A complex evangelical landscape: But Old Gray Lady listens to the same choir, again

Whenever I talk to evangelicals — including the infamous “white evangelicals” of 2016 infamy — I am always amazed at the wide variety of viewpoints that I hear about issues linked to politics.

Note that I said “issues linked to politics,” instead of saying “politics” — period.

That’s crucial. For millions of Americans, and not just evangelical Protestants, it’s easier to talk about the details of their faith and their doctrinal beliefs than it is to discuss the horse-race details of party politics. For many, their political choices are too painful to discuss. They are battling to find ways to act on their religious convictions in a hellish political landscape.

When it comes to moral and cultural issues, they know what they believe. When it comes to political realities, they tend to be rather cynical or depressed about their choices.

These complex realities are not, however, what I find when I click into the hallowed digital pages of The New York Times. Consider this recent religion feature that ran with the headline, “Evangelicals, Looking to 2020, Face the Limits of Their Base.” The overture:

WASHINGTON — After Democrats delivered a resounding counterpunch to President Trump at the polls, one of his most reliable voting blocs — social conservatives — now faces the repercussions of its uncompromising support for Mr. Trump’s agenda.

That result is mixed: Social conservatives are celebrating a slightly expanded Republican majority in the Senate, which advances their top priority, confirming conservative judges, as well as their anti-abortion rights agenda. But steep Republican losses in the House, particularly in suburban areas, have some strategists reflecting on how to proceed as they pivot their efforts to re-electing Mr. Trump in 2020.

“Social conservatives need to maximize turnout from the base and expand the map by stressing the softer side of the faith agenda: education reform, immigration and criminal justice reform, and anti-poverty measures,” said Ralph Reed, founder of the Faith and Freedom Coalition, which has extensive outreach to conservative evangelicals in battlegrounds across the country.

Let’s pause for a moment and think about who is speaking, in these framework remarks.

Who is Ralph Reed? If you were describing his stature in the world of modern evangelicalism, would you say that he is a leader among old-school evangelicals or the young-blood networks that represent the future? Is he the rare person who has stature in both camps?

I ask this for a simple reason. Most evangelicals I know, if you mention Reed, will roll their eyes and sort him into the same political bin with Liberty University President Jerry Falwell, Jr.

What political bin might that be?

This brings me back to an evangelical-voters typology that I created a year or so ago, in response to the never-ending flood of news stories built on the “81 percent of white evangelicals really love Trump,” stories in which “voted for” equals enthusiastic, unquestioned support.

Here is that typology once again. Into which category would you sort Reed?

(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.

Now, I don’t follow Reed all that closely (#DUH), but I suspect that he is in camp No. 2. Readers: Does anyone remember him having ties to other candidates early on? I can get a set of search terms that will sort that out.

What does this have to do with the Times piece?

To be blunt: Read through it and see if you can find any white-evangelical leaders quoted who do not fit into camps 1 or 2.

Now, there’s evidence that the Times team knows that these other evangelicals exist. You can see hints in this passage:

Any meaningful shift is purely conceptual at this point. White evangelicals, more than almost any other constituency, have repeatedly chosen to support Mr. Trump wholeheartedly to advance their cultural priorities, despite occasionally bristling at his character and approach to race, immigration and women.

When the administration separated immigrant children from their families at the border, for example, some white evangelical leaders voiced concern but did not fault Mr. Trump, even as some women in their ranks expressed more discontent.

In this month’s election, three-quarters of white evangelical voters again supported House Republican candidates, on par with the percentage that did so in the previous two midterm cycles, according to national exit polls.

It’s all about the word “wholeheartedly,” isn’t it? Does that fit with the information contained in the rest of this passage? Not really.

There is one voice in this story who does not fit into the Trump-base model. This is also the passage that best reflects the painful voting-booth reality that I hear evangelicals talking about in recent years.

“If you ask social conservative voters, would you be willing to accept Nancy Pelosi as speaker for two more Supreme Court justices, I suspect they would make that trade,” said Dan Schnur, a former longtime Republican strategist who is now an Independent. “A short-term congressional loss for social conservatives is almost certainly offset by a long-term judicial gain.”

Why is SCOTUS all that important? What issues are implied with that statement? Yes, abortion may or may not be an issue in the short-term. But what kinds of issues have hit the court over and over in the past five years or so?

Thus, the lesser-of-two-evils dilemma.

Maybe the voices of other kinds of evangelicals will be featured in future Gray Lady reports?

Please respect our Commenting Policy