Bob Cornwall is a Disciples of Christ pastor, theologian, community activist, author and teacher with Ph.D in historical theology. I appreciate his recent review of Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump at his blog “Ponderings on a Faith Journey.”
Here is a taste:
It is said by pollsters that 81% of white evangelicals voted for Donald Trump in 2016. The question on the minds of many is why? Why Donald Trump? After all, the current President has demonstrated few if any marks of being a Christian, let alone being an evangelical. His past is filled with morally dubious activities, including affairs. He is course in his language. He seems to be a bully. He shows little if any compassion for others. Feels most at home when bashing others. Indeed, he doesn’t seem at all concerned about matters on the heart of Jesus. So, why did so many white evangelicals vote for Donald Trump?
Evangelical historian John Fea, who describes himself as being among the 19% who didn’t vote for Trump, sets out to answer that question. In a book titled Believe Me, which borrows a phrase regularly on the lips of Donald Trump, Fea lays out the road map to the 2016 election, a road that extends back to the beginnings of British colonization of the North American continent. As for the 2016 election, Trump wasn’t the first choice for evangelicals. Counted among the more traditional candidates vying for the nomination, were candidates like Ted Cruz, Mike Huckabee, and Marco Rubio, all of whom have deep ties to the evangelical world and would seem to be a better fit. In fact, as Fea reveals, there were several evangelical leaders who anointed Cruz as God’s choice. Yet all these candidates failed to win the nomination, losing to someone who seemed to have none of the qualities that evangelicals have in the past looked for in their candidates. Trump is not an evangelical, and yet as he solidified the nomination he consolidated his hold on this important block of the electorate. If polls are to be believed, this block remains solidly behind him, regardless of his antics. They appear to see him as their protector in a world closing in on them.
Before moving on, I should introduce my readers to the author of this important book. John Fea is Professor of American History at Messiah College, a well-regarded Christian college. Among his books is Was America Founded as a Christian Nation? This is an important book as well (see my review), as John helps the reader make sense of the historical record, showing that the United States has been in one sense Christian in its origins, due to the preponderance of Protestant Christians who have made up its population. At the same time, the founders had the chance and chose not to enshrine Christianity as the religion of the nation, leaving Americans free to find their own paths. In many ways, Believe Me is a continuation of that book.
As Fea tells the story of the 2016 election and the current presidency, we can trace the evangelical embrace of Trump to three basic points: fear, the desire for power, and the embrace of nostalgia (including the idea that America is a Christian nation, and that Christianity should be favored by the government). We can begin with the role that fear plays in the story. Fea demonstrates that fear has been an important element in the evangelical story from the beginning. It was instilled in the people by Puritan leaders, who warned against impiety and heresy (whether from Quakers, Baptists, or witches). From that starting point, fear has been part of the story. Consider the role it played in the election of 1800, when the Federalists sought to capitalize on Christian fear of Jefferson’s religious skepticism to re-elect John Adams (who might have been a Unitarian, but not a skeptic in the mold of Jefferson). He points us to a Federalist newspaper that suggested a Jefferson win would lead to “a wave of murder atheism, rape, adultery, and robbery” (p. 15). We see similar visions in play later in the 1850s in response to increased Catholic immigration. How different is MAGA from the Know-Nothings of the 1850s? In other words, the fear of the other, whether non-white or non-Protestant has been a staple of American religious and cultural life. This was seen in the response to President Obama, who was seen as exotic, maybe even subversive—a Muslim in disguise. So, Trump didn’t invent fear-mongering, but he was a quick learner when it came to its political usefulness.
Read the rest here. Thanks, Bob!