Before we dive -- yes, it's time to try again -- into another example of "Gosh, all those evangelicals sure do love Donald Trump" coverage, let's pause to, uh, separate the sheep from the goats.
If you understand that image, the odds are good that you are an evangelical or some other brand of Christian who has cracked open a Bible more than once.
Whatever. A few months ago, Sarah Pulliam Bailey of The Washington Post tweeted out a fun little link to a MereOrthodoxy.com "Are you an evangelical?" quiz that is kind of fun. Click here to take the test. (Or click here for her original tweet, which has some interesting comments.)
So I took the test, as a former Southern Baptist preacher's kid from the Jesus Movement era, and scored 10 out of 31. The site's judgement:
Spiritual but not religious: You are definitely not evangelical, but you might still have feelings that you associate with Jesus in some way when you are standing on a mountaintop or contemplating the ocean.
Well, at least I know where I stand when writing about the press and its struggles to realize the complexities of evangelical identity in this day and age. I would have done better if it included a question asking how many Bruce Cockburn CDs are in my collection (I think I own every note the man has recorded).
Anyway, the New York Times recently (pre-National Prayer Breakfast) weighed in with another report on you know what. The headline: "Evangelicals, Having Backed Trump, Find White House ‘Front Door Is Open’." Once again, readers are told that all "evangelicals" backed Trump and, today, all of them are welcome at the White House." I am sure that will come as a shock to many.
However, this story is slightly better than that headline. At the very least, it acknowledges that even the early, core evangelical supporters of The Donald are a bit more complex than many would think. Hold that thought. First, here is a solid paragraph on why evangelical poll numbers remain high, when it comes to this White House. It starts with the prayer breakfast crowd, saying that the president stood:
... before an audience that has cheered the president’s first-year agenda as its own: announcing that the American Embassy in Israel would move to Jerusalem, anointing a national “prayer Sunday,” appointing Neil M. Gorsuch to the Supreme Court, signing anti-abortion legislation, opening a “conscience and religious freedom division” at the Department of Health and Human Services and fighting to end the Johnson Amendment, which threatens religious organizations with the loss of their tax-exempt status if they endorse political candidates.
Well now, was that Trump's whole "first-year agenda"? Of course not. Many mainstream evangelical leaders backed him on most of that (the Johnson Amendment issue was complex), but backed away from lots of other Trump efforts -- especially as stated on Twitter.
Even the ultra-loyal Pastor Robert Jeffress of First Baptist Church in Dallas had this to say, in this new Times piece:
Mr. Jeffress, who once said President Barack Obama’s politics could lead to the rise of the Antichrist, said the issues that evangelicals discuss at the White House “go beyond what most assume,” including opioid abuse and criminal justice overhaul. He and Mr. [Johnnie] Moore are sympathetic to the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, known as DACA, that shields young undocumented immigrants, which is often viewed as a progressive cause.
Back to the big picture: What we have here, once again, is an elite newsroom that has assumed that there are few, if any, differences between the core, primary-season evangelicals who voted for Trump and those who, on election day, bit their lips and voted for him as a way of opposing Hillary Clinton. Needless to say, these two crowds do not see Trump the same way, when it comes to a host of issues -- from immigration to his blunderbuss approach to public life.
Actually, there are more than two evangelical camps when it comes to The Donald. Let's back up a few weeks to an attempt I made, in a podcast and post, to describe what I see as the six key evangelical groups on this issue.
This is long, but I really would like to know what journalists and evangelical insiders think of this. Journalists: This is important because there are all kinds of interesting and important stories hiding in the cracks of the mythical evangelical monolith.
(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 (and ditto for FBI officials). 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, the key to reading this new Times piece is to dig into the following section and try to figure out which group of evangelicals actually fits into each reference. Let's go:
Evangelicals voted heavily in Mr. Trump’s favor in the presidential election and, polls show, continue to back him.
“Evangelicals were so great to me,” Mr. Trump said last year.
This would be evangelicals in my first four camps, all mashed into one group. We continue:
Yet the symbiosis between conservative Christians and Mr. Trump was never perfect, and some of that tension has lingered into his presidency. The Rev. A. R. Bernard, the pastor of the Christian Cultural Center in Brooklyn and a member of the campaign board, announced that he was no longer associating with the White House evangelical group after Mr. Trump’s failure to condemn white supremacists who marched in Charlottesville, Va., in August.
Mr. Bernard, who said he had made at least four visits to the White House, saw Mr. Trump as largely indifferent to faith leaders’ to-do list.
“There was nothing hidden. He wanted that voting bloc. He wanted their votes,” Mr. Bernard said of Mr. Trump’s engagement with evangelicals during the campaign. “It was transactional. He wanted to do whatever he thought would get those votes.”
Now, based on what I have read, I would put Bernard in my second camp (and maybe in No. 3). He was not an early African-American supporter of Trump. (Please correct me if I am wrong.) He has been critical, but cooperative.
When reports emerged last month that a pornographic-film actress was paid $130,000 to keep quiet about her claims of an affair she had with Mr. Trump, it further complicated his relationship with evangelicals, who maintained that it is not the responsibility of the president to live a pure life.
“He’s not the pastor of our country,” Franklin Graham, a member of the camp advisory board, said on television. Tony Perkins, the president of the evangelical Family Research Council, said that evangelicals would give Mr. Trump a “mulligan.”
Mr. Jeffress agreed. “Evangelical support for President Trump has always been based on his policies, not on his personal piety,” he said.
So, all evangelicals "maintained that it is not the responsibility of the president to live a pure life"? That is not, to say the least, what I saw on Twitter.
Look at the key quotes again. Is it possible that Pastor Jeffress actually has a more nuanced, complex view of evangelical life than editors at The New York Times national desk?