Believe Me

The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump

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John Fea
  • Grand Rapids, MI: 
    Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.
    , June
     2018.
     208 pages.
     $24.99.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9780802876416.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

In Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump (William B. Eerdmans, 2018), John Fea continues to fight the good fight: to present thoughtful, nuanced challenges to the alliance between white evangelicalism and Christian nationalism. A self-identified white evangelical, Fea admits to feeling dismay and discouragement about the election of Trump, not just because of what it means for the nation but because of what it says about evangelicals. As a historian, Fea is careful not to make too many predictions or lay out a clear strategy for political change. Instead, by treating the evangelicals he studies as a topic worthy of scholarly inquiry, he implies that understanding this social phenomenon can yield insights that strengthen our democracy. This is exactly the kind of work more religion scholars ought to be doing in dire times, and I’m hopeful that more researchers will follow Fea’s model. 

Fea intends Believe Me to be read by a wide audience, as it is relatively free of the footnotes, jargon, and historical tangents of some other attempts to explain why 81% of white evangelical voters selected a pornography-promoting, serial cheating, casino magnate as their president. The book is insightfully organized around the impulses behind white evangelical support for Trump: fear, power, and nostalgia. Fea fills in the history and politics of the Religious Right with examples that will be familiar to scholars of Protestantism in the US in a way that makes the book suitable for use in an undergraduate course on religion or cultural politics and will be appreciated by readers whose primary training isn’t in religion but who want to understand its role in our present situation.

The novel contribution of Believe Me is not in laying out the history or political strategies of the Religious Right but in demonstrating how Trump fulfills them. While many scholars of religion, Fea included, expected a Clinton victory and scratched their heads at white evangelical support of a candidate of such poor character, Fea argues that Trump’s popularity among white evangelicals is the result of the decades-long fear-mongering of the Republican Party. Trump’s primary opponents “stoked fears of a world they seemed unfit to tame” (39)—so when Trump appeared as a strongman, white evangelicals bypassed Ted Cruz, Mike Huckabee, Ben Carson, and others in favor of someone willing to make the most outrageous, violent promises to restore the world to one more recognizable and more favorable to them.      

Evangelical fear, as Fea outlines, has a long history. Fea begins with European colonization of America and selects effective evidence of fear-mongering by religious believers from the start. White Protestants, it turns out, have always been afraid: of Quakers and witches; of Jefferson’s radical ideas about the Bible; of Catholic immigrants; of black Christians’ demands for equality and justice; of urbanization, immigration, and industrialization; of modernism; of atheism; and, now, of Islam. Much of white evangelicalism’s history is the story of their “casting about for some means to bring history back under control” (112). Rather than being an anomaly, Trump, who expresses power through misogyny, racism, xenophobia, and anti-intellectualism, is a common-sense answer to what they see as the most pressing threats to their power and, by extension, to the preservation of their vision of the United States. This is not new, Fea argues: “We have been here before. In some sense, we have never left” (113). 

The most important contribution of Believe Me is Fea’s identification of “court evangelicals”: those Christians near to Trump who “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” (137). Fea is clearly of the mind—and has historical as well as contemporary evidence—that in “playing with politics,” believers risk “getting burned” (145). However, this seems to be a lesson that the Religious Right refuses to learn.

Believe Me is particularly enriching when read alongside The End of White Christian America (Simon & Schuster, 2016) by Robert P. Jones and God at the Grassroots 2016: The Christian Right in American Politics (Rowman & Littlefield, 2017), edited by Mark J. Rozell and Clyde Wilcox, more sociological treatments of the demographic, and legal changes that have prompted evangelical fear, as well as Fea’s earlier Was America Founded as a Christian Nation(Westminster John Knox Press, 2016)which explains the way that nostalgia is stoked by Religious Right framings of American history. Parts of Believe Me may not be persuasive to a non-evangelical audience, who are unlikely to find Fea’s suggestion that being better Christians—replacing “fear with Christian hope” (10), “the pursuit of power with humility” (10), and “nostalgia with history” (11)—is a way to improve the nation. Additionally, he sometimes makes claims, almost as asides, about liberal and progressive politics that he does not pursue or explain. For example, he refers to movements opposing same-sex marriage as “defending traditional marriage” (66), refers to Hillary Clinton as “of course … a deeply flawed candidate” (71), and claims that Barack Obama’s endorsement of social policies that did not align with Religious Right goals was the most important reason the Religious Right was so often at odds with him (18, 22). Such language seems to deny the role of homophobia, misogyny, and racism in motivating white evangelical voters. Trump, after all, has made attacks on women and people of color—and Clinton as a woman and Obama as a black person, in particular—and white evangelicals either tolerated or embraced him for this kind of bigotry. Though Believe Me provides evidence that, historically, many of white evangelicals’ concerns have been about sexuality, gender, and race, further attention to the whiteness of Trump’s evangelical voters is merited, especially for those Fea dedicates his book to—the 19% of white evangelical voters who did not chose Trump but who are left wondering, Sunday after Sunday, how their faith makes sense alongside that of their fellow worshippers and whether they should follow their African American co-religionists as they exit white evangelical churches.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Rebecca Barrett-Fox is Assistant Professor of Sociology at Arkansas State University. She is the author of God Hates: Westboro Baptist Church, American Nationalism, and the Religious Right (University Press of Kansas 2016), as well as articles about conservative religion and politics that have appeared in Contention, Youth & Society, Journal of Hate Studies, Religion and Popular Culture, Radical Teacher, and elsewhere. An article analyzing Donald Trump as a King Cyrus-like figure in Religious Right rhetoric is forthcoming in Humanity & Society.

Date of Review: 
September 27, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

John Fea is Professor of American history at Messiah College in Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania. His previous books include Was America Founded as a Christian Nation? A Historical Introduction, and he blogs regularly at The Way of Improvement Leads Home.

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