The number 81 percent may have permanent resonance among political analysts by now. That percentage represents the number of white evangelicals who voted for Donald Trump in the 2016 presidential election. While conservative Christianity has been tied to voting Republican for many years, the fact that a man so seemingly opposed to Christian values could garner such a high number of votes – regardless of voiced opinions on hot issues – surprised many people. But what feels counterintuitive may in fact make perfect sense when looked at from the proper angle, in this case, from the mindset of a historian.
Enter Messiah College historian John Fea with his latest book Believe Me, a highly readable and convincing “story of why so many American evangelicals believe in Donald Trump” (10). The book tracks through recent developments in US religion and politics, but does so in the context of longer historical developments and patterns. Fea talks about the rise of the Moral Majority with as much ease as he does Jeffersonian America, all developing a single line that greatly expands understanding of our current political moment.
“The primary reading audience is my fellow evangelicals,” Fea explained in a recent interview, “but there’s a secondary audience, and that is anyone who wants to understand why 81 percent of evangelicals supported Donald Trump.”
Both of those groups would do well to engage with Fea’s arguments. His own faith may lend an urgency to his work, but it won’t turn off secular readers. He tackles the topic “not as a political scientist, pollster, or pundit, but as a historian who identifies as a Christian” (6). Media over the past two years as been saturated with takes from political wonks, but getting to the core of the previous presidential election and the ongoing state of affairs requires a historical point of view. Fea, whose previous works include Why Study History?: Reflecting on the Importance of the Past (Baker Academic, Sep 2013) and Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?: A Historical Introduction (Westminster/John Knox rev. Feb 2011) , recognizes the tie between what’s been happening in the US and a necessary understanding of the past.
“Think about the slogan ‘Make America Great Again,'” Fea says. “That is ultimately a historical statement. There was a time in the past when America was great and we need to reclaim that past. As a historian, I focus on that word again. Let’s establish when it was great. Let the ethicists and the moralists decide: Was it really great in 1950 or 1920 or the 19th century? These are all ways of thinking historically in our culture rather than just going into the past, finding things we like, and ignoring the rest.”
If we lack historical thinking as a culture, though, it’s not for lack of interest or opportunity.
“If you look at the New York Times bestseller lists, there’s always a history book in the top ten,” says Fea. “You have these popular writers and historians like Doris Kearns Goodwin who sell hundreds of thousands of copies of their books. Then think about families going on vacation. What family hasn’t at least once chosen a historical place to visit, whether it be Colonial Williamsburg of Gettysburg? This love of history hasn’t faded. It may have gotten more intense now that there are new ways to access it. On the other hand, while we’re learning new facts, we aren’t very good at thinking like historians. Historical thinking is not just for historians. How do you relate the past to the present? You don’t just study the past as a distant place, a foreign world that has no relevance to who we are today. On the other hand, you don’t make political assertions or develop public policy without understanding the past.”
For Fea, working through American history and evangelical history (and, of course, the intersection of those two stories) opens up new lines of thought. While the recent US Presidential election has been contextualized in terms of race, class, gender, and geography, Americans’ own conceptions of our country lie deep at the root of our voting, and Fea points to a recent study led by Clemson sociologist Andrew Whitehead that shows a connection between Christian nationalism (frequently grounded in ideas about the past) and voting from Trump.
“Consider one of the great myths that has been circulating for 30 or 40 years in the evangelical world,” explained Fea. “In that world, there’s a nostalgia for the idea that America was somehow founded as a Christian nation. That the Founding Fathers were deliberately trying to create a nation in which Christianity would be privileged in public life, and that America continues to be a Christian nation. The idea is we must reclaim that [belief], and we must do that through politics. We must get control and power in the culture. This is a historical argument; at the core is a story about American identity at its founding. If America was founded as and meant to be a Christian nation, then that justifies a whole set of policy proposals to try to make sure that we remain a Christian nation.”
Fea, though he has a whole other book on the subject, does give some space in Believe Me to asking whether or not the US was founded as a Christian nation. The short version: “It all depends” (137). It’s the understanding of the US’s origins that has more impact on contemporary thinking and voting, and part of what Fea charts in his book is the changes in US law and culture, particularly in the last half-century) that has increased evangelical fear.
That fear has always been part of evangelical culture, and one of Fea’s most illuminating chapters, titled “A Short History of Evangelical Fear”, studies that odd topic going back to John Winthrop. When apparent threats to Christian culture have risen, people have frequently responded out of anxiety.
“Race is not going to be an important an issue for white evangelicals who voted for Trump because they don’t see that as important an issue as preserving their white Christian nation,” says Fea. “Whenever there is a threat to that Christian nation – whether it be immigration, Catholics coming in in the 19th century, or slave revolts overturning the white social order – it’s the evangelical Christians who are leading the charge against that social and demographic change.”
The phrase of “evangelical fear” should be oxymoronic. The Bible offers the command to “fear not” or similar ideas extremely frequently. A belief in the God of the Bible should be coupled with a freedom from anxiety.
“It’s very strange and somewhat ironic that anyone who reads the Bible will find a lot of exhortations against fear,” says Fea. “Fear represents a kind of lack of faith in God’s sovereignty or God’s will to work out his purposes. I love the quote from Marylinne Robinson: ‘Fear is not a Christian habit of mind.’ Fear is a product of the broken world that we live in, but fear is not a place where one can dwell and still claim to be an evangelical Christian. It produces negative consequences.
“What’s striking here is that evangelicals have in almost every circumstance where there’s some kind of change in the culture, have not responded with hospitality to the stranger, with grace, with hope, with the idea that people who are different from them have been created in the image of God and have that dignity and worth. Instead they have built their walls and protected themselves against people they fear Fear. [It’s] an inherent contradiction for anyone who takes the Bible seriously. That’s what I’m trying to call people to think about in this book. Why are we so afraid? We love to claim a big God who controls everything and will work out his purposes for good as it says in Romans. Their politics is driven by fear much more than any kind hope.”
In the 2016 election, these fears worked into a system that Fea describes as the Christian Right’s “playbook”, a system of political power, legislative objectives, and public rhetoric analyzed in detail in Believe Me. The playbook has only been somewhat effective, but two years ago it enabled voters to turn to a “strongman” who could protect them from the changing look of the nation. If they had to ove look character traits in opposition to Biblical ideas, then so be it, even if such talk about character has long been part of the public discourse.
“The inconsistency – call it hypocrisy – has been striking,” Fea explained. “You look at all of these leaders from the Christian Right who aligned themselves with the Republican Party in the 1980s, and look at what they said about Bill Clinton and his scandal with Monica Lewinksy. James Dobson, Gary Bauer, Franklin Graham. For someone like me who still claims the name ‘evangelical’, it’s outright embarrassing to see these evangelical leaders now, just because their guy is in office, dismiss these character issues.”
This unlikely support fits into the idea that Fea has been developing of the “court evangelical”, alluding to Renaissance courtiers who would try to gain political power by cozying up to the monarch. The idea, a likely result of the “playbook”, hasn’t been relevant in US history in large part because, as Fea explained, “Up until the 1980s, evangelicals have always held some kind of cultural authority in US life.” Protestants had traditionally had the power to “shape the culture, so they had no real need to turn to political power.” The Second Great Awakening, for example, came alongside fears about a secular president, but the response was “to dig in their heels to start movements” rather than win access to the presidency. Fea sees that approach beginning to change in the ’60s and ’70s, when the 1965 Immigration Act, Roe v. Wade, and school desegregation brought about dramatic change. Christian voices began to get into power rather than counter it.
“I can’t think of many examples in American history in which you have evangelical leaders pursuing political power in this way by trying to endear themselves to presidents,” Fea says. “There have been cases where clergy tried to get the ear of politicians. A classic example is Martin Luther King, Jr., and his relationship with John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson to try to get civil rights. When he came to the so-called court, the Oval Office, he was there to speak truth to power. He was there to say, ‘Here’s where there’s injustice and what you need to do about it to be a man of moral integrity.’ These court evangelicals are there to flatter Trump. They’re never there to call him out for his sins, and I don’t use that term lightly. A lot of the things Trump does – the way he uses his tongue, the discriminating things he said – evangelicals in church would call them sins.”
Fea doesn’t see this approach happening just on the political right, although it may be more noticeable on that side. That “appeal to political power, hanging out in the court,” happens on both sides. Fea notes how the religious left, like Jim Wallis, Shane Claiborne, and William Barber, take a similar approach. That approach doesn’t necessarily make sense because, as Fea pointed out, “The church thrives when it’s not seeking power.”
If Fea’s work helps to explain the 2016 presidential election, he also wishes to examine the fallout and to look forward. One of his concerns is that “Trump has changed the course of US evangelicalism and its public witness. You have a political figure shaping the church, rather than the church informing or engaging with culture.” This idea puts the work of the church in a new position, including its opportunity to spread its spiritual message.
“It discredits the gospel,” says Fea. “It undermines the witness of the church. These people who have built their lives on preaching the gospel have lost their platform to do that, and have hunkered down into their own communities. They’ve lost any opportunity to share their news.”
Looking forward, Fea does have three suggestions for the 19 percent to take away. First he suggests they “continue to live in hope, continue to realize that your faith is something you need to live in the world,” adding, “You need to go forward rather than looking backward in the hope that we have in God and in Jesus Christ. Second, he reminds us that “Christianity is a religion of service and humility” where Jesus came “to die rather than to pursue political power, and we need to think about how to engage in political life in self-sacrifice and humility rather than power.” Finally, he says, “Nostalgia is a dangerous thing. Learn to think like a historian. Historical thinking is just good thinking in general. Don’t be deceived by nostalgia that passes as history.”
Reconciliation is possible. Fea says, “Love you brothers and sisters in the 81 percent. Do your best to have reasonable conversations. Take them out for coffee.” He also suggests that churches learn to provide forums for conversation, recognizing that “our witness is at stake here.”
He says, “This is why evangelicals have to work hard at dealing with their problem.” He cites historian Mark Noll‘s argument in The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind (Eerdmans, 1996) that “we need to deal with the fact that Christians need to worship God with their mind and be thinking people. History has a lot to do with that. That’s my kind of mission, my kind of calling in life, as a scholar, as an evangelical: to get the church to think about how to be better citizens and to engage in a way that’s more Biblical and responsible.”
Fea’s work is in history, but he remains grounded in his faith and his optimism.
“Trump will pass,” he says. “The Christian church needs to go on and continue to live out the gospel in everyday life.”