Last week I teased a forthcoming book from historian John Fea – Believe Me, The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump. This week, I offer my review.
On November 8, 2016, Donald J. Trump won the American presidency. The next day, I heard someone singing. I recognized the tune as the late 19th Century hymn “Jesus Saves”, but the words sounded off. What should have been “We have heard the joyful sound / Jesus Saves! Jesus Saves!” was now “We have heard the election news / Trump Saves! Trump Saves!” It was that moment (after long months of other similar moments) that finally brought me to tears. I suppose I had previously been in denial, but I proceeded to seriously question how people who claimed to be fellow Christians saw Donald Trump as one of their own.
Historian John Fea asks himself the same question. In this short book, Fea seeks to understand why self-defined conservative, evangelical Christians seemingly sacrificed everything they claim to hold dear in order to elect Donald J. Trump president of the United States.
First, Fea examines the history of fear in American conservatives. Fea writes, “Political fear is so dangerous because it usually stems from legitimate concerns shared by a significant portion of the voting population.” What is it conservatives fear? Fear of change, fear of liberalism, fear of progressivism, fear of irrelevancy, fear of “the other” – American conservatives prove adept at playing the victim, viewing rights and privileges as a zero-sum game where others’ success must correlate to their own failures.
I witnessed this fear firsthand in my community: fear of ISIS, immigrants, and immorality. I saw one person liken Hillary Clinton to the mythical Greek gorgon Medusa. They prominently displayed a picture portraying Trump as the hero Jason holding Medusa/Clinton’s severed head. I was told if Clinton were elected we’d be forced to house refugees in our homes, lose our right to self-defense, be forced to submit to government censorship of worship services, and suffer greater government interference in our everyday lives as we moved ever closer to a socialist tyranny. There is no debating paranoia, and pointing out that any political leader can become a dictator given the right circumstances doesn’t make one many friends, either.
Second, Fea claims that, to alleviate these fears, American evangelicals looked for a strongman and found one in Donald J. Trump. Willing to overlook severe character flaws that would have made nearly any other candidate unacceptable, Trump’s Christian supporters cast him in the light of an Old Testament heathen king raised up by God for some divine purpose, often favorably comparing Trump to Cyrus the Great. Ingratiating themselves to Trump, they failed to act as a voice of Biblical conscience, instead satisfying themselves with photo opportunities and the appearance of access.
As I was reading this section I thought of comic conventions offering photographs, autographs, and a few seconds with a celebrity – all for a price, of course. The higher in status the celebrity, the more one will pay for that brief encounter. But those who purchase photo ops at a convention know exactly what they’re getting. They are under no illusions that they are now friends or influencers of their chosen celebrities. It seems to me that conservative evangelicals have sacrificed their convictions, morals, and reputations for mere baubles.
Third, Fea examines the conservative penchant for nostalgia, or as then-candidate Trump put it, the desire to “Make America Great Again.” Like Fea, I cringe at the word “again”. When was America great? Many English settlers came to the New World for religious freedom: their religious freedom. When it came to other faiths or even other branches of Christianity, those settlers often proved just as intolerant as the oppressors from whom they sought escape. Was America great as our founders created a “new nation, conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal” even as they continued to enslave their fellow man? Was America great as it spread from sea to shining sea in its Manifest Destiny to overspread and possess the whole of the continent at the cost of broken treaties and genocide against the Native Peoples? Was America great under the Alien and Sedition Acts, the Chinese Exclusion Act, the customs of “No Irish Need Apply”, Jim Crow, or Franklin Roosevelt’s Executive Order 9066? No one I have asked can tell me exactly when America was great; instead, they often hint at some vague notion of a past (and passed) ideal.
Since the election, there have been numerous articles and news features on Trump voters and supporters. While many may be burned out from such coverage, I hope they will give this short book a chance as it provides much needed context often missing from other publications. Sadly, those who need to read this book the most – the 81% of conservative evangelicals who voted for Trump – will likely ignore it. Even to this day, Trump supporters still stand by their man despite the scandals, conflicts of interest, poor policy, and likely human rights abuse. Trump might have thought he was being hyperbolic when he said he could shoot a man in broad daylight on 5th Avenue and not lose support, but he wasn’t off the mark.
Nonetheless, Fea offers an outline for moving forward. He reminds us to focus on hope rather than fear, to desire humility over power, and to reckon with history rather than rely on nostalgia. Worthy goals, to be sure, but will the 81% listen to the advice? If the current political landscape is any indication, the answer is “no”.
I pray I’m wrong.
While the book is engaging, thoughtful, and provocative, there are several issues I’d like to address.
First, in the second chapter Fea spends a great deal of time talking about the aims of evangelicals without naming the movement often encompassing those aims: Seven Mountain Dominionism. The movement makes an appearance by name in the last few pages of the book, but its motives and prescribed actions really form the bedrock of much of political Christianity in America.
Second, Fea leaves out an important court evangelical from the early pages of his book: pseudo-historian David Barton. While Fea spends a great deal of time on the religious leaders with access to Trump, he almost completely ignores Barton’s mass appeal to the quasi-intellectuals of conservative evangelical Christianity. Barton has built an empire stoking fears that America’s “Christian heritage” (as Barton calls it) is being erased and has become one of the leading proponents of a past American greatness. This near omission is almost unthinkable, given that Fea has had much to say about Barton in the past.
Third, Fea fails to mention conservative Christians who would not self-identify as “evangelical”. There are several denominations classified as “fundamental” or “independent” that see “evangelical” as something to be avoided for being too liberal. However, these conservative Christians were also swayed by the same arguments and motives Fea discusses in these pages. Even a passing paragraph or two would suffice.
Fourth, I would hope that future editions of this book contain an index. Admittedly, several names would have quite long entries.
Finally, and most minor in my opinion, was a single sentence regarding DACA where Fea implied the law covered children born in the United States to parents here illegally. It is my understanding that to this point in American history, those children have been protected by the 14th Amendment. Instead, DACA applied to children born outside the United States, brought here before they were sixteen years of age, and who applied for “deferred action” before they reached age thirty. I know it’s a relatively small issue, but small issues have a way of detracting from a larger idea.
For those desiring additional reading, might I suggest
• One Nation Under God: How Corporate America Invented Christian America by Kevin Kruse
• Blinded By Might: Can the Religious Right Save America? by Cal Thomas and Ed Dobson
• In Praise of Forgetting by David Rieff
And now, lastly, a few necessary disclaimers:
• I received an ARC of this book from the publisher in exchange for a review on Goodsreads, Amazon, and my personal blog no later than June 30, 2018.
• John Fea and I follow each other on both Twitter and Facebook.
• I have interviewed Fea for a podcast on which I am often a guest host, and I financially support Fea’s own podcast: The Way of Improvement Leads Home.
• I participated in certain online discussions on Fea’s blog, some of which influenced this book.
• I am tangentially included in Fea’s dedication, which reads “To the 19%”, in that I consider myself a conservative Christian (I do not know if I would classify myself as “evangelical”) who did not vote for Donald Trump in the 2016 presidential election.