Book Review: ‘Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump’ by John Fea

John Fea has two intended audiences for his new book, Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump. On the one hand, he dedicates this book “to the 19 percent”—to the segment of white evangelicals who (at least according to exit poll data) voted against Trump in the presidential race. But in another sense, Fea is also writing to the remaining 81 percent, to those who decided that Trump could best advance the cause of Christianity in America.

Fea writes as both a historian (he teaches at Messiah College) and a self-identified evangelical. In this second vein, he offers a sympathetic portrayal of the predicament in which evangelicals found themselves during the 2016 election season. He frames his discussion of the Obama administration as a period of intensifying fear for American evangelicals. Once the Obama administration sided with progressives on the same-sex marriage issue, he writes, it “became relentless in its advocacy of social policies that not only made traditional evangelicals cringe but also infused them with a sense of righteous anger.” According to Fea, the speed with which evangelicals found themselves “marginalized and even threatened” is “difficult to overestimate.” With important institutions seemingly “crumbling around them,” they were increasingly worried about the health of American society. At that point, many Republican candidates were more than willing to exploit these fears for political gain.

In other ways, too, evangelicals will see Fea as one of their own. In discussing abortion, he states his own position plainly: “The taking of a human life in the womb via the practice of abortion is a horrific practice.” Nor is he reticent when it comes to critiquing Hillary Clinton’s shortcomings: “Clinton, of course, was a deeply flawed candidate.” She lied about her email server, wrote off a portion of the electorate as a “basket of deplorables,” issued “tone-deaf” pronouncements on issues like abortion, neglected to address concerns about religious freedom, and made “virtually no effort to court evangelical voters” (a strategy that was “dumbfounding and incredibly stupid,” he adds, quoting Ron Sider).

Yet Fea also pushes back against convictions held by certain evangelicals. “It is ludicrous to assume that Barack Obama is a Muslim,” he insists. Fea also defends Obama and his former pastor Jeremiah Wright, explaining how “Wright was preaching a prophetic Christianity that was deeply rooted in the African-American experience, which made clear the distinctions between the kingdom of God and the kingdom of the United States.” Despite his pro-life convictions, Fea suggests that evangelicals may want to rethink their strategies for combating abortion. And, despite Clinton’s shortcomings, he makes a compelling case that she was “a devout mainline Methodist,” a far more experienced candidate, an advocate of humane immigration and family leave policies, and a defender of the rights of poor and marginalized Americans. In fact, he adds, “many Christians see plenty of biblical themes at work in her positions.”

An Unbiblical Playbook

It is as a historian, however, that Fea is most critical of his fellow evangelicals. Arranging his book thematically rather than chronologically, he explores three key themes behind the rise of Trump-friendly Christians: fear, power, and nostalgia.

In one chapter called “A Short History of Evangelical Fear,” he offers a less-than-flattering account of American evangelicalism. He writes of the Puritans’ fear of unorthodoxy and outsiders, which had disastrous consequences for dissenters and Native Americans alike, and he recalls a long history of evangelical anti-Catholicism. He also details the racial fears harbored by Southern evangelicals. For much of the 19th century, Fea writes, Southern evangelicals were certain they “had a lot to fear.” Besides worrying about the fate of the nation and the terrors of war, they also worried about protecting their “way of life, a culture and economy built on racial difference and the institution of black chattel slavery.” They feared slave insurrection, “the mixing of the races,” and an intrusive federal government enforcing racial equality in the South.

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Source: Christianity Today