It’s a widely cited statistic: 81 percent of evangelicals voted for Donald Trump. The thrice-married, trash-talking, wheeling-dealing reality TV star from Queens got a higher percentage of the evangelical vote than fellow evangelical George W. Bush or clean-living Mormon Mitt Romney. How’d that happen?
John Fea offers an explanation in his recent Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump. Three long-term factors fused to produce what Fea sees as an evangelical betrayal: fear, power, and nostalgia.
Evangelical fear, Fea argues, has deep roots in the American experience. Almost as soon as the Puritans stepped off the Arabella to found Massachusetts Bay, they began to worry that declining devotion would provoke God’s wrath against the colony. American Christians have been afraid ever since. Residents of Salem were spooked by witches. Eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Protestants feared Catholics. Fundamentalists warned that Darwinism would have dire effects on American morals. Southerners resisted extending rights to non-whites. Dispensationalists live in recurring fear of the imminent end of everything.
Today’s evangelicals fear that the institutional, cultural, and demographic foundations of Christian America have eroded. The Supreme Court has systematically de-Christianized American law, education, and marriage. Engel v. Vitale outlawed prayer in public schools, Abington v. Shempp removed Bible reading, Roe legalized abortion, and Obergefell invented a right to same-sex marriage. Meanwhile, immigrants brought their non-Christian religions with them and pluralized the religious complexion of the U.S.
Beginning in the 1980s, evangelicals fought back by trying to seize power. They elected legislators committed to Christian norms and presidents who would fill the judiciary with conservative judges. Three groups have inherited this evangelical playbook: the heirs of the old Christian Right (e.g., Jerry Falwell, Jr.), leaders of the prosperity gospel (e.g., Mike Bickle), and the Independent Network of Charismatics (e.g., Trump’s personal pastor, Paula White). These “court evangelicals” enjoy unprecedented access to Trump’s White House and lobby the administration about abortion, religious liberty, and the state of Israel.
Behind the fear and power politics is nostalgia for past American greatness. Many evangelicals are convinced that America was founded, more or less explicitly, as a Christian nation, and they hope to take hold of the gears to turn the clock back. Fea wonders which phase of American history they long to restore: The era of pre-Civil War slavery? Pro-Nazi America First-ism? Segregation? Nixon’s regime of “law and order”?
All in all, Fea tells a familiar story, and his main contribution is to update some threads of the history of the Christian Right. Fea is right on some key points. He’s right to be alarmed by the near-messianic enthusiasm of some evangelicals for Trump. He’s right to chide the hypocrisy of excusing Trump for sins that were impeachable offenses when committed by Bill Clinton. He’s right about the seductions of power, and he can quote former Christian Right leaders like Cal Thomas in support. He’s right about the nostalgia, and his answer to the question, “Was America founded as a Christian nation?” is sensibly ambivalent: It’s “difficult to answer with a definitive ‘yes’ or ‘no.’” Fea’s advocacy of a politics of hope, humility, and history can hardly be gainsaid.
But Believe Me is a political intervention under the cover of history. As such, it suffers from two debilitating defects.
Fea is a professor at Messiah College—an evangelical institution. He is talking about his own tribe, but he shows little sympathy for his subjects. He observes, for instance, that evangelicals see the years between the end of World War II and the beginning of the Reagan presidency as “a perfect storm capable of wiping out the Christian ideals that built their great nation.” I imagine he’d say that it’s outside his bailiwick as a historian to judge whether evangelical fears are well-grounded, but his framework speaks for itself. Fea places these trends under the rubric of “evangelical fear,” which shades over into “evangelical paranoia.” But it’s worth asking, might evangelical qualms be justified?
Fea also displays a stunning lack of curiosity, which narrows his tale to a few evangelical stars. Millions of evangelicals who will never be court evangelicals voted for Trump. Who are they? What motivated them? Are they also driven by fear, lust for power, and nostalgia? Or are they perhaps motivated by more mundane worries—like how they’re going to make rent or pay for groceries or rebuild their crumbling neighborhoods? Fea never asks.
It wouldn’t have been hard to find some answers. Timothy Carney, author of Alienated America, compiles widely-reported evidence that Trump’s strongest evangelical support came from those who don’t attend church regularly. They hold evangelical beliefs without evangelical belonging. Americans, Carney argues, suffer from a deficit of social capital, which in America is typically mediated through local churches. In healthy communities, like the Dutch Reformed towns of Iowa and Michigan or the tightly networked Mormonism in Utah, Americans are often conservative but anti-Trump. Fea doesn’t consider the possibility that a vote for Trump was a cry of desperation from the unchurched, unemployed, alienated American heartland. As a result, Believe Me misses some of the most significant lessons of the ongoing saga of Trump among the evangelicals.
Peter J. Leithart is President of Theopolis Institute.