are from the SBC or an institution on the left edge of Southern Baptist life. Why does this matter? It only matters if you think this is a religious story, as well as a political story.

Here is a key passage near the top:

... Fuller has a hard time stomaching Trump as the Republican nominee and plans to vote for Cruz on Tuesday, even though the senator has dropped out of the race.
“In a sense, we feel abandoned by our party,” Fuller said. “There’s nobody left.”
Fuller and other conservatives whose voting decisions are guided by their Christian faith find themselves dismayed and adrift now that Trump has wrested control of the Republican Party. It is a sentiment that reaches from the small, aluminum-sided church with a large white cross on its front that Fuller and his wife built on the Nebraska plains to the highest levels of American religious life. Even progressive Christians -- evangelicals and Catholics, among others -- who don’t necessarily vote Republican are alarmed that Trump is attracting many voters who call themselves religious.

What are the issues that are driving this pain? The Post team does a decent job on that, but at a crucial point makes things a bit too simplistic.

This passage is really long. However, it's crucial -- if the goal is to help readers understand the angst among conservative Christians -- to see this material displayed in this manner.

There is consternation about the hard line Trump takes on immigrants and about the morality of a thrice-married man who has long bragged about his sexual conquests. But another factor is at work as well: The traditional social and cultural positions that drive many religious conservative voters, including same-sex marriage and abortion, have been cast aside by a candidate who seems to have little interest in fighting the culture wars.
In the past, Trump has espoused social views to the left of his party, including a longtime acceptance of gay rights, although he has since moved right on many of them. He has praised Planned Parenthood for helping millions of women. He is running as an antiabortion candidate but had said in the past that he supported abortion rights and would not ban the procedure known as partial-birth abortion.
And while he says he is against same-sex marriage, he has attended a same-sex wedding and is opposed to a North Carolina law -- aimed at transgender people -- that requires people to use bathrooms that correspond with the gender on their birth certificate. He said transgender activist Caitlyn Jenner could use the women’s room at his properties.
“This year the Republican Party has not just surrendered on the culture wars, they’ve joined the other side. And that’s a unique situation,” said Russell Moore, president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention.

Now, if you have been following the evangelical leaders vs. Trump world story, you know that Moore is a key voice.

This leads to the one clunker passage in this otherwise solid story.

The key is the story sets up a simple right vs. left contrast between Moore and another Baptist voice, ethics professor David Gushee of Mercer University in Georgia. For those who care about fine details, it helps to know that Moore also has a background in Christian ethics and that Gushee teaches on a campus with ties to the Baptist left, as opposed to the current leadership of the Southern Baptist Convention (and Georgia Baptists).

That leads us to this crucial, defining paragraph. Note the simplistic division here:

Moore said many evangelicals are “horrified” to have to choose between Trump and Clinton. More conservative evangelicals like Moore are concerned about moral and social issues. Gushee said that progressive ones such as himself and the other letter-signers are worried about the “bigotry, xenophobia and misogyny” they see from Trump.

Got that? Moore is a "social issues" guy and Gushee is concerned about matters of race and equality.

This is simplistic -- inaccurate even -- for two reasons.

First of all, it ignores the leadership role that Moore and many other evangelicals (left and right) have played in calling out Trump on issues linked to race and immigration.

Surely the Post editors know this. I mean, only two days before this story ran The New York Times published an op-ed piece by Moore -- "A White Church No More" -- that, once again, caused big waves on this very topic. Parse this language, please:

As of this week, the nation faces a crazier election season than many of us ever imagined, with Donald J. Trump as the all-but-certain nominee of the Republican Party. ...
This election has cast light on the darkness of pent-up nativism and bigotry all over the country. There are not-so-coded messages denouncing African-Americans and immigrants; concern about racial justice and national unity is ridiculed as “political correctness.” Religious minorities are scapegoated for the sins of others, with basic religious freedoms for them called into question. Many of those who have criticized Mr. Trump’s vision for America have faced threats and intimidation from the “alt-right” of white supremacists and nativists who hide behind avatars on social media.
The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech did not envision that more than 50 years later “Go back to Africa” would be screamed at black protesters or that a major presidential candidate would tweet racially charged comments. Some American Christians may be tempted to ignore these issues, hoping they are just a wave of “political incorrectness” that will ebb in due time. That sort of moral silence shortchanges both our gospel and our future.

And this brings me to my second point.

The world of evangelical and Pentecostal Protestantism has long been more racially diverse than most reporters realize (or want to admit). Among Southern Baptists, for example, "non-Anglo" congregations (as of 2013) had grown 66 percent since 1998. Many reporters have noticed that the SBC's membership has declined somewhat in recent years. Most have failed to notice that -- without the rapid growth of its Latino, African-American and multi-racial churches -- the SBC's numbers would be in much, much worse shape.

So where is the story here? Well, what do Latino evangelicals in Southern Baptist pews think of Trump and the GOP right now? How about African-Americans in the growing number of churches that are affiliated with the SBC? How about Latino, black and Asian evangelicals in America's hundreds of multi-racial Pentecostal and Assemblies of God congregations?

As Moore put it in that same New York Times piece:

The center of gravity for both orthodoxy and evangelism is not among Anglo suburban evangelicals but among African Anglicans and Asian Calvinists and Latin American Pentecostals. The vital core of American evangelicalism today can be found in churches that are multiethnic and increasingly dominated by immigrant communities.
The next Billy Graham probably will speak only Spanish or Arabic or Persian or Mandarin. ... The thriving churches of American Christianity are multigenerational, theologically robust, ethnically diverse and connected to the global church. 

So progressives care about racial justice and Moore and conservative evangelicals only care about social issues? Really? That explains the current evangelical (and conservative Catholic) debates about Trump?

Come on, Post people. This story made progress in that it allowed some of these believers to speak for themselves. But it also passed along simplistic stereotypes that are way out of date. There are complexities on the doctrinal right that must be acknowledged and covered, if the goal is to cover news trends rather than living in the past.

Please try again.

Please respect our Commenting Policy