Ed Stetzer

Complex realities behind that '81 percent of evangelicals love Trump' media myth

Complex realities behind that '81 percent of evangelicals love Trump' media myth

For millions of American evangelicals, a recent Oval Office photo-op was a perfect example of the political realities they face.

A day after his release from a Turkish prison, the Rev. Andrew Brunson knelt and prayed for the president who helped focus a global spotlight on efforts to free him. Brunson had been accused of backing critics of the Turkish regime.

The pastor asked God to give Donald Trump "perseverance, and endurance and courage to stand for truth. I ask that you to protect him from slander from enemies, from those who would undermine. … Fill him with your wisdom and strength and perseverance. And we bless him."

Millions of evangelicals, but not all, had to smile.

Trump, in jest, asked Brunson and his wife: "Who did you vote for?"

Millions of evangelicals, but not all, had to groan.

In the current news theory of everything, few numbers in American political life have received more attention than this one -- 81 percent of white evangelicals voted for Trump in 2016. Politicos have paid less attention to signs that many evangelicals cast those votes with reluctance, and some with a sense of dread.

"This was really a faith-based vote -- faith that Trump would operate as a conservative on the issues that mattered the most to evangelicals," said World Magazine editor-in-chief Marvin Olasky, a Christian conservative who, citing character flaws, openly opposed Trump getting the GOP nomination.

"I still don't like him at all, but I have to say that he's coming through. … It's a kind of politics by gesture, but he's pulling it off."

Praying with Brunson was "a perfect gesture," he added. But if Trump had "blown it on the Supreme Court, his support among evangelicals would have plummeted."

Before the election, World consulted 100 evangelical "leaders and insiders" and half of them said they wouldn't vote for Trump, "no matter what." The other half said they would watch for signals that Trump sent about the U.S. Supreme Court.

Why do so many religious believers keep falling for faux news reports?

It was a story guaranteed to inspire a blitz of mouse-clicks in social media in the days just after the Supreme Court's 5-4 decision proclaiming that the Constitution guarantees a right to same-sex marriage.

"Gay man sues publishers over Bible verses," said a USA Today headline. A Michigan man was seeking $70 million from two Christian giants, claiming they -- by publishing editions of the Bible referring to homosexuality as sin -- caused "me or anyone who is a homosexual to endure verbal abuse, discrimination, episodes of hate, and physical violence ... including murder."

But there was a problem. The vast majority of those who recently read this story, commented on it or clicked "forward" and sent it to others failed to notice a crucial fact -- it was published in 2008. (Confession: I fell for it, because the version I received didn't contain the date in the actual text.)

In religious circles, the abuse of partial facts and anonymous anecdotes is as old as preachers searching for Saturday night inspiration. However, the Internet age has encouraged global distribution, making it easier for flawed or exaggerated information to go viral in microseconds.

Once these stories lodge in memory banks -- human or digital -- they live on and on. This problem is especially bad among many religious believers who tend to distrust mainstream sources of news.

Americans remain confused about the many Islams in today's world

Americans remain confused about the many Islams in today's world

A week after 9/11, President George W. Bush told a hurting nation: "The face of terror is not the true faith of Islam. That's not what Islam is all about. Islam is peace."

Faced with a tsunami of hellish news about the Islamic State in Syria, Iraq and the Levant, President Barack Obama updated that soundbite this past fall: "ISIL is not 'Islamic.' No religion condones the killing of innocents. ... ISIL is a terrorist organization, pure and simple."

The problem, of course, is that Islamic State leaders keep serving up quotes such as the following, part of the judgments rendered by the leader of recent rites to behead 21 Coptic Christians, filmed on a beach in Libya.

"The sea you have hidden Sheik Osama Bin Laden's body in, we swear to Allah we will mix it with your blood," said the executioner, as he pointed his knife at the camera. "Oh, people, recently you have seen us on the hills of as-Sham and Dabiq's plain, chopping off the heads that have been carrying the cross for a long time. ...

"Today, we are on the south of Rome, on the land of Islam, Libya, sending another message."

No wonder many Americans remain uncertain when asked questions about Islam -- such as whether the Islamic State represents one approach, or even the dominant approach, to Islam today. 

Three questions, three fault lines in American pews and puplits

If the goal is to map the evolving landscape of American religion, the late George Gallup, Jr., once told me, it was crucial to keep asking two kinds of questions.

The kind attempted to document things that never seemed to change or that were changing very, very slowly. Thus, Gallup urged his team to keep using old questions his father and others in the family business began asking in the 1940s and '50s, such as how often people attended worship services, how often they prayed and whether they believed in God.

The second kind of question, he said, tested whether these alleged beliefs and practices affected daily life.

"We revere the Bible, but don't read it," he warned, in one 1990 address. "We believe the Ten Commandments to be valid rules for living, although we can't name them.

"We believe in God, but this God is a totally affirming one, not a demanding one. He does not command our total allegiance. We have other gods before him."

About that time, I shared a set of three questions with Gallup that I had begun asking, after our previous discussions. The key, he affirmed, was that these were doctrinal, not political, questions. My journalistic goal was to probe doctrinal changes that revealed fault lines in churches. The questions:

Southern Baptists without (many) baptisms

Visitors who enter Southern Baptist churches these days will usually see posters and pamphlets for everything from marriage enrichment retreats to tornado-relief fundraisers, from weight-loss classes to drives to find volunteers for African hospitals. But one thing is missing in the typical church lobby or fellowship hall, according to the leader of the denomination's LifeWay Christian Resources branch. It's rare to see appeals for members to join evangelism programs that strive to win local unbelievers to the Christian faith.

"Why is this? It's hard to say what happened to our commitment to evangelism. ... I'm not hearing any answers to this question that go deeper than anecdotes," said the Rev. Thom Rainer, who, before reaching what Nashville locals call the "Baptist Vatican," was founding dean of the Billy Graham School of Missions and Evangelism at Southern Baptist Seminary in Louisville, Ky.

"It's like our people lost confidence in the old evangelistic programs that our churches had been using for years and years," said Rainer, reached by telephone this week during the Southern Baptist Convention's annual meeting, held this year in Houston. "That's understandable, but the problem is that they never bought into anything new and moved on."

This sea change is directly linked to a recent statistic that should be causing "sorrow and rising concern" throughout America's largest Protestant flock, he said.

Think of it as the Baptist bottom line: Local churches reported 314,959 baptisms in 2012, a sharp 5.5 percent downturn from 2011. Baptisms have declined six out of the last 10 years, falling to the SBC's lowest number since 1948.

While hotter issues -- the Boy Scouts of America and homosexuality, for one -- will grab most post-Houston headlines, Rainer posted a pre-convention essay online seeking candid discussion of this painful question: "Where have all the baptisms gone?"

"Baptisms are our way to best estimate the number of people we reached for Christ with the Gospel," he wrote. "When someone declares that he or she is a follower of Christ in our churches, that person is expected to follow through with baptism. ...

"Of course, baptisms are an incredibly important metric for us in the SBC. We use that metric to see how we are doing on eternal matters. Yes, the metric is fallible. ... But that does not explain why we mention it less and less."

So what has happened in recent decades?

* The decline can, in part, be explained by the fact that nearly 20 percent of the convention's churches have stopped voluntarily reporting some, or all, of their annual statistics. "We don't know if some churches have stopped sending in baptism numbers because their annual number is zero," said Rainer.

* It's impossible to ignore the fact that the fastest rising statistic in American religion -- among those who attend church -- is the percentage of people who attend nondenominational Protestant" congregations. In previous generations, some of these megachurches would have had Southern Baptist signs out front.

The charismatic flocks in the Assemblies of God are growing as well, noted Ed Stetzer, president of LifeWay Research. Meanwhile, evangelism efforts remain strong in the SBC's growing number of African-American and Latino congregations. "It seems that the decline is largely in our predominately white churches," he said.

* Southern Baptists are strong in the rural Sunbelt and, while population growth in Southern States remains strong, Americans are increasingly moving to big cities and their suburbs.

* A key question Stetzer and Rainer agreed deserves study: How many SBC churches have stopped requiring baptism by immersion for those who move their memberships from churches that use different baptism rites?

* Another unanswered question: To what degree have birthrates fallen in Southern Baptist congregations? A decline would affect the number of baptisms among children and teens.

* SBC leaders would, if pressed, have trouble finding as many as 6 million of the nearly 16 million people whose names are on membership rolls in their churches. Why? Too often, churches have focused on mere "incantation evangelism" that expects people to recite a few "magic words" that prove they are Christians, said Rainer. That brand of faith is not enough.

"We have baptized too many members who seem to show no evidence of salvation," he said. The millions of missing members are "certainly not the kinds of believers who win other people to true faith in Christ."