John Fea. Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump. William B. Eerdmans, 2018. See here to purchase the book.
John Fea teaches American history at Messiah College.
According to Fea, “On November 8, 2016, 81 percent of self-described white evangelicals helped vote Donald Trump into the White House” (page 5). This was a higher percentage than the white evangelicals who voted for George W. Bush (2000, 2004), John McCain (2008), and Mitt Romney (2012).
Fea is disturbed by this. For one, he believes that it is a poor witness to non-believers. Evangelicals are supporting a man who, according to Fea, so obviously fails to exemplify the fruit of the Spirit and instead demonstrates the works of the flesh. Not only that, but Trump falls short of the civic character that one would expect from any President. By supporting such a figure, evangelicals alienate people from evangelicalism. The irony is that some of the prominent evangelicals who support Donald Trump loudly and eloquently proclaimed that character mattered in a leader when Bill Clinton was President.
Second, Fea expresses doubt that political engagement is the way to go for evangelicals. Overturning Roe vs. Wade will not stop abortion. The resources that conservative evangelicals spend on political engagement to stop abortion can be better spent trying to stop abortion on a personal level, by, for example, helping women with an unintended pregnancy. Access to political power also has a corrupting influence on white evangelicals. They fail to be a prophetic voice towards Trump because they love to have their seat at the table, with the influence, prestige, and perks that accompany that. But they are being played. Fea expresses some ambivalence on whether Christians should be involved in the political process, for he appeals to the Civil Rights Movement as a positive example of this. That movement, however, exemplified faith and hope rather than fear and did not hesitate to challenge authorities prophetically.
Fea argues that fear is the motivating factor behind white evangelical support for Donald Trump. He tells the story of how fear has been a salient feature of American Christianity. American Puritans saw their New England settlement as a new Israel and feared that God would punish them for disobedience. Christians with this sort of fear would later support the Federalist Party, which supported a strong central government, over Thomas Jefferson’s more liberal Democratic-Republican Party. Many white American Protestants had a fear of Catholic immigrants, a number of whom sided with the Protestants’ Native American enemies and supposedly expanded the influence of the Pope. Some white American Protestants expressed fear of the Illuminati, a subversive movement in Europe that sought to undermine Christianity. In the South, many white American Christians believed that slavery was a biblical institution and feared violent slave revolts. Years later, a number of white evangelicals feared Muslims, Barack Obama for supposedly being a foreigner, and Hillary Clinton.
Why did they end up embracing Trump, who had lacked a history of supporting their causes and lived a lifestyle that contradicted their values? According to Fea, they were looking for a strongman who would protect them and push their agenda. They felt as if their religious liberty and America’s Christian heritage were under attack by the Obama Administration, so they gravitated towards a blunt, apparently fearless candidate who wanted their support. Fea does not see the white evangelicals who supported Trump as the wave of the future, however, but regards such support as a last-ditched attempt to win the culture wars. Younger evangelicals tend to have a different attitude. Fea wonders if the older evangelicals can do more good by being a faithful presence rather than seeking to change the nation through political partisanship.
A. Overall, Fea is a compelling storyteller, which is not to say that he makes things up but rather that he tells his narrative well. He tells the story of the 2016 Presidential race, as different evangelicals supported different candidates in the Republican primaries. Intellectual white evangelicals gravitated towards Marco Rubio, whereas certain prominent prosperity preachers liked Trump. Fea’s survey of American religious history was also a compelling read. Fea’s overall criticisms of Trump and the white evangelicals who support him were rather banal, and Fea’s attempts to be profound and rhetorically eloquent got tiresome, at times. But the book is still worthwhile on account of its information about history, politics, and the beliefs of certain Christians (i.e., the INC prophets and apostles). In addition, the book had some interesting insights, as when Fea said that conservative evangelicals want to say more than that their ideas are good ideas, for they claim that their ideas flow out of America’s very heritage. There are some topics about which I am still curious (i.e., why did the Founders prohibit a national established church but not established churches in states?), but that motivates me to want to read Fea’s book on whether America is a Christian nation.
B. Fea’s narrative is largely negative towards the religious right, but it does have more nuance than conventional left-wing narratives. For example, many left-wing narratives flatly state that America was not a Christian nation. While Fea departs from the religious right’s narrative, he acknowledges that states in America’s early days had established churches, even after the ratification of the U.S. Constitution. Many left-wing narratives assert that racism was a motivating factor behind the rise of the religious right, as white conservative Christians opposed government interference in their segregation academies. Fea states, however, that a number of those academies had begun to admit African-Americans before the religious right took off.
C. Fea does well to question whether political opposition to abortion will truly reduce abortion. At the same time, his discussion of religious liberty issues was sorely lacking. Religious liberty issues are present in this book, but there is little sympathy for conservative evangelicals who believe that the government under President Barack Obama attacked their right to act according to their religious convictions. Bakers who refuse to bake cakes for same-sex weddings have had to pay huge fines. Maybe political activity will not create a conservative Christian utopia, but is it not at least understandable that conservative evangelicals would want someone in power who would be sympathetic towards them? These issues are complicated, as there are legitimate fears that people could deny others of their rights and liberty in the name of “religious freedom.” Still, that white evangelicals would feel inconvenienced or persecuted by President Obama’s policies and would desire a leader who would have different policies is understandable.
D. Fea asserts that white evangelicals in supporting Trump are compromising their prophetic witness. He contrasts them unfavorably with the Civil Rights leaders, who were unafraid to challenge President Lyndon Johnson on the Vietnam War. Could not one make the case, however, that the conservative evangelicals believe that they are being prophetic? They are supporting a controversial leader because of his stand on causes that they value and deem to be righteous, but which are highly controversial. Yes, they are alienating people from evangelicalism, but they could dismiss that concern by retorting that prophets alienate people. There is also the question of whether strategy should play at least some role in their approach. They may feel that their causes have little to gain were they to criticize Trump every time that he is mean. Perhaps they feel that it is better for them at least to have access to President Trump, so that they can be a positive influence on him. Fea may say that such an attitude is part of the problem, and he may have a point, but there may be a method to their approach that is well-intentioned.
E. Fea’s portrayal of white evangelicals was rather one-sided. Granted, he does acknowledge that there are prominent white evangelicals who oppose Trump. He briefly and occasionally refers to evangelical work for social justice in the history of the United States. Still, there is hardly any acknowledgment that white evangelicals who supported Trump may not be racist or xenophobic. A number very well may be, but there are many who are not. David Jeremiah had a Spanish-speaking ministry, yet he supported Trump. The book would have been more thoughtful and well-rounded had Fea explored the tension that some white evangelicals may have felt in supporting Trump.
I received a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher. My review is honest.