If journalists really want to grasp the importance of the splits that the Donald Trump era is causing among religious conservatives, there are some logical places to look.
Obviously, they can look at the world of evangelicalism and, yes, even inside the complex world of white evangelicalism. Please start here.
Then they can narrow that down by looking at the generational and gender tensions inside the Southern Baptist Convention, the nation’s largest non-Catholic flock.
Journalists can also look at what is happening in Utah — starting with Trump’s astonishing — well, maybe not — personal shot at Rev. Mia Love, the GOP’s only black woman in the U.S. House of Representatives. Here is the top of a report from The Salt Lake Tribune:
President Donald Trump praised Republicans for expanding their majority in the Senate on Wednesday, while offering harsh criticism to GOP House members — including Utah’s Rep. Mia Love — who failed to wholeheartedly embrace his agenda.
Trump said Love had called him “all the time” asking for help freeing Utahn Josh Holt, who had been imprisoned in Venezuela. But her re-election campaign distanced itself from his administration, the president said, which led to her poor performance in Utah’s 4th Congressional District.
“Mia Love gave me no love and she lost,” Trump said. “Too bad. Sorry about that, Mia.”
Part of what is going on in that Utah vote is the increasingly important rural vs. urban divide in American life (check out the voting pattens in that district). Also, see this recent New York Times feature about some of the nuances in this particular Congressional race.
By the way, Trump served up his political kill shot on Love while votes are still being counted in Utah’s fourth district.
So, back to the Utah context. This president is even less popular in the urban Salt Lake City area than he is in the rest of deep red, Republican Utah — where politics are soaked in the conservative, but more gentle, style of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
This fight is about issues that strike home to LDS people, with their history as a religious minority inside their own nation.
Let’s go back to the Tribune article:
While Love has voted with Trump 95.7 percent of the time, according to FiveThirtyEight, she has publicly criticized him several times, particularly on immigration.
As recently as last week, she opposed Trump’s stated intention to use an executive order to do away with what is known as birthright citizenship. Love herself became a U.S. citizen under this constitutional provision when she was born in Brooklyn, N.Y., to parents who had immigrated from Haiti.
Earlier this year, she had called out the president for reportedly describing Haiti, El Salvador and African nations as “s---hole countries.” Love said the president should apologize. She called his comments “unkind, divisive, elitist" and said they "fly in the face of our nation’s values.” Love said in a statement that “this behavior is unacceptable from the leader of our nation.”
That is blunt stuff, especially when dealing with a man whose ego seems to demand total loyalty from those around him — or else.
Love is a convert to the Mormon faith and is a very conservative Republican on moral and social issues. However — as with many Catholic and evangelical voters — the Trump era has caused tensions, because her faith leads to clashes with the president, as well as issues on which they appear to agree.
What we have here, according to columnist Rachael Larimore at The Weekly Standard, is more evidence that Trump is very interested in the support of religious and moral conservatives, as long as they take the whole Trump package or are willing to be silent about their conflicts with his style and agenda.
This is a long passage from this essay, but it captures the tensions inside MANY camps in religious conservatism, these days (including the mythical 81 percent monolith of white evangelicals).
The context here is, of course, that previously mentioned Trump press conference:
Trump kicked things off with a sequence that may very well be unprecedented in White House history, openly insulting the Republican candidates who lost their midterm elections because they did not align themselves with him enough. He bagged on Barbara Comstock, Peter Roskam, and Erik Paulsen. But the worst was his flip dismissal of Utah Rep. Mia Love: “Mia Love gave me no love and she lost. Too bad. Sorry about that Mia.”
Love is the poster child for the American dream and the kind of candidate — a charismatic young minority woman, the child of immigrants, capable of winning in a very conservative, very white state — that the GOP should be supporting wholeheartedly both on the merits and for selfish political reasons.
Wait for it. Things get even more strange, when the comments about Love were connected with the ultimate hot-button moral, religious and cultural issue.
… Trump's crass criticism of Love was made even more idiotic later in the press conference, when someone asked him what he was doing on the pro-life front and the president implied that he had some master plan to solve abortion: “I will not be able to explain it to you,” he said “Because it is an issue that is a very divisive, polarizing issue. But there is a solution; I think that I have that solution.”
Did you hear that? He’s going to fix abortion, people. … Donald Trump has got it all figured out. Eighteen-dimensional chess.
A president who was actually serious about finding a "solution" to the abortion stalemate — whatever that means — might wish to have an ambassador for the cause who was passionate and eloquent and thoughtful and could present herself as a good-faith voice for those who might not have been born.
Which brings us back to Mia Love.
The bottom line: This is a political story, but it is also a religion story — at the level of religious institutions, movements and individuals.
I don’t see any sign of these tensions lessening, especially with Democrats in the U.S. House in a position to dig out more info on the behind-the-scenes realities of all things Trump.
Newsroom managers! Do you have a structure in place in which your newsroom religion-beat pro (if you don’t have one, get one now) can work with political-desk journalists to cover this kind of story?