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.
This 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 Home, since 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.”