One reason elements of the Christian Right are said to strongly back President Donald Trump is because of their, and supposedly his, deep concern for global religious freedom issues -- in particular the persecution of Christians in nations such as China.
Yet, as of this writing (Jan. 15), the White House has yet to utter a peep about last week’s destruction by the Chinese government of a massive “underground” evangelical church facility that housed a huge congregation of 50,000 or more, according to reports.
Moreover, no one in the mainstream or Christian media, as far as I can ascertain, has publicly asked the administration for an answer as to why it has remained mute. Not Trump’s media supporters or opponents (of which I am one).
Nor have we heard anything from members of the president's personal religious advisory committee. And certainly not from anyone from the State Department or the largely punchless United States Commission on International Religious Freedom -- which did see fit to issue a statement last week marking the death of Mormon Church leader Thomas S. Monson.
Has the Trump coverage bar dropped so low, has it been so overwhelmed by endless questions about crises seemingly of the president’s own making, that there simply is no room left for routine questions as to why the administration failed to issue so much as a pro forma response to the church demolition?
Clearly, I'm afraid, the answer is “yes.”
But that doesn't mean that religion-beat writers, in particular, should simply acquiesce to the current state of affairs. That’s because we all suffer if we do; the media’s reputation suffers, as does that portion of the general public still trying to make sense of the present day “fake news” climate in Washington.
So, too, do the president’s remaining supporters, who are left to guess whether he really cares about the issues he claimed were dear to him on the campaign trail, including the plight of persecuted Christians around the globe.
It's not as if the White House might simply have missed the China church destruction story because it wasn't widely reported. The international media and the Christian press jumped on it, as was appropriate.
A church in northern China was demolished this week, the second in less than a month, sparking fears of a wider campaign against Christians as authorities prepare to enforce new laws on religion.
Police cordoned off the area around the Golden Lampstand Church church in Linfen, Shanxi province, on Sunday before construction workers detonated explosives inside, according to witnesses and the head pastor. After the initial explosion, crews broke apart the remaining pieces with diggers and jackhammers.
A Catholic church in the neighbouring province of Shaanxi was also reportedly demolished last month, 20 years after it originally opened.
China guarantees freedom of religion on paper, but in practice authorities heavily regulate many aspects of religious life. Churches must be officially sanctioned and pastors must adhere to a host of rules imposed by the government.
The restrictive policies have given rise to “house” churches, independent places of worship that exist outside official channels. Authorities periodically arrest pastors or demolish buildings used by unsanctioned congregations.
But authorities have taken a harder line since 2013 against towering crosses and large cathedrals. Officials launched a sweeping crackdown on churches in Zhejiang province that accelerated in 2015, and more than 1,200 crosses have been removed, according to activists.
The New York Times, and the Christian Broadcasting Network were among the many other outlets that also reported the incident.Some, such as the Colorado Springs Gazette, simply picked up a wire service version of the event.
Earlier stories, such as this one from The Washington Post, have also hinted that China was lowering the boom of its Christians. And last year, The Atlantic ran this solid backgrounder on the massive “underground” or “house church” movement.
To repeat, it's not as if the recent church demolition came out of the blue, catching the White House and journalists unprepared.
My role at GetReligion is not to guess at why the White House has chosen to say nothing. Or to guess why the Trump administration has apparently not been pressed by reporters to comment on the destruction of a megachurch that the Chinese authorities allowed to be built in 2009.
However, there is the obvious to be pointed out.
As noted above, the president is a news tsunami who seems to outpace even the best staffed news operations. He’s extraordinary adept at manipulating the news cycle, even when he’s on the defense, which is most of the time these days.
Plus, mainstream news coverage concerning China is focused for the most part on trade relations between Beijing and Washington, and on the White House’s so-far failed attempts to get China to put the screws to North Korea over its nuclear program.
Why? Because that's what the president seems to care about. Human rights -- religious or otherwise -- is not something he's put much effort behind. In this case, he didn't even offer words to please many of his core supporters.
But that shouldn't excuse mainstream religion beat reporters and members of the Christian press from trying to get a response to why the Trump administration is so quiet when Christian religious freedoms in China are so brutalized.
I can understand Trump supporters not wanting to put the White House on the spot: that wouldn't be politically advantageous, would it? But one would think that the president’s many media opponents would love another issue with which to undermine his support among the Christian Right.