Religion News Service offers readers one half of the 'Why did God smite Houston?' story

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I got a telephone call yesterday from an Anglican who has had lots of experience dealing with mainstream reporters in the past decade or two. He may or may not call himself an "evangelical," because he's an intellectual who uses theological terms with great precision.

This priest had an interesting question, one linked to press coverage of Donald Trump, but actually quite bigger than that. The question: Are American journalists intentionally trying to avoid discussions of the complex divisions inside evangelical Protestantism?

Yes, what punched his frustration button was the "80-plus percent of white evangelicals just love Trump" mantra in press coverage. That ignores the painful four-way split among evangelicals caused by the Hillary Clinton vs. The Donald showdown. That would be (1) evangelicals who do love Trump no matter what, (2) those who cast agonizing votes for him as a last resort, (3) those who went third party and (4) those on the left who voted for Clinton.

Now, he said, there is another option between (2) and (3). There are evangelicals who voted for Trump and now regret it. Call them the President Pence in 2017 camp.

However, when one looks at elite media coverage, it seems that no one (other than a few Godbeat pros) realize that the evangelical world is not a monolith.

Want to see another example of this syndrome? Check out the Religion News Service story with this headline: "Where are the condemnations of Harvey as God’s punishment?" Here is the overture:

(RNS) When Superstorm Sandy hit the New York metropolitan area in 2012, the floodwaters in Lower Manhattan were still rising when some pastors pointed out what, to them, was obvious.
“God is systematically destroying America,” the Rev. John McTernan, a conservative Christian pastor who runs a ministry called USA Prophecy, said in a post-Sandy blog entry that has since been removed. The reason God was so peeved, he claimed, was “the homosexual agenda.”
McTernan belongs to a subset of religious conservatives -- including some well-known names -- who see wrath and retribution in natural disasters. Usually, their logic revolves around LGBT themes. ...

Yes, friends and neighbors, we are headed into Pat Robertson territory again.

Let me stress that this is a valid news story, because there are evangelicals who say this kind of thing. It's also good that the RNS piece accurately points toward a "subset of religious conservatives" who think God aims hurricanes at carefully selected sinners. The story also accurately notes that "theodicy" debates are not new (and are found in other faiths, such as Judaism and Islam).

That's a lot of things to get right. So what's the problem?

Simply stated, this is a story about a debate between -- let me be blunt -- what the story portrays as crazy evangelicals and smart folks on the doctrinal, modern left. When it comes to the world of evangelicals and other conservatives, there is no debate here. God aims disasters at sinners and that's that.

So where are the blasts of conservative rhetoric that God is mad at Houston and Texas? Well, come on people, look at the electoral college map for the 2016 presidential election! God wouldn't smite Trump country! And look at LGBTQ issues! Thus, the RNS report notes:

... Peter Montgomery, a senior fellow at People for the American Way, which monitors the religious right, said the reaction from the usual finger-waggers “is different this time around.”
“I checked with my colleagues and we have a couple of theories.”
One theory is that Texas, with a few exceptions like the famously liberal Austin, is a religious right stronghold. Gov. Greg Abbott is very popular with conservative Christians, so perhaps they are less willing to suggest God is unhappy with him. Abbott supports tougher abortion access laws and signed the “Pastor Protection Act,” which allows pastors to refuse to marry same-sex couples.
Another theory is that Christian conservatives don’t want to suggest Houston deserves divine retribution. In 2015, city voters soundly struck down an anti-discrimination bathroom law with support from many conservative Christian groups and leaders. They had a simple slogan: “No men in women’s bathrooms.”

Well, there was also that 2014 story when the Houston mayor demanded (before backing down) that conservative pastors turn over sermon materials that may have included biblical commentaries on LGBTQ topics (linked to the bathroom-locker room vote). Who knows? Pat Robertson may bring that up and link it to Harvey.

But where, in the RNS story, are the evangelical Protestant pastors, writers and academics who would oppose this kind of simplistic public rhetoric about God's actions in creation? Where are the evangelicals who, well, gag whenever they read this kind of stuff in public media?

In other words, RNS has a perfectly valid story here. The question is: Where's the rest of the evangelical world? Where are the people whose views are, uh, more complex than a Pat Robertson soundbite?

This brings me back to a 2005 piece I wrote for the journalism ethics folks at Poynter.org, which ran with this headline: "Excommunicating Pat Robertson."

It was about hurricanes, as in this hypothetical scenario from that hurricane season:

After a long, long September of storms, Hurricane Wilma misses the Keys and veers into the Gulf of Mexico. It heads straight for Louisiana.
After a long, long day in the newsroom, you sit on the couch flipping from one cable news channel to another. Then you see a familiar face in an MSNBC tease and hear, "We'll be back, live, with the Rev. Pat Robertson, who says that this new hurricane is more evidence that God is angry at New Orleans because ..."
Pause for a minute. When you hear these words do you experience (a) an acidic surge of joy because you are 99.9 percent sure that you know what Robertson is going to say, or (b) a sense of sorrow for precisely the same reason?
If you answered (a), then I would bet the moon and the stars that you are someone who doesn't think highly of Christian conservatives and their beliefs. If you answered (b), you are probably one of those Christians.

What's going on there? I honestly think some (not all) journalists have reached the point where they are blissfully happy to quote people like Robertson, the Rev. Robert Jeffress, Jerry Fallwell, Jr., and a few others -- and those evangelical voices alone -- because every time these people open their mouths they reinforce newsroom stereotypes of conservative Christians.

Again, let me stress: I know that the old-guard evangelical right makes news and those stories deserve coverage. The old-guard cannot be ignored.

But at some point, journalists need to seek alternative conservative voices. Come on, people, dare to cover the complex debates AMONG evangelicals. Seek some diversity in your sources. Dare to challenge simplistic views of the evangelical world.

Maybe ask this question: Who would the late Michael Cromartie want me to interview to bring another evangelical point of view to this story?

Just do it. #JournalismMatters

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