Righting America

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Decoding the Digital Church: Evangelical Storytelling and the Election of Donald J. Trump: An interview with Stephanie A. Martin | Righting America

by Patrick Thomas

Sam (Stephanie A. Martin) is a scholar of public address and political communication, with a particular interest in the public discourses of conservative social movements, especially evangelical voters. She has written or edited three books, most prominently Decoding the Digital Church: Evangelical Storytelling and the Election of Donald J. Trump (University of Alabama Press, 2021). Her research has also been published in top journals including the Quarterly Journal of SpeechRhetoric and Public Affairs, and Visual Communication Quarterly. Martin frequently appears as an expert commentator and consultant for news stories, and has appeared in USA Today, NPR, NBC, the Boston Globe, the Texas Tribune, and The Dallas Morning News, among others.

We are thrilled to feature Sam’s work and to welcome another new voice to the RightingAmerica blog!

  • Your book examines storytelling as it relates to evangelicals’ political support for Donald Trump. This support is well-documented, so can you say a bit about where your study comes from and what insights you’re contributing to the study of contemporary American evangelicalism? 

My study reaches back a decade, to the end of the Bush Administration. In part, the questions I ask percolated in response to Thomas Frank’s 2004 book, What’s the Matter with Kansas? Frank’s book wondered why so many highly religious but not wealthy voters from his home state of Kansas had become such strong supporters of the Republican Party and their platform of low taxes and business deregulation, and had abandoned the Democrats who agitate on behalf of the middle-class, marginalized, and working poor. As Frank might have written had he wished to put it so plainly: Why is a party that seems to be against poor people supported by so many, well, poor people? And, again, why don’t those poor people care about others like themselves? Isn’t that supposed to be the Christian way? 

As an answer, Frank reasoned that evangelical believers privilege social issues at election time, and so subordinate other political priorities in order to escalate values questions in the public sphere. They vote for GOP candidates who spend campaign seasons promising to pass abortion restrictions, crack down on the encroachment of Hollywood values into middle America, and defend the traditional family structure, and they cast these votes at any cost, to any constituency. The problem with this strategy, Frank wrote, is that it ultimately fails. When Republican candidates become Republican officeholders, they forget all about those values issues their evangelical base holds dear, preferring to use their actual governing time passing tax cuts, deregulating business, and eliminating the social safety net. All in all, it is a classic bait and switch.

Frank’s answer is compelling but, to me, it always felt incomplete. For one thing, I had spent time in evangelical churches and had evangelical friends, and I knew they did care about the people and the issues Frank claimed they spurned. I found his answer reductive or, at least, incomplete. My evangelical friends do care about poor people, and they care about themselves, too. But they also have other political priorities. Votes and elections are very blunt instruments—people can only vote for one side or the other. Political motivations are complicated. So, my research is trying to understand the nuance between the votes that get cast, and the stories and thinking that sits behind them.

  • Your research uncovers conservative White evangelicals’ epistemic commitments through a study of rhetorical strategies employed in evangelical sermons from American megachurches. In your introduction, you mention that many of these commitments are based on a “founder’s rhetoric.” What features characterize founder’s rhetoric, and how does it play out in the sermons you study? 

Founder’s rhetoric is fascinating, and is related to the idea of Christian Nationalism that scholars like John Fea and Samuel Perry, among others, write about. It refers to language that evangelicals use when they frame their American citizenship. Founder’s rhetoric positions evangelicals as the rightful heirs and so natural defenders of the values of the truest Americans: The men who founded the country and knew best what they intended for the future. This rhetoric and storytelling style—which is very popular among pastors— situates a conservative Protestant narrative and conservative Protestant truth at the center of the American story, from the beginning. This narrative claims that those men who led the Revolution and wrote the founding documents were not only Christians, but conservative evangelicals, who intended for the United States to be a nation with God at the center of the public sphere. Moreover, these are the people who decided, once and for all, the character of the nation, forever. Because of this, many evangelicals hold a worldview of the United States as a particular kind of nation, whose citizens have particular kinds of (traditional) values. Reaching back to Thomas Frank’s argument about why these believers might not vote with economics or vulnerable constituencies in mind, I argue that founder’s rhetoric offers part of the answer. For many evangelical voters, the constituent of foremost concern is always the nation itself. Defending the country and maintaining its presumed status as the most “exceptional” land always comes before any person or group, no matter how marginalized or at-risk. Thus, believers might well be worried about “poor people,” but their foremost political concern is restoring the country to the founder’s intentions, and keeping God at the center of the public sphere.

  • Part of what is so compelling about your book is the digital rhetorical ethnographic methodology you develop to examine American megachurches across their local cultures. What are the features of this methodological approach, and how might other rhetorical scholars benefit from such an approach?

Digital rhetorical ethnography is a hybrid methodology that allowed me to go both wide and deep into American evangelicalism, as it exists on the Internet. Ethnography, as it is traditionally practiced, allows a researcher to join a single community and participate as much as possible as a member—to learn the rhythms of a people, including their language, their customs, their habits, and more. It is a way to “deeply hang out”—to use Clifford Geertz’s famous phrase—in a place, to study a culture systematically and respectfully. But I wanted to do more than this. I wanted to ascertain whether the rhetoric—by which I mean the stories pastors told— in California sounded much like the ones pastors told in Florida. I also wanted to know if the stories in California and Florida resembled those being told in Minnesota. To find out, I had to find a way to attend church in a lot of places, at once. Enter, the digital church. Megachurches across the country have created vibrant online spaces where individuals can find virtual community and join believers in the act of worship. By going to church online, I was able to both shift and freeze time, to attend church all across the nation, at the same “hour” (even though I might really be attending days or weeks after a pastor preached a message), and on the same “day.” So where other ethnographers of evangelicalism have had to re-order their lives to join a church or a movement, I was able to “join” the digital church across the evangelical internet while also remaining in my own home. To write Decoding the Digital Church, I compiled a collection of sermons that spanned years, and included hundreds of messages from 37 different states. This allowed me to understand how evangelicals tell a political narrative about the United States that is incredibly uniform and powerful, and that is much more nuanced than popular media tropes tend to suggest.

As far as how other researchers might use this methodology, my hope is they would. Many other such digital communities exist online for discovery, though they may not be immediately obvious. While not every experience can be replicated via digitization, the fact of digital space makes it possible to move into the quiet of one’s own home or office and then go around the loudest voices in the public sphere, to enter some of the most important sites of public engagement. This act, in turn, opens possibilities for creating new conversations or suggesting new stories across constituencies. Doing the work to discover these narratives is long and painstaking (it took me nearly ten years!), but it reaches beyond easy understanding—and misunderstanding, as well. I think it may well represent some of the most important work waiting for us to move beyond the polarization and division now happening in the public sphere. 

  • Your analysis focuses primarily on evangelical rhetorics surrounding the 2008 Great Recession and the 2016 presidential campaign. What narrative tropes have evangelical pastors maintained over the last 13 or so years? What aspects of these narratives have changed? 

Probably the most important narrative pattern that I discovered is what I call the “rhetoric of active-passivism.” This rhetoric was especially popular during the 2016 campaign between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, each of whom had historically poor approval ratings and were also perceived as lacking in character. So, the pastors who I listened to during my research faced the task of talking about the election, but also acknowledging how debased the whole thing seemed. To negotiate this tension, pastors framed the main characters in the election—Clinton and Trump—as unlikeable, but to the side of what was most important when it came to thinking about politics. While it was true the public sphere had become depraved, pastors still wanted their audiences to participate and to vote. Casting a ballot was their basic duty as citizens and believers. Doing so honored the American constitutional legacy, along with those soldiers who had died to protect freedom and democracy, including the voting franchise. Voting represents the “active” part of “active-passivism.”

But for those who were worried about not having a good choice in either Clinton or Trump, pastors wanted their audiences and congregations to take heart. They reminded their hearers to remember God’s providence. God is always in control, they said, even during campaign seasons, and even when the presidential candidates were dreadful. Pastors further encouraged evangelical believers to embrace the idea that they were dual citizens—residents of heaven first, and the United States second. This meant that no matter what happened in the election, true Christians were always already protected and safe as denizens of the Kingdom of God. So once a believer had voted—and this was the crucial rhetorical step—that same believer could divest their interest in the election’s ultimate outcome. Whatever the result of a vote, God had ordained that result and so God would make of it whatever He chose. Because God could be trusted, true Christians should trust Him, full stop. In any event, good or bad, the Bible-believing evangelical could be sure God maintained divine control and would protect His subject in love. By rhetorically emphasizing trust—and this is key—pastors exempted believers from any bad effects their votes might cause, either to the nation or to marginalized, at-risk constituencies. Perceived “good” outcomes, like reduced access to abortion, lower taxes, or laws defending traditional marriage were because Christians came together to vote for these things. Perceived “bad” outcomes, as were seen with children separated at the border, white supremacists finding support in the White House, or women being disparaged by the President of the United States were not for evangelicals to understand, but for God to work out. In effect, active-passivism allows those who speak it to offload their democratic responsibility and agency onto God, and so refuse responsibility for harms that could be traced back to the very votes they cast.

The rhetoric of active-passivism also marks a discursive shift in the rhetoric of non-elite American evangelicals. My research suggests that the pastors of the nation’s largest churches have begun to leave out of their political narratives those hot-button issues—the values rhetoric—that outsiders imagine takes up so much of the conversation inside of these institutions, and that is often used by elite conservative evangelicals when they talk about politics. This is surprising because popular media framing of Bible-believing Christians typically situates them as foremost concerned over the rhetoric of the so-called culture wars, as they are framed as opposition to a set of conservative values issues. However, that the discourse inside churches may less heavily emphasize opposition to abortion or gay marriage, among other issues, does not necessarily mean they have lost salience or that these voters are open to persuasion or changing their minds. Instead, I argue this conversation is now submerged under active-passivism. Thus, evangelical voters have created a storytelling logic that lets them have it both ways. They can both vote and be interested in politics and say politics don’t matter, at all. Via the rhetoric of active-passivism, pastors and other evangelical believers can both claim to be on God’s side when it comes to what happens to the American democracy and the American democratic system, and to say God isn’t worried about it, at all. 

  • Related to the question above, how do you think the social movements (#MeToo and #BLM) and political activities (the Mueller investigation, the Kavanaugh nomination, anti-immigration Executive Orders) that characterized Trump’s presidency have impacted evangelicals’ storytelling since 2016? 

Conservative evangelicals are trying to talk about these issues, and there is no one approach that characterizes everyone. When it comes to Black Lives Matter (BLM), many pastors and believers acknowledge the problem of racism, but emphasize how unity and reconciliation among citizens are more important—or more workable solutions—than engaging in systemic change or acknowledging systemic injustice. By emphasizing reconciliation between people of different races, evangelicals frame the problem of racism as being solvable through creating understanding and building relationships. If white people and black people would only come together as friends to acknowledge and forgive the past, the nation could heal. Crucially, this reconciliation is framed as two-sided. It is about restoration and imagines a past based in equality, rather than one rife with injustice of that included disparity of access to opportunity. It also privileges conversations—talking and understanding—over taking direct action. At most, white citizens are called to repentance; never to reparation.

In terms of #MeToo and the follow-on hashtag #ChurchToo, the story is complicated. Many evangelicals and evangelical women embrace complementarian theology and resist feminism and feminist ideology. However, there is a sizeable and growing constituency of born-again women who are actively challenging the inherent patriarchy within evangelicalism. I have written a lot about Beth Moore, the popular speaker and Bible study writer, who has been especially vocal in asking evangelical leaders, particularly evangelical men, to consider how the emphasis on female submission has curated a sexist culture that is rife with abuse. For example, some might remember when, just before the 2016 election, the Washington Post leaked audio tapes of Donald Trump seeming to brag about treating women badly, maybe even criminally so. Evangelical leaders including James Dobson, Ralph Reed, Franklin Graham and Jerry Falwell, Jr. said they were disappointed, but refused to withdraw their support. In response, Moore tweeted, “Are we sickened? Yes. Surprised? NO.” Since then, Moore has continued to gain and lose followers on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram, as she has pushed back against calls for women to remain silent and subordinated to men within the church. In March 2021, she announced she no longer identified as a Southern Baptist or with the Southern Baptist Convention—as she had her whole life, and she distanced herself from complementarian theology. While she did not say why she had left the Southern Baptist Convention, many speculated it was because the Convention had become too sexist, while refusing to wholly repudiate its racist past (and present). The best example she could set for other women was to leave.

  • Of course, you’re celebrating the recent release of your book (as you should!), but can you say a bit more about your upcoming work or your next book project? 

Getting Decoding the Digital Church across the finish line was a big project. It has been nice to take a deep breath. I am now beginning research on a new project, which is writing a history of the case that went to the Supreme Court in 2017, Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission. This is a very different project than Decoding the Digital Church, because it involves telling a story and getting it right—and doing so in a way that is honest and fair to both sides—but is less interpretive than the work I’ve done before. But I’ll still be hanging out with conservative evangelicals, a community that I both love and shake my head at. I’m also enjoying extra time with my husband and twin seven-year-old boys. They are growing up too fast and it has been a joy to spend time with them over the past several months.

Many thanks to Sam for her interview! Decoding the Digital Church is now available from the University of Alabama Press! Use code DChurch30 for 30% off at checkout!