Looking ahead: Pointers for journalists after that tumultuous Alabama Senate campaign

For days and months ahead, pundits will chew on obdurate Republican Roy Moore’s loss by 1.4 percent in Alabama’s tumultuous Senate race. There were religion angles all over the place in this drama.

Should Moore have ducked reporters, or have vanished from the campaign trail the final week? Did Steve Bannon help or hurt? Is President Donald Trump wounded? Will Chuck Schumer run the Senate come 2019? Did 23,000 write-in votes make the difference, and were they cast by anti-Moore Republicans?

Whatever. The Guy will start off with one thought for all journos, then offer some observations for my fellow religion-beat specialists.

Consider: Has polling turned into astrology? You’d think so when three election-eve polls showed Moore up 9 percentage points (Emerson College), or Democrat Doug Jones up 10 points (Fox News) -- a 19-point difference! -- or a tie if Alabama repeated Virginia’s governor turnout (Monmouth University). (Moore was up 2.2 percent across polls averaged by RealClearPolitics.com).

Of course, pollsters coped with a December special election and a unique one at that. It's pretty clear that some Bible Belt voters don't want to tell pollsters (and journalists) what they want to hear. Many simply refuse to cooperate.

Thus, polling nowadays is iffy, and all scribes should ponder the reasons in this sure-footed explanation by Nate Silver. Click here for that.

Turning to the religion beat, there's an unending quest to comprehend the nation’s largest religious bloc, white evangelicals. Moore’s whole career played to that crowd. They made up 44 percent of Alabama voters this time around and gave the usual lopsided percentage to the Republican on the ballot -- not quite enough to win. Many remained loyal despite Moore’s problematic history on several fronts, followed recently by those allegations about long-ago sexual misconduct with teen-aged girls.

TheDailyBeast.com used a couple guys attending Briarwood Presbyterian in Birmingham last Sunday to substantiate a typical media depiction of  “unwavering support for Moore” at “congregations across the state." (Cue: audible sigh.)

But, as our own tmatt stressed earlier this wee, The New Yorker’s Benjamin Wallace-Wells did his homework and came up with this: Moore’s wife Kayla posted a letter of support from dozens of Alabama clergy, but some names were questionable and most came from minor congregations. None of the pastors leading the state’s 36 largest churches as identified by the Birmingham News were on Moore’s list. Regarding the state’s dominant denomination, Wallace-Wells said “not a single affiliated Southern Baptist pastor in the state was openly allied with Moore.” Amazing if true.

The Daily Beast was blindly touching the GOP elephant’s trunk and The New Yorker the tail. That is, with Moore as with President Trump nationally, the new Republican populists typified by Trump and Moore enjoy hefty backing from lots of grass-roots white evangelicals, while major clergy and the intelligentsia are carefully silent or openly opposed.

Reporters need to keep reminding themselves that U.S. Protestant evangelicalism is a sprawling and complex network of fiefdoms that’s united in belief and mission but not politics or religious details, and now confronts sharpening divisions like those within the two major political parties. Some voices say the very term "evangelical" has outlived its usefulness due to politics.

Analysts of 2016 Republican primaries found Trump did far better with “cultural” evangelicals who (like the candidate) weren’t active in church, versus frequent worshipers who tended to favor Ted Cruz or Marco Rubio. The split between cultural identifiers and devout voters parallels and overlaps the split between the evangelical elite and the grassroots.

Yet another split reporters should be aware of exists between independent entrepreneurs over against traditional denominations. True, the Trump-Moore populism is favored by one major denominational pastor, Southern Baptist Robert Jeffress in Dallas. But many other prominent fans lead “parachurch” institutions (James Dobson, Jerry Falwell Jr., Franklin Graham) or independent congregations (Paula White).

Needless to say, these preachers are predominantly white, while African-American Protestants of evangelical flavor have no interest in voting for any Republican, much less a Moore. Legions turned out and handed the Senate seat to Jones.  

Finally, a notable switch to examine. Untll recently, evangelicals championed  personal character above all and used that cudgel against President Bill Clinton and other Democrats.

But Monmouth’s pre-election poll asked Alabamians whether they prefer a politician who doesn’t personally follow moral living but supports the voter’s view on moral issues (think abortion), versus a moral candidate who doesn’t agree with the voter on the issues. Evangelical Republicans by 55 percent favored the flawed candidate who agrees with them on the issues, while 54 percent of evangelicals who are Democrats or independents wanted the moral individual.

Even before the Alabama votes were counted and exit polling was showing 80 percent support for Moore among self-identified evangelicals, Editor in Chief Mark Galli of Christianity Today magazine warned, “There is already one loser: Christian faith. ... No one will believe a word we say, perhaps for a generation. Christianity’s integrity is severely tarnished.”

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