Every journalist knows this essential truth: It’s very easy to report and write a story that you have already reported and written in your mind — even before you make the first phone call to the first source.
During the week leading up to Christmas, I was bracing myself for one of those stories, focusing — #DUH — on Donald Trump and all of those white evangelicals in Middle America who, in most media coverage, worship the ground on which he walks.
As it turned out, that’s the kind of story that showed up in the spectacular scandal at Der Spiegel, where editors had to face the fact that superstar reporter Claas Relotius had been making up lots of the material reported in his feature stories — including a piece about Trump supporters in the American heartland.
In my post about that media storm, I wrote the following:
The key is that one of the most celebrated newsrooms in Europe decided to probe the dark heart of Middle America in the age of Donald Trump. You know: How do solid, faithful, ordinary Americans in the heartland make peace with their support for a demon? That sort of thing.
Frankly, I have been bracing myself for exactly this kind of feature during the Christmas season, a kind of 'It’s Christmas in Donald Trump’s America' vision of life in some heavily evangelical Protestant town in the Bible Belt.
Well, that hasn’t happened. Yet.
To which, a longtime GetReligion responded: “How about this one, courtesy of NPR?”
Well, the story in question isn’t a Christmas piece. It’s an end-of-the-year feature with this headline: “For Evangelicals, A Year Of Reckoning On Sexual Sin And Support For Donald Trump.” But, as we would say in Texas, it’s close enough for horseshoes and hand grenades.
As always, this NPR story featured the following piece information:
About 80 percent of white evangelical voters backed Trump in 2016, and exit polls from this year's mid-term election showed little or no erosion of that support.
As always, I would have preferred, for the sake of nuance and accuracy, that this sentence have said that these evangelicals “voted for” Trump in 2016, rather than “backed” — since many actually opposed his candidacy and reluctantly voted for him as a painful way to defeat Hillary Clinton. Click here for more poll research on that point.
But the simple fact of the matter is that this NPR piece pushes lots of valid buttons, using a mix of sources — such as evangelicals and, if would appear, former evangelicals. Here is the overture:
Americans in 2018 got an overdose of stories about marital unfaithfulness. President Donald Trump was accused of making hush payments to at least two women with whom he allegedly had affairs, and the #MeToo movement highlighted sexual misconduct at all layers of U.S. society.
For conservative Christians, such stories were especially disturbing.
"Evangelical Protestants very much subscribe to the idea that sexual sin is the mother of all sin," says Samuel Perry, a sociologist of religion who trained at an evangelical seminary. "It is the most dirty, the most damning, the most shameful."
Despite that reputation, evangelicals this year repeatedly found themselves having to defend their views on the seriousness of infidelity.
I am sure that there is some interesting information contained in that phrase “a sociologist of religion who trained at an evangelical seminary.” As it turned out, Perry went to Dallas Theological Seminary — which certainly fits that description.
However, I would note that — growing up in the heart of Southern Baptist culture — I never heard anyone state that sexual sin is the “mother of all sin.”
More often than not, I have heard evangelicals put “pride” in that slot, a view that would fit in a Trump feature quite well. However, I do think that the second half of Perry’s statement — that sexual sins are viewed as the most damning — does describe how far too many evangelicals ACT in real life. What is the essential biblical message on that for Christians? Hold that thought.
Now, the rest of this NPR piece features information about a number of 2018 scandals linked to evangelicals and sex — from Willow Creek to the Fort Worth Star-Telegram investigation of independent fundamentalist Baptists (see Bobby Ross post here). All of these questions are valid.
But the heart of the piece is material drawn from a well-known evangelical source.
"I've not heard of any evangelical leader who has said that [Trump's] marital unfaithfulness was acceptable or anything but morally wrong, sinful, and [needing] to be repented of," says Wayne Grudem, a professor of biblical studies at Phoenix Seminary in Arizona.
This year, Grudem published a 1300-page book, Christian Ethics: An Introduction to Biblical Moral Reasoning, intended to help Christians apply "a biblical worldview to difficult ethical issues." He devoted six chapters to the commandment against committing adultery.
Like most other evangelicals, however, Grudem says he's a supporter of Donald Trump.
"I strongly disapprove of adultery and being unfaithful in marriage," Grudem says, "but I still support [Trump's] actions as president. I'm glad he's president, and I would vote for him again."
Later, he adds:
Grudem, a former president of the Evangelical Theological Society, has a simple explanation for sexual misconduct among Christians and in the people they support.
"Sin!," he exclaims, as though the answer should be obvious. "I mean, there is sin in the human heart, and people in positions of power may think they can get away with it."
This is not a trite observation. Evangelicals in particular emphasize their dark view of human nature, often citing Romans 3:23: "All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God." Everybody, from presidents to pastors, is in need of grace and forgiveness.
There’s no way around that point, even if you think that NPR was a bit one-sided when creating its list of the sins afflict evangelicals at this moment.
However, the story is certainly valid. However, I do think that it could have built on the Grudem material and probed how various evangelical scholars — pro-Trump and #NeverTrump — would approach sex, sin, pride and repentance in the Trump era.
Trust me: This would be an interesting debate.
With that in mind, let’s contemplate a crucial piece of scripture focusing on that subject.
Journalists: If you want to understand what traditional Christians are supposed to believe on this topic, meditate on this, from the Gospel of John:
… Jesus went to the Mount of Olives. Early in the morning he came again to the temple; all the people came to him, and he sat down and taught them. The scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in adultery, and placing her in the midst they said to him, “Teacher, this woman has been caught in the act of adultery. Now in the law Moses commanded us to stone such. What do you say about her?” This they said to test him, that they might have some charge to bring against him. Jesus bent down and wrote with his finger on the ground. And as they continued to ask him, he stood up and said to them, “Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her.” And once more he bent down and wrote with his finger on the ground. But when they heard it, they went away, one by one, beginning with the eldest, and Jesus was left alone with the woman standing before him. Jesus looked up and said to her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” She said, “No one, Lord.” And Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you; go, and do not sin again.”
Now, that isn’t, “Who am I to judge?” And, “Go thou and sin no more” is not an easy word.
Still, I would be interested in seeing solid, complex journalism covering debates about the president caught in adultery. #Honest