The Bookshelf: Believe Me

Of all the confounding and frustrating things that the Donald Trump era has brought us, one of the most perplexing to me has been the embrace of a shallow, insecure, and immoral businessman from New York City by white American Christians. Donald Trump, to the eyes of this aspiring theologian, is the antithesis of everything I know Christianity to be: cruel rather than compassionate, brash rather than reserved, egocentric rather than humble, incapable of introspection, or forgiveness, or self-restraint.

35224850_10216116132396646_2037149979729985536_oThis isn’t arm chair psychology, either; one merely has to watch him for five or ten minutes in almost any setting (or, even, just peruse his Twitter feed) to see that this is a person who is pure, undiluted Id, who rarely looks inward or even takes time to think things through, and who certainly rarely, if ever, thinks of others first.

Most frustrating of all to me, is that I have family members, people who are good, Christian people, full of love and grace and compassion and intelligence, who are ardent Trump supporters, or at the least, defenders of him, the party he leads, and the conservative movement that birthed him. It baffles me, how God-fearing men and women, who were so offended by the Clinton scandals, who have for so long fought so hard for family values and public decency, could make such a hard turn and support Donald J. Trump to lead our country, and, even more shockingly, to praise him as some kind of exemplar of everything they believe.

John Fea, professor of history of Messiah College, has been grappling with this same conundrum at his blog, The Way of Improvement Leads Homesince Trump burst onto the national political scene several years ago. Fea himself is a self-described evangelical Christian. Having read his blog daily for almost three years now, I can safely say he is a true moderate in every sense of the word, someone who never seems, in writing at least, to swing too far left or right from his center, but who doggedly sticks to his moral foundation that is rooted in Christianity. On his blog, you will find posts praising Barack Obama for showcasing a singularly Christian attitude during his presidency, side by side with posts condemning abortion in unequivocal terms and pushing back against the kind of secularism embodied by Bernie Sanders and the progressive movement. He always approaches these issues from the dual lenses of his evangelical beliefs, and his knowledge of American history. If you aren’t a regular reader of his blog, well, you should be.

All of that is to say, Fea is uniquely placed to think and write about the phenomena that is American evangelicalism’s rabid support for Donald Trump. And, he has done just that, in his newest book, Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump. In this book, Fea traces the history of American evangelicalism, and the apocalyptic fear it has always carried around, to the current situation it finds itself in, where its numbers are rapidly shrinking and its influence on the cultural conversation has diminished to the point that the need is felt to throw the weight of the movement behind a thrice-married, openly admitted adulterer and reality TV star. Its the kind of move that reeks of death throes and desperation, and that becomes clear in the pages of Believe Me.

Fea unequivocally points to existential fear as the driving force behind American evangelicalism today. The opening sentence of a chapter entitled “A Short History of Evangelical Fear,” reads,

“Despite the biblical passages exhorting followers of Christ to ‘fear not,’ it is possible to write an entire history of American evangelicalism as the story of Christians who failed to overcome fear.”

Fea traces the history of evangelical fear all the way from Puritan fears of witches and Native Americans, to fears of deism and secularism in the earliest years of the republic, through 19th century fears of Catholics and southern and eastern European immigrants, to post-bellum fears of freed and empowered blacks, right up to today’s fears of immigrants who look different and speak different languages, incomprehensible terrorists who seem to want to burn everything down, and secular leftists who want to drive Christians from the political and social realm.

Of course, fear either leads to fight or flight in human beings, and Fea shows how evangelicals very quickly realized that fighting was the only way to combat what they saw as an increasingly terrifying world. Evangelical theology was subsequently built on top of this fear and the drive to fight back, rather than the other way around. In the process, evangelical ideals were sidelined and put to use to serve the needs of a conservative movement that was reeling in the Seventies in the wake of Watergate and Supreme Court rulings that took away prayer in schools, segregation, and religious iconography in public places. Fear is a powerful motivator in democratic politics, and the Republican Party has learned well over the last forty years how to exploit the existential fear, and the desperate fighting instinct of a cornered animal, to win elections.

Donald Trump is but the culmination of this decision, something that becomes clear through Fea’s book. This is perhaps the most important work Fea does here, showing that Trump is not a one-off phenomanah or abberation, but instead, is the logical conclusion of a conservative evangelicalism that is built on a foundation of sand. Donald Trump figured out to most potent way to harness the fear of evangelical voters, by promising to take them back to some mythical past, when all was right in the world and evangelicals ruled America. Fea exposes this nostalgia, exemplified by the Trump campaign slogan “Make America Great Again,” for the sham it is, in a powerful section where he runs through the eras evoked by Trump as times of American “greatness,” and reveals instead they were also times of upheaval, racism, genocide – in short, times in which, yes, a few white people may have been doing well, but times in which the great many, including people of color, were oppressed and injustice was done. As he writes,

“For too many who have been the objects of white evangelical fear, real American greatness is still something to be hoped for – not something to be recovered from an imagined past.”

Fea ends the book with a powerful call for a rethinking of American evangelicalism in its public engagement. Instead of fear, he calls readers back to the Christian value of hope; instead of the pursuit of worldly power, he prescribes the Christ-like attitude of humility; and instead of a nostalgic but ultimately false view of the past, he encourages an honest view of history, warts and all. Ultimately, he writes,

“Evangelicals can do better that Donald Trump…Too many of its leaders (and their followers have traded their Christian witness for a mess of political pottage and a few federal judges.”

Amen. Its amazing to realize how small and uninspired the worldview of so many evangelicals has become. Reading Fea’s book is to walk through the process of how we got here, to a place where so many Christians can imagine little more from their public witness than a few crumbs in the form of federal judges and harsh words about abortion, immigrants, and political correctness.

The last two years have been profoundly disorienting, for our nation, and for those who call themselves Christians. How did we get to this place, where so many millions of our brothers and sisters in Christ have spurred the values we thought they held so dear, and embraced a brand of politics so ultimately divisive and unChristian? If you, like me, have been struggling with this question, then I can’t recommend Dr. Fea’s book enough. The answers we need in the fight to reclaim a public Christianity that looks like the form of faith we see embodied in the example of Christ are rooted in understanding our past. Believe Me explains that past clearly, and in doing so, claims an important place in the conversation about the future of Christianity in America.

Believe Me comes out June 28. You can find more info and pre-order here.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from Eerdmans Publishing Company. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commissions’ 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”


The Danger of Mass Prejudices

The practical limitations of liberal democracy arise in part from these limits to our freedom. Instead of a community of people exercising wise judgments about the general welfare or even acting out of enlightened self-interest, we have large groups of people expressing unexamined prejudices which are all too easily manipulated by those who control the mass media. Democracies can only survive through checks and balances which reduce the danger of disastrous actions expressive of mass prejudices.

John Cobb, Process Theology as Political Theology, pg 101

The Bookshelf: The Last Christians

So much of American Christianity, especially of the Evangelical and Fundamentalist varieties, carries within it a striking ideological contradiction.

On one hand, Christians in America, even if they don’t embrace the theologies outright, carry the assumptions of the prosperity gospel, and of violent nationalism. That is to say, many American Christians would affirm that God does indeed heap blessings and riches on His (because in this view, it’s almost always a male God) believers, and one particular way He does this is through the power of American military and economic hegemony.

On the other hand, many American Christians seem to think they are part of a small, persecuted, and powerless minority, strangers in a strange land that they have no responsibility for. Rather, a powerful, secular, globalist elite runs things, and is doing everything it can to stamp out American Christianity, mostly through feminism, abortion, same-sex marriage, and public schools.

lastchristiansENThese two views stand in stark contrast to one another, and to reality. That reality shines forth in Father Andreas Knapp’s superb book, The Last ChristiansIn it, Andreas tells his own story, of meeting refugee Christians in his own hometown of Leipzig, Germany, and how that leads to a trip to Iraq, on the border of ISIS territory, and his own growing fascination with and passion for the Christian communities who live there.

These Christian communities, located now in refugee camps in Mosul and Erbil, but originally from Syria, Turkey, and Armenia, are the last remnants of the earliest Christians. Still speaking Aramaic, the language of Christ, they trace their lineage back to the early desert fathers, and even further, to the earliest churches planted by Paul and the Apostles.

Today, they are threatened by the rise of ISIS and other forms of militant Islam. Forced to flee their homes, their culture is in danger of disappearing, as families are split apart and their cultural and religious heritage is forgotten. Knapp recounts the stories of the refugees he meets in Leipzig, and on his trip to Iraq, painting beautiful and painful pictures of a people who are a global treasure, but who are forgotten by the so-called Christian West, despite politically-conveinant talking points otherwise.

At times, Father Knapp veers towards blanket condemnations of all Muslims, militant or not, in the plight of these Christians. At one point, he comes awfully close to declaring that the very nature of Islam is violence and intolerance. This kind of rhetoric can obscure the points he also makes about the millions of Muslims who have been victimized by ISIS as well.

More relevantly, he does point the finger for the rise of ISIS and hyper-militancy in the Middle East, and the destruction it has reaped for the Christians he cares about, at the truest cause: American and Western hegemony, colonialism and reckless petro-capitalism. He writes,

“I wonder what Arab countries would look like today had oil not been discovered: no interference from Western colonial powers; no billions upon billions of petrodollars for the Islamist arms build-up. What course would modern Islam have taken without the vast sums of money pumped into the construction of mosques and the recruitment of Salafist from around the world? Was the black gold really a blessing for the Gulf States and their inhabitants? How many battles have been fought in this region over access to the oil wells – in the two Worlds Wars, the Gulf Wars, and to this day?”

Father Knapp is absolutely correct in his diagnosis of the problems facing not just the Eastern Christians, but the entire Middle East today. Yet, despite our complicity in their problems, the West largely ignores the plight of Eastern Christians, to say nothing of the millions of others who face persecution. Instead, so many American Christians are narrowly focused on the so-called persecution of “Happy Holidays” and Starbucks cups and religious freedom issues. At the same time, many American Christians gleefully participate in rhetoric and military hegemony that leads to the deaths of Christians and Eastern Christian culture. Father Knapp relays one particularly relevant example:

“The lack of understanding sometimes shown by our media on this issue may have other causes too. For one thing, it is hard for us to imagine how radically the political environment inhabited  by Eastern Christians differs from our own, to the extent that they can be made to suffer as hostages for the freedoms of the West. This was brought home to me by the uproar in the Middle East over European political cartoons depicting Mohammed. Such cartoons are a normal phenomenon in free democratic societies but, thanks to our globalized world, can trigger violent reactions in other, undemocratic systems. Thus, when caricatures of Mohammed were published in Denmark in 2006, the terrorist Mujahideen Council announced that Christians in Iraq would pay the price – which they duly did.

This is what persecution and minority status looks like. Not cakes for LGBT people or state capitols free of religious imagery. It’s death and displacement. When American Christians insist on burning Korans to make a political statement, they don’t suffer consequences. Instead, Eastern Christians in Mosul and Raqqa become their scapegoats, carrying their sins into the desert.

Andreas Knapp’s book is eye-opening and heartbreaking, but should be required reading in churches across America, especially churches who feel they are being persecuted. There is a real cultural and historical tragedy occurring in the Middle East, as the remnants of the oldest Christian communities are being wiped out due to the decisions American and European leaders have made. It’s time for all of us – myself included – to wake up and realize what is happening. The Last Christians is a good place to start.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from Plough Publishers. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commissions’ 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”