How Sarah McCammon’s religious upbringing informs her reporting

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All NPR political reporters are children of liberal arts professors or diplomats, and they all met as first-graders at Sidwell Friends School in suburban Maryland where they immediately received early admission to Yale upon taking the Pledge of Secular Humanism. Right? Actually, Sarah McCammon grew up in Kansas City in a conservative evangelical Christian home. She went to private Christian schools and even an evangelical college.

Now McCammon covers the Donald Trump campaign for NPR, and if you wondered how she got into a private meeting in June between Trump and evangelical leaders, now you know. Her background has been her superpower out on the Republican campaign trail.

McCammon appeared on our podcast The Pub and told the story of how she grew up, how her faith may have changed over time, how she came to journalism and what it’s like on the Trump beat. This is an edited transcript.

Sarah McCammon: I grew up in Kansas City, Missouri, in a conservative Christian family. We didn’t call ourselves evangelical; I didn’t really know what that word meant, but I think I probably didn’t hear that word in regular usage until I went to college and realized, “Oh, I guess that’s what we are.” But yeah, for my parents faith was really the center of our lives. We went to Christian school. We went to church every Sunday. I knew people who went to church much more than that.

Adam Ragusea, Current: What kind of church?

McCammon: It was a nondenominational charismatic church —

Current: Charismatic church? Sort of like speaking in tongues?

McCammon: Yes, and believing in miracles. I think probably most people know what nondenominational means, but it wasn’t affiliated with any specific church like Presbyterian or Methodist or Catholic or anything like that. It was just a church that believes that they basically took their beliefs straight from the Bible. It was actually kind of an early megachurch.

McCammon

McCammon

I’m not even sure how exactly my parents chose it, but they had kind of become Christians in high school. My dad was kind of WASP-y and my mom was vaguely Lutheran, but for them, they really embraced an evangelical kind of faith on their own in high school, meeting friends who were into it. They describe getting saved and coming to Jesus. They met through church and wound up getting married in their early 20s, and they settled in this church called Full Faith Church of Love, which, as you might tell from the title, was a lot of kind of grown-up hippies. But it became a huge church. There were, I think, hundreds, if not a couple of thousand people, at this enormous campus on the Kansas side of the Kansas City area, and they really liked it there. So we’d drive out there every Sunday morning, about a 25-, 30-minute drive there and back, and that was our community for many years.

Current: Did you go to a private Christian school all the way through high school?

McCammon: Yes. Starting in preschool and all the way through senior year. In fact, I went to a Christian college, which we can talk about if you want, but the only exception, the only public education of any kind, or non-Christian education of any kind I’ve had other than a few grad courses I’ve taken, was the U.S. Senate page school. I was a Senate page for a semester of high school and came here to D.C., and that was a government school.

But other than that, yeah, my parents, as I understand it, looked around. Like a lot of conservative Christians at that time and now, they didn’t feel comfortable with the public school system. They were concerned about the academic quality of it, which in Kansas City at that time was a fair consideration and probably still is — they lived in Kansas City, Missouri — and even more so probably the spiritual environment. They wanted us to be surrounded by teachers and students who believed the same way, teachers who could guide our faith.

Actually, the church we went to had a school, but because of the distance, I think, they picked another school that was a little bit closer. It was, if you care about the detail, a Bible church, which is a little bit more like a Baptist in terms of, they don’t speak in tongues, they don’t really believe in miracles and laying hands on people and praying for them to have a miracle. That wasn’t part of the practice. There were some differences, too, if you want to get really deep into theology, about what they believed about. Some of the big debates in that circle at the time were kind of like, once you accept Jesus, are you saved forever, or could you lose your salvation if you become a non-Christian? And so I think the school had a different set of beliefs about that than my parents’ church did and, honestly, I don’t remember who believed what, but I remember it being talked about.

But the major, major overarching stuff was the same literal view of the Bible, a view of the Bible as the ultimate guide for everything, for spiritual life but for family life and even your political beliefs, a belief that you had to accept Jesus Christ as your savior if you wanted to go to heaven. That was the central idea.

Current: And you grew up to be a journalist, so I’m going to guess that you were a naturally curious, skeptical, scrutinizing kid. How did you react to growing up in that kind of environment?

McCammon: I was probably like anybody. You grow up, you love your parents, you love your teachers, you love people around you, and they’re your first guides. So you believe what they tell you, especially when you’re young. And then as you get older, like anybody there’s a process — maybe as an adolescent, probably for most of us — of figuring out who we are and breaking away from our parents to one degree or another. For some people that’s dramatic, for some people it’s not so dramatic.

McCammon and her little sister in church, age 7 or 8.

McCammon and her little sister in church, age 7 or 8.

But I definitely went through a period — I guess I’d say in junior high and early high school — of really beginning to question everything. I had lots of questions, because the Bible was so central, about where the Bible came from, how it was put together, who put it together. I mean, you grow up being taught it was given to us by God, but then you know you get a bit older in that you need a more sophisticated answer. So what does that really mean? I spent a lot of time in college studying church history —

Current: Where did you go to college?

McCammon: I went to Trinity College. It is the small undergraduate college that’s part of Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, which is a seminary in a northwest suburb of Chicago. The seminary is pretty well-known in evangelical circles; it’s considered one of the better evangelical seminaries. The college is small, again the same kind of beliefs about salvation.

So once I got to college I did a study-abroad semester in Oxford, where I spent a long time studying church history in detail and just did a lot of reading on my own. I was very curious about how did we get here, who are we, why do we believe these things? And information sometimes results in a shift in thinking, and personally I have come away with a different view of the Bible than what I was raised with, but I still really value it, just in a different way.

I have to say that while my teachers were very much coming at those questions with a perspective of, you need to arrive at a particular answer, I did find my teachers — and I’m talking about high school here again — to be pretty warm and embracing of that process, and supportive. There’s a big emphasis in evangelical Christianity on the idea that you have to choose that for yourself, and you have to make a decision, a personal decision. You can’t just be baptized by your parents and, boom, you’re a Christian. You need to embrace it consciously, make a profession of faith. And so for many of the people I grew up around, this idea that you would search and you would question and you would even doubt sometimes, that was a little scary maybe, but also it was understood to be part of the process. I think it was scarier for my parents than my teachers, though, because they loved me a lot.

Current: Still do, I would imagine.

McCammon: Yes.

Current: A couple of months ago when Prince died, you wrote a great piece for the NPR Code Switch blog about how you were not experiencing the death of Prince the way that most other Americans were — and, in fact, this is something that happens to you every time a celebrity or someone who was a celebrity when you were in high school dies, because you were not really living in the same popular culture as I might have been — we’re about the same age.

McCammon: Yeah. It’s sort of like there are pockets and pieces of things that are just missing for me. It’s not like I was totally secluded —

Current: I don’t mean you were living in the attic and getting hit with a rubber hose when you tried to get out. No, I didn’t mean to say that.

McCammon: But, no, you’re right. It was different, and it’s important with any of this to say, like every evangelical experience is a little bit different, just like any group’s experience.

Current: We’re talking about your experience.

McCammon: But I just want to be clear that there are evangelical kids that are super up on pop culture, and then there are some that are even less than I was. It depends a lot on what particular kind of church you go to and what the philosophy is of the people there, and certainly what your parents’ philosophy is. My parents were pretty strict, and I was also the first child; most parents keep a tighter rein on their first kid than they do the younger kids. So I had both of those things going on, and we were suspicious of pop culture, not totally against it, but there were lots of rules.

I think I couldn’t watch a PG-13 movie until I was probably a senior in high school, at least not with permission. And radio was like, “Don’t listen to rock music!” or I think my dad said, “If you want to turn it on every now and then just to see what’s on the radio, you can. But I really don’t want you to fill your mind with that.” This idea that what you listen to, what you consume, shapes your character, and that you need to be careful about what you’re putting into your mind and your soul — I think there’s a lot of truth in that. I also think sometimes there was a bit of maybe overprotectiveness, but the end result is that, yeah, I missed things that other kids knew about. I wasn’t allowed to do things that other kids could sometimes do. Even now I think I experience the world a little bit differently. My husband grew up similarly, and he tells stories about listening to Terry Gross to get caught up on what was going on in pop culture. That was sometimes the only place he would hear about music or movies because NPR was kind of OK.

Current: Sarah, would you be comfortable — I always do this, I’m aware that someone might not want to answer a question and so say, “You don’t really have to answer it.” I shouldn’t do that; I should just say, “Answer this question,” and then if you don’t want to answer it, you won’t answer it, right? That’s what good journalists do, right?

McCammon: I guess so. I do that too, though. I mean, you’re still talking to another person.

Current: I know, but it’s like starting a negotiation with a lowball instead of a highball. You want to start high and then let them bargain you down.

McCammon: Donald Trump would say so.

Current: And you would know what Donald Trump would say.

McCammon: I would.

Current: I’m not going to hedge it: Sarah, how would you characterize your religious beliefs today?

McCammon: First of all, that’s something I don’t like to talk about a ton. There are many ways in which I’m deeply shaped by my evangelical background, but I think one way that I am really different and that I remember being different even then is, evangelicals are — and I say this with no judgment — but evangelicals are so comfortable and really expect you to talk about your spiritual life and your faith in an emotional way, in a personal way. It’s not uncommon to be asked the question, “What’s the Lord doing in your life right now?”

I have always struggled with those questions. I have always felt uncomfortable, even 20, 30 years ago — well, people weren’t asking me when I was 5, but even as I was a pretty young Christian pretty steeped in that culture I felt uncomfortable with those questions. I’m not sure why — you can make whatever judgments you want about that — but it’s such an intimate personal thing that’s part of your inner soul and self that it’s sometimes hard to talk about for me.

And the honest truth is that sometimes how I feel about spirituality changes from day to day. My parents probably wouldn’t love to hear that, because there’s such an emphasis on belief, but if I’m being honest — and that is, again, something that I was taught, as you know honesty and integrity is such an important part of the evangelical faith, in Christian faith; we emphasize that — I have to say that there are days I feel very spiritual and very connected to God, and there are days that I pray. And there are times I’m really not sure.

I have become way less interested in theology than I used to be in terms of what exactly does God want you to do here and now, and what exactly does God consist of. I’m interested in it; I’m fascinated by how other people process it and think about it, so I’m interested in it in that sense. But I’ve become much more comfortable with not always having firm answers because I think I spent many, many years searching for them and trying to understand just how should we worship God, and is there a God, what church is right or what religion is right, or is no religion right? I have met so many lovely people over the course of my life who have arrived at all kinds of different conclusions about these questions, and to me the thing I believe in most deeply now is — maybe this sounds empty and too easy — but I really believe in respect, because you have to respect again the intimacy and the openness of that process.

Current: That said, I think when people always ask, “Why are journalists a buncha godless liberals?” — which I think is probably a fair characterization for a lot of us, myself included — I think an obvious explanation comes to mind, which is that faith, if you define faith as belief in something in the absence of evidence, faith is kind of antithetical to the job description of a journalist, which is to be scrutinizing things full-time. Your job is to apply scrutiny. So it seems to me quite natural that journalism and religion, and certainly fundamentalist religion, would be kind of incompatible.

McCammon: Yeah, and probably one of the reasons honestly that I’ve struggled with my faith my whole life is I’ve just always — it’s just something about how I am wired. I think I was born to be a journalist in many ways because I don’t feel comfortable taking people’s word for things. I just don’t; I never have. And not to pat myself on the back, but that was the kind of thing that made me uneasy as a child, when someone would say, “Well, this happened to me” or “God said this to me.” I’m just like, “Really? How do you know that?”

I was raised — we could talk about this probably for an hour, not that I want to — but I was raised to believe that evolution wasn’t true. … I’ve done science reporting, I’ve studied up on it, and there is an overwhelming consensus that evolution happened, and I don’t want to offend people and step on people’s toes who have religious beliefs about it, but the fact is there are lots of religious people — lots and lots — who accept that. So one of the first things to go for me was this rejection of the scientific consensus on evolution; that was one of the first things that I rejected, even in college.

I think that skepticism and that sort of sifting through information, not making a knee-jerk reaction to things, those are ideals of journalism, and I like those ideals a lot. But I’ve sort of changed my approach to faith, too. I don’t think I need to have all these answers. I think it’s OK to pray sometimes and not be sure if anyone’s listening. And I think that probably for many religious people, if they’re honest, they’re not always sure either, even people who self-identify as of a particular faith. I think if they’re really honest probably there are times that they question where that prayer is going.

I still go to church sometimes, my husband and I both. We still feel a need to be connected to it. We’re very laid-back with our kids; I think that’s sometimes the truest test: What do you tell your kids? And we tell them a lot that we don’t know when they ask questions, and we’ll tell them what Christianity teaches, but then we’ll also say, “You know, there are other views on this.” I know some people who I grew up around would listen to that and go, “Oh, my goodness, how can you not guide your children?” I understand that, but again it goes back to integrity. I can’t tell them that I believe something I don’t believe. I can’t tell them something is true any more than I would get on the air and make an assertion as a journalist about something that I don’t know or don’t feel pretty confident about and have good sources for. So I sort of try to bring them along in the journey.

Current: So that’s who you are, that’s your background, Sarah. When people paint NPR reporters in a broad brush, when jerks like me refer to all NPR reporters as being the kids of Northeastern college professors, how does that make you feel?

McCammon: I think it’s important to be self-aware, and I think the media as a whole has been dominated — I don’t have data on this, so I suspect that media as a whole is dominated by people who have a bit of a Northeasterner, at least coastal bias.

Current: There is data on that that; that is empirically true.

McCammon: I think this election cycle is probably pretty good evidence of the fact that the Beltway is just really not in touch with how average Americans feel and what their life experience is. I do think — and I’m not just saying this to scratch my employer on the back — but I do think that NPR is making an effort in that regard.

Current: They hired you to cover the election.

McCammon: They did, and I have felt nothing but valued for my perspective that I bring and life experience that I bring to this. My editors have mentioned that multiple times, that they’re glad I’m covering this election, and I am, too, because I feel like I can go to Iowa or Missouri or lots of other places that aren’t in the middle of the country where there are evangelicals, by the way, and conservatives and I speak their language. I get what they’re saying. I understand a lot of times what they mean, and I feel like that puts me in a position to ask better questions. It’s almost like a therapist or a doctor; your job is sometimes just to listen without a lot of judgment.

Current: Can you give me an example of a time when you had to speak the language, when you had to “code switch,” as it were, and use some language in conversation, perhaps in an interview with somebody, that would be a little bit different from the language that you would use just interviewing a Beltway person.

McCammon: A lot of it’s just about getting references and just understanding context. So this was in Iowa last year around the time that there was a lot of debate about what to do with Syrian refugees. A lot of concerns about terrorism were motivating calls by mostly Republican governors to not let any refugees into their states or to the country. And there was a lot of pushback from some large evangelical groups, including an evangelical group that does refugee resettlement — the National Association of Evangelicals, I guess, is affiliated with that group World Relief. And I was really curious about that because there is a big emphasis in a lot of evangelical circles on helping refugees, on helping the needy, and in Christianity as a whole. There was a dinner in Iowa, one night with the candidates, and while I was there I talked to — this was a group that was mostly evangelical — I just wanted to talk to people about this question.

McCammon: I’m pretty sure that if I had grown up in New York City and gone to Yale, I might not have known what they’re talking about.

Current: You would not have known that the tares are in with the wheat, right? You would not have known what that meant. Now that’s something that everybody can Google now, but that might not have stuck out at a different reporter as being something to quote or even to look up or something. No one else would have known that as being significant in the first place, and your superpower from your upbringing is that you heard that and you knew that was important and that it belonged in the story.

McCammon: Right. And I was able to pick up the references; I think there were a few in there. It tells you a little bit about how this group of people thinks, that these are the metaphors that they shape their lives around, I guess.

Current: I want to talk about another story that you did a few months ago. Donald Trump had a meeting with a whole bunch of evangelical leaders. It was not a public thing, it was not open to the press and you were in the room. Let’s listen to a little bit of that.

Current: So, Sarah, you didn’t have audio from the event but you were in the room. How did you get in there?

McCammon: I could tell you, but I’d have to kill you. No, I can’t say exactly, but I was allowed to be there thanks to a source whose trust I was able to gain.

Current: By speaking the language?

McCammon: I think so, and I was transparent about my background again. When I talk to folks from the evangelical world, I tell them, “Look, I’m not here to advocate for or against you, but I can tell you that, just like with anyone else, I try to be fair. I feel that I do bring some knowledge and some understanding of the context you’re coming from to the stories that I write.” I have to say that overall — and any journalist knows you can’t base all your reporting on what people write in — but overall the responses to the stories that I’ve done about faith have been mostly positive. People who come from totally different backgrounds often tell me they’re just fascinated by this window into this world that’s very different in many ways from the mainstream culture. I’ve had a lot of conservative evangelicals tell me, “Thank you for being fair. Thank you for the context you provide.”

Current: It’s also that those stories of yours, what’s good about them is that they don’t have that kind of anthropological tone to them that probably I would have if I reported the same story.

McCammon: These aren’t zoo creatures; these are these are human beings who think differently than a lot of people in Washington or the Northeast or California or wherever. Again, not that there aren’t evangelicals in all those places, because there certainly are. They’re a sizable group of this country, and you can draw whatever conclusions you want about conservative Christian theology or politics or whatever, but I think everyone should start with an accurate portrait of them before you make up your mind.

I worry a lot about, after this election, where we are as a country, because it’s been so divisive. But I’ve been in the room with people in my own family who feel very differently from each other, and sometimes that’s hard, and sometimes there is tension. But ultimately we’re all Americans, and we all have to live together somehow, hopefully love each other to some degree, and I think it’s really important to at least start with the right information.

Current: Sarah, you and I have clashed privately and publicly a little bit around journalism ethics and the value of the conventional impartiality model. It’s something that you still value quite a lot. You really like to do it old school in terms of balance and neutrality, and part of that, you say, is driven by your own experience with your life, with your background. Can you explain that?

2016-10-11

McCammon with Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor while working as a Senate page, age 17.

McCammon: I get the criticism of the media — obviously there’s been a lot this year — and I’m not here to defend the media as a whole; that’s a big conversation. But I do think it’s important to call a spade a spade and to point out when candidates say things that are untrue, to point that out. I’m not sure that there’s always a lot of value in saying you know person X is a liar or a cheat or corrupt or a racist or whatever label.

Current: “Lie” implies intentionality, which is often very difficult to prove empirically. People get frustrated with journalists for not calling a lie a lie, but unless we have a document or something proving that they knew what they were saying was false, you really can’t say that. You don’t know that they knew what they were saying was wrong.

McCammon: Right, and I think that there are plenty of news organizations out there, and the websites and all that, that do a bit more advocacy than what NPR does. But we do try very hard to be as objective as possible, to just put things in context but not tell people what to think, to let them reach their own conclusions. We have a lot of respect for our audience. That is where I’m coming from. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with opinion journalism or taking your perspective or labeling them, but that’s a little bit different kind of journalism than what we do, and there’s a role for all of it.

That being said, one of the reasons that I really value trying to be as objective and fair as possible — granting that no one is perfectly able to do that because we’re all human, but at least having that as an ideal — is that that is a starting place from which to work. It’s sort of a baseline. I mentioned evolution earlier; I grew up being taught that evolution wasn’t a real thing, and it is. If you go at something like a question like that, like where did humans come from, with a preconceived idea that one conclusion is impossible to be correct, it’s unlikely that you’re going to arrive at truth.

This sounds really good in theory, and it’s sometimes hard to put in practice because, again, we all have our biases that come from our culture or upbringing or whatever. But I at least think somebody needs to be striving to lay out the facts, and from there the next layer is opinion and advocacy. But I don’t want to do that. In fact, there was a time when I was younger and I thought I wanted to be a political science major and go into politics. I found myself just frustrated with the rancorousness of politics, even at 18. I spent some time in Washington doing a little bit of interning and that kind of work, and I just came away from it going, “I don’t want to do this. I don’t want to take a side. I’m much more interested in the questions and the process than the answers themselves.” And so, for me, I think this is where I belong.