A People of the News: Evangelicals, Politics, and the Media
It’s that time again. The time when evangelical Christians are all over the news for all the wrong reasons. No, it’s not due to scandal (although evangelicals have sadly had their fair share), but it’s also not it because they possess a life changing message about God, reality, and the human condition. For the mainstream media, evangelicals during this period are seen through only one lens: politics. They’re a voting bloc — and for many in the public eye, they have absolutely no right to be.
Addressing the audience on “Washington Watch” following the Iowa caucuses, host Tony Perkins put it like this:
“…I just want to forewarn everyone it’s coming. The evangelical bashing is going to start now. And folks let me tell you what this is about — it’s about suppressing the evangelical vote. It’s about discouraging you from participating in the process. And it’s going to get quite ugly.”
Perkins has ample reason to be concerned. The night before, MSNBC host Alex Wagner echoed what has now become a common media trope:
“But Trump has in some ways become religion for a certain section of the American electorate, and especially for evangelicals, that it’s not about the virtue anymore. It’s about the vice that Trump expresses. And I think you see that playing out in Iowa, where the evangelical vote is key. It is central to what is going to unfold tonight. And it is very much a group of people that find that Trump is in some ways a second coming.”
A recent Washington Post article fuels this idea even more:
“‘The support has gone from begrudging to enthusiastic. Many evangelicals now see Trump as their champion and defender — perhaps even savior,’ said Barry Hankins, a history professor at Baylor University who is an expert in evangelicalism. ‘Unwittingly, in my view, many evangelicals are welcoming authoritarianism and courting blasphemy.’”
For media who ignore evangelicals any time outside of election season, this is all “evangelicalism” is about. It goes something like this: Evangelicals live, breathe, and move in politics. They shape their lives around election cycles, and of course, do whatever the leading Republican candidate tells them.
Never allowing a good internal conflict to go to waste, the media always highlights left-of-center evangelicals who try to talk sense into these rubes. They portray conservatives as “radicalized,” while conveniently giving a pass to the evangelicals for Biden crowd. Mainstream media loves these voices and amplifies any “tsk, tsk” they give to these blind conservatives.
Granted, there are evangelical Christians who perfectly fit the mold that mainstream media shapes. These evangelicals are clanging cymbals and noisy gongs whose expertise in getting out the vote exceeds their prowess in love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, and self-control. Those voices are amplified as well. In media, as in Walmart, the squeakiest wheel on the shopping cart always makes the most noise.
On both ends of that spectrum, whether or not they know it, those voices are strikingly similar. For both, the great hope of mankind (or simply just America) seems wrapped up, for good or bad, in political power and political people. As the late Herbert Schlossberg wrote:
“Those who can be convinced that survival is at stake are likely to agree to almost any remedy, since extinction seems worse than all the alternatives. If placing extraordinary powers in the hands of political leaders will truly stave off the ultimate disaster, then those who demur can be made to appear as enemies of the human race. That is why arguments based on survival are so effective in persuading people to permit actions that violate their moral code” (“Idols for Destruction,” pp. 180-181).
With excesses on either end of the political spectrum in play, one might wonder if the middle ground might be the safest to search out. But that would likewise be an error. If evangelicals are rooted in the Scriptures (and we should be), the soil of any middle ground could end up being just as toxic for our souls as the extremes. Rather, evangelicals should look to a firmer foundation.
As the old hymn says, “how firm a foundation ye saints of the Lord, is laid for your faith in his excellent word.” Instead of being defined by the news of the day, evangelicals must define themselves by the evangel — that good news of the gospel that’s revealed in Scripture. And that’s just basic. Theologian Andrew T. Walker has rightly argued that in addition to defining evangelicalism by traits such as adherence to the Scriptures, the centrality of the cross, conversion, and being active in one’s faith — evangelicals must further be defined by local church engagement. Says Walker:
“… showing up on a weekly basis, praying with one another, and walking through life’s challenges is far more accurate in determining whether one’s faith is ‘evangelical’ than by simply wearing a MAGA hat. By my own definition, then, ‘evangelical’ would dramatically shrink in size from how demographers, political scientists, and journalists use the term.”
Yes, the numbers may dwindle, but they would more accurately reflect a reality that neither left-of-center evangelical elites nor political operatives of the right get correct. It’s that while faithful evangelical Christians are indeed engaged in politics, their politics aren’t motivated by the news of the day.
Their politics are fueled by the news that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. That’s the foundational soil for how evangelicals do everything, from their politics to their potlucks. Evangelicals, rightly understood, are a people of the news — just not the people the news media think they are.
Jared Bridges is editor-in-chief of The Washington Stand.