The alliance between white evangelicals and Donald Trump hurt the witness of Christians in our country and around the world.
While many commentators have noted this over the past few years, one area not often discussed comes with the treatment of the press.
The former president famously attacked journalists as an “enemy of the people” and criticized accurate reporting that held him accountable as “fake news.” And many Christians applauded.
During the 2016 presidential campaign, I experienced this firsthand as I reported on the Iowa caucuses for Good Faith Media predecessor, EthicsDaily.com.
I attended rallies for Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, Bernie Sanders, Jeb Bush, Rand Paul and Trump (and I’ve covered other candidates at other times). No other setup compares with the treatment of journalists by the Trump campaign.
Prior to attending the last major Trump rally in Iowa on the day of the caucuses, I double registered as media and a regular attender.
I filled out the latter free registration online as a backup after waiting a few days without hearing about whether I would receive press credentials. I finally received word of my credentials not long before the event, but I kept the other pass just in case.
I quickly found the media pen, which sat in the back of the auditorium. In front of our metal gates, a large aisle further separated us from the back of the seats of those with regular attendance passes.
While the media pen included free water and coffee, it hardly met the “classy” or “beautiful” expectations I had for the business mogul-turned politician.
I put a water bottle in my bag, saving myself from spending a dollar in a vending machine for the same brand. I also grabbed a cup of coffee and quickly wished Trump had pledged to make coffee great again.
Shortly before the start of the rally, I slipped my press badge into my back pocket and moved into the main hall. My motivation was not devious but aesthetics: I wanted better photos.
I went to an area up front and off to one side where several others stood with cameras awaiting the arrival of Trump.
Just before the event started, a campaign staffer waltzed up and started pointing at those with a press badge hanging around their necks. She demanded each return to the pen or leave the event entirely, leaving me there with a few non-media persons.
I stayed there through the entire event before slipping back into the media pen at the end to retrieve my stuff. The media pen’s security gave me the first hint that Trump’s talk about a wall on the Mexico border wouldn’t actually stop people from crossing.
There was no reason to force journalists back into the pen – except merely for harassment. Because others were allowed to stand that close, there was no security risk.
In fact, many non-reporters (including a couple people standing next to me) have cameras as large as those used by professional photographers. Additionally, cellphones empower each person to play the role of a citizen journalist.
As Trump frequently did in his rallies, he blasted the media.
He pointed back at the pen as he derided the hard-working reporters, which sparked many in the audience to turn and also point and jeer. Some in the rude crowd wore shirts or held signs that clearly indicated they professed to follow Jesus.
This harassment of journalists continued in the years since then. And many Christians joined the efforts to undermine press freedoms.
Such attacks are problematic in the U.S. and even worse globally.
The framers of the U.S. Constitution correctly noted the relationship between key freedoms they included together in the First Amendment.
Baptists often like to quote just the first part about religious liberty (and some only like to quote the half about free exercise but not the no establishment part).
But religious freedom inherently goes along with free speech, press freedom and the rights to assemble and petition.
Autocratic rulers tend to target all those freedoms. Trump did this on many occasions, even tear gassing peaceful protesters and religious leaders standing on their own church property.
In places like eastern Ukraine where Russian-backed separatists violently overthrew democratically elected leaders, all these freedoms we cherish in our First Amendment quickly came under assault.
The separatists not only shut down Baptist churches but also confiscated Baptist magazines.
The truth is, we cannot truly live out our religious freedoms without also the rights to speak and publish our beliefs. If Christians allow political power to trump press freedom, then we set the stage for the undermining of our own religious rights.
And, worse, we put Christians around the world at risk.
Authoritarian rulers across the globe quickly adopted the language of “fake news” to stop journalists in those nations. We removed Trump from the White House in a fair election, but his damage continues.
So, we must repair the damage. We must rededicate ourselves to cherishing and defending the freedom of the press – even when we don’t like what those pesky journalists write.
We must stand for the right to tell the truths that powerful people wish to hide. After all, the truth can’t be penned up forever.
Editor’s note: This article is part of a series this week for World Press Freedom Day (May 3). The previous articles in the series are:
How ‘Lou Grant’ Ignited My Spiritual Call to Journalism | Mark Wingfield
Free Press Steers Society in Right Direction | Marv Knox