John Fea is Professor and Chair of the Department of History at Messiah College. In his new book, Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump, Fea draws upon four centuries of Christian history to diagnose the troubling persistence of conservative evangelical Trump support. Among other insights, he observes that modern evangelicalism is primarily driven by fear, nostalgia, and the will to worldly power, a trio of decidedly unChristian qualities.
ECM: Why do evangelicals believe Donald Trump?
JF: Donald Trump drew upon a political playbook that conservative evangelicals have been employing since the 1970s. Jerry Falwell Sr. drafted it when he founded the Moral Majority in 1979, and it responds to a variety of familiar social and cultural issues—the “wall of separation” between church and state, the removal of prayer and Bible reading from public schools, the desegregation of evangelical academies in the south, Roe v. Wade, gay marriage, new immigration patterns, and a host of others.
Trump has learned to speak this political language with fluency, and so was able to convince a strong majority of white evangelicals that he would deliver on these issues. He’s a unique character, certainly, but he positioned himself as the rightful heir of this historical legacy. So as surprising as his victory was, we shouldn’t be too surprised that he rallied evangelicals to achieve it.
ECM: If evangelicalism is supposed to be rooted in faith, hope, and love, you note that it’s now primarily driven by fear, nostalgia, and a will to power. Has this always been true, or has the movement been corrupted?
JF: American evangelicals have been fearful, nostalgic, and desirous of political power to varying degrees since the 17thcentury. In a chapter titled “A Short History of Evangelical Fear,” I try to show that fear of social, cultural, and demographic change has been present throughout the nation’s history and, whenever these changes have occurred, they’ve been followed by backlash in the form of nativism, racism, isolationism, etc. Historically, evangelicals have always been at the forefront—often leading that backlash. They have always been nostalgic for what they imagine to be better, holier times, relying on declension narratives to chart America’s fall from grace. And there have been various moments during which evangelicals have pursued political power rather than self-sacrificial love.
I do think that the 1970s and 80s (which were largely a response to the 1960s) represent an important moment. Prior to this, evangelicals felt much more comfortable in the culture. We can debate whether or not America is a “Christian nation” in a legal or Constitutional sense, but it has certainly been culturally Christian since the founding. Once these bedrock Christian social and cultural beliefs and practices—traditional marriage, prayer in schools, the celebration of Christmas as the only legitimate holiday in the month of December, to name a few—lose their privileged position, many evangelicals turn to politics to save them.
ECM: In Trump’s speech, these appeals often have racial dimensions. Why are white evangelicals comfortable with this?
JF: I am hesitant to say that all evangelicals are comfortable with this, but many of them are.
One way to look at this is to observe that evangelicals have always prioritized certain social issues over others, and race has never been one of their priorities. Abortion, they would argue, transcends race. People of all races have abortions and “kill babies.” Traditional marriage, similarly, is an institution that transcends race. I think such a view goes back to one of the defining beliefs of American evangelicalism—that all humans, of all races and ethnicities, can be saved by the gospel. Abortion and marriage are universal, race is particular. This is how many evangelicals see it. Many of them may be uncomfortable with Trump’s racist remarks, but they are willing to look the other way because Trump has the right policies on the issues they deem to be more important.
But we also must remember that American evangelicalism has always been a very white version of Christianity. Evangelicals have always been fearful of African Americans and the threat they are perceived to pose to a white Christian America. For example, much of the Southern evangelical approach to reading the Bible was forged in the context of their defenses of slavery. So there is a long tradition of racism in white evangelicalism, just as there is a long tradition of racism among white Americans writ large. Yet evangelicals claim to follow the teachings of Jesus, a set of moral principles that should motivate them to fight racism.
Read the whole thing at Religion Dispatches.