Raised in an evangelical church, I was deeply interested in reading Believe Me: The Evangelical Road To Trump by historian John Fea.
Fea, a self-described evangelical (as the book jacket cover notes) was not surprised when 81 percent of evangelicals supported Trump. Instead he argues, it was the ‘logical outcome of a long-standing evangelical approach to public life.’ An approach Fea describes as,
‘the politics of fear, the pursuit of worldly power, and a nostalgic longing for an American past.’
The relatively short book (191 pages — hardback edition) explains those three pursuits.
Politics of Fear
As a child, I learned firsthand this element of the movement. Raised during the Cold War era, I remember as a 8 or 9-year-old child waking up from nightmares where I was facing a Communist firing squad. These dreams were fueled by our minister stating, from the pulpit, that ‘when (not if) the Russians took over’ they would ask everyone if they believed ‘Jesus was the Christ.’ Those who said yes, would be executed (but go to heaven). Those who said no would survive, but spend eternity in Hell.
Fea bypasses personal anecdotes and, instead, looks at America’s history and shows the various fears that captivate evangelicals. These fears began with an unhealthy view of Native Americans in New England — even those who converted to Christianity. The fears progress through every era of our history. Fear was behind the evangelicals support of the Know-Nothing (American) Party of the mid-1800s. Evangelicals supported the party mainly out of their fear of immigrants. Fear was drove the movement to add ‘under God’ to the pledge and our coinage. In the current era, fear was the motivating factor behind the aversion to president Barack Obama — whose progressive policies moved society at a pace that panicked evangelicals.
But, as Fea demonstrates, many of the fears have no basis in fact (like Obama being a secret Muslim). This, however, does not prevent unscrupulous politicians from exploiting the misinformation. But, it may have been the Supreme Court ruling on same-sex marriage that really galvanized evangelicals in their opposition to Obama. As Fea notes,
“Rod Dreher, an Eastern Orthodox Christian with a large evangelical following, offered a more apocalyptic response to the legalization of same-sex marriage…. Dreher echoed what many ordinary evangelicals were feeling. ‘We are living in a post-Christian nation. LBGT activists and their fellow travelers really will be coming after social conservatives…adding that believers in traditional marriages ‘are going to have to live as exiles in their own country.'”
Pursuit of Power
In this section, Fea pulls no punches concerning the inner circle of evangelicals who advise Trump. He refers to them as court evangelicals — a reference to medieval times when ‘holy men’ advised kings. As Fea notes, though, not much has changed from the medieval era since, then as now, few spoke the truth for fear of losing access to power.
Fea builds a case that Trump is using the evangelicals to pursue his own agenda. Fea quotes A. R. Bernard, who abandoned Trump after Charlottesville (2017). Bernard said the advisers had little power, noting that ‘meetings (with Trump) took place, but nothing substantive was discussed.’
But, a bigger role this advisory group has, Fea reveals, is to explain Trump’s moral failures to followers. Fea writes,
“Falwell Jr. claims that Trump called him immediately after the infamous Access Hollywood tape was released to the public… (Falwell) implied that Trump was looking to Falwell for help in smoothing things over with evangelical voters who might be disgusted by these revelations.”
Fea notes that the court evangelicals come from three sources: the Religious Right, followers of the Prosperity Gospel, and members of the Independent Network Charismatics. One minister who receives considerable space (and justifiability so) is Robert Jeffress. Jeffress encouraged Trump to move the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem — because of Jeffress’ belief that, in doing do, a biblical prophecy would be fulfilled.
Make America Great Again
This section opens with a discussion Fea had with a black minister — a minister that opened Fea’s eyes to the reality there is no historical place for Blacks to look back on when America was great. The current era, as bad as it is with modern-day lynching — White officers gunning down unarmed Black men without repercussion — is the best time in their history.
Fea, the historian, while acknowledging the hypocrisy of the ‘again’ statement (with regards to minorities) moves forward by skillfully breaking down the reality that there is no great era in U.S. history.
Since Trump never (by design) alludes to a specific era, Fea attempts to reconstruct from Trump’s words what era he may be referring to — and, comes to the conclusion, that many of us have, that Trump is simply referring to times when Whites were favored even more than they are today.
Fea concludes his book with an example of American Christians who built their legacy on hope, humility and history — championing it as a better way to interact in our diverse society.
Rated 4/5. This book is an excellent candidate for a weekend read. Those who practice the Christian faith will find the depth of Christian philosophy enlightening. Those who enjoy American history will find the narrative — and logic — easy to follow even if they are not familiar with the tenets of evangelicalism. Those who want ‘their country back’ will find a sliver of hope that, at least, one evangelical is pushing back against the madness.