Evangelicals, a Free Press and Donald Trump

Mar 11th, 2017 | By | Category: Culture & Wordview, Featured Issues

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Among the various voting blocs in the United States, 81% of Evangelical Christians voted for Donald Trump for president in 2016.  There were undoubtedly many reasons for this unbridled allegiance to a man who, in terms of character, honesty and lifestyle, only a few years ago would never have earned their vote.  But his opponent was Hillary Clinton and most evangelicals viewed her as a worse choice.  In my reading and in my conversations with evangelical Christians, the consensus among evangelicals seems to be that God has given us a political “savior” who will lead America back to its roots.  He will bring about an America that is great economically, culturally and spiritually.  I have been absolutely amazed at the absence of any critical evaluation or concern among evangelicals about some of the things Trump has said and has done.  Only time will tell if this nearly blind allegiance to President Trump will yield the results evangelicals hope for.

But as a Christian leader, I wish to raise a very serious concern.  Although I expect that some of what I say will make evangelicals angry, my concern is President Trump’s conscious, deliberate and apparently calculated attack on the free press of this nation.  The First Amendment to the Constitution states that “Congress shall make no law . . . abridging the freedom of speech or of the press . . .”  Past presidents have taken out after the free press of this nation in a variety of ways.  For example, President John Adams in the late 1790s had Congress pass the Alien and Sedition Acts, which, among other things, were aimed at silencing the newspapers in the nation which were critical of his policies.  These acts would later be regarded as betraying the Constitution.  President Nixon and Vice President Spiro Agnew were vitriolic in their criticism of the press and said so many times.  President Obama, early in his administration, unsuccessfully took out after Fox News.  [It should be stated that the terms “free press” and “media” today are basically interchangeable terms, for “media” is more than newspapers; “media” includes print newspapers, TV and radio news, cable TV, blogs and tweets.  All such “media” are protected by the First Amendment.]

But here are some of the things President Trump’s administration has done in its attack on the free press:

  • In an interview with the New York Times, Trump adviser Stephen Bannon stated: “I want you to quote this.  The media here is the opposition party.”  As Bannon painted a picture of his ideal political world, he envisioned a world where the press would be “silent:”  “The media should be embarrassed and humiliated and keep its mouth shut and just listen for a while.”
  • Kellyanne Conway in an interview dealing with, among other things, the size of the crowds at Trump’s inauguration, used the memorable “alternative facts” phrase. As a Christian interested in the pursuit of truth and facts, facts are facts.  “Alternative facts” are not truth; they are lies, misrepresenting the facts.
  • The White House recently banned reporters from CNN, the New York Times, Politico, the Los Angeles Times and BuzzFeed from attending a non-televised briefing, but gave access to other media outlets, including conservative news organizations. Obviously, the White House press secretary has the power to exclude some and include others, but historically the press is critical of sitting governments in power.  That is part of governing in a democracy.  Such an act should be disturbing to Christians.  It sends a message (intended or unintended), “write what we like or you will not be invited to briefings.”  For us as Christians, is this acceptable?  How would we regard another president excluding news outlets we consider conservative?
  • Finally and most disturbingly, President Trump has declared many times, most recently in his address before the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), that the media is “the enemy of the people,” a chilling phrase that brings up historical memories of totalitarianism seeking to control what people read. Joseph Stalin used this phrase, as did Adolf Hitler’s regime.  It is a phrase that historically has been used of totalitarian leaders, not democratic governments.  The phrase, “the enemy of the people,” was first used in 1789 during the French Revolution.  The revolutionaries, especially the radical Jacobins, used this phrase to refer to anyone who opposed them.  In 1794 the Jacobins adopted a law which established a revolutionary tribunal “to punish the enemies of the people” and codified political crimes punishable by death, including “spreading false news to divide or trouble the people.”  Lenin, the Bolshevik leader of Russia, argued that Jacobin terror against the “enemies of the people” was “instructive” and needed to be utilized in revolutionary Russia in 1917.

As a Christian, I am disturbed by President Trump’s administration attacking the free press of the United States.  I am in sympathy with many of the policies Trump is advocating.  I totally support his recent appointment to the Supreme Court.  I support his educational initiatives, many of them necessary for a thoroughgoing reform of public education in the US.  But, we live in a democracy where disagreement and critical evaluation of policies and proposals are a given.  Every president in our history has had to deal with this.  Former President Bush offered some wise counsel to President Trump:  When asked about Trump’s claim that the media is the “enemy of the people,” Bush warned that an independent press is essential to democracy and that denouncing the press at home makes it difficult for the United States to preach democratic values abroad.  “I consider the media to be indispensable to democracy,” Bush said.  “We need an independent media to hold people like me to account.”  “Power can be very addictive and it can be corrosive and it’s important for the media to call to account people who abuse power, whether it be here or elsewhere,” he added.  Bush noted that during his presidency, he sought to persuade people like Russian President Vladimir Putin to respect a free press.  “It’s kind of hard to tell others to have an independent free press when we’re not willing to have one ourselves,” Bush said.

As I understand the Bible, Christians are to serve as champions of the values and virtues dear to our God.  We do not live in a totalitarian nation, thank the Lord.  We live in a democratic-republic, and, as the First Amendment declares, a free press is one of the distinctives of our democratic-republic.  Holding our leaders accountable, including President Trump and his administration, is one of the privileges we have as Christians.  We should declare our support for Trump’s policies.  But we should also hold him accountable for what he says and what members of his administration say.  Regardless of how it criticizes him, the free press is not “an enemy of the people.”  And there are no such things as “alternative facts.”  Respecting and honoring the Constitution is one of the duties of the president.  He should also set an example by proclaiming truth.  And he should be humble enough to accept criticism and a critical evaluation of his policies.  That proposition is at the heart of a democracy.  May God give him the enablement to do so.

See Abby Phillip in the Washington Post (27 February 2017); Andrew Higgins in the New York Times (27 February 2017); Paul Farhi in the Washington Post (27 February 2017); E.J. Dionne in the Washington Post (20 February 2017); and Richard Cohen in the Washington Post (21 February 2017). PRINT PDF

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7 Comments to “Evangelicals, a Free Press and Donald Trump”

  1. Arlie Rauch says:

    This is an interesting and complicated subject. While President Trump should tell the truth, neither should the media tell lies. In many cases they have. In many cases the President has said something deemed untrue by the media that has later been shown to be true. Sometimes Trump’s manner of speaking can be questioned in that he does not speak with politically correct euphemisms. A case can also be made for the media to tell the truth. Truth should not be required of only one political party or only one branch of government.

    His past marital history is more of a problem for me. It raises questions about his ability to be faithful to his word, unless he has had a change of heart. This may be included in the myriad of reasons for which we are to pray for those in authority.

  2. Jim Roberts says:

    While President Trump needs to use good discernment when criticizing the press I believe President Trumps criticism of the press needs to be seen in perspective.
    A good example would be of the recent criticism by much of the media of Ben Carson when he referred to black slaves as immigrants and the silence by the same media when President Obama said virtually the same thing in 2015.
    A free press is vital to Democracy but so is a neutral and objective press.

  3. Peter Wiebe says:

    As Christian leaders we must practice more integrity and honestly in providing a complete picture. We need to accept the fact that the media has been disgraceful, disingenuous and totally devoid of being respectable and honest. They never say anything positive about Trump’s program, only attacking everything and never saying anything negative about the Democrat’s agenda. The media has gone all out to condemn anything and everything Trump has done or might do. That is not serving with integrity. The media has privilege within the constitution but the also have a responsibility to present the whole truth and let the readers decide on the merits. Not like one announcer on a major network who was quoted as saying that it is “the media’s job to tell people what to think.”
    The media has had a field day presenting accusations about Trump and the Russia and who contacted who. This has now totally backfired and now Trump is found to have been telling the truth but because investigations into Trump’s alleged affiliation with the Russians, the investigations are now going in the direction of Obama’s offenses. So now the focus and the script has flipped big time. Now Obama’s people are blaming the media, especially The New York Times, for presenting “fake news” setting up expectations of Trump wrongdoing, but that will now backfire and focus on Obama’s wrongdoings. Don’t expect the MSM to do much reporting on their failure about trying to set Trump up with “fake news” and that effort backfiring. The media should be held accountable when they totally distort the truth.

    Thanks to the media’s investigation into the Trump campaign, speculation is growing that it is the Obama administration that could end up investigated for accusations one of its targets called “worse than Watergate.”
    Democrats are suddenly worried their “Russia hacked the election” narrative may boomerang into a catastrophe of their own making.
    Perhaps the first sign came Saturday when, as WND reported, former Obama speechwriter Jon Favreau responded cautiously to President Trump’s tweeted accusation that the Obama administration had spied on his campaign and wiretapped him.
    Favreau warned fellow Democrats in his own tweet: “I’d be careful about reporting that Obama said there was no wiretapping. Statement just said that neither he nor the WH (White House) ordered it.”
    Then these developments occurred in rapid succession:
    1) Obama former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper told NBC’s “Meet the Press” Sunday there was “no evidence” at all of collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russian government.
    2) Leftist reporter and severe Trump critic Matt Taibbi warned in Rolling Stone on Wednesday of “big dangers for the press” and a “dangerous gamble” by the Democratic Party for pursuing a story that Clapper said was supported by no evidence.
    3) Conservative icon Rush Limbaugh observed Thursday that Trump’s tweet had forced Democrats to deny his campaign was under intense investigation by intelligence agencies during the Obama administration.
    4) Finally, former federal prosecutor Andrew McCarthy wrote in National Review Thursday that now that the big scandal is no longer possible Trump-campaign collusion with Russia, “It is that the Obama Justice Department may have used its legal authorities to investigate the Democrats’ top political adversary.”
    And that would, indeed, be a Watergate-level scandal.
    The question has become, as Limbaugh said, “[I]f there’s no investigation of Trump, then what have all these stories the past six months been?”
    End run around paper’s own standards
    Taibbi blamed shoddy reporting by the media – but mostly the New York Times.
    He scorched the media for “using the techniques of conspiracy theorists to push this Russia story.”
    The reporter accused the mainstream media of employing, essentially, fake news techniques, particularly by using phrases such as “so far,” “to date” and “as yet.”
    He also noted many of the revelations in stories have been more like speculations, “framed in terms of what they might mean, should other information surface.”
    Taibbi blasted the Times story about Trump surrogates having “repeated contacts” with Russian intelligence officials because it “not only didn’t explain whether the contacts were knowing or unknowing, it also brought up a host of other ‘dots’ in the Russia narrative for the reader to connect.”
    He cited the Times’ mention of “the bizarre (and unverified) dossier prepared by (former British intelligence agent) Christopher Steele.”
    Taibbi recounted how the dossier contained a raft of allegations and unsubstantiated claims that the Russians had embarrassing videos that could be used to blackmail Trump. And even though the FBI spent several months investigating the leads in the dossier, it had confirmed none of its most explosive claims.
    The reporter then made his most searing indictment of the Times: “These constructions are an end run around the paper’s own reporting standards.”
    He continued, “The Times by itself could never have run that ‘explosive’ Steele dossier, or mentioned the ’embarrassing videos’ – because the dossier material can’t be confirmed.”
    Taibbi warned of “big dangers” for the rest of the press if it followed the Times’ lead.
    “If we engage in Times-style gilding of every lily the leakers throw our way, and in doing so build up a fever of expectations for a bombshell reveal, but there turns out to be no conspiracy – Trump will be pre-inoculated against all criticism for the foreseeable future.”
    ‘You’re setting yourselves up for a big fail’
    Limbaugh warned the Times had already been caught in its own trap. And it could get worse. Much worse.
    He said “the whole Russians-stole-the-election theme is gone.”
    Limbaugh described Taibbi as an “extreme liberal,” whose story was a warning to Democrats, “saying you better be careful here, because you might get what you want, which is an investigation into what you’ve been doing.”
    “He’s warning them to walk this back and stop reporting on this with all these unnamed sources, that you’re setting yourselves up for a big fail.”

  4. Mack Taulborg says:

    I think Trump is a manifestation of the frustration of what I call the Freedom Conservatives. Different from a generation ago, this freedom conservative does not listen to the mainstream press and does not assume that the truth is being told. They are Liberals in the classic sense, truly desiring freedom and upholding the non-aggression principle. They believe that if we are not permitted to do something in Scripture, then we cannot authorize our government to do it either (war, torture, border issues, etc). How tiring the “conservative” group in government have been – verbally touting the virtues of Christianity and virtually denying them by how they sell their votes – these I like to call the neo-conservative (they are newly conservative and stray far from the ideals of conservatives).
    To the point: the Freedom Conservatives rightly vote freedom. They are rightly concerned with the freedom God gave mankind and vote to uphold it. They tire from the supposed fight between the right and the left. They are motivated to do what needs to be done in order to achieve more freedom. These are what put Trump in power and these are the same who do not care what the neo-conservatives or the liberals (press included in both camps) have to say about Trump. They get their news from alternative sources – and not from Fox news or neo-conservative World Magazine.
    Thank God that a new group is arising and voting freedom. Through this movement we might just reverse Roe v. Wade, defund Planned Parenthood, and destroy Obama Care, thereby achieving more freedom.
    The old conservatives were merely talk.

  5. Jared Rothfuss says:

    The free press in the United States has not been free for a very long time. The press outlets which have access to the US president are primarily owned by the ultra-rich who are anything but politically neutral. They, the “owned” press, take the role of an attack-dog or a sideshow clown, whichever serves the purpose of controlling the public narrative to promote their agenda. The antidote to this is for freedom loving conservatives to find alternative news sources and support the return to a constitutional-republic… Because democracy is just majority rule and that never ends well for the minority.
    The owned press has succeeded in convincing the public that they are the fourth branch of government and I do not think that is what the 1st amendment intended. I don’t recall any reference in the constitution guaranteeing press access to the president, they get freedom of speech just like the rest of us.
    For now Donald Trump is making decisions that are mostly pleasing to conservatives of every variety, which includes many Christians. This serves to strengthen his base (apparently he knows he was only chosen as the lesser of two evils). He will just as quickly betray conservatives when that serves his purpose. Fortunately our hope is in Christ alone.

  6. Matt says:

    It seems to me that there is no free press in any sense.
    They are only doing the bidding of a evil an corrupt liberal ideology. Any push back of the slightest moral idea and they will punish you to the fullest extant, this is what Trump is up against the liberal media. They want no morality of any sense. Do any of you watch network shows in the evening? And where are true journalists? And true journalism? Do you see it on the nightly news? I don’t. I see only a agenda pushed by the same liberal narrative as they push America to except Gay and transgender life style and destroy the true Women rights as they lead us down the road to Sharia law.There is no free press in this Country only a continuous fight for morality.

  7. Tim says:

    It is right for the President to call out the media. While I realize the words used by the President echo back to former dictators, the fact remains that our media wants to form the opinion of the people, they do not want people thinking for themselves. People must possess comprehension and critical thinking skills as our media today cannot be trusted to give just the facts. This has been going on for years, why has no other republican called the media out on this? The Republicans have had many opportunities to stand and speak truth but they appear afraid. It is time for them to stop being lukewarm. No one will be able to accuse President Trump of being lukewarm and we should appreciate that.