Why do white evangelicals still support Trump in such strong numbers? And what will that mean for the upcoming midterms? I spoke to John Fea, a historian of American religion at Messiah College in Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania, and author of Believe Me: the Evangelical Road to Donald Trump, about how Trump has galvanized his Christian base and about the “court evangelicals” who have traded their traditional moral ethos for access to one of the most powerful men in the world.
Tara Isabella Burton
In your book, you make the case that the tendency toward “fear” in white evangelical culture — fear of the immigrant, fear of secularization, fear of modernization — is not just a contemporary phenomenon. Can you talk a little bit about the rhetoric of evangelical fear in American history, and particularly how it has played out in terms of racial politics?
If you look closely at American evangelical history, you see fear everywhere. During the early 19th century, white evangelicals in the South constructed a “way of life” built around slavery and white supremacy. When Northern abolitionists (many of whom were also evangelicals, I might add) threatened this way of life by calling for the end of slavery, white evangelicals in the South responded by turning to the Bible and constructing a theological and biblical defense of slavery and racism. After the Civil War, the fear of integrating blacks into white society led to Jim Crow laws and desegregation.
Meanwhile, in the North, many white evangelicals feared the influx of Irish immigrants, especially in the 1850s. These immigrants not only had different religious beliefs (Catholicism), but they were viewed by many as members of a different, inferior race. The same could be said of white evangelical responses to Italian immigrants and Jews at the turn of the 20th century.
In the 1960s and 1970s, as historian Randall Balmer has shown, white evangelicals in the South felt anxious about Supreme Court decisions forcing them to desegregate their K-12 academies and colleges. They claimed that “big government” was intruding on their way of life and their right (based on their reading of the Bible) to segregate. Many of the arguments they made sound a lot like the arguments made by the Confederates against the “Northern invasion” during the American Civil War.
With such a long history, it should not surprise us that so many white evangelicals believed Donald Trump’s accusations that Barack Obama, the nation’s first black president, was not born in this country or was a secret Muslim. A 2015 CNN poll found that 43 percent of Republicans, a political party dominated by white evangelicals, believed that Obama was a Muslim. This, of course, is not true. It can only be explained by racial and religious fear.
Read the entire interview here.