Over the weekend, we witnessed yet another example of a visible (Christian) public leader saying something foolish. It was one more example in a long line of Christians saying stupid things that make the rest of us look bad.
Or was it?
Florida State Senator Doug Broxson gave the introduction speech for President Trump at a rally this past week. In response to the speech, Raw Story got the initial scoop, blaring out the headline: “Florida rally cheers when Republican predicts Trump’s Jerusalem embassy decision may usher in Armageddon.”
Well, that seems stupid. And you know how I hate it when Christians say stupid things.
So, when I read the article, I eventually came to the quote in question:
“Now, I don’t know about you, but when I heard about Jerusalem — where the King of Kings [applause] where our soon coming King is coming back to Jerusalem, it is because President Trump declared Jerusalem to be capital of Israel,” Sen. Broxson predicted.
To be honest, I was preparing myself for the worst. The past few months have conditioned me to expect the unexpected when it comes to any politician speaking on religion. Given the declaration of the headline, I was half expecting predictions of the four horsemen storming the cabinet room.
I read and re-read the quote several times to make sure I wasn’t missing anything. Once you get past the urgency-inducing headline, I realized that I saw no prediction other than that Jesus was coming back.
I listened to the speech and, admittedly, it was unclear, but certainly did not say what the Raw Story headline said.
But, news flash: most evangelicals (and many other Christian traditions) believe Israel has a prophetic significance and that Jesus is coming back, well, there.
This led me to the conclusion that this story (and its misleading headline) was, at best, the product of reporters unfamiliar with religious thought and language or, at worst, intentionally misleading.
So I reached out to Senator Broxson to ask if he believed the story reflected his meaning or if there had been any follow up by reporters to make sure they had grasped the nuance of his language.
Sure enough, Raw Story didn’t check.
What Senator Broxson Said (and Meant)
Senator Broxson admitted to being disappointed with the response that his comments had provoked. He noted that many had taken to Facebook to leave comments on the story and on his page disparaging him, his support of Trump, and his supposed prophetic interpretation of the Jerusalem news.
But, since his quote wasn’t clear, I asked him for clarity.
Here’s how he explained what he meant:
What I was saying, and it was more of a theoretical, was that I do believe in the Second Coming—that Israel and Jerusalem will be involved in the Second Coming. But I am certainly not predicting when or where that will occur. My statement was simply follows the logic of [Israel] being a country, started in 1948 or 49, and that it is significant that after many, many years the President of the United States recognizes the capitol.
He had not seen the Raw Story article, so I asked him what he meant and what he believed.
God throughout the Old Testament used peculiar people to fulfill his purpose. Those that sometimes didn’t even believe in him in the way that as we do. Could Trump be one of those people? Could be, I don’t know. But I don’t think it’s intentional, I think he’s simply doing what he said he would do during the campaign and letting the chips fall where they may.
Senator Broxson explained to me what he believed about the end times, saying, “There are a significant number of people around this country and around the world that believe we are getting closer to a time of some reckoning.”
Silly, or Solid, Theology?
Raw Story’s underling point—and one that has been picked up by media commentators in its wake—is that Broxson’s speech represents some fundamentalist, variant theology that is hidden under the water of crazy evangelical sects.
But it’s not.
It’s a pretty common evangelical belief, which you may not like, but one that is not quite what the Raw Story headline (or article) say.
If I did not dislike the term so much, I might call it ‘fake news.’
Not only does Broxson’s position on the return of Christ reflect a fairly widespread belief among American evangelicals, but his own theological commitment and academic training are hardly outside the mainstream. He received an education at Evangel College and is an active member of an Assemblies of God church.
For those unfamiliar with what the Assemblies of God believe on Christ’s Second Coming:
According to Scripture, Israel has an important role to play in the end-times. For centuries Bible scholars pondered over the prophecy of a restored Israel. “This is what the Sovereign LORD says: I will take the Israelites out of the nations where they have gone. I will gather them from all around and bring them back into their own land.” (Ezekiel 37:21; cf. Zephaniah 3:19, 20). When the modern nation of Israel was founded in 1948, and Jews began returning from all around the world, Bible scholars knew that God was at work and that we were very likely living in the last days.
Notice how closely this resembles Broxson’s own wording. Going even further, just as Broxson couched his wording in a warning, the Assemblies of God likewise offers this instructive caution:
But God’s timetable moves at a different pace than some would like. Over half a century later, Israel is still there, but turmoil and struggle between Palestinians and Israelis, between Arabs and Jews, seem to be hindering the prophetic promise Christians saw beginning to happen in 1948. And many Christians outside Israel seem bent on assisting God in fulfilling His prophesied blessing on His chosen people.
So let’s change the punctuation in the original quotation:
“Now, I don’t know about you, but when I heard about Jerusalem—where the King of Kings [applause] where our soon coming King is coming back to Jerusalem—it is because President Trump declared Jerusalem to be capital of Israel,” Sen. Broxson predicted.
When you put the em dash between the two— that he’s heard about Jerusalem because of Trump’s move, not that Jesus is coming back because of Trump’s move, it’s make a less excited headline but a more honest story.
Simply put, the result is a standard declaration of Christian premillennial eschatology. Regardless of whether one agrees or disagrees with this doctrine, it is hardly a declaration of an impending apocalypse.
A couple of weeks ago I wrote an article calling out evangelicals for, among other things, our collective problems with fake news. That article generated considerable reaction and was picked up by several news agencies, one of which was Raw Story. This was not the first time they had picked up my articles, each time focusing on instances where I had criticized evangelicals. In essence, Raw Story was content to amplify my stories where I was critical of conservative evangelicals.
My point is not that they need to report on every story I write, but rather that they glossed over the content of what I was saying in the Fake News article in favor of simply who the article was about. And this is the real danger. When reporters care more about making a splash with click-bait headlines than about accuracy, this discredits other reporters and news outlets. When the media use their reporting to reinforce narratives about political, cultural, or religious groups they don’t like, this teaches others to simply find the platform that reinforces their own biases.
Stories like this make it easier for evangelicals to discuss news as fake, because it is irresponsible.
Raw Story ignored one of the central tenants of quality journalism in failing to follow up with Senator Broxson. If he was unclear (and he was), it would be appropriate to give him the opportunity to clarify what he said in case there was miscommunication. Instead, they pushed through an article that has been shared tens of thousands of times and garnered follow up reporting from other media outlets.
That’s poor journalism.
My purpose in writing the article on fake news was not to rebuke evangelicals, but to call us to a greater moral consistency in how we consume media. As the Raw Story article demonstrates, this is not a problem unique to evangelicals.
So, Christians don’t need to believe bad news is always fake news.
But, neither should Raw Story give a raw deal and take cheap shots at evangelicals.
We—all of us—can do better.
Ed Stetzer holds the Billy Graham Distinguished Chair of Church, Mission, and Evangelism at Wheaton College, is executive director of the Billy Graham Center, and publishes church leadership resources through Mission Group.