Pardon me for a moment while I (just back from eclipse gazing here in New York City) ponder mortality, as in my own.
If I was hit by a bus tomorrow, there are two or three things that I have done in the world of journalism that I think would be worth future discussion. Yes, there's young Bono talking about faith and Africa, Mother Teresa talking about AIDS in Denver and Carl Sagan saying that he no longer considered himself an atheist or even an agnostic.
But I also hope -- in this age in which the word "evangelical" has been turned into a political label -- that a few people remember what happened when I asked the Rev. Billy Graham, back in the mid-1980s, to define that problematic word. Here's a flashback:
"Actually, that's a question I'd like to ask somebody, too," he said, during a 1987 interview in his mountainside home office in Montreat, N.C. This oft-abused term has "become blurred. ... You go all the way from the extreme fundamentalists to the extreme liberals and, somewhere in between, there are the evangelicals."
Wait a minute, I said. If Billy Graham doesn't know what "evangelical" means, then who does? Graham agreed that this is a problem for journalists and historians. One man's "evangelical" is another's "fundamentalist."
Graham said he defines "evangelical" in terms of doctrines, not politics or anything else. If a person believes all of the doctrines in the Apostles Creed, he said, their view of scripture is high enough to be called an evangelical. What about Pope John Paul II? Graham said the two men had discussed that. Yes, there is more to that story.
This brings me to, alas, Donald Trump, his house evangelicals and the Associated Press headline: "Trump’s evangelical advisers sticking with him amid fallout." The overture:
NEW YORK (AP) -- One of President Donald Trump’s most steadfast constituencies has been standing by him amid his defense of a white nationalist rally in Virginia, even as business leaders, artists and Republicans turn away.
Only one of Trump’s evangelical advisers has quit the role, while presidential boards in other fields saw multiple defections before being dismantled. The Rev. A.R. Bernard, pastor of the Christian Cultural Center in Brooklyn and one of the most influential clergymen in New York, announced his decision Friday night, saying “there was a deepening conflict in values between myself and the administration.”
Trump’s evangelical advisers have strongly condemned the bigotry behind the Charlottesville march by white nationalists and neo-Nazis over the removal of a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee. But regarding Trump, they have offered either praise for his response or gentle critiques couched within complaints about how he has been treated by his critics and the media.
The key question: Are these people best defined by the word "evangelical" or by the word "Trump"? What does the word "evangelical" mean in this context?
But wait, clearly the word "evangelical" applies, since we all know (cue: choirs of mainstream journalists):
Trump won 80 percent of the white evangelical vote and has earned some of his highest approval ratings from the group throughout his tumultuous presidency.
Evangelicals have been thrilled by his appointment of Neil Gorsuch to the U.S. Supreme Court and by the president’s pledge to strengthen religious liberty protections. Conservative Christians who have long worked with political leaders say they have never before had such access to the White House.
I am sure that simplistic final sentence must be painful, yet hilarious, to the evangelical leaders -- folks who are just as doctrinally conservative as the Trump choir -- who are locked out of all contacts with the White House, often because of differences on issues linked to race, immigration, etc.
Even before the election, this painful divide among evangelicals was clear to all. However, it was also clear that most journalists simply were not interested in the facts at pew and pulpit level.
Before the election, The New York Times team wrote:
Nearly four-fifths of white evangelical voters plan to cast their ballots for Donald J. Trump despite his multiple marriages, lack of piety and inconsistency on the issues they care about most, a new poll has found.
Support for Mr. Trump among white evangelicals is even stronger than it was four years ago for Mitt Romney, the previous Republican nominee for president, according to the poll of religious voters, released ... by the Pew Research Center.
Now, please read that again.
Does a willingness to vote for Trump mean that all those evangelicals are (a) happy to cast that vote or (b) STRONGLY in favor of this compromised man's candidacy? Might there be another way to describe the feelings of lots of those evangelicals?
In other words, is voting for Trump "evangelical" and that's that? Enough said?
More than three-quarters of self-identified white evangelicals plan to vote for Donald Trump in the fall (78%). But they aren’t happy about it.
According to a Pew Research Center survey of 1,655 registered voters released today, more than half of white evangelicals said they weren’t satisfied with their ballot options (55%), reflecting the feeling of Americans at large (58%). And 45 percent of white evangelicals said they meant their vote as opposition to Hillary Clinton, not as an endorsement of Trump.
OK, so is it enough to describe members of the Trump evangelical camp as white "evangelicals" and leave it at that? Is that one religious, doctrinal term enough to describe who was for Trump? What about the evangelicals who were reluctantly for Trump and those who opposed him right to the end and to this very day? What role did discussions of religious liberty and the U.S. Supreme Court play in this drama?
Yes, this is another call for journalists to move beyond labels. Let me urge readers, once again, to read a Poynter.org piece that ran the other day -- "How journalists should handle racist words, images and violence in Charlottesville" -- by journalism style guru Al Tompkins and ethics specialist Kelly McBride (a former religion-beat pro).
The bottom line: Never settle for simplistic labels. Instead, report telling details, actions and statements of belief. McBride and Tompkins write:
... Describe what protesters were doing, what they were saying and what they were demanding. Be precise. It is not enough to simply call the marchers White nationalists. Explain that they chanted Nazi slogans including "Sieg Heil," a victory salute used originally by Nazis at political rallies. ...
The "Unite the Right" label, which demonstrators use to describe their protest, is too broad to use without explaining that the word "right" does not automatically include racism. It's not fair to the entire conservative movement. To some, "right" means people who embody views that include opposing abortion, endorsing gun ownership rights, reducing government intervention and endorsing fundamentalist religious principles.
Now, how would this apply to the AP story about all those "evangelicals" -- period -- standing loyally with Trump in the wake of Charlottesville?
Is the word "evangelical" enough to tell readers who these people are and what separates them from other evangelicals? Did this story help readers understand the Trump-era divisions in pulpits and pews or did the story add gasoline to the fires of misunderstanding?
Don't settle for labels. Report crucial details. Let readers know who is who, who believes what and who is doing what.