So has our collective journalistic failure to get past this apparent conundrum.
That is why I remain so impressed with a July 21, 2018 Washington Post story by Stephanie McCrummen, with photos by Michael S. Williamson, headlined “Judgment Days,” which takes on questions of “God, Trump and the meaning of morality.” Almost a year after it published, and especially as the 2020 campaigns rev up, the story still offers valuable insights.
McCrummen follows members of the congregation of First Baptist Church in Luverne, Alabama, on a typical Sunday morning. The ostensible occasion for the profile is Pastor Clay Crum’s sermon on the seventh of the 10 Commandments: “Thou shalt not commit adultery.” But McCrummen takes the piece far beyond the sermon itself, painting a portrait of a community more complex and individualized than many would assume.
McCrummen begins “in scene” with Pastor Crum about to begin his adultery sermon, focusing on the sensory details (“There was the sound of hard candy unwrapping and thin pages of Bibles turning.”). Then she zooms outwards to give some necessary exposition about Trump and evangelical support, but always with Luverne in mind, and never so far removed as to “embarrass the narrative,” as a writing mentor of mine used to say.
The accompanying photographs by Williamson amplify the more purposeful pace and community focus of the piece. The headline image depicts a group of women in church in their Sunday best. But there also are portraits of the young pastor and exuberant kids running around the sanctuary; a portrait of one of the older women preaching, and at her job at the local food bank. And we see a wider glimpse of Luverne itself — the shuttered factory, yes, and a sign that says “Thank God We’re Deplorable,” but also freshly painted street murals, the interior of the post office, and the beloved Chicken Shack.
At the time of publication, the story sparked notice for the bluntness with which the congregants express blatant racism in Christian terms. For example, congregation member Sheila Butler insists that ‘love thy neighbor’ really means “love thy American neighbor.”
“The Bible says, ‘If you do this to the least of these, you do it to me,’” Sheila said, quoting Jesus. “But the least of these are Americans, not the ones crossing the border.”
Many members of the congregation share the discomforting convictions that Christians are under attack and must defend themselves from the forces of (Muslim) President Barack Obama and (Satanic) presidential candidate Hillary Clinton. Readers may understandably be tempted to stop reading at this point.
I encourage you to persevere.“Judgment Days” succeeds because it gets beyond two primary stumbling blocks in coverage of evangelical support for Trump: Let’s call those the “character fallacy” and the “denomination fallacy.” By foregrounding the actual struggles of the pastor and members of his flock to reconcile things they don’t like about Trump with their support for his policy positions, the story hints at a more difficult, but necessary, way of reporting on evangelicals who support Trump: in short, one church at a time.
Many news stories start with the assumption that it is ironic for self-proclaimed Christians to embrace Trump because of his many, highly visible, personal sins. But to equate “Christianity” with some kind of clean-living “character” is too shallow, and out of date. As religion scholar Stephen Prothero argued in Politico in May 2016, the reason evangelicals supported Trump was not because they were subverting their Christian values, but because those values had shifted. “America’s evangelicals just aren’t all that evangelical anymore,” wrote Prothero. That is, the voting bloc known as “evangelical” is no longer defined by its desire to supplant 1960s-era moral relativism with “traditional values.” Instead, their priorities have been highly politicized.
Although questions about Trump’s sinful behavior certainly come up in McCrummen’s story, both the reporter and her subjects understand that we have to go beyond “character.” As McCrummen writes, extrapolating from congregants Jack and Linda Jones’s comments on the checkered history of presidential peccadilloes, “What was important was not the character of the president but his positions.” Most important, his position on abortion:
It was the one political issue on which First Baptist had taken a stand, a sin one member described as “straight from the pits of Hell,” and which [Pastor] Crum had called out when he preached on “Thou shalt not kill” the Sunday before, reminding the congregation about the meaning of his tiny lapel pin. “It’s the size of a baby’s feet at ten weeks,” he had said.
The fact that McCrummen also mentions the moral quandaries that Crum experienced in putting together his sermon on “Thou shalt not kill” — there were, after all, many military veterans in the congregation — shows that the particular adultery sermon, juicy as it may be as regards to Trump, is not the only, or perhaps even the most urgent, moral issue confronting the community. Evangelicals’ single-minded focus on opposing abortion may be frustrating for those of us who do not share that belief, but its centrality is important to acknowledge.
The “character fallacy” also keeps us in a feedback loop, making religion simply about the personal — adultery, swearing, drinking, greed — and not about the social world. It may be easier to keep asking ourselves how people who vote for Trump can call themselves “good Christians,” but we will never get a satisfactory answer to that question. By showing us conflicted Christian voters without a filter, McCrummen’s piece encourages us to ask new, uncomfortable, and necessary questions.
To do this, McCrummen takes time to have extended conversations with members of the the congregation outside of the church itself, and does an especially deft job giving the backstory of Pastor Crum, who is decades younger than many of his parishioners and a relatively new hire by the longstanding First Baptist Church.
He had wondered at times about the idea that God had chosen Trump, and the opposite, the possibility that God had nothing to do with Trump at all. He wondered about it again now, his Bible bookmarked to the 14th verse of Exodus Chapter 20 for the sermon.
“It’s a hard thing to reconcile,” he said. “I think ultimately God allowed him to become president for reasons we don’t fully know yet.”
This added layer of complexity is invaluable: rarely do we see into the head of an individual pastor as he sincerely considers what to include in his sermon.McCrummen’s piece is just as effective at avoiding the “denomination fallacy.” Her story doesn’t fall victim to the tempting media tendency to treat denomination as destiny when it comes to American evangelicals. Instead, she focuses determinedly on this one example of the “rank and file.” Congregants in Luverne are influenced by larger political narratives, but also individuals with their own dilemmas.
Although non-evangelical readers could be forgiven for thinking otherwise, “evangelical” is not a denomination. It is a descriptor claimed by a number of non-denominational churches and by several organized denominations, notably the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC), which boasts roughly 15 million members, including the Luverne congregation. Said to be the largest evangelical denomination, the SBC is often looked to as a barometer for what “the evangelicals” are thinking, and the annual SBC convention often becomes a news hook for this reason.
McCrummen’s story acknowledges that denominational affiliation is not a predictor of human behavior — perhaps even less so when it comes to Baptists. Each Baptist congregation has the power to make its own decisions; the Convention has no binding power over them. Churches like Luverne’s First Baptist don’t go around describing themselves as “Southern Baptist.” McCrummen quotes SBC President J.D. Greear to the effect that church culture has “grown too comfortable with power,” but she rightly notes that “all those discussions were taking place far from the rank-and-file.”
(Luverne) was a place where it was hard to drive a mile in any direction without passing some church or sign about the wages of sin, where conversations about politics happened in nodding circles before Sunday school, or at the Chicken Shack after, and few people paid attention to some national Southern Baptist leader.
The Southern Baptist Convention is politically influential. But their positions change unevenly, and over longer periods of time than short-lead journalism would allow. Luverne’s First Baptist Church is not the Southern Baptist Convention, is not “evangelicals in general.” (For an evocative and personal account of the last major tectonic shift in SBC culture, I highly recommend R. Marie Griffith’s account in Religion and Politics.)Over and over again, the Luverne congregants refer to the afterlife, what McCrummen calls the “binary world” of heaven and hell, saved and unsaved. But heaven does not look the same for all of the saved. As congregant Jewell Killough describes it: “Most say it’s gonna be 15,000 miles wide and that high….we don’t know that. But it’s gonna be suitable to each person….So, whatever makes me happy. I like birds. So outside my window, there will be birds.” Sheila Butler says that in heaven, she won’t have her chronic knee pain, but “I love plants, and I think it’ll be like walking in a beautiful garden.” That’s not to mention the fully-stocked kitchen: “I think it’s going to be beautiful to see all the appliances.” All this seems harmless, even quirky.
(One thing it is not is “Southern Baptist.” The SBC denounced all such individualized “heaven narratives” in 2010, after a minor scandal around the best-selling book “The boy who came back from heaven,” when the boy, Alex Malarkey, disavowed the near-death experience narrative. The SBC also stopped carrying all such “heaven narratives” in its Lifeways Christian Bookstores. So what is a member of First Baptist Church doing with a personalized heaven? The answer: thinking for themselves.)
McCrummen’s story caught the attention of liberal pastor Daniel Schultz who, in a piece for the online magazine “Killing the Buddha,” said the profile of the Luverne congregation reveals that “tribe is far more important to humans than reason.” If that’s the case, the tragedy is that the bubble mentality that has convinced people that Obama secretly “operated out of the Muslim tradition,” and that Hillary Clinton is “of Satan,” and that Christians like them are under attack, coexists with a personal creativity that can imagine a heaven full of birds with a floor of stars. If white evangelicals can think for themselves about heaven, we might well ask, why can’t they seem to do so about Earth?
Heaven may be complex and individualized, but hell is not. This is how Jewell Killough describes it in McCrummen’s story:
“Each person is gonna be on an island-like place, and fire all around it. And they’re gonna be in complete darkness, and over time, your eyes will go. And worms’ll eat on you. It’s a terrible place, the way the Bible describes it.”
In short, heaven is us — the saved — and hell is them — the damned. The “us” are revealed in glorious specificity. “Them,” on the other hand, are hellishly undifferentiated and dark — with all the theological, racial, and social implications of that word.
By the time McCrummen makes her way back to the Sunday morning scene she begins with, we are no longer sure what exactly Pastor Crum will say to his flock. And, without revealing any spoilers, I can tell you that the sermon, like this story, refuses easy answers.
That determined complexity is what makes “Judgment Days” both discomforting and compelling. McCrummen doesn’t shy away from the troubling politics of her subjects, but she doesn’t let the evangelical “other” rest in an undifferentiated mass. Instead, the story makes our hearts break — and stomachs churn — for those individuals who so casually, and even endearingly, espouse ideas that can seem abhorrent.
Brook Wilensky-Lanford is the author of ” Paradise Lust: Searching for the Garden of Eden” and former editor of the online religion magazine Killing the Buddha. Her writing has appeared in The New York Times Book Review, The New Yorker’s Page-Turner blog, The New Republic, and elsewhere. She is pursuing a PhD in American religious history at UNC-Chapel Hill.