Evangelical historian explains how Christians came to put Trump ahead of Jesus
John Fea is an evangelical Christian and a historian. When Donald Trump was elected with 81 percent of the self-described white evangelical vote, Fea was both stunned and surprised. “As a historian studying religion and politics, I should have seen this coming,” he notes. Yet he did not. Which was why Fea ended up writing his new book, “Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump.”
On its own terms, the book clearly succeeds in making sense for Fea and others like him, with potential for reaching wavering Trump supporters as well. He identifies and lucidly explores three fundamental flaws in evangelical thinking that have led them to embrace a leader who is wholly unfit by their own once-cherished moral standards, in pursuit of ends they cannot possibly achieve — restoring 1950s America via government action. In a key passage, Fea explains:
For too long, white evangelical Christians have engaged in public life through a strategy defined by the politics of fear, the pursuit of worldly power, and nostalgia for a national past that may never have existed in the first place. Fear. Power. Nostalgia. These ideas are at the heart of this book, and I believe they best explain the 81 percent.
Fear is Fea’s central concern, and the one most directly at odds with the Bible. “The Bible teaches that Christians are to fear God – and only God,” Fea writes. “All other forms of fear reflect a lack of faith, of failure to place one's trust completely in the providential God who has promised to work all things out for good for those who love him.”
That's a specific reference to Romans 8:28: "And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose." But this teaching seems lost on those who shout about God the loudest and the most, and it’s far from clear how Fea’s book can help change that. What it can perhaps do is help make sense of the evangelical majority for others, like Fea, who are in the minority within that world and already inclined toward finding another path.
“Despite God's commands to trust him in times of despair, evangelicals have always been very fearful people,” he notes, “and they have built their understanding of political engagement around the anxiety they have felt amid times of social and cultural change.”
Fear is the subject of the first three chapters of "Believe Me." They’re presented in reverse historical order — first come the 2016 primaries, then the shaping of the Christian-right playbook from the 1970s to the present, then a selective, episodic overview from colonial times to the modern era. The fourth chapter, dealing with power, examines the role of the “court evangelicals” who have come to support Trump, while his chapter exploring nostalgia examines its centrality in Trump’s fatally vague promise to “Make America Great Again.”
Fea’s first chapter is especially riveting for the light it sheds on how evangelicals came to support Trump when they had so many other superficially better-looking options to choose from. He argues convincingly that other GOP candidates did a superior job of courting evangelical voters by traditional means, after eight years of Obama had brought more change than they could handle — Marco Rubio with an impressive advisory council, Mike Huckabee with a track record and issue positions, Ben Carson with an appealing personal story, but most of all Ted Cruz, who "turned fear-mongering into an art form,” which should have trumped everyone else, especially given his father’s history as a popular apocalyptic preacher.
But collectively, Fea writes, they succeeded too well.
Between the summer of 2015 and start of the primary season in early 2016, they were able to diagnose the crisis that the United States was facing in a way that brought great anxiety and concern to American evangelicals. But their strategy backfired. … The evangelical candidates stoked fears of a world they seemed unfit to train. Desperate times call for a strongman, and if a strongman was needed, only Donald Trump would fit the bill.
It’s a powerful, convincing explanation — though incomplete, as I’ll return to below. But Fea is not content just reflecting on what has been. “I want to explore alternatives to the fear, the search for power, and in nostalgia,” Fea writes. “How do we reconcile the white evangelical politics of fear with the scriptural command to ‘fear not’?” he asks.
“What would it take to replace fear with Christian hope?” The answer he at least prepares the way for comes from an unlikely source — the black church, as reflected in the history, spirit, and legacy of the civil rights movement, which he turns to in the book’s concluding chapter. They model a contrasting triad of hope, humility and history that Fea highlights as providing a powerful alternative model, a road not taken by white evangelicals.
But because the preceding five chapters have been so insular, concerned with the white evangelical world, this solution has the feeling of deus ex machina. Fea himself provides no model for what it might mean or how it might work, until his seemingly belated epiphany. It’s an effective cri de coeur, though as serious sociological and theological critique, much less so. Toward the book’s end, he writes:
How might hope, humility, and history inform the way we white American evangelicals think about politics and other forms of public engagement? I hope that what I've written here might spur conversations and initiatives born out of possible answers to this question.
Yet for the white evangelical community as a whole to arrive where Fea wishes, it will have to confront its own dark shadows that Fea only lightly touches on — most crucially, all the centuries of unspeakable evil they’ve projected onto others, in pursuit of imagining themselves pure. For those outside that community, the definitional issue of race stands out for how gingerly Fea treats it, downplaying even Trump’s crucial conservative reinvention via birtherism. This is, after all, a book about white identity politics, one that skirts the most difficult aspects of that identity’s formation.
Most dramatically, as historian Seth Dowland noted in a recent critical essay for Christian Century, “American evangelicalism and the politics of whiteness,” the Civil War radically reshaped American religious identity. “The center of evangelicalism did not — could not — hold,” he writes. “The sectional crisis and Civil War divided American Protestants regionally and racially into three groups: northern white Protestants, southern white Protestants, and black Protestants. … The near-absence of black believers in white churches was the condition for the development of a distinctly white evangelicalism.”
Like Fea, Dowland admits that his own work didn't prepare him for the rise of Trump, but he has adjusted his thinking more fundamentally:
What most distinguishes white American evangelicals from other Christians, other religious groups, and nonbelievers is not theology but politics. More than anything else, identifying as an evangelical in the United States denotes certain attitudes about American politics and usually indicates a white racial identity. It’s not that theology isn’t important to white evangelicals; it’s just not the primary thing that distinguishes them from other religious groups.
Fea’s book is about that theology, or rather about how fear, power and nostalgia underlie its faults and distortions. "Believe Me" is extremely compelling in that regard. But it is also cut off from the wider sweep of political history, from which white evangelicals have sought to distance themselves. Race is a submerged subject here, which only emerges distinctively toward the end. Yet, race remains such a central subject, so highly charged, that it’s difficult to fault Fea’s approach — save for his lack of attention to the role of white evangelicals in the abolitionist movement, and subsequent chapters of anti-racist struggle. There are committed anti-racist white evangelicals to this day, whose perspectives, unfortunately, Fea fails to register.
Earlier, I said that Fea’s explanation of Trump’s strong white evangelical support was incomplete. This is true in at least two ways. First, it leaves out the question how Trump became a credible option in the first place, due to his lead role in promoting birtherism, which was equal parts flat-out racism and tinfoil-hat conspiracy theory. Fea makes no mention of Trump’s 2011 flirtation with running against Obama, which the then-president undercut by releasing his long-form birth certificate, after Trump had spent months building up toward a paranoid crescendo.
Nor does Fea discuss how Republican doubts about Obama’s citizenship actually increased by early 2012, despite that documentary proof. Neither Trump’s means of making himself a credible option nor evangelicals’ means of disregarding unwanted evidence receive the attention they deserve. Birtherism is hardly a lone example of fantastical, conspiratorial thinking in the annals of American evangelical or racist history — a theme whose absence should be noted.
More broadly, Trump’s omnipresent conspiracy theories meshed with long-standing evangelical responses to modernism and denigrations of professional expertise — which Christopher Douglas at Religion Dispatches has described accurately as “The Religious Origins of Fake News and ‘Alternative Facts’” — as well as older traditions of confabulation and fear, tracing back to colonial America.
As I discussed here in December 2015, conflicts with Native Americans gave rise to America’s first popular literary genre, the captivity narrative, which the influential Cotton Mather used to connect all his perceived enemies together — including “captivity by specters,” in cases of witchcraft — a master conspiracy-theory prototype. “The Puritans' captivity fears were in some sense a matter of ‘envious reversal,’” I wrote, “a switching of roles of victim and aggressor. It was, after all, the Puritans who were capturing the Native Americans' whole world, the entire continent on which they lived.”
These represent darker aspects of American history that Fea mostly downplays in his book, even though his third chapter ably discusses a range of fear-infused episodes since colonial times, while the fifth chapter pointedly highlights how Trump tends to suggest that America was greatest during some of the darkest periods of our history. What’s missing is an analysis of how these things reflect a cultivated set of beliefs and cultural practices that repeatedly produce similar responses.
Fea recognizes repeating patterns, but only vaguely. “Despite God's commands to trust him in times of despair, evangelicals have always been very fearful people,” he notes, “and they have built their understanding of political engagement around the anxiety they have felt amid times of social and cultural change.” That connection between fear, change and political power-seeking is the crux of Fea’s critique, but it never becomes systematic. True to his evangelical roots, Fea seems far more comfortable expressing this in terms of individual failings, even as he clearly wants to press for more supportive broader norms.
Two sets of examples from his exploration of power are instructive. The first concerns its problematic nature, the second, his overview of who the “court evangelists” are. As Fea describes, the problem with the pursuit of power is both that it distracts from the primary concern of saving souls (“Mixing horse manure and ice cream,” a Baptist saying goes, “doesn't do much to the manure, but it sure does ruin the ice cream”) and that it fails in what it purportedly sets out to achieve. What’s more, he notes, this view has been repeatedly endorsed by those who’ve learned the hard way. The examples are individually telling, but the movement as a whole never seems to learn — nor does Fea draw any comprehensive lessons.
First came Billy Graham, who Fea notes, “was the official spokesperson for American evangelicalism for more than five decades.” After 1968, “Graham's relationship with Richard Nixon brought him closer to the world of presidential politics than he had ever been before,” but that ultimately proved disastrous when Nixon’s profanity-laced White House tapes were released — making Graham “physically sick” — after which Nixon resigned in disgrace. “Years later, Graham admitted that his relationship with the disgraced former president had ‘muffled those inner monitors that had warned me for years to stay out of partisan politics.’"
But while Graham may have learned a lesson, he couldn’t stop others from making similar mistakes. “Journalist Cal Thomas and evangelical pastor Ed Dobson were two of the Moral Majority’s most important staff members,” Fea notes, “But in 1999, Dobson and Thomas reflect soberly on their experience with Falwell and the Moral Majority in their book Blinded by Might: Can the Religious Right Save America?' They concluded that the answer to the subtitle's question was a definite 'no.'" They didn’t abandon their views, but they "were forced to admit that the strategy they forged in the 1980s had failed.”
Finally, he cites the example of David Kuo, an evangelical political operative and speechwriter who served in George W. Bush’s Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships. “Very early in his tenure at the White House Kuo realized that political power and Christian compassion seemed to not mix very well. His efforts at the office of faith-based and neighborhood partnerships were largely ignored unless they were an immediate benefit to Bush's political fortunes.” His book of regrets was titled, “Tempting Faith: An Inside Story of Political Seduction.”
The fact that all these individual experiences have not had more of a systemic impact ought to be a matter of major concern for Fea. It underscores how white evangelicals’ individualistic outlook severely limits their capacity to learn wider lessons — a problem, he should note, that has not affected black evangelicals in the same way.
Fea’s overview of the “court evangelists” suffers from a similar analytical shortfall. He divides them into three camps: The old Christian right, preachers of the "prosperity gospel," and those Fea identifies as "Independent Network Charismatics." The first includes prominent names such as James Dobson and Jerry Falwell Jr., but Fea focuses attention on Robert Jeffers, a Dallas preacher less well known outside evangelical circles, whom Fea once debated on NPR’s “Interfaith Voices.”
During that exchange, Jeffers said, “Look, the godly principle here is that governments have one responsibility, and that is Romans 13 [which] says to avenge evildoers. God gives government the power of the sword, of capital punishment, of executing wrong-doers.” Fea notes what a dramatic shift this marks from Jeffers’ pre-Trump position. That specific example makes his argument concrete, but adds little in the way of broader understanding.
Regarding the prosperity gospel, Fea cites the work of historian Kate Bowler, writing, “Prosperity preachers teach that faith in God combined with positive thinking and an optimistic attitude will ultimately lead to monetary wealth, good health, and victory over the difficult circumstances of life.” His broader background descriptions are adequate, but his focus on one figure, Paula White, who has a long history with Trump, is not fleshed out much.
Fea mentions but does not elaborate on Trump’s youthful experience hearing sermons from Norman Vincent Peale, author of "The Power of Positive Thinking," and never delves into how Trump’s own business practices have reflected the influence of such figures, such as this 2011 New York magazine story about Trump's multi-level vitamin marketing scheme. The prosperity gospel is the utmost in individualism, while at the same time relying on a powerful and persuasive social environment, which Fea’s analysis does not include.
Then there are the Independent Network Charismatics — apparently this is the new evangelical term for what used to be called the New Apostolic Reformation movement. Sarah Palin was the first nationally prominent Republican to be associated with this movement, which primarily comes out of Pentecostalism, but has a long history of being branded as heretical or even pagan, going back to its post-World War II origins in the “Latter Rain” movement. Their profound theological break with 500 years of orthodox Protestantism — proclaiming themselves “prophets” and “apostles” with authority directly from God — does not make a ripple in Fea’s account.
In short, Fea’s individualist focus truncates his analysis repeatedly throughout his book, despite his clear understanding and concern for the importance of community. This does not detract from his stated intention in writing the book, to “spur conversations and initiatives born out of possible answers” to an important question: “How might hope, humility, and history inform the way we white American evangelicals think about politics and other forms of public engagement?” It merely underscores how much broader those conversations must be in order to bear fruit.