[Published] How Christianity Today’s anti-Trump piece sparked a battle over social identity

For those questioning whether the church is guilty of worshiping a political idol, consider how defenders of Christian morality and witness must approach Christians as a skeptical, if not hostile, audience.

I’ve been writing about the evangelical dilemma over Donald Trump since the 2016 election (“Donald Trump is dividing the church”). Back then, it wasn’t rare to find church leaders as outspoken critics of the Republican nominee. But those voices have quieted, some even reversing course, through President Trump’s first term.

So it was interesting to see the reaction from the politically religious (or is it religiously political?) Evangelical church when Christianity Today published an editorial calling for Trump to be removed from office.

Touching on findings from my dissertation about dual religious-political identities and research into Christian nationalism by Andrew Whitehead and Samuel Perry, I take a look at the bigger picture for the church:

It’s at the fusion of this religious and political social identity that Trump finds his most loyal supporters, and why anyone trying to untie that thread is a threat. The messaging by Christianity Today and by Trump and his allies exhibit the state of the church under the gospel of Trump, and a battle over who belongs.

Read the full story in RELEVANT Magazine.

See more of my media appearances here.

Understanding “fake news,” & why defeating it isn’t a fix-all

A version of this post later appeared as an article for NewsLab, a project of the University of Mississippi School of Journalism and New Media

After the dust from our toxic post-election discourse settled, the talk of traditional and social media turned to “fake news” – a term that has taken on new meaning in recent years, and new prominence in the 2016 presidential race.

In this iteration, fake news doesn’t refer to satire like The Daily Show or The Onion. Nor does it refer to news that is biased in its selection and interpretation of facts. No, for now we’re fighting a much simpler to identify foe – the peddling of information that is blatantly, demonstrably false and intentionally deceptive.

Stuff like these sensational – and completely fictional – headlines that circulated in the months leading up to the election:

Pope Francis shocks world, endorses Donald Trump for president, releases statement [Ending The Fed]

FBI agent suspected in Hillary email leaks found dead in apparent murder-suicide [Denver Guardian]

WikiLeaks CONFIRMS Hillary sold weapons to ISIS… Then drops another BOMBSHELL! Breaking news [The Political Insider]

Thousands of fake ballot slips found marked for Hillary Clinton! TRUMP WAS RIGHT!! [Donald Trump News]

President Obama confirms he will refuse to leave office if Trump is elected [Burrard Street Journal]

BREAKING: Hillary Clinton to be indicted… Your prayers have been answered [World Politic US]

Rupaul claims Trump touched him inappropriately in the 1990s [World News Daily Report]

This sort of nonsense has been around for a long time, previously circulating via your crazy relatives’ email inboxes. But it found new prominence this election cycle, on Facebook. Craig Silverman and his team at Buzzfeed compared Facebook engagement metrics on the top 20 fake news stories and the top 20 stories from a sampling of traditional media outlets across the final three quarters of the 2016 election. They found that after lagging well behind for most of the year, the most popular fake news out-engaged the most popular real news in the final three months of the race. (All of the headlines above were among the top 20 in that time period.)

*There are caveats to this method, and if you care, I discuss them at the end of this post. The point is that engagement with fake news has risen dramatically.

That has invited three questions – where is fake news coming from, does it have an effect, and what can be done to stop it? Continue reading “Understanding “fake news,” & why defeating it isn’t a fix-all”

Donald Trump is dividing the church

As women of faith find their voice and Millennial Christians question the Religious Right, what does making Donald Trump the candidate of the faithful mean for the church?

I was traveling through the Mississippi Delta when I heard the tape of Donald Trump’s “locker room talk.”

“How can he recover from this,” I initially reacted, before reminding myself how many times we’ve wondered that before.

But as the weekend progressed, the backlash was stronger than any Trump controversy to date, as more establishment Republicans disavowed their own candidate.

Trump couldn’t have been luckier from a news cycle perspective. The tape leaked on Friday afternoon and the exodus followed while most of us were watching football. By the time we started paying attention again, the second debate had fragmented political media attention in a million different directions. And while Trump may have not won over many undecideds with his performance, he delivered enough red meat to his base to give fleeing Republicans pause.

Leaks targeted both candidates that Friday. Before the Trump tape, Wikileaks released emails containing text excerpts of Hillary Clinton’s paid speeches to Wall Street executives. Both leaks were revelations only insomuch as they confirmed things we already knew about each person’s character.

But the Trump audio was the far bigger story. For one thing, it was more visceral. We could hear the crude words from Trump’s own lips, as opposed to reading the pandering words attributed to Clinton.

More importantly, while the Clinton excerpts outraged people who were never going to vote for her, the Trump tape caused division among his supporters… a division that’s more significant than one election.

It was the countless churches lining that Mississippi highway, and highways like it all across securely red states. Trump divided Evangelicals.

Continue reading “Donald Trump is dividing the church”

Should debate moderators fact check? Polling, psychology & reaching Millennials

Tonight, a likely record-setting television audience will watch the first presidential debate of the 2016 election. And the majority of that audience will not trust any of the three people on the stage. Would fact checking change any of that?

Tonight, a likely record-setting television audience will watch the first presidential debate of the 2016 election. And the majority of that audience will not trust any of the three people on the stage.

Donald Trump is distrusted by 57% of Americans, according to last weekend’s ABC/Washington Post poll. As with so much in this bizzaro-world election, that would be a damning figure if not for his opponent – 60% of those surveyed viewed Hillary Clinton as untrustworthy.

The moderator of the debate, NBC’s Lester Holt, meanwhile, is the stand in for “the media,” which is less trusted than either historically distrusted presidential candidate. Only 32% of Americans have at least a “fair amount” of trust in media, according to a Gallup poll released in mid-September.

So, it’s not surprising that we’re talking a lot about fact checking at the debates. The question is whether or not it’s the role of an agent of the widely distrusted media to call out either widely distrusted candidate on claims that are demonstrably false.

Plenty has been written about whether fact checking is the moderator’s role. The moderator of the third debate, Fox News’ Chris Wallace, has already said he doesn’t think it’s his job. Yesterday, the executive director of the Commission on Presidential Debates agreed with Wallace’s stance, in an interview on CNN’s Reliable Sources, saying that live fact-checking was too much of a grey area.

I want to approach this from a slightly different angle – would a fact-checking moderator benefit anyone? And if so, who?

First, we need to look into the minds of voters, and under the hood of the polling data.

Continue reading “Should debate moderators fact check? Polling, psychology & reaching Millennials”

[Media Rundown] The Democrats held a convention, but everyone’s still talking Trump

The Democrats channel Ronald Reagan, while Donald Trump continues to own the news cycle. That, plus Bill Clinton plays with balloons.

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The nominating conventions are in the books, and we are now in the final 100 days of the presidential election. We looked at the Republican National Convention last time. Now, it’s the Democrats’ turn.

I thought we saw political theatre of actual consequence from both conventions – very rare for the polished infomercials these events have become. Both parties displayed friction. The continued resistance by Bernie Sanders supporters got the DNC off to a rocky start, spurred in no small part by email leaked by (Russian?) hackers suggesting the Democratic Party favored Hillary Clinton throughout the primary. Set up for a freefall into chaos, the Democrats used their convention tried to redefine American politics.

Wait, what?

Continue reading “[Media Rundown] The Democrats held a convention, but everyone’s still talking Trump”