On the recent media representation of Evangelicals

Map showing initial extent of the ‘Bible Belt’ in the United States. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Map showing initial extent of the ‘Bible Belt’ in the United States. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Grace Dalton reflects on recent media representations of Evangelicals.

BBC Radio 4 recently aired a one off programme titled “Trump’s Evangelicals.” Few things could possibly make me happier than evangelicalism having airtime on one of the nation’s most popular radio stations. But the programme was not about actual evangelicalism at all, instead it was a concerning misrepresentation characteristic of mainstream US media’s coverage of supposed evangelicals.

“Is it not unsettling that simply mentioning God twice would have consequences — in particular in the capital of a nation that claims to be the land of the free, and where references to God are ubiquitous? Apparently not; much recent media conveys the message that in fact, it’s discussing God — and certainly prayer — which is the truly unsettling thing.”

The programme is narrated by a BBC White House correspondent, apparently Kentuckian, who describes the radical change in attitudes to God in Washington — “a place where, if you mention God more than once in an evening, you don’t get invited back. Things are different [now] under Trump.” In the first place, is it not somewhat unsettling that simply mentioning God twice would have consequences — in particular in the capital of a nation that claims to be the land of the free, and where references to God are ubiquitous (on money; in the relentlessly repeated salute; and in so many other places)? Apparently not; much recent media conveys the message that in fact, it’s discussing God — and certainly prayer — which is the truly unsettling thing. Increasingly, it’s implied that believers are dangerous.

The presenter recounts an occasion in which group prayer began where she was in the White House, and she was asked by Trump to stay when she attempted to walk out. Given that she was under no obligation to actually participate in prayer, why would a journalist reject an opportunity to observe the administration she has rare access (and a job) to report on? Does this not suggest preference for secularism over information on her part? If, as she believes, there is no god therefore prayer is merely words, why flee?

It’s positive that the presenter points out that referring to oneself as an evangelical means distinct things in the UK and US (in the UK, at least for the time being, it still retains something like its original meaning of, “one who believes the evangel, the gospel”) — but still she neglects to consider the origin of the label and how it relates to the Bible. Of course, this is reflective of the relativism that pervades our media — there’s no objective definition of evangelical, we’re expected to define it only by the people who wear the label.

“The BBC programme ‘[Trump’s Evangelicals],’ like other coverage of evangelicals’ supposed support for Trump, fails to discuss Hillary Clinton, but her policies and past are a fundamental component of the extent of Christians’ voting and support for Trump.”

In discussion of political parties, we’re offered statistics in relation to statements made by politicians — but at no point is it explained to the viewer why evangelicals believe what they do. More than 80% of white evangelicals voted for Trump in 2016, and most still think he’s doing a great job. This makes the logical error of presuming that voting for a politician indicates an opinion that the politician is great, where in fact votes only indicate preference between — essentially — two candidates. The programme, like other coverage of evangelicals’ supposed support for Trump, fails to discuss Hillary Clinton, but her policies and past are a fundamental component of the extent of Christians’ voting and support for Trump.

Although continually decried both by the far left and far right for perceived imbalance, the BBC typically presents the views of opposing ideologies. Consequently it’s disappointing that they, like other, perpetually partisan media outlets, neglect to discourse with evangelicals who are not supportive of Trump. Why not incorporate commentary from one of the many pastors who are concerned about Trump’s rebellion against God’s instruction to flee sexual immorality and to love thy neighbour?

“There’s no evidence that evangelicals are motivated by race, nor that Churches which make mention of race might spawn racial biases in evangelicals; yet it feels that evangelicals are being subtly tarnished with having white supremacist attitudes.”

Frequently in commentary regarding evangelicals, mention is made of race — it’s specifically white evangelicals, we’re told by this programme and much other media, who support Trump. There’s no evidence that evangelicals are motivated by race, nor that Churches which make mention of race might spawn racial biases in evangelicals; yet it feels that evangelicals are being subtly tarnished with having white supremacist attitudes. The mega Church to which I listen most often — the Village Church, Texas — frequently chastises racism, for example. But repeatedly referencing white support of Trump seems to suggest prejudice as a driving factor, overlooking the actual rationale on which Trump voters based their decision. We aren’t given the statistics for how non-whites voted — but the fact of a higher proportion of white voters opted for Trump would (whatever these figures) not necessarily prove that race was a direct factor in their voting preference. It is the correlation/causation fallacy to presume that it does. Rather, both race and voting preference relate to other social factors. We don’t see an equivalent spotlight on race in discussion of Democrat voters, nor of our own (British) politics. Correlation between evangelicalism and voting for Trump does not demonstrate that the former causes the latter — instead, both are linked to other social factors.

Particularly disturbing is one interviewee’s comment regarding evangelicals wanting America to become as it was in the 50s. 75%, he claims, of white evangelicals believe that things were better then, and this, he deduces, is why they were lured by Trump’s promise to Make America Great Again. But then he presumptuously asserts that this nostalgia is born of desire to regain racial dominance, referencing Jim Crow laws in the 50s. This assumption of racist motivation is unwarranted and divisive.

“To speculate that evangelical Trump voters are motivated by prejudice against African Americans is to overlook their stated reasons and deceptively propose an imagined ideology instead. Fundamental to undermining evangelicalism, or Christianity more broadly, are efforts to paint it as devoid of society’s remaining moral laws.”

Instead, in my own observation of US Christians who support Trump, I’ve seen them cite a belief that his presidency is God’s will, and that Trump will act to increase their freedom of religious conscience and will take a stand against abortion. They feel threatened by restrictions on public prayer and by the trend for LGBT activists to demand wedding cakes for gay weddings and similar services. They feel angered by the termination of tiny human beings’ lives. They feel bereaved and afraid that a culture of values which they feel to be familiar and morally superior is being rapidly eroded.

I’m personally torn as to whether it is Christ-like to vote for Trump on these grounds whilst he’s simultaneously so lacking in compassion for migrants — but to speculate that evangelical Trump voters are motivated by prejudice against African Americans is to overlook their stated reasons and deceptively propose an imagined ideology instead. Fundamental to undermining evangelicalism, or Christianity more broadly, are efforts to paint it as devoid of society’s remaining moral laws. Increasingly, the emphasis of militant atheists is not so much on dismissing Christians as deluded — after all, truth is now relative as atheists frequently tell us — but on unfounded accusations of bigotry and tyranny. Whilst some who are bigoted might claim to be evangelical, statistical evidence of a correlation is absent; more importantly the foundation of evangelicalism, the New Testament, forbids bigotry.

“There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”

Galatians 3:28

Galatians 3:28, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”

Mark 12:30-31, “‘And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.”

The presenter asks, seemingly rhetorically, “Are evangelicals using the president? Is he using them?” Would this be asked of another political leader and a group that supports them? I’ve never heard, “Are trade unionists using Jeremy Corbyn? Is he using them?” or anything similar. All politicians endeavour to entice certain voter groups, and voters want politicians to enact the changes that they believe society needs. Arguably, what would be truly concerning would be such a symbiosis to drive redistribution of wealth or power towards the electorate subgroup concerned, and indeed Trump is responsible for tax policies that make the very wealthiest even wealthier; but evangelicals don’t stand to benefit from Trump financially on account of their evangelicalism.

“Whilst the programme rightly consults varied characters, it neglects to include Christians beyond Trump’s fan club. There are many thousands of Christian leaders, academics and activists who hold more nuanced, or critical views of Trump — including many who would call themselves evangelical — and the programme grossly oversimplifies a group about whom the non-Christian public are woefully uninformed. Given that this is a programme on a BBC station, and primarily for a British audience, why not include a comment from the UK’s Evangelical Alliance?”

Whilst the programme rightly consults varied characters, it neglects to include Christians beyond Trump’s fan club. There are many thousands of Christian leaders, academics and activists who hold more nuanced, or critical views of Trump — including many who would call themselves evangelical — and the programme grossly oversimplifies a group about whom the non-Christian public are woefully uninformed. For example, given that this is a programme on a BBC station — i.e., primarily for a British audience — why not include a comment from the UK’s Evangelical Alliance?

One can’t avoid the ultimate issue of entirely different values and understandings of reality between Christians and secularists. When the reporter mentions limitations on abortion, many secular listeners will be angered, whilst Christians are thrilled — and the two sides will resent and not even begin to understand each other if programmes like this continue to avoid the reasons behind the differing views. Correspondingly, secular listeners are angered, whilst many Christians are thrilled about Brett Kavanaugh’s appointment — because the two sides hold opposite beliefs regarding the accusations against Kavanaugh, and whilst the two sides’ perception of truth are opposed, they’ll continue to resent each other. Is it asking too much of the mainstream media to do more to mediate, rather than inflame?

Trump’s Evangelicals on BBC Radio 4 may be niche for UK media, but across the Pond outlets have been stoking fear of evangelicalism with fervour for years — and ultimately, we in Britain consume secular American media more and more. British audiences, to whom the term evangelical is almost alien, are being taught that it means supporting sex abusers into positions of power; obstructing women’s autonomy and oppressing LGBT people. Although these are entirely untrue, most Brits — unlike those in the US — are only ever presented with this unbalanced mischaracterisation.

“I believe that a component of what Evangelicalism-bashing is rooted in may be disappointment that Christianity hasn’t quite died as had been predicted. It’s apparent to non-Christians that Dawkins and his ‘four horsemen of the new atheism’ haven’t succeeded in eradicating Christianity. Meanwhile new forms of spirituality are flourishing.”

If I may speculate for a moment, I believe that a component of what Evangelicalism-bashing is rooted in may be disappointment that Christianity hasn’t quite died as had been predicted. Just over a decade ago, Richard Dawkins heroically declared God to be a delusion so that we might at last break free. Although he had a huge impact — including amongst many who didn’t read the book, but were persuaded by the title alone — it’s apparent to non-Christians that Dawkins and his four horsemen of the new atheism haven’t succeeded in eradicating Christianity. Meanwhile new forms of spirituality are flourishing. How to make sense of this failure? — declare the motivation to be thirst for power, and endeavour to ethically demonise Christianity, since it couldn’t be crushed with supposedly rational arguments. Use a new label to pretend that it’s a different group now holding firm from the group you predicted would die.

Additionally, labelling some Christians as evangelicals allows secularists to pretend that they’re separate from the social justice work which is universally approved of. I wonder what the haters of evangelicalism think of Samaritan’s Purse — one of the biggest humanitarian charities of the planet, founded and chaired by Franklin Graham, the figure head of the evangelicalism that they so despise.

Vice’s article conveys the idea that evangelicalism will result in severe emotional harm; whereas in fact, many who adhere to Christian principles regarding sex do not experience the problems discussed in the article. Meanwhile, countless others have been hurt by the rejection of Christian values in our society.”

The trend in secular criticism to misunderstand ‘Evangelicalism’ extends far beyond politics. For example, Vice’s recent ‘Growing up Evangelical Ruined Sex for Me’ is the latest in a number of articles deriding evangelicalism to its 45 million followers. This piece might legitimately be considered one-sided as one individual’s theoretically experience-based opinion — however Vice entirely ignores alternative views. The message it conveys is that evangelicalism will result in severe emotional harm; whereas in fact, many who adhere to Christian principles regarding sex do not experience the problems discussed in the article. Meanwhile, countless others have been hurt by the rejection of Christian values in our society; for example, research amongst young adults repeatedly finds that the majority regret sexual encounters (e.g., here and here). Vice relentlessly strives to intrigue its followers with kinky content, the evident religion of its creators being Sexual Hedonism, and so exposing the sacrilege of chastity is a particular moral crusade. Many Christians abstain from sex prior to marriage without going on to experience “anxiety attacks, paranoia, scratching until [they] bled.” But no consideration is given to this; the article is entirely unbalanced.

The reality is that a particular movement flourished within parts of the Evangelical subculture whilst millennials were growing up: the purity movement. It was epitomised by the notorious 1997 book I Kissed Dating Goodbye, which instructs young people not so much as to kiss until their wedding day. The book has since been partially retracted by its author, as he and others have recognised that enforcing quite such extreme attitudes regarding relationships could lead to unwarranted anxiety. But since political coverage of evangelicals caricatures one part of a varied community as being the definition of evangelical, and ignores the real meaning of evangelicalism entirely; so this article and others like it will lead outside observers to think that this is the very definition of evangelical attitudes to relationships, rather than the attitude of just one faction of evangelicalism. Meanwhile it’s oblivious to the reality that attitudes regarding sex are in fact nothing to do with what evangelicalism actually is.

“Because we have such a broad and vague definition of evangelical, one person could automatically assume every evangelical is a Trump supporter, while another could think they’re anti-Trump, because that exists as well… We’re looking at faith through a political lens, and that’s unfortunate and dangerous.”

Boz Tchividjian

A Guardian piece from last year somewhat helpfully described the misunderstanding; “‘Exvangelicals’: why more religious people are rejecting the evangelical label. Concerned about the right wing stereotypes linked to the term, many say they no longer identify with it — especially after the 2016 election”. Arguing that evangelicalism is such a vague term that political groups have exploited it, it recognises that the word has been hijacked, and that it’s perceived meaning today is distinct from its origin. The article quotes Tony Campolo: “We feel uncomfortable calling ourselves evangelicals any more, because the general public assumes things about us that aren’t true. We are not for capital punishment, we are not pro-war, we don’t hate gays, we’re not anti-feminist.” Likewise Boz Tchividjian, a grandson of Billy Graham, who says, “Because we have such a broad and vague definition of evangelical, one person could automatically assume every evangelical is a Trump supporter, while another could think they’re anti-Trump, because that exists as well… We’re looking at faith through a political lens, and that’s unfortunate and dangerous.”

Ultimately, whilst those denigrating evangelicalism are — as all of us are before we meet Him — in rebellion against God, part of the reason that evangelicalism has become a pejorative term is that it’s not done enough to focus on the evangel. It’s wrong for the media to report with so much undeconstructed bias; however, there are indeed some who call themselves evangelicals and who are far too politically charged, or obsessive about matters of secondary importance. Each of us needs to do more to seek to be God’s messengers. It’s crucial, arguably more than ever, that we fix our eyes upon Jesus, so that disputes about politics and sexual ethics don’t detract from telling our world about Him.

“Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth.”
Colossians 3:2

 

 

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Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version® (ESV®), © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

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