Approaching Trump Theologically

TrumpThat is what Ed Simon of The Marginalia Review of Books does at History News Network.

Here is a taste of his piece, “Can You Imagine What It Must Be Like to Be Donald Trump?“:

In suggesting that there must be something hellish about the experience of being Trump, I am not trying to engender any sort of sympathy for the man. Questions of his redemption are between him and those he harms, and then to whatever God he directs his prayers. Instead, I worry about what the implications are that such a man occupies so much of our attention, colonizing our very consciousness, dominating not just our livelihood but our inner lives.

Does such a small, angry, cruel man not risk making all of us small, angry and cruel? Does the bully pulpit threaten to turn us all into bullies? That is not to minimize the very real material repercussions of his policies, or the callousness and cruelty of his administration. The assaults on immigrants and workers, women and LGBTQ individuals, Muslims and African-Americans are sadly very real. But I also fear the intangible results of his rhetoric, of his perspective, and his emboldening of hate. If Trump is in his own hell, I worry that every day he threatens to pull us into it with him. Mephistopheles’ said in Marlowe’s 16th century play Dr. Faustus that “Why this is hell, nor am I out of it,” something I understand every time I receive a new push notification. This is the peculiar logic of the autocrat – he demands attention and you no longer have the option to direct your interests outward, to be free of him. His ultimate ideology is narcissism, and his only faith is himself.

Read the entire piece here.

Messiah College Humanities Symposium: “Home”

Home Symposium

I have been thinking and writing about “home” for a long time.  So needless to say, I am looking forward to the Messiah College Humanities Symposium this coming week.  Here are some of the sessions I hope to attend during the week:

Thursday Night Keynote: “Home as Grief, Home as Us, Edwidge Danticat

Monday Afternoon: “Home, the Humanities and Higher Education,” Peter Powers, Dean, School of Humanities

Monday Evening: “Songs of Home”—faculty panel and performance with

Monday Evening:  “From Bible School to Grantham University: The Evolution of Messiah College”—faculty lecture Devin Manzullo-Thomas, Humanities

Tuesday Afternoon: “Finding Home: Housing and Travel in Segregated America, 1900-1960” David Pettegrew and students, Digital Harrisburg Initiative and Office of Diversity Affairs

Wednesday Evening: “Pilgrim’s Progress: Find Home for faith Through Journeys Into History”—history faculty panel discussion, Joseph P. Huffman, Bernardo Michael, David Pettegrew
See the entire schedule here.

“a historian at an evangelical college and a consistent critic of Trump”

Trump bioI’ll take it!  At least I am “consistent.”

Last weekend someone messaged to tell me that I was quoted in David Brody and Scott Lamb’s book The Faith of Donald Trump: A Spiritual Biography.

Here is what they wrote:

p.307:  Nevertheless, cynical criticism erupted.  William Barber, a North Carolina minister and political leader, said the Oval Office camaraderie and prayer amounted to “theological malpractice that borders on heresy.”  John Fea, a historian at an evangelical college and a consistent critic of Trump, wrote that “Trump  has forced them [evangelicals] to embrace pragmatism that could change the gospel around the world, and force many Christians to rethink their religious identities and affiliations.”

p.311: So, even while understanding that Trump did not “come from us,” the way explicitly evangelical candidates like Mike Huckabee and Ben Carson did, leaders like Jeffress can state, “We thank God every day that he gave us a leader like Donald Trump.”  And Donald Trump returns the love with his own public affirmation: “You fought hard for me, and now I am fighting hard for all of you.”

Now, such language causes some evangelicals concern; Rob Schenk wrote that Believe Me JPEG“Evangelicals are a tool of Donald Trump.  This could be the undoing of American evangelicalism.  We could just become a political operation in the guise of a church.”  And John Fea wrote that “Trump threatens to change the course of American Christianity.”

That seems a bit over the top to say the least….

Of course I have a lot more to say about Trump in my forthcoming Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump.

Morning Headlines

New York Times: “How Unwitting Americans Were Deceived by Russian Trolls”

Washington Post: “School system tried for years to help Florida shooting suspect”

Wall Street Journal: “Trump Tweetstorm Targets Mueller, FBI Over Russia Probe”

Harrisburg Patriot-News: “Questions were raised about stability of Harrisburg wall 9 years before it collapsed”

BBC: “Search continues for crashed Iran plane”

CNN: “Survivor: We are dying while the adults play”

FOX: “Fergie’s brutal anthem rendition at NBA all-star game drops jaws, draws jeers”

Randall Balmer on the Christian Right’s Changing Code of Ethics

Trump court evangelicals

Randall Balmer, a lifelong observer of American evangelicalism, reflects on the “flexible” values of the Christian Right.

Here is a summary of Balmer’s sense of the “new” Christian Right ethical code:

  1. “Lying is all right as long as it serves a higher purpose.”
  2. “It’s no problem to married more than, well, twice.”
  3. “Immigrants are scum”
  4. “Vulgarity is a sign of strength and resolve”
  5. “White live matter (much more than others)”
  6. “There’s no harm in spending time with porn stars”
  7. “It’s all right for adults to date children”
  8. “The end justifies the means”

See how Balmer develops this points here.

Sunday Night Odds and Ends

A few things online that caught our attention this week:

Students and the limits of the five paragraph essay

More Erin Bartram and here.

Chester A. Arthur

Benevolence and respectability in early America

Confronting Mississippi history

Women and Prohibition

Remembering Bob Costas’s pink eye

The “tyranny of convenience

George Washington: Legend in his own time

Coal and Blair Mountain Battlefield


Protestants and immigration history

T.H. Breen on the Museum of the American Revolution

Why revolutions happen

Martin Marty on faith and the Enlightenment

Changes to the American Historical Review

“Incomprehensible and we can’t let it pass by”

This is what court evangelical Johnnie Moore said on Fox News yesterday.  And no, he wasn’t referring to the shooting in Parkland.  He was referring to Joy Behar’s remarks about Mike Pence.  While the nation’s attention is riveted on this shooting and we are trying to figure out what to do next to curb gun violence, court evangelical Moore, who describes himself as a “modern day Dietrich Bonhoeffer,” is on Fox News talking about the words of a B-list comedian on a daytime talk show.  Is this how Moore and Fox News distract attention from the real moral issue facing the country this weekend?

Why doesn’t Moore come out and say that the Florida shooting was “incomprehensible and we can’t let it pass by”?

Why have the court evangelicals been so silent beyond “thoughts and prayers?”

Morning Headlines

New York Times: “Trump’s Silence Leaves Struggle Against Russia Without Leader”

Washington Post: “Fla. social services investigated suspect before rampage, knew he wanted to buy gun”

Wall Street Journal: “U.S. and Russian Officials Spar Over Election Meddling”

Harrisburg Patriot-News: “Wealthiest and poorest presidents, from Washington to Trump”

BBC: “Netanyahu attack ‘dangerous Iran tiger'” 

CNN: “Trump: ‘Case closed'”

FOX: “Trump slams FBI over ‘missed signals’ in Florida shooting, asserts Russia was distraction”

Episode 32: The Politics of Sex

uploads_2F1517801018608-g7jadvnppfm-49f71c59cada623d3fc8cd64f18ad36b_2FwoiHost John Fea and producer Drew Dyrli Hermeling continue to explore the many facets of the Culture Wars. Today, they tackle the often taboo subject of sex and politics. John discusses how sex was politicized in colonial America. They are joined by R. Marie Griffith, author of Moral Combat: How Sex Divided American Christians and Fractured American Politics.

Should We Repeal the Second Amendment?


Flickr photo via Creative Commons

I would support an effort to repeal.  Historian Michael Oberg makes a case at the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle.  Here is a taste:

No matter what arguments the advocates of gun control deploy — that the phrase “well regulated” implies some ability on the part of government to limit gun rights; that the verb construction to “bear arms” has been used almost always to describe a military use for weapons; that the Constitution is a “living” document that ought to be interpreted in the light of changing circumstances; and that the Founding Fathers could never have considered that the sort of violence acted out in Las Vegas or Orlando or Newtown a justifiable example of  bearing arms — the advocates of “gun rights” will always have their tendentious reading of the Second Amendment to defend their position.            So let’s repeal the Second Amendment. It is dated, lethal, and morally abhorrent. The Constitution is not a sacred text. It is a framework for government, the product of dozens of compromises. The men who framed the document envisioned that it would be changed. They made the process difficult and time-consuming, but it has happened.

The Second Amendment emerged out of a context unique to a new nation. When it was ratified, America’s leaders relied upon the militia for local defense, to punish Indians, and control slaves, and in a nation separated from its imperial rivals by the Atlantic, the militias were barely adequate to that task. But the conditions from which the Second Amendment emerged obviously no longer apply.

Repealing the Second Amendment would deprive no one of their guns, but it would empower the Congress and state legislatures to do something effectively to end the slaughter….

Read the rest here.

Trump Evangelicals and “Legitimate Concerns”

Over at my Facebook page some very good historians and scholars who I respect have been critical of Mark Noll‘s blurb for my forthcoming (June) book Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump.

Here is the blurb:

Noll Fea quote

I tried to capture some of this last night in a series of tweets:

John Wilson, the editor of the now defunct Books & Culture, responded to these veiled tweets:

I even had one friend tell me on Facebook that I should get Eerdmans to edit Noll’s blurb to remove the word “legitimate.”

Frankly, I think Noll’s blurb nails it.  (After all, he read the book.  None of the critics have seen it).  Evangelicals do have “legitimate” concerns. They have also responded to those concerns, as Noll writes, in very unhealthy ways.

I thought about all of this again this morning as I read Peggy Noonan’s Wall Street Journal column.  She writes:

We discuss motives, but isn’t it always the same motive? “I have murder in my heart.” Why do so many Americans have murder in their hearts?

That is my question after the St. Valentine’s Day shootings at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla. We all know it is part of a continuing cultural catastrophe. A terrible aspect of the catastrophe is that so many central thoughts about it, and questions, have been flattened by time into clichés. People stop hearing when you mention them. “We talked about that during Columbine, didn’t we? That couldn’t be it.”

So we immediately revert to discussions of gun law, and only gun law. There is much to be improved in that area—I offer a suggestion at the end—but it is not the only part of the story. The story is also who we are now and what shape we’re in.

A way to look at the question is: What has happened the past 40 years or so to produce a society so ill at ease with itself, so prone to violence?

We know. We all say it privately, but it’s so obvious it’s hardly worth saying. We have been swept by social, technological and cultural revolution. The family blew up—divorce, unwed childbearing. Fatherless sons. Fatherless daughters, too. Poor children with no one to love them. The internet flourished. Porn proliferated. Drugs, legal and illegal. Violent videogames, in which nameless people are eliminated and spattered all over the screen. (The Columbine shooters loved and might have been addicted to “Doom.”) The abortion regime settled in, with its fierce, endless yet somehow casual talk about the right to end a life. An increasingly violent entertainment culture—low, hypersexualized, full of anomie and weirdness, allergic to meaning and depth. The old longing for integration gave way to a culture of accusation—you are a supremacist, a misogynist, you are guilty of privilege and defined by your color and class, we don’t let your sort speak here.

So much change, so much of it un-gentle. Throughout, was anyone looking to children and what they need? That wasn’t really a salient aim or feature of all the revolutions, was it? The adults were seeing to what they believed were their rights. Kids were a side thought.

At this moment we are in the middle of a reckoning about how disturbed our sexual landscape has become. This past week we turned to violence within marriages. We recently looked at the international sex trade, a phrase that sounds so 18th-century but refers to a real and profitable business.

All this change, compressed into 40 years, has produced some good things, even miraculous ones. But it does not feel accidental that America is experiencing what appears to be a mental-health crisis, especially among the young. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently reported as many as 20% of children 3 to 17 have, in any given year, a mental or emotional illness. There is research indicating depression among teenagers is worsening. National Public Radio recently quoted a 2005 report asserting the percentage of prison inmates with serious mental illness rose from less than 1% in 1880 to 21% in 2005. Deinstitutionalization swept health care and the psychiatric profession starting in the 1960s, and has continued since. The sick now go to the emergency room or stay among us untreated. In the society we have created the past 40 years, you know we are not making fewer emotionally ill young people, but more.

Not everyone will agree with me, but I do think Noonan addresses “legitimate concerns.”  The issue, as I see it, is less about the diagnosis of the problem and more about how to respond to it.  As I argue in Believe Me, Trump is not the answer.   Read the book and decide whether I am right–both about the “legitimate concerns” and about Trump as the answer.  And don’t forget to pre-order here.  🙂

Believe Me JPEG

“Evangelicals Fell For It”

Trump bioI will confess that I had never heard of conservative pundit Erick Erickson until he started speaking out against Trump. Yesterday The Weekly Standard published Erickson’s scathing review of David Brody’s and Scott Lamb’s The Faith of Donald Trump.  It is brutal.

Here is a taste:

President Trump relishes his reputation as a savvy dealmaker. “Deals are my art form,” he once tweeted. “Other people paint beautifully or write poetry. I like making deals, preferably big deals.” He promised during the 2016 campaign that if elected, he would work with politicians and foreign leaders to make “smart deals for the country.” But since he took office there has been precious little evidence of Trump’s vaunted dealmaking prowess. Such successes as his administration has been able to claim have generally been accomplished without his direct involvement—and sometimes in spite of it.

There is, though, one obvious piece of evidence from the president’s political career that suggests his dealmaking reputation might be deserved after all: the relationship he has with evangelical political leaders. He has lavished them with attention and let them bask in his celebrity star-power, things that they, long feeling like outsiders in American culture and politics, have badly craved. In exchange, they have thrown him their support—unconditional support, by all appearances—and with it, the backing of a political constituency vital to his success at the polls.

In The Faith of Donald J. Trump, authors David Brody and Scott Lamb provide an in-depth look at the relationship between the president and American evangelicals. Brody and Lamb—respectively a newscaster with Pat Robertson’s Christian Broadcasting Network and a vice president at Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University—have written what they dub a “spiritual biography,” even though they come right out and say they have no intention of answering the question of whether Trump is a Christian. Instead, they hope to convey his faith through his actions.

In the process, though, Brody and Lamb inadvertently expose the corruption and moral vacuity of the political evangelical movement in the United States.

Trump only started paying attention to evangelicals once he began to consider running for president—some five or more years before the 2016 campaign. He made a show of cozying up to evangelical pastors who write books that usually don’t sell well outside their own congregations. He reached out to the prosperity-gospel heretic Paula White and flattered her. He asked questions of other religious leaders.

As his ambitions grew, Trump cannily cultivated relationships with evangelicals, and they convinced themselves that those relationships must be sincere since they began before he openly started campaigning for the presidency. Once he did start openly campaigning, the outreach only became more intensive. As Brody and Lamb report, Trump would seek out the preachers to sit next to at events. He would bring his mother’s Bible to meetings to show it off. Evangelicals fell for it. So deluded and distracted are they by the trappings of power, they do not even see what Brody and Lamb see. “He’s the P. T. Barnum of the 21st century,” an anonymous banker in the book says of Donald Trump. These evangelical leaders have yet to realize that they are the suckers.

Read the entire review here.

In case you haven’t heard, we take a different approach to Trump in Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump.

Believe Me JPEG

Morning Headlines

New York Times: “13 Russians Indicted in Election Meddling”

Washington Post: “Justice Dept. deals fatal blow to Trump’s Russia ‘hoax’”

Wall Street Journal: “Russians Charged With Interfering in U.S. Election”

Harrisburg Patriot-News: “Up to 6 inches of snow expected to blanket central Pa. today, followed by blast of heat”

BBC: “Russia RBI charges ‘blather’- Lavrov”

CNN: “How the Russians ran a shadow campaign”

FOX: “McMaster mocks any future cooperation with Russia, says FBI indictments prove Russia meddled”

Pro-Life and Pro-Gun: Part Two

Shooting At High School In Parkland, Florida Injures Multiple People

The members of the House of Representatives who get the most money from the NRA are listed below.  Their current anti-abortion voting score from National Right to Life is in parentheses next to their names.  Find the list of Senators here.

French Hill of Arkansas (100%)

Ken Buck of Colorado (100%)

David Young of Iowa (100%)

Mike Simpson of Idaho (100%)

Greg Gianforte of Montana (100%)

Don Young of Arkansas (100%)

Lloyd Smucker of Pennsylvania (100%)

Bruce Poliquin of Maine (87%)

Pete Sessions of Texas (100%)

Barbara Comstock of Virginia (87%)

An Evangelical in His Natural Habitat

Today a religious studies professor at a university told me that he was treating my forthcoming book Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump as a “primary source” for his own study of American evangelicalism.  Fair enough,.

I told him that my next book is going to be a study of religious studies professors at universities who study evangelicalism.  Maybe I can use him as a primary source.

It made me think of this classic Twilight Zone episode:

Most Popular Posts of the Last Week

Here are the most popular posts of the last week at The Way of Improvement Leads Home

  1. Erin Bartram: The Sublimated Grief of the Left Behind
  2. Jeff Sessions Gets It Right on the Cause of the Civil War
  3. Grieving as a Historian
  4. Inside Higher Ed Covers the Erin Bartram Blog Post About Leaving Academia
  5. When Abraham Lincoln “Visited” Forty Plantations
  6. Reading as a Graduate Student
  7. Are Pro-Life Christians Really Liberals?
  8. Linker: “Evangelicals are Dreaming Small”
  9. Evangelicals Step-Up to the Plate on Immigration
  10. It’s Happening Again

What Philosopher Alvin Plantinga Said About “Fundamentalism”

Alvin_PlantingaI found this Plantinga quote at a Patheos blog called “Evangelion.”

We must first look into the use of this term ‘fundamentalist’. On the most common contemporary academic use of the term, it is a term of abuse or disapprobation, rather like ‘son of a bitch’, more exactly ‘sonovabitch’, or perhaps still more exactly (at least according to those authorities who look to the Old West as normative on matters of pronunciation) ‘sumbitch’. When the term is used in this way, no definition of it is ordinarily given. (If you called someone a sumbitch, would you feel obliged first to define the term?) Still, there is a bit more to the meaning of ‘fundamentalist’ (in this widely current use): it isn’t simply a term of abuse. In addition to its emotive force, it does have some cognitive content, and ordinarily denotes relatively conservative theological views. That makes it more like ‘stupid sumbitch’ (or maybe ‘fascist sumbitch’?) than ‘sumbitch’ simpliciter. It isn’t exactly like that term either, however, because its cognitive content can expand and contract on demand; its content seems to depend on who is using it. In the mouths of certain liberal theologians, for example, it tends to denote any who accept traditional Christianity, including Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, Calvin, and Barth; in the mouths of devout secularists like Richard Dawkins or Daniel Dennett, it tends to denote anyone who believes there is such a person as God. The explanation is that the term has a certain indexical element: its cognitive content is given by the phrase ‘considerably to the right, theologically speaking, of me and my enlightened friends.’ The full meaning of the term, therefore (in this use), can be given by something like ‘stupid sumbitch whose theological opinions are considerably to the right of mine’.
Alvin Plantinga, Warranted Christian Belief (Oxford: 2000),  245.

Morning Headlines

New York Times: “Flashes of Rage, and 17 Murder Charges”

Washington Post: “FBI’s near-brush with suspect in Fla. massacre draws scrutiny”

Wall Street Journal: “Florida Shooter Had Long Alarmed People in Town”

Harrisburg Patriot-News: “Outrage over latest school shooting will fade. Until next time: Nancy Eshelman”

BBC: “Teen admits Florida shooting, police say” 

CNN: “The Florida gunman left a trail of ominous hints”

FOX: “High-impact window on 3rd floor prevented gunman from firing down on fleeing students, lawmaker says”