Hit piece or masterpiece? Digesting that Washington Post story on rural Baptists who voted for Trump

If you spend any time on social media, you undoubtedly have heard about the Washington Post's front-page story Sunday on a rural Alabama congregation whose members support President Donald Trump.

A lot of people — particularly those who still can't believe that Hillary Clinton lost and that 81 percent of evangelicals voted for someone with Trump's moral character — loved the long, long piece.

"It's magnificently crafted, beautifully told, riveting and suspenseful," said one of the writer's Washington Post colleagues.

An investigative reporter at the rival New York Times called it "a suspenseful, transporting tale."

Even Ed Stetzer, a leading evangelical voice, praised the piece: "We need more long-form religion reporting like this. It seeks to understand, points out the tension, and does not shy away from the problems."

Others had different takes.

"Everybody quoted in this article sounds like a moron," one reader said.

Yep, pretty much.

The question: Is that because they really are morons or because that's how the Post chose to frame the story?

Another reader suggested: "WaPo paints these people as rural rubes, supporting a guy who flaunts immorality, when of course they're all just as sophisticated as the reporters, probably more, and have made a very simple calculation about who will deliver their policy preferences."

I'll admit that I'm still trying to digest the piece. I know this much: I didn't love it.

Why didn't I love it? I'm still trying to figure out precisely what rubbed me the wrong way. I'll offer a few thoughts that perhaps hit at my journalistic concerns.

But first, the basics on the story: It ran with the headline "Judgment Days" and this subhead:

In a small Alabama town, an evangelical congregation reckons with God, Trump and morality

The lede:

LUVERNE, Ala. — Clay Crum opened his Bible to Exodus Chapter 20 and read verse 14 one more time.
“Thou shalt not commit adultery,” it said.
He prayed about what he was going to do. He was the pastor of First Baptist Church in the town of Luverne, Ala., which meant he was the moral leader of a congregation that overwhelmingly supported a president who was an alleged adulterer. For the past six weeks, Crum had been preaching a series of sermons on the Ten Commandments, and now it was time for number seven.
It was summer, and all over the Bible Belt, support for President Trump was rising among voters who had traditionally proclaimed the importance of Christian character in leaders and warned of the slippery slope of moral compromise. In Crenshaw County, where Luverne is located, Trump had won 72 percent of the vote. Recent national polls showed the president’s approval among white evangelical Christians at a high of 77 percent. One survey indicated that his support among Southern Baptists was even higher, surpassing 80 percent, and these were the people arriving on Sunday morning to hear what their pastor had to say.

Honestly, this critique probably will make a whole lot more sense if you go ahead and read the whole story and then come back for my observations.

My observations, and I welcome opposing viewpoints, are these:

1. Sometimes, Post stories — particularly those written by reporters other than the paper's religion specialists — read as if church and politics are one and the same. Perhaps that's true for some churches. Maybe that's true for this particular church, although I don't think this story proves it.

Nonetheless, the entire narrative makes it seem as if the biggest issue in the pastor's sermon on adultery is Trump. Yet the pastor doesn't even mention Trump in his sermon. I would love for the Post to have engaged the issue of whether this pastor — like the Post itself — is fixated 24/7 on Trump.

This line from the story is typical of how the Post approaches the story and the church:

Sunday came, and the followers of Donald Trump took their usual seats in the sanctuary.

Earlier, the piece characterized the congregation as the "80 percenters."

Both descriptions, I guess, work in a world where church equals politics, and religion is all about who occupies the White House. Again, maybe that's the basis of this church's faith. But much of the thread piecing that narrative together seems to be the Post pitching it that way as opposed to actual facts confirming it.

2. Similarly, I'm not sure this story does a great job of humanizing the folks at this church. The sources quoted seem more like caricatures. I feel like I'm seeing these people through the lens of a Beltway publication with a certain position on Trump as opposed to an unfiltered lens that would present a more complicated picture of these "rural rubes," as the one Twitter user described them.

That's not to suggest that the church members quoted don't offer some kookie outlooks on immigration, race and other biblical matters. But I never got the feeling reading the piece that I was seeing a full portrait of these people.

I thought Post religion writer Sarah Pulliam Bailey's January 2017 story on the real-life North Carolina town that inspired "Mayberry" did a much better job of explaining what drives Trump voters without turning them into caricatures.

3. There's a whole lot of generalizing in this story and long stretches of text — particularly in trying to explain evangelicals in general — that read more like an editorial than an impartial news story.

Like Stetzer, I value long-form religion reporting. But I also value impartial reporting with ample context (which I'm sure Stetzer does, too). I guess maybe I like my journalism with a little less sardonic edge than I sensed in this story.

As I said earlier, I'm still trying to digest the piece. There's a lot to digest. And if I sound like I'm all over the map in my analysis, I don't deny it. 

This is why I'd really welcome your thoughts and insight, whether you agree with me or totally disagree. Was this a hit piece or a masterpiece? Did the story leave you with any unanswered questions? By all means, comment below or tweet us at @GetReligion.

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