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In the wake of Trump's rise, Christian media outlets take a stance amid divided audience
Major faith groups, especially Evangelicals, are divided about supporting Donald Trump's presidential bid and that makes religious media outlets' jobs harder. - photo by Chandra Johnson
After a series of primary victories, Donald Trump has risen from laughable longshot to likely nominee, leading the Republican pack in polling and delegate count alike.

Trump's rise to the front of the GOP race is something the mainstream media didn't expect. In August, data-driven news site FiveThiryEight outlined what it called Trump's "Six Stages of Doom," ultimately predicting that despite an early surge of popularity, Trump's campaign would eventually crumble.

The Huffington Post, calling Trump's campaign "a sideshow" in July, chose to put Trump political coverage in the site's entertainment section a miscalculation they remedied in December.

Now, with delegates from major states like South Carolina, Florida and Ohio under Trump's belt, no one is laughing.

While Trumps unconventional style has bewildered mainstream media outlets, the Republican frontrunner poses a unique test for smaller, values-focused news outfits that serve the very audience some say paved the way for Trumps victory in many southern states: Christian voters, particularly Evangelicals.

Faith-focused media outlets have been slow to call Trump out on inconsistencies between his actions and his Christian faith. Divisions within the faith community about Trump have also resulted in a mixed approach to coverage among major faith news outlets like Christianity Today, the Christian Post, World Magazine, Tablet and Forward.

A lot of journalists are wishing and were wishing (that) wed looked harder at Trump sooner. We see this in retrospect, World Magazine editor-in-chief Marvin Olasky said. The assumption was hed go away. Dont assume just because hes not to a journalists taste that he wont be to the taste of voters."

Now, as the GOP faces the possiblity of a Trump nomination, media outlets have begun an onslaught of critical coverage Columbia Journalism School religion media professor Ari Goldman says should have started months ago factual, probing reporting into Trumps values, faith and background.

Theres been a general media failure around Donald Trump, not limited to religious publications, because weve all been seduced by his ugly charisma, but maybe the religious press can learn from Pope Francis, Goldman said, referencing the pontiffs suggestion that someone sharing Trumps personality traits may not be a Christian. Just as the New York Times said several months ago in an editorial that Donald Trump is a racist, sometimes you have to just speak the truth.

Coverage and character

The media's course correction on Trump is a response to what New York University journalism professor Jay Rosen dubbed the Trump emergency," which has come about because few media outlets took Donald Trump seriously between his June 2015 announcement to run for president and Super Tuesday in February.

But why have Christian media outlets (along with their mainstream counterparts) generally waited this long to take a hard look at the facts of Trumps background?The answer may be that Christian news services and their target audiences differ significantly this election cycle on whats most important in a candidate, and that presents a problem for Christian media outlets, said USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism professor Diane Winston.

Media outlets seek to attract consumers, not repel them. Religious publications, especially those that have a broad constituency, are cautious about alienating their readership, Winston said. Since Trump has Evangelical supporters, some Christian publications are reluctant to say that his behavior and actions are un-Christian.

For example, Olasky says character is of paramount concern at World Magazine when covering a candidate for a Christian audience. But as a general rule, he said the media has failed to bring Trumps character to the forefront, again, because few took his candidacy seriously.

I dont think half of Alabama Republicans would vote for Trump if they were hearing day after day about his demonstrable failures of character his repeated adulteries and bragging about them, Olasky said. He lacks the character to be president.

Yet voters who participated in the primaries, many of whom self-identify as Evangelical Christians in polls, have shown that they care little about Trumps character this election cycle, said Amy Black, a political scientist at Wheaton College, a Christian liberal arts school in Illinois.

Trump isnt going to win a character battle, but hes not trying because its just not the case that people are voting on character this election cycle, Black said. When anger with the government is so high, people arent voting for character theyre voting for change.

Exit polling from the New Hampshire, South Carolina and Florida GOP primaries bolster Blacks observations that character matters little in this election cycle compared to the need for change.

In New Hampshire, Republican voters said Trump best matched up with a candidate's most important quality whether the candidate can win, tells it like it is or could bring about change. In both South Carolina and Florida, Trump was the choice for voters who cared most about immigration, the economy, terrorism and governement spending. In Florida, Trump also won the most voters who described themeselves as "dissatisfied" or "angry" with the government generally.

Hes not an insider. His Biblical knowledge is scant, his idea of the Lords supper is odd and the way he talks about faith is not the way most people talk about their faith, Black said. (Christians) arent going, Hes one of us. But they are saying, He sounds like he might be able to protect us.

Unraveling Evangelical

Like the GOP, Christian faith groups are divided about Trumps policy and lifestyle especially Evangelicals, whom Trump has courted as a key Republican voting bloc. To understand the Christian medias scattershot Trump coverage so far, media critics must recognize fragmentation within faith communities, USC communications professor Diane Winston said.

While Trump doesn't have a voting record to indicate how his faith may inform policy, Winston suggests his track record in the business world was likely significant to many Christian denominations.

We think of things like gay marriage or abortion as being issues Christians care about, but especially conservative Evangelicals and Catholics care a lot about the economy and business, Winston said. His profile as a successful business man is very important for the idea of prosperity gospel, where God rewards those who are faithful with material wealth. If thats your only measure, Trumps an A number-one Christian.

But the nature of Trump's prosperity is something World Magazine has begun to investigate since Trump's Super Tuesday wins. In the March 5 edition of World, a story titled "The Big Gamble" digs into Trump's casino enterprise in Atlantic City arguably a boon for Trump's business acumen and economic outlook for the town and raises questions about the moral and economic outcomes left in Trump's wake.

But to some evangelicals, Trump's reputation as a business man is qualification enough for the presidency. In his endorsement of Trump at Liberty University in January, Jerry Falwell Jr. said part of the reason he supported Trump was his wealth.

He cannot be bought, he's not a puppet on a string like many other candidates ... who have wealthy donors as their puppet masters, Falwell said during Trumps visit to Liberty.

But Black pointed out that Evangelicals also lack the unifying leaders of decades past.

The Evangelical movement is at a crossroads. The old guard Jerry Falwell Sr., Pat Robertson they dont have the same influence they used to have, Black said. The question is, who are the new leaders? Thats in flux right now.

Falwell Jr. doesnt speak for the whole of Evangelicals, as is evident from the reaction to Falwell's Trump endorsement from Russell Moore, president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention. Politics driving the gospel rather than the other way around is the third temptation of Christ, Moore tweeted following Falwells endorsement. He overcame it. Will we?

Christians are also frustrated with the political status quo, especially where faith issues are concerned. An outsider like Trump, his supporters generally believe, may get more done than a typical politician on issues like religious liberty, abortion or same-sex marriage. The Kings College professor and World Magazine contributor D.C. Innes said Trump's support among Christians is a response to conservative politicians history of failing faith causes in the past.

Evangelicals, for example, became politically engaged to preserve their way of life and they dont feel theyve gotten their supports worth from politicians. Abortion, gay marriage theyve lost on every front, Innes said. The support for Trump is an act of desperation: Protect us. Were not free to be Christians anymore, so youve got my vote.

Olasky and Get Religion media critic Terry Mattingly say these differences are further complicated when pollsters and mainstream media outlets use the loose definition of Evangelical to define a Christian voting bloc. In a post-Super Tuesday article recognizing the inconsistencies between Trump's supposed support among Evangelicals and fresh criticism from Evangelical leaders, Christianity Today highlighted new polling methods that could force pollsters and non-Christian media outlets to better flesh out the population behind the e-word.

"Its striking that, just as Trump has seemingly secured support from evangelicals, many evangelicals leaders are criticizing him,'" Christianity Today reported.

Mattingly said theres plenty of evidence suggesting that many active, church-going Evangelicals actually dont support Trump.

If you have 35 percent of voters who say theyre Evangelicals, youre not running away with the Evangelical vote. Mattingly said. If you lived in New York City and somebody had 25 to 38 percent of the Jewish vote, or in Utah, the Mormon vote, would you call that running away with the vote?

Poll results echo Mattinglys argument. In a late February poll from Evangelical polling firm Barna Group, Republican Christian voters who said they attended church regularly and prayed at least once a week rated Trump near the bottom in a favorability rating. In the supposed Evangelical stronghold of voting precincts around Liberty University, where Falwell Jr. endorsed Trump, Trump finished in last place, with just 8 percent of voters supporting him.

All of this division and confusion about everything from beliefs to the definition of Evangelical, Winston said, has led to a Christian media that has avoided taking on Trump until now. In the last few weeks, as Trump has won more primaries and caucuses, some publications are jumping off the fence. Christian Post published a strong editorial on why Trump should not be supported by Evangelicals, Winston wrote. Prominent Evangelicals are going on NPR to explain why they will not support Trump. To publicly repudiate the leading Republican candidate in the secular media is a big deal, maybe even more significant than making the case in the Christian media.

Olasky said that while it may have taken a while for Christian media outlets to focus on Trump outside of his vulgarity, the frontrunner is firmly in Worlds editorial crosshairs moving forward the magazines newest issue will follow the Atlantic City article with a look at Falwell Jr.s endorsement of Trump.

He said hed make America great again. Hes ruined it, Olasky said. Thats why we sent a reporter to Atlantic City, we wanted to see what Trump had wrought. Thats why well continue to look at his record.

Its early in the race, Olasky said, and he believes its still any candidate's to win. In the meantime, Olasky says their recent coverage of Trump in Atlantic City lost World a subscription.

I know the sentiment out there that its a tough world and we need a tough guy. I suspect that part of Trumps charm for folks, Olasky said. But our job is to educate and inform and if were doing that, theres going to be a disconnect at times. It makes it lively. It means were doing our job.
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