In the spring of 2016, Wall Street Journal reporters went hunting for the heart of Make America Great Again territory and ended up in Buchanan County, Virginia, near the borders of Kentucky and West Virginia.
Based on a variety of political and economic factors, the Journal called this corner of coal country “the Place That Wants Donald Trump Most.”
But there was a crucial fact about this Appalachian county that didn’t fit into this political parable, noted Timothy P. Carney of The Washington Examiner, in his book “Alienated America: Why Some Places Thrive While Others Collapse.”
“Out of 3,143 counties in America, Buchanan County ranks 3,028th in religious adherence,” he wrote. “Economic woe, social dysfunction, family collapse and community erosion all characterized the places where Trump was strongest. … So did empty pews.”
But what about the statistic that became a mantra for journalists explaining the New York billionaire’s rise — that 81 percent of white evangelicals voted for Trump?
“There has been a strong drive in the mainstream press to establish that white evangelicals don’t actually have any greatly held morality,” noted Carney in a recent telephone interview. “The idea is that these evangelicals use religion as a cudgel to beat on other people. Their support for Trump is supposed to show that their beliefs are political — not religious.”
The most revealing faith-based numbers in this White House race came during the primaries, not in the “general election (when religious voters had only two choices, and the specter of Hillary Clinton hung over their heads),” wrote Carney. The question reporters need to keep asking is this: “Who gravitated immediately to Trump, and who turned to him only when the alternative was Hillary?”
Research into primary voting, he noted, revealed that the “more frequently a Republican reported going to church, the less likely he was to vote for Trump.” In fact, Trump was weakest among believers who went to church the most and did twice as well among those who never went to church. “Each step DOWN in church attendance brought a step UP in Trump support,” noted Carney.
Reporters could have seen this principle at work early on in Sioux County, Iowa, where half of the citizens claim Dutch ancestry. According to the Association of Religion Data Archives, Sioux County has the highest percentage of evangelicals in Iowa. Dordt College, affiliated with the Christian Reformed Church, is located in Sioux Center.
Trump didn’t win a single Sioux County precinct in the Iowa caucuses.
“The Dutch Calvinists didn’t like Trump at all,” said Carney. “They considered him proud and boastful, and they thought he showed a lack of compassion to immigrants and the poor. … These people are very conservative Republicans. They saw a connection between caring for refugees and caring for the unborn. They could tell that Trump didn’t see that.”
Journalists didn’t see those connections, either, explained Carney during a recent CNN Reliable Sources podcast with Brian Stelter. Religious convictions among voters in some communities across America — in Iowa, in Utah and elsewhere — clearly had something to do with their rejection of Trump and support for other GOP candidates. These fault lines have not disappeared.
“That’s not something the national media know about,” said Carney. “Most of the national media don’t know that there’s a difference between the Reformed Church of America and the Christian Reformed Church and that there’s a difference between types of evangelicals and this was a central story to what happened in 2016.”
Stelter said the problem is that religion is “like climate change.” This topic affects life nationwide, but it’s hard for journalists to see since “there’s not a bill being introduced in Congress or there’s not a press conference happening in New York.”
This media-elite blindness skews political coverage, said Carney, but it affects other stories, as well — especially in thriving communities in flyover country between the East and West Coasts.
“Far too many journalists know little or nothing about the subjects and issues that matter the most to religious believers in America,” he said. “It’s not just that they make egregious errors about religion. It’s that they don’t understand that there are religious angles to almost every big story and that, for millions of Americans, religion is at the heart of those stories.”
Terry Mattingly is the editor of GetReligion.org and Senior Fellow for Media and Religion at The King’s College in New York City. He lives in Oak Ridge, Tennessee.