This week I drove to Valparaiso, Indiana to have lunch with religious historians Heath Carter and Dan Silliman and to conduct background interviews for one of the book chapters. It gave me a perfect opportunity to listen to John Fea’s Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump.
Fea, history professor at Messiah College in Pennsylvania, has been a prolific blogger for many years. His webpage, “The Way of Improvement Leads Home”, is a tremendous source of some of the latest happenings in Christian academic circles. Along with many others I could list, he has exerted great effort in the last two years to make sense of the connections between evangelicals and support for Donald Trump both in the election and beyond. He has coined the term “Court Evangelicals” to refer to those public figures in evangelical circles who go out of their way to defend Trump in the media: Jerry Falwell, Jr., Franklin Graham, Robert Jeffress, and Paula White, just to name a few. He has an interesting chapter unpacking the three strands of Court Evangelicals: the former Christian right, the Independent Charismatic group/dominionists, and the Prosperity Gospel leaders. It’s always important to remember that most evangelical leaders don’t fall in this group.
His engagement with these issues over the past three years gave birth to Believe Me, recently published by Eerdmans. As a historian and an evangelical, Fea is in a great position to explore both the continuities and discontinuities with past evangelical political engagement. Both insider (as an evangelical Christian) and outsider (as an academic and never-Trumper), he manages a compassionate yet critical stance toward the broader question of “the 81%”.
It is clear from the outset that John has been strongly influenced by sociologist James Davison Hunter’s To Change The World (2010). Fea picks up on Hunter’s argument that a conflict approach to cultural engagement evidenced by Culture Wars (the title of a book Hunter wrote 20 years earlier) is damaging to the church. I have recently been making the same argument in my manuscript. John sees the current situation of evangelical alignment as a long-term historical development arising around three broad features: Fear of Change, The Search for Power, and a Nostalgic Grasp for some Golden Age.
Building from the long-view of religious change, the book walks its way from Puritans worrying about diversity in their midst, to the anti-Catholicism of the Know-Nothings, to the Fundamentalist-Modernist controversy, to Civil Rights legislation, to Supreme Court decisions banning prayer and Bible reading in schools. One after another, the self-perception of conservative Protestants as “the real Americans” is challenged by new waves of “others” who wind up on our shores. In this manner, one sees that the perceptions of loss that Robert Jones describes in The End of White Christian America have always been part of the American religious story. Religious diversity by definition means that prior assumptions of homogeneity will be violated. In this context, a presidential candidate that promises to “protect Christians” and their religious freedom (even from the IRS!), who can reverse anti-Christian court decisions, and who will privilege support of Israel can be seen as “one of ours” even if he’s not. John makes a very interesting observation: the Christian right politicians like Cruz and Carson played on the nature of evangelical fear but voters wanted a strong-man to see those issues addressed and so switched to Trump.
In terms of Power, Fea tells a story that has been told at length elsewhere. This describes the move of evangelical Christians into the public and media spheres. From Jerry Falwell and the Moral Majority to Pat Robertson’s 700 Club and presidential run to the Christian Coalition to the dominionist rhetoric of Christian right presidential candidates in 2016, there has been a struggle for having “our side” win. Such a struggle requires an “othering” of one’s political opponents, seeing them in the worst possible light and believe outrageous things about them (Vince Foster, PizzaGate, Benghazi). Part of the struggle for power requires overlooking the flaws of our side while maximizing those of their side. John documents the great concerns about Bill Clinton during the impeachment process of the late 1990s and contrasts those with defenses of Trump in 2016. This conforms with the PRRI data showing that only 30% of white evangelicals said that character was important in their preferred candidates, a reversal from just a few years before.
The Nostalgia chapter explores a central question: when was America great? When we make America Great “Again”, what’s the referent? John shows that every period the Christian America crowd like Jeffress looks to had significant negative implications for other segments of the society. It seems to me that the real slogan of the campaign was “Make America Great Again for Me and Mine”.
As an evangelical Christian, Fea wants his readers (listeners) to remember that fear, power, and nostalgia are not the way Christians are to operate in this world. We are people of hope. We are people who follow Jesus who, as Philippians reminds us, gave up everything. He didn’t side with those religious leaders who pursued Power — they started trying to kill him early in his ministry. We don’t look only to the past because we have the promise of the Kingdom of God unfurling in our midst.
John ends the book on that hopeful note, reflecting on how the Black church during the civil rights movement operated in ways that were forward looking in the midst of their pain and suffering at the moment. That last section of the book reminds the evangelical church that we aren’t clamoring for some imagined Christian past but are God’s people looking hopefully toward God’s glorious future.