John Wilson’s Review in *The Hedgehog Review*: A Response

Believe Me 3dI am very appreciative of John Wilson and his lifelong work in promoting evangelical thinking, especially as the editor of the now-defunct Books and Culture.  I have written for Wilson and he has published my writing.  He has always encouraged me in my work. I consider him a friend.

A week or so ago, I called your attention to Wilson’s review of my book Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump at The Hedgehog Review.  At the time I wrote the post, much of Wilson’s review was behind the paywall.  Wilson had warned me that he had some issues with my book, but I was unable to read the critical parts of the review due to the paywall.

Today the paywall was lifted.  Here is the most critical section of Wilson’s review:

As a mea culpa of sorts, Fea has written three chapters—“The Evangelical Politics of Fear,” “The Playbook,” and “A Short History of Evangelical Fear”—that together make up more than half of his book (not counting the footnotes) and that precede his extended treatment of the court evangelicals. “Evangelical Fear”: That’s the answer! Oh, dear. It’s not just dismaying to me, it’s shocking (to borrow a word from Fea himself) to see such an excellent historian relying on the tired trope of “evangelical fear” to reduce the story of a many-sided movement and its infinitely various membership over several centuries to a simple morality play. “It is possible,” Fea says, “to write an entire history of American evangelicalism as the story of Christians who have failed to overcome fear.” Possible, yes, just as it’s possible to write triumphalist histories of evangelicalism (of which we’ve had all too many). But are those our only choices?

Of the people I know well—including fellow evangelicals, Christians from other streams of the faith, and those who aren’t Christian—a minority voted for Trump. Their reasons for doing so (based on what they’ve said) vary predictably. For some, abortion was the key issue, or the Supreme Court, or both. For the handful of small-business owners I know, it was their conviction that Trump would ease what they regarded as unfair burdens on them. For a handful of Christian intellectuals, it had to do with their loathing of “liberalism.” The same could be said of people I don’t know well personally but admire through their writing, with whom I’ve had at least some contact. Certainly, as Fea notes, none of them could imagine voting for Hillary Clinton.

What most of them have in common—and what distinguishes them from my wife and me and many of our friends, but also countless other people with whom we otherwise have little in common—is the perception that Trump’s flaws, his “character,” and other qualities do not distinguish him from the general run of flawed candidates and elected presidents of the postwar era. (“Sure, he’s flawed,” they’ll say, “but look at X.”) This baffles me, though I am very far from idealizing presidents past, and nothing in Fea’s disquisition on “evangelical fear” has eased my bafflement even a little. But I remind myself (not for the first or indeed the thousandth time) that such disjunctions in perception are all too familiar. There are people very dear to my wife and me who believe that our (Christian) understanding of the world and our place in it and our hopes for it are fundamentally mistaken. Yet we continue to love them, and they continue to love us.

This section deserves a response:

Wilson seems to suggest that “fear” is not a legitimate interpretive category for a historian.  He can’t believe such an “excellent historian” would use such a “tired trope.”

I don’t understand what Wilson means by “tired trope.”  I know of very few scholarly works that examine the relationship between fear and evangelicalism.  (The best work available right now is Jason Bivins’s excellent book Religion of Fear; The Politics of Horror in Conservative Evangelicalism).   Fear seems like a fresh and exciting angle to examine American evangelicalism.

Moreover, historians regularly appeal to emotions such as fear.  My footnotes are filled with these well-respected historical works. In fact, the “history of emotions” is one of the hottest fields in historical scholarship right now.  My work draws on some of this scholarship.  One great place to start is Carl Lawrence Paulus, Fear of Insurrection and the Coming of the Civil War.  I also like Peter N. Stearns’s essay “Fear and History.”

Wilson writes: “It is possible,” Fea says, “to write an entire history of American evangelicalism as the story of Christians who have failed to overcome fear.” Possible, yes, just as it’s possible to write triumphalist histories of evangelicalism (of which we’ve had all too many). But are those our only choices?  No.  These are not our only choices.  I tried to imagine what a more nuanced history might look like in my recent piece at The Atlantic.  But let’s remember that this book is about Donald Trump, a president who has managed to tap into some of the darkest moments in the history of American evangelicalism.  I did not write a general history of evangelicalism.  I wrote a book about the deep roots of why evangelicals voted for Trump.

Wilson’s critique of my argument seems to be rooted in his own personal experience.  His evidence for why I am wrong (and why he is so “shocked” that I am wrong) seems to be based on the views “of the people I know well.”  He says that some of the small number of people he knows who voted for Trump did so because of “abortion” or the “Supreme Court.”  He implies that such motivations are unrelated to fear. The other people he knows who voted for Trump did so out of economic or political (“I don’t like liberalism”) motives.

He then says that many voted for Trump because they could not stomach voting for Hillary Clinton. That is true.  But Wilson fails to realize that many evangelicals could not stomach voting for Hillary because they were scared to death about what Hillary would do to the nation.  The hatred for Hillary Clinton among evangelicals is very real and, for some, it goes well beyond just political disagreement.

Frankly, it seems like Wilson is really out of touch with the majority of church-going evangelicals who supported Donald Trump.  Most of these people do not live in the upper-middle class suburbs of Wheaton, Illinois or attend churches filled with evangelical intellectuals or educated members of the white middle-class.  Most of them have never heard of Books & Culture.  Most of them do not read Christianity Today or First Things or The Englewood Review of Books.

I don’t know who John Wilson hangs out with.  I don’t know the socio-economic makeup of his church or his neighborhood.  So I could be wrong.  But Wilson’s review of my book reads like he does not even know these people exist.

At one point in Wilson’s review, he says that he knows most Trump voters are not motivated by fear because he is familiar with their writing. He writes: “The same could be said of people I don’t know well personally but admire through their writing, with whom I’ve had at least some contact.”

FAMILIAR WITH THEIR WRITING?  Seriously?

It might surprise Wilson that most evangelical Trump voters do not write for publication.

Finally, I am not sure how Wilson can ignore the historical evidence I presented in the book about the long history of evangelical fear.  I am most proud of Chapter 3: “A Short History of Evangelical Fear.”  As I noted above, it is based on some of the best historical scholarship available.

As long as we are talking about the people we “know well,” I would like to take John Wilson to a few places that might change his mind about evangelical fear:

  • We could go to my white-working class, non-college-educated, central Pennsylvania neighborhood–a neighborhood filled with Trump voters and evangelicals.   The sense of fear in this neighborhood is palpable.
  • I’d like to introduce Wilson to four white evangelical baby boomers who meet every week for coffee at a New Jersey diner.  Their conversations are dominated by their fear of Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton.  They see Trump as a savior–a strongman who will protect them from the direction these Democrats wanted to take the country.  I know some of these guys.  They are afraid.  They will even admit they are afraid.  They will also tell you that they are less afraid now that Donald Trump is POTUS.
  • I’d like to introduce Wilson to an evangelical women’s Bible study in the northeast where the majority of members are Trump supporters who are afraid of the demographic and cultural changes they see taking place all around them.  One of the members of this study truly believed Obama was the next Adolph Hitler.

I am sure many of you could take John Wilson to similar places or introduce them to evangelicals motivated by fear.

If I had not deleted them, I could have sent Wilson dozens and dozens of fear-mongering e-mails fills with conspiracy theories about liberals, Obama, Clinton, and other threats to Christian America.  Friends and family members sent them to me.  These people were either Trump supporters or wanted  me to give them an educated opinion about whether the content in the e-mails was accurate.

I am sure some of you have received similar e-mails.

The fear is real.  It has been throughout American history, and it is today.

10 thoughts on “John Wilson’s Review in *The Hedgehog Review*: A Response

  1. Nat: Fear is normal. And yes, it is related to the badness of certain possibilities. But when people act out of fear, build policy around fear, justify sin because of fear, or dwell in fear, it is a problem. My point in the Atlantic piece is that whenever evangelicals have been afraid that their Christian nation was falling apart, they reacted in unhealthy and unChristian ways and it led to xenophobia, nativism, racism, and even the death of others. Often time, fear is built on false information–like somehow the founders were trying to create a Christian nation.

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  2. Fascinating review and response. I have not yet read your book John, but look forward to it. Even when I don’t agree with you (and that is often), you make me think. I really appreciate that you are bringing your Christian convictions and scholarship to bear on such an important topic. We need more of that on both sides. Whenever I get frustrated or discouraged with my evangelical brethren who criticize (sometimes over the top) those of us who voted for Trump, even suggesting we are carnal or even nominal Christians, I remind myself that this type of criticism is healthy. I need to be challenged on all sorts of things, especially my walk with the Lord. Also, I would not want to live in a Trump America (or any America) without dissent! On the subject of fear, I think you are correct that a certain level of fear was a major motivating factor–at least it was for me. Guilty as charged. Granted, we all should trust the Lord with everything, and we certainly should not put our hope in man, especially not in “political man.” But we are flawed sinner-citizens struggling to make our way in the world. I would ask you John, are you afraid? It is interesting for someone like me to hear you focus so much on the fear of others when you seem so worried about the future of this country with a Trump presidency–and the prospects of a re-elected Trump. Are you not afraid of that? My point is, people, Christians included, are afraid of a lot of things. Some fear is healthy, some not. But to be sure, we all need to be reminded that our ultimate hope is in Jesus Christ and him crucified, buried, and risen again.

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    • Sure I’m worried, Sam. Who wouldn’t be. But I am trying not to dwell there, nor I am looking for the next political strongman to come along and save me from whatever fear I have.

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      • Nor did I, nor am I looking for a strongman. Nor are most of the people I know. I do not personally know a single evangelical Trump supporter who sees politics as our hope. Respectfully, I think you go too far when you caricature and stereo-type people this way. But again, you are correct that we as believers fear too much. (PS: in previous post I should have said “risen, and coming again”).

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    • Sam: Can you give me three reasons why you, as a conservative evangelical, support Trump? If I remember correctly, you backed him in the GOP primary as well.

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      • None of my reasons are exclusively because I am a conservative evangelical. I try to base my choice on common sense, practical outcome, but I do seek to let my Christian perspective inform overall policy outcome. Since almost all politicians are dishonest (conservatives and liberals), I place little trust in their overall characters and just try to pick the ones I think will do what they say they will do. So, some of the reasons were–
        1. Winability: who had the best chance to defeat Hillary Clinton.
        2. Supreme Court: I had never seen anyone promise to pick from a set list of judges (who were originalists).
        3. Iraq War: Trump and Paul were the only two who were against the Iraq invasion. I opposed that disastrous war from the start and have long believed that Bush was one of the most destructive presidents in American history.
        4. Economic (desperate need for a business owner [not a politician] who had created jobs and signed checks with own money)
        5. Transparency: When Trump was the only one to not raise his hand (first debate) pledging to vote for whoever the GOP candidate would be, I knew then that I would take a serious look. I had never seen that type of honesty in a candidate, especially in a debate.

        Again, I do not see Trump as a savior, or even as a Christian. I see him as a rough and tumble, crass (to the point of exasperation), vulgar, and yes, immoral New York businessman, but strangely authentic when making political promises, and who I think is trying hard to keep those promises—a rare commodity. I have long ago stopped looking to politicians, even presidents, as role models or examples of republican virtue. I think we put them way too high on a pedestal. To me, the president is little more than a civil magistrate sworn to uphold the Constitution. I actually see electing a president much like choosing a plumber or mechanic (granted, more important, but the principle is the same: “will he/she do the job promised?”).

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  3. I live in the same south-central PA region as John, and I can confirm that many of my local fellow evangelicals saw the 2016 election in near-apocalyptic terms where a Hillary presidency would all but doom the Republic AND render inevitable the outlawing of practicing Christian faith. I guess one might argue over whether this mindset should be characterized as “fear” or as more measured/thoughtful alarm about negative outcomes, but for many it was definitely a mindset that things were spiraling out of control and that “desperate times called for desperate measures.” All of the worst conspiracy theories and right-wing-media-promoted scare tactics were viewed as gospel truth. At no time did I get a sense from these people that they felt God was in control, although I am sure that if asked they would have insisted that they believed He was. What matters is, they spoke and acted as if they believed He wasn’t, and that the outcome of the election would either seal our doom or turn things back in the “right direction.”

    And agreed with John’s point about the typical evangelical not being someone who writes for publication! (Unless you want to count Facebook.)

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  4. I don’t know Wilson’s specific concerns about talk of “fear”, but may I ask: why appeal to fear rather than beliefs about the badness of certain possibilities? Talk of “fear” suggests that this emotion isn’t driven by beliefs about badness: my five-year old fears ants, even though she doesn’t really believe that they’ll harm her. Yet, in so many of the cases you give in the Atlantic piece, I would have thought that the emotion of fear is arises out of beliefs that certain things would be bad and should be prevented. Yes, fundamentalists “feared” modernism. But that’s because they believed—rightly or wrongly—that modernism was a grave threat to the church. Or am I missing something?

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