Trump, evangelical Christians, and a history of fear: A review of John Fea’s Believe Me.

Forgive me readers, for I have sinned. 994854356-1.jpgMy last blog posting was over two months ago.

I could blame vacation and general burnout, but the primary reason for my lack of blogging is that the #1 thing I would want to post about are the never-ending Trump outrages. And yet I find myself not wanting to write about Trump for one reason:

I am tired of hating him.

As my closest friends know, I have been grappling with the fact that Trump inspires so much sheer hatred in my heart. As I watch him destroy the dignity of the office, repeatedly lie about big and small things, separate families at the border, enact tariffs which will inflict wounds on our own economy, weaken the alliances that the post-WWII Western world has been built upon, describe the free press as an enemy of the state, and coddle up to murdering and tyrannical madmen, (just to name his most recent misdeeds), the anger in me swells. And every day it’s something new.

1*JRxEPJZ6EjasBIDh9GkPSw.pngIt’s exhausting, and I know that many of you feel exactly the same.

My Twitter followers and Facebook friends know I frequently vent my feelings in short diatribe postings, or by passing along news stories and the writings of others. But this has long become annoying to me, and I’m sure to others. Oh, how I long for the days when my Twitter feed and Facebook wall were filled mostly with interesting history-related stories, the good news of family and friends, sports commentary, or jokes and fun comments about pop culture.

Those are still there, of course, but are clouded and overwhelmed by the ever-frustrating and increasingly-frightening news. Living through world changing events in real time is fascinating as heck, but the fear and hatred it stirs has become oppressive.

And what good is all that fear and hate?

I’m a big believer that nothing good ever comes from hate. As MLK wrote (perhaps leaning on Romans 12:21), “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”

Perhaps Maya Angelo said  it best:  “Hate has caused a lot of problems in the world, but has not yet solved one.”

Indeed, has it not been hatred and fear that has caused this current problem? As we know, Trump’s narrow election victory owes much to the fact that he received the support of 81% of evangelical Christians. It seems ironic that perhaps the most immoral man ever nominated for president received evangelical support.

But is it? And was it not their fear and hatred that helped make his victory possible?

That argument is at the core of historian and Messiah College Professor John Fea’s new book, Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump5101e574-4c2f-4e5a-8b90-5366b66f02f1._CR63,0,375,500_PT0_SX300__.jpgPurposely choosing a publisher of religious books (Eardman’s), the Christian author’s main target audience seems to be other evangelicals. Yet anyone interested in understanding the 2016 election through solid historical context and analysis should pick up Fea’s fascinating and incisive work.

(Quick shoutout to the small independent bookstore where I picked up my copy,  Ernest & Hadley’s. Shop local, y’all.)

Like Fea, I too was dismayed that a large majority of fellow Christians embraced such an immoral man like Donald Trump, especially when considering that these were the same people that excoriated Bill Clinton, insisting that beyond his perjury, his sexual improprieties and other character flaws made him unfit for office. What happened? If character mattered then (and I believe that it did), why did it not seem to matter now?

Further, I wondered, how could evangelicals be blind to the fact that embracing Trump would only widen the conception of Christians as hypocrites? Couldn’t they see that the goal of spreading the good news would be severely hampered? Who would want to convert to a religion of such blatant hypocrisy?

Instead of letting such questions bewilder and anger him, Fea went looking for answers, and has reached what I feel are convincing explanations. Simply put, Trump tapped into the long standing evangelical tradition of using fear as a tactic, embraced their political playbook for recreating a nostalgic American past that never really existed, and rallied their leaders to his cause by seemingly offering positions of political power and influence. Fea concludes that many evangelicals “decided that what Donald Trump can give them is more valuable than the damage their Christian witness will suffer because of their association” with him.

Fea builds his case by providing a “short history of evangelical fear,” touching on Puritan Massachusetts, anti-Catholicism in colonial, revolutionary, and antebellum America, the fear of deism in the early republic, southern fears about race war and/or miscegenation that drove them into secession, the Nativist response to Jewish and Catholic immigrants, images.jpegand the modernist cultural forces of the 1920s that brought about the revival of the KKK and lynchings (and a war on the teaching of evolution).

Thus by the time of the Civil Rights movement, Fea demonstrates, evangelicals had a long history of revealing their fears in how they “responded to the plight of people who do not share their skin color,” as well as how they responded to anyone that “might challenge the power and privilege that evangelicals have enjoyed in a nation of Protestants . . ..” And those responses “have led to some dark moments” in the history of the United States.

Indeed.

After WWII, Fea narrates, evangelicals were dismayed by “a renewed emphasis on the separation of church and state, the removal of prayer and Bible-reading from public schools, the influx of immigrants from non-Christian Western nations, the intrusion of the federal government into their schools (desegregation), and the court’s endorsement of abortion on demand.”

As a result, the 1970s saw evangelicals turn against the forces of big government, making them a natural fit for the more than welcoming (and wooing) Republican Party. (Fea doesn’t point it out, but he reveals there was more at play here than just the infamous “southern strategy” that was based on blowing racial dog whistles).

Furthermore, Jerry Falwell’s “Moral Majority” developed what Fea labels a “political playbook” in order to defeat the forces that seemed to be winning the cultural wars. mf1000.jpgSimply put, this playbook encouraged Christians to restore America to its Christian roots (which required historic revisionism to argue that America was founded solely by Christians, upon Christian principles) by contending for political power via the recruitment and financial support of candidates dedicated to using government to achieve the church’s religious goals.

Christians in political office would then place Christians in the courts, and these judges would limit the separation between church and state (which would allow the passage of laws enforcing Christian morality), and ultimately overturn Roe v. Wade. “While control of the presidency and the Congress is certainly important to the successful implementation of this playbook,” Fea argues, “the control of the Supreme Court is essential.”

And yet, despite forty years of following this playbook, by 2015 it had had little if any success. Abortion was still legal. The internet had made pornography more widely and easily available. Gay marriage was upheld by the Supreme Court. Crime rates seemed to have not dropped. America was becoming more ethnically and racial diverse than ever.  Some states had legalized the recreational use of pot. Christian church membership was dropping substantially. A man many Christians (ridiculously) believed was a foreign-born Muslim had been twice-elected president. Etc. etc.

And then came Trump. Despite his life-long commitment to greed, sexual infidelity and immorality, shady business practices, and outspoken crudeness, he quickly understood his best path to the White House must involve picking up the evangelical vote. Drawing to his side what Fea labels the “court evangelicals,” Trump learned from certain Christian leaders how to speak the language and embrace the playbook. These leaders saw a man that would not just give lip-service to the playbook, but would faithfully implement it and place them into positions of political power and influence.

These court evangelicals include the Christian Right (such as James Dobson and Jerry Falwell Jr.), the followers of “prosperity gospel,” (such as Paula White), and the Independent Network Charismatics (some of which insist they prophesied Trump’s victory and his role in their ultimate success). Donald-trump.jpgWooed by Trump’s apparent commitment to the playbook, these evangelicals have become his staunchest defenders, insisting his past does not matter, that he is a faithful Christian now (despite all evidence to the contrary), and even that he is the fulfillment of prophesy.

Fea’s work is thus powerfully enlightening, helping to explain why a man with Trump’s deficiencies would find favor with Christian evangelicals. Though he does not explore it, his work also explains why these long-time Republican faithfuls would embrace a man that campaigned on and has embraced so many anti-Republican Party policies (such as his hostile tariffs and questionable commitment to our traditional alliances and NATO responsibilities).

Further, Fea’s work helps explain why, despite Stormy Daniels and Trump’s continued deplorable behavior (such as his easily demonstrable lies and disgusting moral equivalencies), evangelicals refuse to abandon him. With Trump appointees taking judgeships, and with one on the Supreme Court and more possibly coming, why should they quit on him now when their playbook finally seems on the verge of success?

In his later chapters, Fea begins to more directly address his message to fellow evangelical Christians. Taking aim at the slogan “Make American Great Again,” the author rightfully asserts that there is no time in America’s history when things were “great” for a majority of U.S. citizens, and that our past is more often filled with dark and dangerous times for people that were not white male native-born (and heterosexual) Protestants.  Trump thus relies on nostalgia for a time that never really existed.

For most Americans, the evangelical playbook’s success would be regressive, not a restoration of greatness. (For those of you that have been watching Hulu’s brilliant The Handmaid’s Tale, how frightening does all this seem??) “For too many who have been the objects of white evangelical fear,” Fea asserts, “real American greatness is still something to be hoped for–not something to be recovered from an imagined past.”

On abortion, Fea argues that even if Roe v. Wade were overturned, the issue would go to the states, where certainly a large number would keep it legal. That impoverished red state women might not be able to afford travel to blue states would likely reduce the number of abortions, “but it will bring our culture no closer to welcoming the children who are born and supporting their mothers.” How much more could have already been done in America to end abortions, Fea ponders, had the billions of dollars given to pro-life candidates been spent on more economic, social, and cultural solutions to the problem, rather than political ones. Now there’s food for thought.

In his conclusion to Believe Me, Fea finds inspiration in the Christian leaders of the Civil Rights movement,mbb1-1.jpg
encouraging evangelicals to end their faith in the playbook, stop relying on the politics of fear and embrace a message of hope, be inspired by true history and not a nostalgic version of it, and seek to shape American culture through more humble and less political means (you know, like Christ).

“Too many [evangelical] leaders (and their followers) have traded their Christian witness for a mess of political pottage and a few federal judges,” Fea concludes, arguing that we should thus not be surprised by the number of people leaving the Christian church altogether.

Believe Me is powerful stuff, made all the more so by Fea’s readably jargon-free prose, confident authorial voice, and gently encouraging tone. I have some quibbles with it: I would have liked an organization that maintained a more chronological flow, racial dynamics needed a bit more emphasis, and his conclusions seemingly disregards the political agenda of the Civil Rights movement. Fox News and political tribalism needed to be in there somewhere, too.

I think his conclusion also misses the opportunity to point out that African American Christianity has almost always centered on a message of hope for future justice, helping blacks endure bleak times in America. That’s a powerful contrast to Fea’s outlining of the white evangelical history of using fear.slavery-2.jpg

I’ve long awaited Fea’s book, and it did not disappoint. If you have read much of my blog, you know that I often express my belief in the view of history that embraces the idea that the “arc of the moral universe” bends toward justice. These times that we are living in however, are a great reminder that it is our responsibility to keep it bent in the right direction. American history has always shown that this involves fighting against powerful forces, so we should not be surprised by what we are up against now, as unprecedented as many of these events are.

I see much to be excited about, as perhaps the Trump backlash is helping to end political apathy in America. And yet, as I acknowledged above, the unrelentingly disturbing and frightening news has been weighing me down with hatred.

Fea’s book has thus come at just the right time for my soul, demonstrating that fear and hatred are what have given us Trump’s America. So, as he concludes, it must be resisted with humility and hopeful determination that looks forward and not back. The resistance can’t be driven by negativity and fear.

“Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”

Damn right.

 

 

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8 thoughts on “Trump, evangelical Christians, and a history of fear: A review of John Fea’s Believe Me.

  1. Great review. I am going to have to look into this book (I follow Fea on twitter, so I am aware of and appreciate his thinking). I was wondering about a couple of issues, which maybe just the difference between a review and an detailed summary.

    The Post WWII world does have separation of church and state, removal of prayer and Bible-reading from public schools, but it also have “In God We Trust” and “under God” in the 1950s. Those were victories for the religious, but are they included? They are both big government decisions via the other two branches. I don’t have an issue with the argument about Roe. It seems to drive votes for anyone against it, regardless of everything else.

    I am interested in being swayed by his work though. I think Trump’s success boiled down to the old rule of three: celebrity, party weakness, and Clinton. He is, first above everything else, well-known. In a field of governors, senators, and conservative darlings, he was known beyond the pack. The party, where a number of the influential members came out against him early had no mechanism to stop him despite his lack of party loyalty. What made him capable was the party has/had no power to stop an outsider, and since Nixon, we love outsiders (governor, governor, governor’s VP, governor, governor, 4 yr. Senator [and given he was running for President, 4 is an overstatement], public figure). Last, no single couple burns the religious right more than Clintons, and Hillary is/was an abysmal candidate. She’s cold on camera with a long history that could easily corner supporters and let those that didn’t like her have enough to always dislike her. Trump’s moral deficiencies were cleansed with James Dobson’s “young christian” wash was extra, but it was unneeded. He wasn’t her, a consummate insider who seemingly fought to be an insider. He was the showman capable of constantly keeping the lights on himself to hide other weaknesses. The DNC and RNC made the choice binary, and Hillary made it one real option.

    His continued support comes from his continued showmanship. The light, good or bad, is always on him. He is the opposite of a cockroach. His supporters repeat his version of events, and it doesn’t even have to be consistent. As long as the economy continues to roll and no actual war starts, he can play the bad guy doing the right thing through another run, and they won’t blink, and I really wish it wasn’t true.

    Also, I loath this general. Historians are really sketchy with current events, but Fea’s book sounds really good. So was this review. Thanks!

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    • Hey Matt. As best as I can recall, Fea does not detail the “In God We Trust” victory for evangelicals, so if he does, it is only in passing. However, he does spend a few pages discussing why Hillary was a weak candidate and one that did little to reach out to evangelicals and/or quell their misgivings about her. He does a pretty good job of it, and I probably should have mentioned that in the review. I agree with you that there were other factors at play than just those he dissects, and I think he would agree. As I mentioned in my review, I think the political tribalism that has become so much more rigid in the last 30 years or so is also a factor, but I think he is dead on about why evangelicals came to embrace the Republican tribe in the first place. Lastly, I think he would also agree about the difficulty of historians dealing with current events, as I have heard him in an interview talk about the fact that future information and interpretation will no doubt give us a better understanding of just what the heck happened. But the book is a good first step, and gets us asking some important questions, which I think is his intention.

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  2. It’s a great review of a valuable book, but I will take exception to this:

    Drawing to his side what Fea labels the “court evangelicals,” Trump learned from certain Christian leaders how to speak the language and embrace the playbook.

    I don’t think Trump ever even bothered to pretend. During the campaign he got called out for calling “Art of the Deal” — and not the Bible — as his favorite book, but that’s as far as it went. Anyone who understands evangelicals AT ALL would take time to memorize John 3:16, but instead Trump mumbled something about “Two Corinthians,” and people quit asking him. He’s never gone so far as to try to fake it which, in the eyes of his credulous evangelical fans looking for ANY sort of affirmation of his faith, would be exceptionally easy to do. But he never has, and instead relies on people like Franklin Graham, Falwell Jr., and Robert Jeffress to run interference for him.

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    • Hello, Andy. You’re correct, Trump does not have much of a working knowledge of the Bible, and yes, Graham, Falwell, Jeffress, and White are all running interference for him–all of which Fea details very effectively (it is one of his two strongest and interesting chapters). But when I say he learned to “speak the language,” I mean he learned to address the issues that evangelicals are concerned about (Fea traces this to a 2011 meeting that Paula White helped him set up at Trump Tower with evangelical leaders). This includes the stuff Fea describes as the political “playbook,” but also other big things like Jerusalem, the Johnson Amendment in the IRS tax code, so-called “religious liberty,” as well as small things like making a big deal over “Merry Christmas” instead of “Happy Holidays.” This is what I condensed into “the language.”

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I completely agree he did a horrible job of courting the religious in open forums, but he did court the religious right far more than Hillary seemed to attempt. Here is a link to Trump talking to the Faith and Freedom Caucus. It was his 3rd time there, where he went directly on attack over pro life (including promising pro-life judges), and scaring everyone about Hillary. He isn’t overtly religious in his language like he is with his nationalism (which included groping flags), but it’s there.

    https://www.c-span.org/video/?410912-4/donald-trump-addresses-faith-freedom-coalition-conference

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  4. Pingback: In praise of Turner Classic Movies (TCM). In Trump’s America, it’s exactly what we need | History Headlines

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