Does “Evangelical” = Trump Supporter?: Three Anecdotes from the *Believe Me* Book Tour

Believe Me 3dThe media and much of the intellectual community seems to equate “evangelical” with “Trump supporter.”  And why not?  81% of white evangelical voters pulled the lever for Trump, a fact I try to explain in Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump.

Here are three pieces of anecdotal evidence:

1. Back in June I was asked to appear on CNN to talk about Trump and evangelicals.  When I asked the producer if I would be appearing on CNN alone or with other “talking heads,” she said that I would be on the air with Dr. William Barber, the African-American progressive minister and outspoken critic of Trump.  I responded to this news by saying something like, “So it sounds like this will be an anti-Trump segment.” The producer did not say anything in response. About an hour later, the same producer called me up and asked me what my book, Believe Me, was about.  I told her it was largely critical of Trump.  She responded by saying something like, “Oh, I thought you were an evangelical.”  When I said that I was an evangelical, but did not support Trump, she seemed confused.  She called me back twenty minutes later to tell me that they did not realize that my position on Trump was so similar to Barber.  They wanted someone to argue with Barber.  The segment was canceled.  (I eventually did find my way back to CNN a couple of weeks later).

2. On July 10, I got up early and drove to Washington D.C. to film a segment for Rising, a new morning news show on The Hill‘s online television network.  Rising is hosted by Krystal Ball, a former MSNBC host and 2010 candidate for Congress, and Buck Sexton, a conservative pundit and radio host.  When I arrived on stage, before the cameras starting rolling, Sexton starting asking me about my background and my work on Believe Me.  When he found out I was an evangelical who was critical of Trump, he obviously did not know what to make of me.  As the cameras started rolling, it was clear that Sexton was incapable of understanding how an evangelical could oppose Donald Trump.  His grasp of evangelicalism was incredibly shallow.  He obviously only understood evangelicals through the lens of politics and he spent the entire segment trying to put me into a political box.  After about 10 minutes, Sexton, obviously frustrated that I was not giving him Christian Right talking points, told the producers that “this segment is going too long.”  I was ushered off the set.  I turned around to thank Ball and Sexton. Neither of them looked up or said anything.  They were already prepping for the next segment.  While I was in the green room one of the producers of the show told me that the segment would air in a day or two.  As far as I know, it has yet to air.  I doubt it ever will.  Too much nuance, I guess.

3. Just the other day I got an e-mail, completely out of the blue, from one of the post-War West’s great public intellectuals.  He asked me to come to Washington D.C. to participate in a civil dialogue about Donald Trump.  This public intellectual was nearly 90-years old, but he still presided over a center devoted to his thought at a D.C. university.  He told me that the event would be televised nationally on C-SPAN.  Needless to say, I was flattered.  But after the two cases mentioned above, I decided to make sure this public intellectual knew who I was and what he was getting by inviting me to participate.  I e-mailed to tell him that I accepted his invitation, but he should also know that I was an American historian and an evangelical who wrote a book critical of Trump.  Thirty minutes later he e-mailed back to tell me that he thought I was a Trump supporter.   He dis-invited me from the event.  He was very apologetic and polite about it.

Apart from the fact that CNN, the producers and hosts of Rising, and this famous public intellectual did not read my book (or apparently even the dust jacket or Amazon description of my book), what should we make of these three cases?

In all three of them, I was invited to contribute to a discussion because I was an evangelical.  But because I was an evangelical, it was assumed I was a Trump supporter.

Thoughts?

10 thoughts on “Does “Evangelical” = Trump Supporter?: Three Anecdotes from the *Believe Me* Book Tour

  1. Pharisee was once a respected name. Evangelical was too, once fundamentalist went sour. Now Evangelical is forever cast as Trump follower. Give it up. It is no longer useful in its original, intended sense.

    How about “Dysangelicals”?

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  2. Does “Evangelical” = Trump Supporter?

    These days, pretty much “YES!”

    Both Wondering Eagle & I have been scratching our heads over why Born-Again Bible-Believing Christians(TM) are THE most Fanatical of Trump Fanatics. Like Taking the Mark in bad Christian Apocalyptic fiction. Eagle’s got a regular troll on his blog who is a SCRIPTURE-spouting Trump Fanatic (and I mean FANATIC – Eagle gave me the OK to counter-troll him). Court Evangelical gunning for Court Favorite.

    Does Professor Fea’s book explain this phenomenon? Because to me it looks like Taking the Mark on forehead AND right hand in bad Book of Revelation fanfic.

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  3. I’m neither an evangelical nor a Trump supporter. I’ve not read your book nor had I heard your name before this morning. However, I was raised in the evangelical tradition (Southern Baptist), was an Episcopal clergyman for eight years, and know the difference between the large-heartedness of true evangelicals I’ve known and the petty hatefulness of a Franklin Graham and those like him, some of whom I’ve known. That said, when my book *Original Sinners, Why Genesis Still Matters* came out in 2009, I assumed it would be the evangelicals who would rail against it. Instead, the outrage came from those who were angry that I’d found anything useful there at all. The same was true on my Huffington Post blog. I was tossed into the same cage with Jerry Falwell and the like by people who’d not read my book or, as far as I could tell, a word of any of my blog posts. Their assumptions about me were like the assumptions you write about above; their opposition was as shallow and uninformed as any I ever faced from angry fundamentalists during my eight years of parish work.
    Of all the post-publication interviews conducted, only one of the interviewers had read my book.

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    • Which would tend to push you in the direction of “STICK IT TO ‘EM! STICK IT TO ‘EM! TRUMP! TRUMP! TRUMP!” (Not much distance in Christianese from there to “Trump Is LORD!”)

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  4. I remember when George Yancey published his work on systemic bias in academia. There was a small bias against conservatives and a very large one against evangelicals. In fact the only reason why conservatives were studied at all was to see if the real reason that evangelicals faces modest but non trivial discrimination was due to their political leanings (as mormons had some discrimination against them too and skew right wing). In other words the study showed that bias against evangelicals can’t be explained by political bias because its significantly stronger.

    That study only got discussed in the mainstream media because it showed a small bias against conservatives and the part about bias against evangelicals got ignored despite conservatives only being studied as a test.

    It definitely seems to be that the media is only interested in religion to the extent that it relates to politics

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  5. I was going to say something like “Well it’s a understandable mistake, given demographics” then I realized that no, if you’re going to invite someone on your show, you should do some basic due diligence.

    (After all, what if you had been a Trump supporter and loud racist, or well-known as a sexual predator, etc)

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  6. Oh my it is soooo much worse than I thought. The level of ignorance is very disheartening. This appears to reflect how nuanced information on religion has failed to get even a simple hearing. It also seems the media doesn’t have well educated religion journalists or experts that can include basic information beyond faux debate. It makes me wonder what other topics they fail to present intelligently. Have they failed to remember even recent history? Evangelicals were a socio/cultural/religious force long before Trump.

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  7. My thoughts about this are pretty depressed. In the scale of education and political engagement, these three people probably occupy the top of the bell curve. If even they assume that evangelicalism = Trumpism, how much more will the rest of the America? In 20 years when the heat of partisan fervor has cooled (as it did *precipitously* for GW Bush in 2007-8) and the scope of Trump’s disaster is widely known and accepted, what will Christian currency be worth? Who is going to trust to moral judgment, integrity, or gospel witness of evangelicals a generation from now? Worse, why should they?

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    • Evangelicals (who have co-opted “Christian” to mean themselves and themselves alone) have hitched their fortune to Trump. They rise with Trumpism, but that means they will also fall with Trumpism.

      And when they fall, the name “Jesus Christ” will have acquired the exact same baggage as the name “Donald Trump”. (If the fall Is hard enough — like a generation or two under the thumb of a Restored Christian Nation(TM) — maybe even the same baggage as the name “Adolf Hitler”.)

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  8. This speaks, I suspect, to the shallowness of our national political debates nowadays, which are framed by what James fallows described in The Atlantic as our “tribes.” The expectation all too often is that our politics is exclusively driven by the push-button issues, the products of political party machines trying to mobilize their base(s). In a simpler, Us-vs.Them world, it is easier to categorize (“bucket”) both people and their beliefs by just identifying their political tribe. Time and again when someone bothers to actually engage people about their beliefs, avoiding common political terminology, the result is a much messier, more nuanced set of responses than what one sees in the popular press.

    And that is in part why we’re in the mess we are in, because while we may expect such behavior from politicians — it’s in their interest to have a simplified, sound byte-driven world — we should not accept such laziness from journalists, the 4th Estate. This isn’t to suggest all journalists do this, but enough of the media has fallen into the rut of political tropes (in the interest of competitive ratings), along the way ironically strengthening the base tribalism that help put someone like Trump into the Oval Office. Jon Stewart challenged this common format on political talks shows, of Us vs. Them, when he was on CrossFire back in 2004 — crudely, to be sure, but effectively I think.

    We, the People — citizens — bear some responsibility too. Citizenship requires some level of engagement and learning, studying the key issues ourselves and reaching out to those more knowledgeable for professional opinions. Relying on a single information source (and ignoring others) simply because that source tells us what we want to hear is an abrogation of our obligations as citizens to be fully informed.

    At the end of the day, we all face these challenges and issues, and the people we’re arguing with are our fellow citizens. Don’t we owe each other the basic civility of actually listening and learning what others think? I’m at least glad to see this experience has been educational for you, Professor Fea, on how the process of discussion and debate (with all the players) frames our politics. Thanks for sharing and giving us all a glimpse into how some of what passes for information nowadays is formulated —

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