What hath the evangelicals wrought?
We hear a great deal of huffing and puffing about the gap between academic history and the general reader. But we don’t hear enough about the first-rate historians who work in various ways in their various spheres to bridge that gap: figures as wide-ranging as Danielle Allen, Eleanor Parker, Tom Holland, and Kevin Kruse, to name a few.
Any adequate account of such bridge builders must include John Fea, a history professor at Messiah College who is best known for his book Was America Founded as a Christian Nation? “I have long defined myself as a ‘public historian,’ but not in the traditional way that the academy defines public historian,” Fea explained in a recent lecture. “I do not work in a museum or historical society. I teach American history to undergraduates. But having said that, I have worked hard at trying to bring history to bear on public life—to bridge the gap between academic history and public history and to introduce historical interpretation to the public in a way that is accessible and easy to digest. I have tried to do this through my books, my daily blog, my podcast, and, of course, in the classroom. This is my so-called platform.”
The latest product of this desire “to bring history to bear on public life” is Fea’s sardonically titled book Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump. Here, Fea reports on the “court evangelicals” (a memorable phrase he put in circulation) who have given their uncritical support to Trump in exchange for access to the throne and the opportunity, so they suppose, to advance their Christian agenda. To what precise extent their endorsement contributed to the notorious 81 percent of white evangelicals who voted for Trump, we can’t be sure, but certainly they represent at least three significant factions within the vast, unruly evangelical constituency: in Fea’s reckoning, “the new old Christian Right,” which harks back to the heyday of the Moral Majority; followers of the “prosperity gospel”; and the “Independent Network Charismatics,” a movement made up of loosely affiliated groups that operate outside traditional denominational and parachurch settings, with an emphasis on charismatic gifts, “spiritual warfare,” and the need for Christians to occupy critically influential positions in American society.
By providing a lucid narrative of the rise of the court evangelicals, their fawning pronouncements, and their self-contradictions (e.g., character mattered mightily during the Clinton presidency; now it can be brushed aside), Fea has performed a great service. For brazen effrontery, it’s hard to top Jerry Falwell Jr., president of Liberty University. As Fea relates, when presidential candidate Trump was visiting the Liberty campus on Martin Luther King Day 2016, “Falwell Jr. pointed out” that Jesus, Martin Luther King Jr., and Trump “all were persecuted for their ‘radical’ and ‘politically incorrect’ ideas.”
So how did it happen that so many evangelicals, of all people, should vote for a candidate who is manifestly unfit to be president of the United States? For many longtime critics of all things evangelical, the overwhelming support for Trump wasn’t a surprise at all: It merely confirmed their judgment of a fatally flawed movement: hypocritical, intolerant, and deeply infected by white supremacy. (In this view, Trump is the evangelical id, unleashed.) Fea himself takes a slightly different angle, noting that he was initially shocked as well as deeply dismayed by the “large number of my fellow evangelicals” who voted for Trump. Yet, he goes on to say, as time passed, “my distress did not wane, but my surprise did. As a historian studying religion and politics, I should have seen this coming.”
As a mea culpa of sorts, Fea has written three chapters—“The Evangelical Politics of Fear,” “The Playbook,” and “A Short History of Evangelical Fear”—that together make up more than half of his book (not counting the footnotes) and that precede his extended treatment of the court evangelicals. “Evangelical Fear”: That’s the answer! Oh, dear. It’s not just dismaying to me, it’s shocking (to borrow a word from Fea himself) to see such an excellent historian relying on the tired trope of “evangelical fear” to reduce the story of a many-sided movement and its infinitely various membership over several centuries to a simple morality play. “It is possible,” Fea says, “to write an entire history of American evangelicalism as the story of Christians who have failed to overcome fear.” Possible, yes, just as it’s possible to write triumphalist histories of evangelicalism (of which we’ve had all too many). But are those our only choices?
Of the people I know well—including fellow evangelicals, Christians from other streams of the faith, and those who aren’t Christian—a minority voted for Trump. Their reasons for doing so (based on what they’ve said) vary predictably. For some, abortion was the key issue, or the Supreme Court, or both. For the handful of small-business owners I know, it was their conviction that Trump would ease what they regarded as unfair burdens on them. For a handful of Christian intellectuals, it had to do with their loathing of “liberalism.” The same could be said of people I don’t know well personally but admire through their writing, with whom I’ve had at least some contact. Certainly, as Fea notes, none of them could imagine voting for Hillary Clinton.
What most of them have in common—and what distinguishes them from my wife and me and many of our friends, but also countless other people with whom we otherwise have little in common—is the perception that Trump’s flaws, his “character,” and other qualities do not distinguish him from the general run of flawed candidates and elected presidents of the postwar era. (“Sure, he’s flawed,” they’ll say, “but look at X.”) This baffles me, though I am very far from idealizing presidents past, and nothing in Fea’s disquisition on “evangelical fear” has eased my bafflement even a little. But I remind myself (not for the first or indeed the thousandth time) that such disjunctions in perception are all too familiar. There are people very dear to my wife and me who believe that our (Christian) understanding of the world and our place in it and our hopes for it are fundamentally mistaken. Yet we continue to love them, and they continue to love us.
The task John Fea set for himself was not an easy one: a forensic examination of his evangelical tradition (which is mine as well) at its worst. I’m grateful he undertook it. It’s no wonder, perhaps, that despite his emphasis on hope at the end, inspired by the example of the civil rights movement, there should be a certain sourness to the book. When he writes, in his closing pages, about “the difference between history and nostalgia,” he notes that “many African Americans find American nostalgia troubling because they realize there is little in our national history to yearn for.” Really? Is this a “historical” judgment? Here again, it seems to me, we are given a false dichotomy. It is not just possible for historians and their readers to look critically at “our national history” and at the same time find much in that history to value. That is what we should always be trying to do as historians and readers, even as we acknowledge that our understanding will always be incomplete.