Interview with VOX on Trump and Evangelicals

Believe Me 3dTara Isabella Burton recently interviewed me about Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump.  Here is a taste of the interview at VOX:

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?

John Fea

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.

2 thoughts on “Interview with VOX on Trump and Evangelicals

  1. John,
    I respectfully think Tony has a point. The readers of Vox are largely secular liberals who will use any added anti-evangelical facts to bludgeon Christians and tar them as yahoos.

    As far as the substance of your interview with Ms. Burton, you pointed out that evangelicals in the South were not all that happy with certain societal changes in the 1950s and 1960s. This is largely true but ignores the larger observation that white Southerners in general were unhappy about those events. In those days I knew people from all denominations and people from no denomination who thought Washington had become too intrusive.

    You also mentioned that Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox are willing to live with more “mystery” than evangelicals. This is indeed true in the theological realm but does not necessarily transfer to the secular or political realm. During the 1930s FDR refused to aid the Spanish Republic against Francisco Franco for several reasons, not the least of which was fear of angering traditional Catholics who supported Franco’s views on the sanctity of The Church. Today, Roman Catholic leaders are locking arms with evangelicals on several moral and social issues. Interestingly, the brainchild behind the Moral Majority was the late Paul Weyrich, a devout Catholic.

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  2. John: I ask this honestly with no insinuation: Do you have any concern that the progressive media venues which are giving you a platform find you to be a useful cudgel with which to indiscriminately pound Christians and their/our faith?

    In other words, while you genuinely seek to call back evangelicals to the true meaning of the Gospel and away from what you perceive to be a dangerous politicization and corruption of faith, they just want to sneer at and condemn the fundie red state Jesus freaks, and see you as useful for those purposes?

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