The media and much of the intellectual community seems to equate “evangelical” with “Trump supporter.” And why not? 81% of white evangelical voters pulled the lever for Trump, a fact I try to explain in Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump.
Here are three pieces of anecdotal evidence:
1. Back in June I was asked to appear on CNN to talk about Trump and evangelicals. When I asked the producer if I would be appearing on CNN alone or with other “talking heads,” she said that I would be on the air with Dr. William Barber, the African-American progressive minister and outspoken critic of Trump. I responded to this news by saying something like, “So it sounds like this will be an anti-Trump segment.” The producer did not say anything in response. About an hour later, the same producer called me up and asked me what my book, Believe Me, was about. I told her it was largely critical of Trump. She responded by saying something like, “Oh, I thought you were an evangelical.” When I said that I was an evangelical, but did not support Trump, she seemed confused. She called me back twenty minutes later to tell me that they did not realize that my position on Trump was so similar to Barber. They wanted someone to argue with Barber. The segment was canceled. (I eventually did find my way back to CNN a couple of weeks later).
2. On July 10, I got up early and drove to Washington D.C. to film a segment for Rising, a new morning news show on The Hill‘s online television network. Rising is hosted by Krystal Ball, a former MSNBC host and 2010 candidate for Congress, and Buck Sexton, a conservative pundit and radio host. When I arrived on stage, before the cameras starting rolling, Sexton starting asking me about my background and my work on Believe Me. When he found out I was an evangelical who was critical of Trump, he obviously did not know what to make of me. As the cameras started rolling, it was clear that Sexton was incapable of understanding how an evangelical could oppose Donald Trump. His grasp of evangelicalism was incredibly shallow. He obviously only understood evangelicals through the lens of politics and he spent the entire segment trying to put me into a political box. After about 10 minutes, Sexton, obviously frustrated that I was not giving him Christian Right talking points, told the producers that “this segment is going too long.” I was ushered off the set. I turned around to thank Ball and Sexton. Neither of them looked up or said anything. They were already prepping for the next segment. While I was in the green room one of the producers of the show told me that the segment would air in a day or two. As far as I know, it has yet to air. I doubt it ever will. Too much nuance, I guess.
3. Just the other day I got an e-mail, completely out of the blue, from one of the post-War West’s great public intellectuals. He asked me to come to Washington D.C. to participate in a civil dialogue about Donald Trump. This public intellectual was nearly 90-years old, but he still presided over a center devoted to his thought at a D.C. university. He told me that the event would be televised nationally on C-SPAN. Needless to say, I was flattered. But after the two cases mentioned above, I decided to make sure this public intellectual knew who I was and what he was getting by inviting me to participate. I e-mailed to tell him that I accepted his invitation, but he should also know that I was an American historian and an evangelical who wrote a book critical of Trump. Thirty minutes later he e-mailed back to tell me that he thought I was a Trump supporter. He dis-invited me from the event. He was very apologetic and polite about it.
Apart from the fact that CNN, the producers and hosts of Rising, and this famous public intellectual did not read my book (or apparently even the dust jacket or Amazon description of my book), what should we make of these three cases?
In all three of them, I was invited to contribute to a discussion because I was an evangelical. But because I was an evangelical, it was assumed I was a Trump supporter.