Late, but still timely: Complex realities hidden in '81 percent of evangelicals' love Trump myth

Editor’s Note: Computers. Can’t live with ‘em. Can’t live without ‘em.

So here is what happened with this seriously late podcast post. Back in mid-October I went on a church trip up into the North Carolina mountains, a place where WiFi is a theoretical concept. Ditto for a clear cell signal for your smartphone.

Before I left on this trip, I wrote the following post and set it on a timer in the online world in which we live here at GetReligion.

To be blunt: The post never ran.

To be blunt: I didn’t notice this during the days I was off the grid.

So here it is. However, a post about the twisted, complicated relationship between American evangelicals and Donald Trump will — alas — always be timely.

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So, did you ever think that American evangelicals would — in terms of their public, mass-media “face” — have an option worse than the Rev. Pat Robertson?

I know, I know. That’s a high bar to clear, or a low one — depending on your point of view.

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It seems that lots of journalists — no, not ALL of them — get an idea stuck in their heads every decade or so and they start acting like some vast, complex group of Americans can be accurately represented by one person (Robertson, for example) or even one statistic (81 percent of white evangelicals voted for You Know Who).

Here’s the irony: It’s kind of like what Donald Trump has done with America’s journalists, taking biases and inaccuracies that can be found in a few cases and turning them into a simplistic vision of the whole. Thus, Trump often stomps on the First Amendment-protected role that journalism is supposed to play in American public discourse.

Oh, I do realize that Robertson is still out there, cranking out soundbites (like this).

But that’s really not the topic we covered during this week’s Crossroads podcast (click here to tune that in). The goal was to discuss WHY some journalists seem so anxious to play this game. With that in mind, let’s flash back to a journalism think piece that I wrote in 2005 for the Poynter Institute. The headline: “Excommunicating Pat Robertson.” Here’s the overture:

Let's pretend it is Oct. 1, 2005.

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.

In other words, we have reached the point where some journalists are happy to see Robertson's face on television screens, because every time he opens his mouth he reinforces their stereotype of a conservative Christian.

Wow. The more things change, the more that they stay the same.

So, GetReligion readers, how do you feel when a news organization hits you with yet another reference to the fact that 81 percent of white evangelicals voted for Donald Trump in the 2016 election and, thus, they totally embrace this president? Do you think, “Yeah, those are the people who put that crazy guy in the Oval Office (even through evangelicals didn’t play a huge role in several key states that helped Trump win)!” Or do you think, “Oh come on. This was the year of the lesser of two evils! Lots of us/them would have preferred another option.”

I covered some of this territory in my national “On Religion” column this past week, which ended with a quick flash of material from a new study that dug deep into the complex realities behind that omnipresent “81 percent” stat. Here is the end of that column:

The bottom line: Most “evangelicals by belief” (59 percent) have decided they will have to use their votes to support stands on specific political and moral issues, according to a new study by Wheaton College’s Billy Graham Center Institute, working with LifeWay. …

A Christianity Today survey analysis -- “Debunking the 81 Percent” -- put it this way: The 81 percent total represented “strategic, goal-oriented and issue-oriented” voting, not mere enthusiasm for Trump.

Waves of news about this 81 percent vote have “created a simplistic, negative caricature of who evangelicals are, right now,” said Ed Stetzer, director of the Billy Graham Center. “It allows lazy people to keep saying that all of those evangelicals are ‘all in’ for Donald Trump. ... They’re trying to turn Trump voters into Trump.

”Trump voters are not Trump, and that’s certainly true for most evangelicals.”

In the podcast, I urge listeners — over and over — to check out that CT analysis, written by Stetzer. Click here and go do that, please.

Journalists should print that piece out and mark it up with a highlighter pen, because there are all kinds of story hooks in there. And we’re not just talking about the obvious ones, like the differences between white evangelicals and evangelicals of color (and there are millions of them). And there was more to this election, for some evangelicals, than the U.S. Supreme Court (code words for concerns about right-to-life issues and religious liberty).

But here is the thesis of this new survey, the big idea that reporters need to accept:

In our survey, we asked, “Which of the following best characterizes how you thought about your vote?” Only half of evangelicals by belief characterized their vote as “voting for their specific candidate.” Across Clinton, Trump, and third-party voters, evangelicals were just as likely to be voting in favor of a specific candidate as for another reason. So, while the who did matter (and 1 in 3 evangelicals said their vote was against Clinton, Trump, or both), the what and the why mattered also.

In fact, many voters chose to look past a candidate as an individual to vote for a specific issue, platform, or party that they represent, seeing the candidates more like objects of representation than as individuals whose values and ideals fit theirs. A majority of evangelicals by belief (59%) agreed that their political support should be tied more to praising or criticizing specific issues rather than individual political leaders.

Put another way, many of Trump’s evangelical voters were not enthusiastic about him as a candidate.

That’s what I was trying to get at when, writing here at GetReligion, I created a typology of at least six different kinds of white evangelical voters in 2016. Here is that grid, once again:

(1) Many evangelicals supported Trump from the get-go. For them, Trump is great and everything is going GREAT.

(2) Other evangelicals may have supported Trump early on, but they have always seen him as a flawed leader — but the best available. They see him as complicated and evolving and are willing to keep their criticisms PRIVATE.

(3) There are evangelicals who moved into Trump's tent when it became obvious he would win the GOP nomination. They think he is flawed, but they trust him to – at least – protect their interests, primarily on First Amendment issues.

(4) Then there are the lesser-of-two-evils Trump evangelicals who went his way in the general election, because they could not back Hillary Clinton under any circumstances. They believe Trump's team has done some good, mixed with quite a bit of bad, especially on race and immigration. They think religious conservatives must be willing to criticize Trump — in public.

(5) There are evangelicals who never backed Trump and they never will. Many voted for third-party candidates. They welcome seeing what will happen when Trump team people are put under oath and asked hard questions. … However, they are willing to admit that Trump has done some good, even if in their heart of hearts they'd rather be working with President Mike Pence.

(6) Folks on the evangelical left simply say, "No Trump, ever." Anything he touches is bad and must be rejected. Most voted for Clinton and may have yearned for Bernie Sanders.

After talking to Stetzer, I would like to know more about the evangelicals who were so distressed or angry that they didn’t vote at all. Remember, that was 1 in 5 evangelicals, according to this new blast of survey data.

Lots to think about. I hope that some journalists dig into this information and do some thinking. There are stories in there, for sure.

Enjoy the podcast.

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