The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump
Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2018
Hbk; ix + 189pp
Publisher's website here
A staggering 81% of white evangelicals voted for Donald Trump! How are we to explain this? Fea, an astute historian from Messiah College, identifies an unholy trinity of fear, power and nostalgia as being at the roots of this bizarre voting pattern. As he explains:
‘I approach this subject not as a political scientist, pollster, or pundit, but as a historian who identifies as an evangelical Christian. For too long, white evangelical Christians have engaged in public life through a strategy defined by the politics of fear, the pursuit of worldly power, and a nostalgic longing for a national past that may have never existed in the first place.’ (6)
As one would expect from a professional historian the book is well documented - there are over 20 pages of endnotes. The book then is no knee-jerk response to a strange event. Fea carefully analyses the background to Trump’s victory. He examines why Trump was chosen by evangelicals over Cruz, Rubio and Walker - all had strong Christian leanings - they perceived Trump to be a strong man who would protect them from the cultural shifts of the Obama legacy. Fea shows how Trump followed the playbook written by the Christian right such as those that comprised the Moral Majority. A playbook that that tapped into fear and anxiety. Fear of communism, of immigrants, of non-whites, and more recently of Islam — and fear of big-government interference. In Chapter 3 he examines the history of this fear, tracing it back to the Puritans and their fear of a spiritual and moral decline, and with creating a moral panic against witchcraft and Catholics. As Fea rightly observes:
‘Nearly all the anxieties evangelicals faced in the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries carried over into the fundamentalist movement of the twentieth century.’ (90).
All this shows to understand the present we must understand the past.
Chapter 4 examines those that Fea has labelled the ‘court evangelicals’:
‘The roster of court evangelicals includes Liberty University president Jerry Falwell Jr., Southern Baptist pastor and Fox News commentator Robert Jeffress, radio host and “family values” advocate James Dobson, evangelist Franklin Graham, Christian public relations guru Johnnie Moore (who claims to be a “modern day Dietrich Bonhoeffer”), longtime Christian Right political operative Ralph Reed, culture warrior Paula White, former presidential candidate Gary Bauer, and megachurch pastor Mark Burns.’ (57)
Paula White is allegedly the person who ‘led’ Trump to Christ. These evangelicals it seems have endorsed Trump in return for political influence, for power (albeit illusory); they see Trump, as a ‘baby Christian’, and as a strong man who will save the USA from secularisation. Some even have described Trump as a Cyrus figure!
The final chapter examines possible meanings behind Trump’s phrase ‘Make America Great Again’. What exactly does ‘again’ mean? Fea with his great historical insight shows that there hasn’t been a time when America was great! All that Trump has done with that phrase is tap into a sense of nostalgia for an illusionary vision of America as a Christian nation.
The book probably won’t convince all the 81% of evangelicals of the error of their ways— not least because the majority won’t read it. But, for those that do, it will give them pause for thought and hopefully help them to see that in supporting Trump they have colluded with the spirt(s) of the age and have bought the term evangelical into disrepute. As Fea has shown it is more fear, power and nostalgia rather than the lordship of Christ that caused them to support Trump.
This book should be required reading for all US evangelicals.
1. The Evangelical Politics of Fear 11
2. The Playbook 37
3. A Short History of Evangelical Fear 65
4. The Court Evangelicals 99
5. Make America Great Again 133