Wink and nod: What was a black girl doing at Karen Pence's 'Christian' school anyway?

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In many ways, it was the perfect “white evangelical” horror story.

So you had an African-American sixth-grader who reported that she was bullied by three boys who taunted her with racial insults and cut off some of her dreadlocks. This took place at a “Christian” school where Karen Pence, as in the wife of Donald Trump’s loyal vice president, has taught off and on for more than a decade.

It’s a story that, in this week’s “Crossroads” podcast (click here to tune that in), host Todd Wilken and I explored on three levels, as in the three parts of a click-bait equation.

First, there is the story of the accusations of an alleged assault, which turned out not to be true, according to the girl’s family.

That was a tragic local story. What made it a national story?

That’s the second level of this story — the key click-bait link to Trump World. That was especially true in a rather snarky NBC News online report (which even worked in an LGBTQ angle, due to the school’s doctrinal statement on marriage and sex).

But that wasn’t the angle that interested me the most. No, I was interested in the school itself. I imagine that lots of readers much have thought to themselves (I will paraphrase): What in the world is a black girl doing enrolled at the kind of white evangelical Trump-loving alleged Christian school that would Mrs. Mike Pence would be teach at for a dozen years or so?

Thus, I was interested in the following paragraph of factual material that was included in two Washington Post stories about this case:

Immanuel Christian is a private K-10 National Blue Ribbon school with 469 students. Just under half the pupils are students of color, according to information provided by Immanuel officials. African American students account for 11 percent of the school population. Tuition for middle-school students is $11,500. Vice President Pence’s wife, Karen Pence, teaches art part time at the school in grades one through five.

Just under half of the students at this school are non-white?

That would appear to be the case. That isn’t the image that most people would have of private Christian schools. Right? (For some background, see this 1988 book — “Inside America's Christian Schools Paperback.” This book is interesting because it’s old, offering a detailed look at the roots of the Christian-school movement, as written by journalism educator Paul F. Parsons, one of my former teachers.)

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What I argue in the podcast is that this story about Immanuel Christian offers — for journalists with the eyes to see a larger topic — a chance to write about the complex makeup of the actual evangelical Protestant movement.

That’s a subject that I addressed in my “On Religion” column this week, which centers on an important new book — “Who is an evangelical? The History of a Movement in Crisis” — by historian Thomas Kidd of Baylor University.

Forget history for a moment. Kidd argues that America’s current media-fueled obsession with white evangelicals is hiding crucial facts about who evangelicals actually are (in America and around the world) and what their lives are really about. This is affecting news right now.

Because of the 2016 election, evangelicals have been locked in a vise of stereotypes:

Evangelicals were no longer "born again" Protestants who "cherish the Bible as the Word of God" while urgently proclaiming salvation through "a personal relationship with Jesus Christ." Evangelicals are now white Republicans who voted for Trump, and that's that. Forget the historic importance of African American evangelicals in the Civil Rights era and beyond. Forget the explosive growth and influence of evangelical and Pentecostal Latino churches across America. Forget the rise of church-planters and evangelists from Asia, especially South Korea.

Why? Sorry to repeat this old GetReligion theme, but lots of journalists seem to assume that — all together now — politics are real and religion is not so real.

Here’s the end of that column:

"Evangelicals are covered, they are important, when they are a factor in politics – period," said Kidd. "All of those evangelicals who are not even voting, and there are lots of them, may as well not even exist. Their lives, by definition, are not newsworthy."

This national obsession with the clout of the "81%" of white evangelicals who voted for Trump may even be causing journalists and pollsters to miss important political stories, especially in rapidly changing states like Florida and Texas.

Right now, said Kidd, Latinos are the "most intriguing evangelicals, to me, because their numbers are growing so fast and their allegiances are totally up for grabs. ... If you want to know where evangelicals are going, you have to watch all the independent churches, the storefront churches in big urban areas. Look at the churches that are growing, and they are immigrant churches -0- all kinds of immigrants."

Think about this question: Would Trump have won the presidency without the votes of evangelical and Pentecostal Latinos in Florida?

Enjoy the podcast.

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