Obama and the Evangelicals

In a blog post the other day, Sarah Pulliam Bailey took the Los Angeles Times to task for conveying a set of cliches about evangelicals. As she does her fisk, she opens with

The piece suggests that evangelicals aren’t necessarily in line with the Republican Party (shocking, right?) or as the headline puts it, “Obama could have a prayer among Ohio’s white evangelicals.”
The fault here may be less that of assumptions than how the story peddles a false hope about the political inclinations of Evangelicals. From the distance of Ohio to LA, who can blame them? The story uses the figure of a Rev. Beard to put a face on the story, and its suggestion that times might be changing for Evangelicals.
Well, maybe.

The Rev. Beard may be a Pentecostal, but his church is distinctly different with its wider diversity. From a sociological perspective it’s not surprising that the congregation has more Democrats (Rev. Bard estimates perhaps a third). You would expect it. Here, the article wants to make him a stand-in for Evangelicals, but doing so only underscores the the distance of the readers from Evangelicals. the atypical nature of the church comes up missing. After all for them, an Evangelical is an Evangelical. So this could be read as a sign of “how they’re coming around.”

Here, I thought the article was rather good about deflating such such views, or at least in putting them into perspective. First, there was the poll data. The facts about white evangelical behavior are rather widely known and reported: 74% GOP. Exit polls from 2008 confirm the same rough numbers. These numbers are approaching the minority/Dem identification, and pretty close to lock-step.

Second was the use of “bemused” — a facial/body expression — a use surely the result of direct reporting and observation. That word too, indicates the gap between readers’ hopes and the reality on the ground.

The one point the article did not really develop was this question of nuance. The new nuance, less politicized approach to social issues appears to be more of a generational shift, witness the extensive blogging around Rachel Held Evans, as young millennial evangelicals battle it out as to how to be or whether to be politically engaged. And again, this is the sort of difference that a general reader of the LA Times would probably not pick up. Then again, this millennial battle is not taking place in Ohio, so perhaps the reporter gets a pass.


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