John Fea is preaching to his tribe when he excoriates the millions of white evangelicals who in 2016 swept Donald Trump to presidential victory.
Fea, an American history professor at Messiah College, accuses this demographic of ignorance and hypocrisy in aligning itself with a narcissistic, vulgar and seemingly unChristian man as Trump.
That is the blistering assessment that Fea delivers in his newly published book, “Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump.”
A cultural critique, the book is a departure for Fea, who has written about half a dozen historical works. In this latest book, Fea taps into his own personal identity as a Christian evangelical to drill down into the historical forces that led 81 percent of his brethren to vote for a candidate who had no apparent Christian values, and at every turn, seems to violate the faith’s tenets.
“Nothing Trump could say or do would deter his diehard white evangelical supporters. This is still the case. Most evangelicals were willing to ignore his moral lapses because he had, to their way of thinking, the correct policy proposals,” Fea writes.
Fea considers himself a member of the other 19 percent, and is well acquainted with the wrath from the Christian right. In the past for instance, he has been castigated for another book – “Was America founded as a Christian Nation?” (His answer is an uncategorical no.)
Still, Fea’s intended audience in “Believe Me” is that exact group – his fellow evangelicals, who, he argues, sold their souls for the sake of worldly power.
“I’m trying to suggest in a kind of civil way as possible without being too boisterous, but that’s what’s happening here. It’s a compromise,” Fea said.
“They’ve compromised the message, the gospel message, that has always defined what an evangelical is. Evangelical means the “good news” of the gospel of Jesus Christ. By aligning yourself with a political party or a person like Trump, who is so divisive, I think the message of the gospel is then weakened because of this political affiliation. I think it’s a compromise. I think they have some way sold their soul.”
In “Believe Me,” Fea traces the trajectory of the evangelical political might to the 1970s and 1980s when, under the guidance of evangelical giants like Jerry Falwell Sr., they encoded a political playbook designed to “win back” the Christian culture of the country. Fea argues that evangelicals saw that cultural understanding come under threat with the banning of prayer in schools, the removal of the bible from public school reading lists, the enactment of progressive immigration laws, and Roe v. Wade.
The playbook is straightforward: pursue political power and elect people who see eye-to-eye with you on those issues and, more importantly, who will appoint the right Supreme Court justices.
“Trump is a kind of a strong man,” Fea said this week during an interview held at his Messiah office, which brims with historical works, biographies and collectibles. “He’s going to protect that. Strong men protect people from their fears and evangelical are very fearful people. They are fearful about losing society… they are losing their Christian culture…and Trump protects them in a way no other candidate could.”
Indeed fear is central to this seemingly strange alliance, and Fea spends an entire chapter exploring the long history evangelicals have had with it. He makes his point with a string of cultural, social and demographic changes across the American landscape – from the arrival of the Irish Catholics, the anti-slavery onslaught from northern abolitionists, to the arrival of Muslims today.
“Every time in American history there is some kind of significant change evangelicals not only were involved in the backlash, but they are leading the backlash in most cases,” Fea said.
The nostalgic brushstroke to overriding periods of racial and gender inequalities is the reason the “Make America Great Again,” slogan doesn’t work, he said.
Fea compares evangelicals to royal courtiers, who in ages-gone-by would sacrifice truth to win a monarch’s favor. That has allowed them to be tolerant of Trump’s adulterous affairs, his vulgarities and even the zero tolerance policy that has separated families (a policy decried by just about every faith leader),
“The court evangelicals have decided that what Donald Trump can give them is more valuable than the damage that their Christian witness will suffer because of their association with the president,” Fea writes.
Evangelicals conservatives, Fea said, categorize social and moral issues in hierarchy: Abortion and biblical marriage are at the top and everything else – from immigration to economic policies – are life issues but not as important.
That is why they are able to give Trump a pass on his adulterous affairs and other picadillos, he said.
“It’s amazing the trade off that you make,” Fea said. “You are willing to tolerate all the immoral things this man does because of a hierarchy of morality. He’s going to fight for us on abortion. He’s going to fight for us on religious liberties.”
Despite the political discord, Fea’s affinity for his brethren seems intact. He stresses that evangelicals – which make up 25 percent of the country’s population – need to learn to live among others of different opinions and political stripes. That goes both ways, he said. Those on the left need to accept evangelicals and their beliefs.
Instead, Fea directs his concern to the integrity and longevity of the faith itself.
True evangelicals, he argues, do not look to political forces to find their hope, sense of happiness or purpose. But that is exactly what has played out.
“Donald Trump has become a saviour to these people, to protect them from all of the negative things they see happening to the culture as they understand it,” Fea said. “In some ways, it’s ironic. You have the people in the United States who talked the most about having a saviour – Jesus – who have now turned to a worldly power to protect them from everything they are worried about instead of trusting in their God.”
Ultimately, he said, the alliance that white evangelicals have sown with Trump has the potential of restructuring American Protestant Christianity.
Already, evangelicals who oppose some of Trump’s policies are increasingly finding more in common with mainline Protestant groups than with their fellow church goers, he said.
For example, an overwhelming number of evangelical leaders, including the Southern Baptists, the largest Protestant denomination, opposed his zero tolerance policy and sided instead sided with U.S. Catholic bishops.
“What happens when on Sunday morning a minister preaches a sermon about loving the stranger and you have people in the pews saying, ‘this sermon is anti-Trump,'” Fea said. “That’s going to cause a great deal of strife and division in what evangelicals call the body of Christ, the community of people…..It’s amazing how evangelicals because they’ve hitched their wagons to politics, they are allowing politics to divide them and cause these kinds of uncivil divisions.”