*The Economist* Covers the Growing Rift in the Evangelical Camp

Believe Me 3dEarlier this week I had a great phone conversation with The Economist writer Bruce Clark about my book Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump.  Here is a taste of how how Clark wrote it up:

…Admittedly, evangelicals have never been a monolith. As behoves people who take their spiritual destiny seriously, they argue perpetually about many things: for example over whether the fate of a human soul is predetermined, or how exactly a believer can be redeemed from the “total depravity” which is, in the view of John Calvin (1509-1564), the natural state of humanity. Debates which raged between Europe’s 16th-century reformers are rumbling on in America’s influential seminaries.

But according to a new book, “Believe Me”, by John Fea, a history professor at Messiah College in Pennsylvania, all these theological disagreements are being transcended by a more salient issue: whether or not to support Mr Trump wholeheartedly and therefore overlook his character flaws. These days, by far the most important distinction is between what Mr Fea calls “court evangelicals”, who stridently support the president and are rewarded with access to him, and every other kind of evangelical. As a new coalition lines up to fight next year’s election, some of the battle formations which formed in the 2016 contest are coming back into view, with even sharper spears.

Among those who inhabit the court, Mr Fea discerns three main groups: first, a section of the mainstream religious right whose origins go back to the 1980s; second, a cohort of independent “charismatics” who claim the gifts of the Pentecostal tradition (visions, miracles and direct revelations from God) but do not belong to any established Pentecostal group; and third, advocates of the “prosperity gospel” who resemble the second category but put emphasis on the material rewards which following their particular version of Christianity will bring. What defines all these “courtiers” is an insistence that loyalty to Mr Trump must be unconditional. In their world, the president is presented not just as the least-worst political option whose merits outweigh his flaws, but as a man assigned by God to restore America to its divinely set course, and therefore almost above human criticism.

To get round the problems posed by Mr Trump’s ruthless business career, messy personal life and scatological language, they use several arguments, of which one is a comparison with Persia’s King Cyrus, who liberated the Jews from captivity in Babylon and allowed them to return to Israel. From the Jewish or Christian point of view, Cyrus was a pagan, not a worshipper of the one God, but he was still an instrument of God’s purpose. Likewise Mr Trump can be regarded as a divinely ordained ruler, regardless of any personal flaws. Indeed, as Mr Fea notes, the more strongly people believe in a divine hand in history, the more open they are to the idea that God can choose anybody at all to serve his inscrutable purpose.

Read the rest here.

4 thoughts on “*The Economist* Covers the Growing Rift in the Evangelical Camp

  1. I am wondering how big of a “rift” there really is. I know there is one, but I am afraid that the minority viewpoint is vanishingly small, and even more so as I think “evangelicalism” and “Trumpism” have become so conflated that those who find Trumpism problematic are increasingly leaving evangelicalism.

    My current non-denominational evangelical church (quite unlike my previous denominational evangelical church) has largely stayed out of the political realm. And yet, in the past couple of months, on two separate occasions one of the church leaders (an elder, not one of the pastors) used portions of his sermon to strike some of the political culture war chords, and far too many people seemed to be nodding in agreement and/or “Amen”-ing his statements. (The lead pastor is currently on a brief sabbatical, and so some of the church leaders have been filling in on the sermon each week.)

    The first time he was talking about how American culture’s shifting view on certain issues (yes, you can easily guess which “hot-button” issues) each represented a slap to the face of Christians, and he said that it was time for the Christians to slap back. (That might be a reasonably fair, if oversimplified, statement of the evangelical mindset described in “Believe Me,” right?)

    The second time he made the assertion that the previous administration (Obama) had labeled Christians as a threat. The way he did this was by twisting some terms. Obama’s administration did indeed call out home-grown right-wing and nationalist/racist extremists as a terror threat, as much if not more of a threat than that posed by Muslim extremists. So the speaker first said that Christians who took the Bible seriously and go to church get labeled by society as right-wing extremists. Then he said Obama’s warning was thus identifying Christians as a threat. See how he switched up those terms in his argument?

    I knew given the 81/19% split (or whatever it is these days) most of my fellow churchgoers were probably Trump supporters, but I was still a bit caught off guard when these statements came up so recently in a church which has tried to stay outside the political fray, and nobody seemed to even bat an eye.

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    • “The first time he was talking about how American culture’s shifting view on certain issues (yes, you can easily guess which “hot-button” issues) each represented a slap to the face of Christians, and he said that it was time for the Christians to slap back.”

      LOL yeah that sounds like what Jesus said–when your enemy strikes you, slap them right back. Power by any means necessary. We have no king but Trump.

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      • A full-time missionary in our congregation had occasion to speak briefly the following week on a missions project he was leading, and he incorporated into his presentation the verses about turning the other cheek. I leaned over to my family members and whispered, “I don’t think that was just coincidence.” Having known the guy for years, a wonderful man with a solid faith, a great heart, and a wealth of Biblical knowledge, I think he wanted to make sure he got the counterpoint on the record.

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    • Great points, Dave. I think there are many evangelical Trump voters (the 81%) who do not necessarily buy into Trumpism (Maga-hats, rallies, “lock her up chants,” Obama is the Antichrist, Trump is anointed, etc.) but still voted for him. Most of my understanding of this “rift” comes from looking at how evangelical leaders line-up. But we still have a lot more to learn.

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