Earlier this week, news outlets from the Washington Post to Haaretz reported a story about a weekly Cabinet Bible study, including prominent members of the administration such as Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, Energy Secretary Rick Perry, and Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price.
But less attention was paid to the original “exclusive source” that got the scoop: a new weekly Facebook Live TV show on Pat Robertson’s Christian Broadcasting Network (CBN — also the network behind the wildly popular and long-running The 700 Club), whose position at the intersection of faith, news, and propaganda may make it one of the Trump administration’s most potent — and dangerous — mouthpieces yet.
Faith Nation, hosted by CBN anchors David Brody and Jenna Browder, aired its first episode on July 19. It premiered just days after Donald Trump sat down for a one-on-one interview with Robertson, the network’s founder, who made a name for himself with the intensity of his apocalyptic rhetoric. The softball tone of that interview — on the heels of the news that Donald Trump Jr. met with a Kremlin-connected lawyer during the presidential campaign — was striking. Striking, too, was the degree to which it seemed to herald an increasing willingness on the part of Trump or his advisers not only to appeal to his evangelical base but to delegitimize the mainstream media on two fronts: as both untrustworthy and, implicitly, ungodly.
If CBN’s initial interview with Trump represents a tacit understanding between evangelicals and the president, Faith Nation creates a full-scale alliance. That a smaller media outlet (CBN has about 775,000 Facebook followers) would highlight any exclusive access it gets as a selling point is not unsurprising. But that Trump’s administration is focusing on providing exclusive access to a single faith-based — and journalistically dubious — television show at a time when it is limiting the wider media’s access to the White House and canceling its daily on-camera press briefings is telling. Trump is prepared to grant evangelicals at least the illusion of what Faith Nation’s anchors breathlessly call “an open-door policy” in the White House. But like any businessman, Trump expects something in return.
The show positions itself as a faith-based alternative to the mainstream media as well as a mouthpiece for an unfairly maligned administration to get out its “true” message. In its premiere, Browder and Brody introduce the show in no uncertain terms: “In an age when there’s so much mistrust in the mainstream media,” Browder says, “Americans are looking to other new outlets like CBN News — and this administration is looking our way, too.”
The show, which divides airtime between its newsroom hosts and specially produced segments, looks like any ordinary news show. Its content, however, is anything but your typical news show.
For starters, Faith Nation frames its unfiltered access to the president as a de facto good: Browder reminds audiences that Brody got an exclusive sit-down with Trump in the early days of his administration, and that she herself sat down with Karen Pence for her first interview after the inauguration. In the first three episodes, the show has aired interviews with (then-)communications director Sean Spicer and current press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders. Time and again, in the show’s early episodes —which last about a half-hour each — members of Faith Nation’s reporting team cite their “exclusive access to some of the biggest movers and shakers in the Beltway” as a reason for watching. It’s a staggeringly brazen move: Far from speaking truth to power, Faith Nation sells us on the notion that the role of the news media should be to let power speak whatever truth it wants.
Faith Nation’s interview questions are a far cry from journalistic. Interviewing Sanders, for example, the hosts discuss among themselves how well she responded to their “tough questions” about her work-life balance and Christian faith, adding, “I thank God for her and her dignity, decency, class, and professionalism, including with her wardrobe.” (For contrast, the mainstream media was covering the failure of the health care repeal, which barely got a mention on Faith Nation, and the news that the president may have dictated his son’s misleading statements on his controversial Russia meeting — and that he may be preparing to fire Robert Mueller, the special prosecutor in the Russia investigation.)
Segments like “Fake or Fact” — designed to answer controversial questions — have likewise functioned as administration mouthpieces: defending, for example, the practice of having family members of the president serve in the White House, or highlighting precedents for the Trump administration’s decision to stop having daily on-camera press briefings. “Fact,” in other words, is a counterpoint to the mainstream media’s “fake news.”
Faith Nation appeals to its base on cultural as well as theological grounds
Largely, Faith Nation’s appeals to evangelical Christianity are cultural, not explicitly theological. With the exception of regular segments updating viewers on Trump’s Israel policy — especially his promised, controversial (and stalled) move of the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem — the show avoids larger religious and geopolitical questions. Instead, the objective is to throw softball questions at members of the Trump administration about their personal faith, or make vague statements about how — to quote Brody — “we’ve lost our Judeo-Christian values,” or cast doubt about “transgenders” (as the anchors refer to them) in the military.
Largely, these function as a form of identity politics: winking reminders that Faith Nation is designed for those outside the Beltway “elites” — and that the administration has their back. “It’s a new day in DC ... but it really does feel like that,” our hosts chirpily remind viewers after the Bible study Cabinet segment.
Every now and then, however, Faith Nation reminds viewers that the battle over America’s values has cosmic significance. Brody casually mentions in one segment, “We know from Genesis that if you stand with Israel you’ll indeed be blessed."
And Faith Nation White House correspondent Jennifer Wishon’s exclusive piece about Bible study in the Cabinet seems explicitly designed to cast Trump and his administration as divinely ordained. Referring to study leader Ralph Drollinger of Capitol Ministries, Wishon tells audiences, “In [Vice President Mike] Pence, Drollinger sees many similarities to biblical figures like Joseph, Mordecai and Daniel — all men who rose to the No. 2 position in governments at different times in history. ... Like others, Drollinger often compares President Trump to biblical strongman Samson.”
Wishon likewise quotes Drollinger as saying — with a laugh — "I don't think Donald Trump has figured out that he chained himself to the Apostle Paul,” language that evokes the popular trope in some evangelical circles that Trump is like, say, the Persian king Cyrus in the Bible, a divinely chosen vessel to effect God’s will in history. He also explicitly cites divine intervention in the constitution of the administration, saying, "These are godly individuals that God has risen to a position of prominence.”
The scariest part of Faith Nation isn’t the bias — it’s the apathy about truth itself
For all of this unsettling imagery, Faith Nation’s coding of the media landscape as a biblically sanctioned battleground is almost less worrisome than its callous disregard of the idea of media truth whatsoever. A regular segment involves Juan Garcia asking strangers in Washington, DC, overly simplistic questions like, “Who’s unfair to the other — the press or the administration?” and whether there should be more religion in politics.
The show is canny enough to balance its respondents’ answers, but the effect is to create a sense that truth is relative. When it comes to press fairness and Trump, the answer is a “bit of both” (as the most common response ends up being) — a pretense of “fair and balanced” whose function is less to legitimize Faith Nation as a piece of media than to delegitimize media entirely.
Sometimes Garcia exaggerates this point. When one of his respondents says the media should be able to do “whatever they want,” he turns to the camera with mock glee. “Whatever I want?”
This isn’t the only attempt to connect Trump and his administration to his base by bypassing and simultaneously degrading mainstream media. Trump’s daughter-in-law Lara Trump is hosting another “real news” show on social media. And during Anthony Scaramucci’s brief, disastrous tenure as communications director, he advocated that “Comms should produce video content that constructively operates as ‘The President Donald J. Trump Show,’” according to a leaked memo published by alt-right blogger Mike Cernovich on Medium. But because Faith Nation is affiliated with a “legitimate” (and faith-based) news network, it has the potential to be much more influential.
Its ultimate effect is to create an uncanny valley of moral equivalence: in which Faith Nation is not just a conservative countervailing force to “the Washington DC/New York/Acela corridor crowd” — as Faith Nation refers to its opponents — but a clarion call to complacency. Sarah Huckabee Sanders spent her segment explaining how being a parent of toddlers prepares her for the press corps — she jokes that she’s “used to answering the same question over and over again,” while hosts Browder and Brody muse with staggering disingenuousness about the difference between “fake news” and “fraudulent” (i.e., biased) news as “something to think about ... over a good buffet ...” with, they add in a particularly surreal tangent, plenty of carbs and sodium — just an idle philosophical question to ponder while eating, rather than a foundational element of American democracy.
Likewise, when Browder and Brody tell Sanders, “Here’s some breaking news for you — I’m not going to ask you about Russia off the top!” it’s framed as a folksy, hilarious joke: Those liberal news people within the Beltway have their facts, and the good old-fashioned Christians at home have theirs.
In so doing, Faith Nation — and Trump, in enabling it through his selective granting of access — isn’t so much sowing pro-administration propaganda as destabilizing the very idea of truth. Such an approach, of course, isn’t limited to the Trump administration. A recent special report by journalists Peter Pomerantsev and Michael Weiss at the Institute of Modern Russia argues that such tactics are central to the Kremlin’s diplomatic aims in their own “information war” and use of fake news: “not to persuade (as in classic public diplomacy) or earn credibility but to sow confusion via conspiracy theories and proliferate falsehoods”
On Faith Nation, in a rhetorical flourish so Orwellian one is tempted to wonder if he’s on the joke, Brody reminds us that “there are some [outlets] that are more honest than others — you really have to be a smart consumer about where you’re getting your information from.”
Unfortunately for America, Trump’s latest mouthpiece is hardly the outlet any consumer — on the left or on the right — needs.