Let's face it, the Donald Trump semi-rally yesterday in New York City with 1,000 loyal or semi-sympathetic evangelical leaders was (a) the perfect viral event in the social-media era, (b) the logical outcome of religious conservatives' fears about the mainstream press (some of which are justified), (c) a nightmare for old-school reporters committed to personal interviews and real questions or (d) all of the above.
It's next to impossible to separate what may or may not have happened in this event from the tsunami of spin and invective that roared through social media.
Why? Well, because the only source materials reporters had to work with, in terms of obtaining direct quotes from the presentations by Trump and others, were clips circulating in social media. Most of these materials were put on Facebook by an African-American church leader, Bishop E.W. Jackson. One key clip is found here.
If the goal was to turn this into a news event that was almost impossible to cover, in a responsible and/or conventional manner, then the folks at United In Purpose got what they wanted. Yes, yes, I know: Have we reached the point where many reporters -- on left and right -- have next to zero commitment to fair coverage of the 2016 campaign? That's a valid question.
Meanwhile, I have no intention of trying to parse the evangelical vs. evangelical shouting on Twitter (and I say that as someone trying to write about these subjects in my Universal syndicate column). So what can we learn from the actual news coverage?
Not much. Some of the main players basically punted. Consider the top of this short report from The New York Times:
Donald J. Trump met privately with evangelicals on Tuesday in New York, asking for their support and questioning Hillary Clinton’s faith.
Before meeting with a larger group, Mr. Trump, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, spoke to a small number of evangelical leaders from around the country, and, according to video posted to Twitter by a minister in attendance, Mr. Trump said that “we don’t know anything about Hillary in terms of religion. Now, she’s been in the public eye for years and years, and yet there’s no -- there’s nothing out there.”
In response to Mr. Trump’s comment, the Clinton campaign released a statement from Deborah Fikes, who had been an executive adviser to the World Evangelical Alliance.
“Mr. Trump’s proposals are not just un-Christian — they’re un-American and at odds with the values our country holds dearest,” her statement read.
Once again, what does the term "evangelical" mean in this context if it is defined in theological terms, rather than used as a political label? Who knows. Did Trump actually question Hillary Clinton's faith? Who knows.
Like so many things Trump says, the content is hard to approach logically. For starters, Clinton's CRITICS have discussed the content of her consistently liberal, United Methodist faith, quoting her own words, as have her defenders. There is "nothing out there" to read or discuss? Nonsense.
The story did end with a concrete detail from one event held in public -- an impromptu press conference called to replace a scheduled press event that was canceled by Trump's camp:
During the news conference, a reporter asked which of the eight attendees were ready to endorse Mr. Trump. None raised a hand.
Over at The Washington Post, news consumers were offered something completely different -- a long report that dove headfirst into the social-media waters. For example, I appreciated the link to the .pdf of the prayer materials handed out at the event.
Rather than opening with a conventional hard-news lede, this story immediately hit reader with a blitz of Trump quotes from the fragments floating in cyberspace. Note the reference, in this slice of the material, to applause -- a sound that, obviously, can be heard on the audio fragments launched into the digital ocean.
In his comments, the presumptive GOP presidential nominee said he would end the decades-old ban on tax-exempt groups’ -- including churches -- politicking, called religious liberty “the No. 1 question,” and promised to appoint antiabortion Supreme Court justices.
“I think maybe that will be my greatest contribution to Christianity -- and other religions -- is to allow you, when you talk religious liberty, to go and speak openly, and if you like somebody or want somebody to represent you, you should have the right to do it,” Trump said. A ban was put in place by President Lyndon Johnson on tax-exempt groups making explicit political endorsements. Religious leaders in America today, Trump said, “are petrified.”
As president, he said, he’d work on things including: “freeing up your religion, freeing up your thoughts. You talk about religious liberty and religious freedom, you don’t have any religious freedom if you think about it,” he told the group, which broke in many times with applause.
Throughout the talk Trump emphasized that America was hurting due to what he described as Christianity’s slide to become “weaker, weaker, weaker.” He said he’d get department store employees to say “Merry Christmas” and would fight restrictions on public employees, such as public school coaches, from being allowed to lead sectarian prayer on the field.
The strength of this report -- which appears to be a digital site feature, as opposed to a print edition story -- is the wealth of quotations from people reacting to the event. The Post team did a solid job of stressing that the evangelical world is quite complex and multi-generational.
I thought that this quote was especially telling, in terms of the lesser-of-two-evils dynamic that many were feeling:
Kristan Hawkins, president of Students for Life of America, said she didn’t identify as a millennial with the nostalgia and anger of older conservatives, and was waiting for Trump to give a more hopeful and detailed description for how he came to call himself antiabortion. She also wanted to hear him address comments he’s made about women that many consider sexist.
“Yes, we know he’s definitely better than Clinton [on abortion issues], but are we going to work for a candidate who has said these things? I’m sitting here thinking: How will pro-life millennials hear the things he said? How hard will they work for him?” Hawkins said. The meeting, she said, “was like the dating site ‘Just Lunch.’ It was just lunch.”
Of course, Trump didn't call himself "antiabortion," but never mind.
Here's one more example of the coverage.
If you followed the Twitter wars, it was easy to tell that the USA Today team actually led its report with a reaction to one of the first waves of spin that rolled out after the event -- with "reports" that Trump asked those in the audience not to pray for political leaders other than, well, him.
Also note, in these fragment quotes, the direct reference to evangelicals who are opposing his candidacy or, at the very least, remaining consistent in their criticisms of his career in public life and business.
Donald Trump told evangelical leaders Tuesday that they can pray for the nation's leaders -- but they should also pray for people to get out and vote for him.
"You can pray for your leaders, and I agree with that -- pray for everyone," Trump said, per a video tweeted out by a meeting participant. "But what you really have to do is, you have to pray to get everybody out to vote for one specific person."
The presumptive Republican presidential nominee then suggested that some leaders weren't worth praying for.
"And we can't be, again, politically correct and say we pray for all of our leaders, because all of your leaders are selling Christianity down the tubes, selling evangelicals down the tubes," Trump said, "and it's a very, very bad thing that's happening."
If the press follows up on this angle, by which I mean Trump's call for religious non-profit groups to be able to endorse candidates, it will really help if reporters to talk to church-state scholars on left and right about this matter.
It's crucial to know that all non-profit groups -- secular and religious -- have the right to take stands on ISSUES in public life, even then their beliefs and doctrines intersect with events and votes in the public square. The U.S. Catholic bishops are free to make it clear where the church stands on abortion and marriage. Major labor unions are free to speak out on legislation linked to minimum pages and healthcare. These leaders are not, of course, supposed to endorse candidates by name.
I would bet the bank that the evangelicals in that room listening to Trump were not united in their support of his statements on churches endorsing candidates. Of course, is that what Trump really meant to say? Who knows.