Citizen Trump in Orlando: Press must note evangelicals who attend and those who do not

(Cue: audible sigh)

Do we really have to keep writing about Donald Trump and THE evangelicals? It would appear so, since he is headed to Orlando today to talk to a Florida Pastors and Pews event, organized by the American Renewal Project.

Once again, the team behind this story seems to think that we are dealing with Trump efforts to fire up THE evangelicals and THE "religious conservatives." That's kind of like saying a candidate is reaching out to THE Jews, THE Catholics, THE Muslims, etc.

That won't cut it. It's really crucial for journalists, when covering this kind of event, to give readers some of the details on who is taking part and who is not.

This is especially true for an event in Orlando, which is a hub city for evangelical megachurches and parachurch ministries. The Orlando area -- especially the suburbs -- is also a very important region in Florida (and thus national) politics, when it comes to gauging evangelical enthusiasm at the polls.

So let's look at the Bloomberg News report that The Miami Herald picked up about Trump's appearance. He is expected to say more about his opposition to the Johnson Amendment, the IRS rule that prohibits churches from endorsing individual political candidates, as opposed to making faith-driven statements about moral and cultural issues in public life.

I'll comment on that issue once we see the press coverage of what Citizen Trump has to say. However, it's important to stress that -- as is so often the cases -- there is no one evangelical camp on that topic. In fact, some evangelicals would like to see that rule enforced in a more consistent manner, affecting churches on the left as well as the right.

What's the first thing I noticed about how Herald editors handled this Bloomberg News report?

For starters, it's significant that they billed it as part of their "Gay South Florida" section. That's an interesting connection to make. This made me wonder if the Herald has a "Conservative Christian South Florida" section, or even a "South Florida Faith" section? Just asking. I can't find offerings of that kind in the newspaper's "full menu" tab.

My second question focuses on the lede:

Donald Trump is going to his first Pastors and Pews meeting to face a gantlet of questions from evangelical Christians about how he'd bring about a more Christian nation.

OK, at this stage, are there many people in key leadership roles in mainstream evangelicalism who are talking about America returning to some kind of status as a "Christian nation"?

Now, yes, I know that there are some old-guard religious conservatives out there who use that kind of language. The key is for this story to give us specific names -- for leaders and specific faith groups and institutions -- to let us know if this is merely another rally for the old-guard conservative Christians who are already in the Trump camp.

So what are we looking for? Readers need to know how many mainstream Southern Baptists are in the room and what they think of Trump's remarks. Florida is a key state for Southern Baptist growth with African-American churches and with Latinos. How many black and Latino Southern Baptists are at this rally? Ditto for people of color from the Assemblies of God.

There's more. Journalists will want to note if anyone drove over from the nearby headquarters of Cru, as in Campus Crusade for Christ. How about faculty, or even students, from the Orlando campus of Reformed Theological Seminary? Are there any evangelical and charismatic Anglicans in the room?

In other words, reporters need to probe this question: Are mainstream evangelicals -- as opposed to the mythical THE evangelicals -- still divided on Trump? Are some planning to vote for him with great reluctance? Will they be standing at the back of this rally taking notes? How many will decide that they just need to stay home on election day?

So, is this an event in which Trump will be preaching to his old-guard Religious Right choir or not?

The Bloomberg News advance report is a total bust, when it comes to these crucial issues. Basically, a reporter just talked to the organizers and that was that. Thus:

It will be a friendly room for the GOP presidential nominee, but there will be high expectations from the 700 conservative pastors and spouses at the private meeting sponsored by the American Renewal Project Thursday in Florida, organizers told Bloomberg Politics. ...
The series of Pastors and Pews meetings became influential in the presidential race during the 2012 election cycle as a way to mobilize pastors and their congregations to push to re-establish a biblically based culture and to encourage them to dive into conservative politics via voter registration drives, get-out-the-vote efforts and by running for elected office themselves. The Christian Broadcasting Network also broke the news about Trump's appearance at Thursday's meeting. ...
Democrat Hillary Clinton was invited to this week's Pastors and Pews, which will take place in Orlando on Thursday and Friday, Lane said. She is not scheduled to attend.

There is, in this pre-game report, the usual Pew Research Center data on white evangelical support for Trump -- with 76 saying they plan to vote for him, while 36 percent strongly support him.

Then there is this ho-hum chunk of background material that appears to have been pulled from online research:

Trump's personal resume doesn't seem tailored for this audience: He's on his third marriage, doesn't regularly attend church, has demonstrated a lack of familiarity with Bible passages, said last summer during a question-and-answer session at another Christian forum that he has never asked God for forgiveness, and has changed his stances on abortion issues several times.
But he was given rave reviews for his speech to about 1,000 evangelical conservatives at a closed-door meeting in June in New York organized by United in Purpose. One of his biggest applause lines came when he said "we're going to be saying 'Merry Christmas' again" instead of the secular "happy holidays" greeting, those in attendance told Bloomberg.
Pew polling released in July shows white evangelical Protestants think the New York real estate entrepreneur would be stronger than Clinton on gun policy, defending against terrorist attacks, improving the economy, selecting United States Supreme Court justices, and better reflects their views on abortion and many other matters.

One more time: The key, for those who care about evangelical issues, is who actually dares to show up at this Florida rally and others similar to it.

Journalists need to stand outside this rally and talk to people. Take names. Look for the names of major churches and organizations on the name tags. If they have to do this after the fact, by telephone, then they should do that.

Hey reporters: Act like you think this is a serious story, because it is. You may even want to check out this classic -- "A Jew among the Evangelicals: A Guide for the Perplexed." If you gave him a ring, maybe the author would share the names of some of the key players in town.

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