Yes, I am Doubling Down on the Fear Thesis

Believe Me 3dMy friend John Wilson, the evangelical bibliophile who once manned the editor’s desk of Books & Culture, has never quite embraced my argument about fear in Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump.  I will let him explain why he finds it so distasteful by citing a passage from his review of my book in The Hedgehog Review:

As a mea culpa of sorts, Fea has written three chapters—“The Evangelical Politics of Fear,” “The Playbook,” and “A Short History of Evangelical Fear”—that together make up more than half of his book (not counting the footnotes) and that precede his extended treatment of the court evangelicals. “Evangelical Fear”: That’s the answer! Oh, dear. It’s not just dismaying to me, it’s shocking (to borrow a word from Fea himself) to see such an excellent historian relying on the tired trope of “evangelical fear” to reduce the story of a many-sided movement and its infinitely various membership over several centuries to a simple morality play. “It is possible,” Fea says, “to write an entire history of American evangelicalism as the story of Christians who have failed to overcome fear.” Possible, yes, just as it’s possible to write triumphalist histories of evangelicalism (of which we’ve had all too many). But are those our only choices?

Read the rest here.

And here is my response to the review.

Earlier this evening I did a post on the Religion News Service’s interview with Franklin Graham.  Journalist Yonat Shimron asked Graham all the right questions.  I am quoted in the piece:

Sounding the alarm about a nation in peril is a tried-and-true evangelical strategy, said John Fea, professor of American history at Messiah College in Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania.

“I’ve argued this has been a typical part of evangelical political engagement for centuries — fear mongering,” said Fea. “You can’t make an argument to support what the president did on his phone call with the Ukrainian president. So what do you do? You play the traditional game of instilling fear in the electorate so they will see us falling off the cliff as a nation and this apocalyptic language will convince them they have to vote for Trump again in 2020.”

When I tweeted the article, John Wilson posted a sarcastic tweet in response:

I responded to much of Wilson’s argument in this tweet in my aforementioned (and linked) post to his review in The Hedgehog Review, but let me write a few more words here.

Am I afraid of the legacy that Donald Trump and the court evangelicals will leave for the nation and the church?  Yes.  I am very afraid.  But I also realize that I cannot dwell in this fear and, through the spiritual disciplines of my faith, respond to such fears with hope.  In other words, I need to trust God more.  As the writer Marilynne Robinson once said, “fear is not a Christian habit of mind.”

But I should also add that any fear I might have about Trump, the court evangelical agenda, and their legacy is based on truth and facts.  This is different from the fear I see among many of Trump’s evangelical supporters.

Most evangelical fear is built upon endless lies. These include the false idea that America was founded as a Christian nation and needs to be reclaimed, the straw man that all Democrats are socialists, Marxists, and atheists trying to undermine American liberty, the idea that impeachment will lead to a civil war, the belief that immigrants will kill us if they get too close, or the conviction that abortion will end if we just overturn Roe v. Wade.   The overwhelming majority of conservative evangelical Christians who I know and talk to on a regular basis believe one or more of these false claims.  They get their talking points from Fox News and then read the Bible to make it fit with these talking points.  They believe that there is a deep state–an illuminati working to undermine God’s anointed president.  They are so afraid of Hillary Clinton that they think she should be locked-up.  They believe that demonic forces are unraveling America.  And if anyone offers an alternative view to these beliefs they will be castigated as a purveyor of “fake news.”  Again, I have spoken at length to evangelical family members, readers of this blog, and members of my church who believe one or more of these things.  I get their nasty e-mails, social media messages, and multi-part voice messages.

John Wilson–you need to get out more. The fearful people I am writing about here do not read back issues of Books & Culture or attend the Calvin College Festival of Faith and Writing.  They do not talk theology in the coffee shops of Wheaton, Illinois.  There is an entire world of evangelical Christians out there who you have not yet met. They are very afraid.  They seek comfort in strongmen of both the political and religious variety.  Donald Trump and the court evangelicals are exploiting their fears for political gain.

*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.

Some Comments on Peter Leithart’s *First Things* Review of *Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump*

Believe Me 3dFirst Things assigned Peter Leithart, the president of an organization called Theopolis Institute, to review my Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump.  The title of his review is  “Trump Among the Evangelicals.”

Here is the relevant part of the review:

All in all, Fea tells a familiar story, and his main contribution is to update some threads of the history of the Christian Right. Fea is right on some key points. He’s right to be alarmed by the near-messianic enthusiasm of some evangelicals for Trump. He’s right to chide the hypocrisy of excusing Trump for sins that were impeachable offenses when committed by Bill Clinton. He’s right about the seductions of power, and he can quote former Christian Right leaders like Cal Thomas in support. He’s right about the nostalgia, and his answer to the question, “Was America founded as a Christian nation?” is sensibly ambivalent: It’s “difficult to answer with a definitive ‘yes’ or ‘no.’” Fea’s advocacy of a politics of hope, humility, and history can hardly be gainsaid.

But Believe Me is a political intervention under the cover of history. As such, it suffers from two debilitating defects.

Fea is a professor at Messiah College—an evangelical institution. He is talking about his own tribe, but he shows little sympathy for his subjects. He observes, for instance, that evangelicals see the years between the end of World War II and the beginning of the Reagan presidency as “a perfect storm capable of wiping out the Christian ideals that built their great nation.” I imagine he’d say that it’s outside his bailiwick as a historian to judge whether evangelical fears are well-grounded, but his framework speaks for itself. Fea places these trends under the rubric of “evangelical fear,” which shades over into “evangelical paranoia.” But it’s worth asking, might evangelical qualms be justified?

Fea also displays a stunning lack of curiosity, which narrows his tale to a few evangelical stars. Millions of evangelicals who will never be court evangelicals voted for Trump. Who are they? What motivated them? Are they also driven by fear, lust for power, and nostalgia? Or are they perhaps motivated by more mundane worries—like how they’re going to make rent or pay for groceries or rebuild their crumbling neighborhoods? Fea never asks.

It wouldn’t have been hard to find some answers. Timothy Carney, author of Alienated America, compiles widely-reported evidence that Trump’s strongest evangelical support came from those who don’t attend church regularly. They hold evangelical beliefs without evangelical belonging. Americans, Carney argues, suffer from a deficit of social capital, which in America is typically mediated through local churches. In healthy communities, like the Dutch Reformed towns of Iowa and Michigan or the tightly networked Mormonism in Utah, Americans are often conservative but anti-Trump. Fea doesn’t consider the possibility that a vote for Trump was a cry of desperation from the unchurched, unemployed, alienated American heartland. As a result, Believe Me misses some of the most significant lessons of the ongoing saga of Trump among the evangelicals.

A few comments:

  • My book has been out for a year, but I am grateful to see that high-caliber magazines like First Things still find it worthy of a review.  I am a former subscriber to First Things and I have also written a few things for the website.
  • I am not very familiar with Leithart’s work, but I do know that he is a big name among the circle of conservative Christians who read First Things.  I am happy to see that he finds much to commend in the book.
  • Leithart says that my “main contribution” in Believe Me is “to update some threads of the history of the Christian Right.”  Not really.  Most of my story of the Christian Right draws from other scholars.  There is actually very little new here beyond my synthesis of  some outstanding scholarship by folks like Randall Balmer, Kevin Kruse, Daniel K. Williams, and Mark Noll.  And my long look into the history of fear is rooted in the best academic history available.
  • Leithart calls my book “a political intervention under the cover of history.”   He writes this as if it is a bad thing.   I actually prefer to call Believe Me a historically-inflected piece of political commentary.  Whatever the case, I never claimed that this was a traditional history book.
  • Leithart writes: “I imagine he’d say that it’s outside his bailiwick as a historian to judge whether evangelical fears are well-grounded, but his framework speaks for itself.”  Actually, I make the case in multiple places in the book that evangelical fears ARE NOT well-grounded.  My direct and unambiguous moral intervention into the narrative is why I do not consider Believe Me a work of traditional history.  I make a case for this approach in the book.
  • Leithart suggests that I display a “stunning lack of curiosity” because I don’t embrace the popular theory that the evangelical voters who pulled the level for Trump do not attend church.  He says that I should have consulted Timothy Carney’s book Alienated America on this front.  Actually, I don’t think my unwillingness to buy into this theory comes from a lack of curiosity.   I was quite curious about it, but in the end I rejected it (and I make this point in the book).  Since then, a Pew study has shown that Trump’s support actually comes from evangelical who DO attend church.  (And even if I did agree with Carney’s findings, his book did not appear until February 2019, eight months after Believe Me was published.  Leithart is apparently not aware of this fact).

I usually don’t comment on reviews of my books, but I am left wondering if Leithart even read it.  I do not expect this kind of sloppiness from First Things.

Hearts & Minds Bookstore Selects *Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump* as One of the “Best Books of 2018”

Believe Me 3d“I am declaring Believe Me as one of the most important books to be published in 2018 and predicting that it will remain one of the most important books for many a year.”

Thank you Byron Borger!

I am happy to join Alan Jacobs, Al Tizon, Wesley Granberg-Michaelson, Barbara Melosh, Lauren Winner, Gerry McDermott, Reggie McNeal, Michael Card, Alan Noble, Diana Butler Bass, Tremper Longman, N. T. Wright, Walter Brueggemann, Fleming Rutledge, Os Guinness, Mark Labberton, and Jonah Goldberg, among others, on the Hearts & Minds Bookstore “Best Books of 2018” list!

Here is a taste of what Byron has to say about Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump:

Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump John Fea (Eerdmans) $24.99  I have written at great length — in our local newspaper, in BookNotes, and on my social media space — that the unqualified conservative Christian support for President Trump is inexplicable. For a dozen reasons that are nearly incontrovertible, it is clear that the President is a bad man and a bad leader. By no reasonable metrics can we be glad for his temperament, his antics, or his odd-ball style of governance. Good people of good faith can disagree with the “lesser of two evils” sorts of complicated choices we have when voting and can line up on different sides of the isles as we watch the sausage getting made. But all serious Christians must, at least, have some sort of Biblically-informed, Christianly conceived, spiritual-driven, public theology. We must have “the mind of Christ” and allow the Scriptural worldview to illumine our views of contemporary issues and the nature of law and politics and citizenship. Evangelicals, who love Jesus, insist on conversion and holiness, and Christ’s Kingship over all of life and regard the Bible with a for-all-of-life authority. We dare not say, as Jerry Falwell Jr. recently did, “I don’t look to Jesus for my politics.” Evangelicals worthy of the name may disagree about many implications that flow from a Christian political vision, but we dare not say that.

And so, it is essential to try to figure out the coherence, if there is any, of the so-called Christian right. Those that know me know that this has been huge priority for me for decades and decades and I have invested much personal energy of my life time to help create conversations around the meaning of the Lordship of Christian for our citizenship and public lives. Sometimes I find it necessary to challenge the right and the left and I often try to graciously insist that we should have no fundamental loyalties to the conservatives or the liberals. For whatever reason, these days, I find a much greater interest in the Bible and Jesus from the progressive side than from most on the side of the Christian right, and that is different than it was a generation ago, and feels exceptionally ironic.

Still, as black evangelist Tony Evans once said, when Jesus comes back he will not be riding a donkey or an elephant. Or, more seriously, as David Koyzis writes, we must get at the deep philosophical influences of the Enlightenment and French Revolutions to understand our current political divides. (See his brilliant, deep Political Visions & Illusions: A Survey & Christian Critique of Contemporary Ideologiesfor a sophisticated explication of this rejection of the right and the left as we seek for a uniquely Christian third way.)

Which is a long way of saying why I am declaring Believe Meas one of the most important books to be published in 2018 and predicting that it will remain one of the most important books for many a year.

Look: I don’t agree with all of the analysis Dr. Fea brings, and I wish he had covered stuff that he misses. In this sense it may not be utterly adequate but it is nonetheless the best book in recent years on the new itineration of the Christian right in the Trump years. Fea is a respected historian and brings his discerning critical eyes to what he calls “the court evangelicals.” There is no other book like it.

Good historians such as George Marsden have given big accolades to Believe Me. For instance, the always measured Mark Noll writes:

John Fea’s timely and sobering book shows convincingly how legitimate concerns from white evangelical Protestants about a rapidly secularizing American culture metastasized into a fear-driven brew of half-truths, fanciful nostalgia, misplaced Christian nationalism, ethical hypocrisy, and political naiveté–precisely, that is, the mix that led so many white evangelicals not only to cast their votes for Donald Trump but also to regard him as a literal godsend.

Few contemporary Christian thinkers and advocates for a balanced public theology are as wise and balanced as Richard Mouw. His own memoir is the Adventures in Evangelical Civility: A Lifelong Quest for Common Groundand he knows much about hearing various viewpoints and showing “uncommon decency” as his book on civility puts it. And about Fea and Believe Me, Mouw says this:

While the significant support for Donald Trump by white evangelicals has been the stuff of headlines, there has been little serious probing of the deeper factors at work. John Fea here gives us what we need, with his insightful tracing of the theological-spiritual road that has brought us to this point. A wise and important book!

Fea deserves a, extra award medal for all he’s done promoting conversation around this book. He has helped us understand the contemporary interface of Christian faith and modern politics and while it isn’t the last word, it is a very, very important contribution. I’m glad other outlets more important than BookNotes have named this as one of the outstanding books of 2018.

Listen to Jana Riess, a senior columnist for Religion News Service:

It would be enough for John Fea to marshal his considerable prowess as a historian in proving how evangelicals have been propelled by fear, nostalgia, and the pursuit of power, as he does so compellingly in this book. But he also speaks here as a theologian and an evangelical himself, eloquently pointing toward a better gospel way. This is a call to action for evangelicals to move beyond the politics of fear to become a ‘faithful presence’ in a changing world.

Thanks again, Byron.  If you don’t have a copy of Believe Me, order it here.

*Christian Century* Reviews *Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump*

Believe Me 3dSteven P. Miller offers a fair review of Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump under the title “How the culture wars made Trump: The demons of the white evangelical past.”

Here is a taste:

Lest readers have any doubt where Fea will come down on evangelicals’ support for Trump, the Messiah College professor clues them in before page 1, dedicating the book to “the 19 percent.” Trump often urges listeners to “Believe me,” appending the imperative to any number of points by way of deflecting attention from the evidence. Taking that line as his title, Fea explains why so many evangelicals do believe Trump, then urges them to put their faith in more lasting things.

Fea is uncommonly well positioned to make the case for turning away from the Donald and toward the Almighty. A prolific author and a nonstop blogger, he is the very definition of an engaged Christian scholar. Fea has a knack, not always evident among his like-minded peers, for negotiating the spheres of faith and the academy without making a big deal out of the occasional tension between them. He seems comfortable in his evangelical shoes. That might make him appealing to secular editors and publishers who like to identify evangelicals who defy stereotypes. Yet one senses that Fea would happily sacrifice any such attention if only evangelicals, including his brothers and sisters at the megachurch he has long attended, would abandon their self-defeating quest for a Christian America.

Fea’s explanation of the 81 percent is primarily historical in nature, as one would expect, although the evidence he marshals suggests there might well be something singularly sirenic about Trump himself. Candidate Trump bellowed all the right notes, especially regarding fear, which is Fea’s major explanatory theme. Evangelical fear is the kind of thing that disqualifies Barack Obama on account of his unconventional presidential narrative (black, academic, urban, religiously liberal) while turning his successor, whose résumé made him both unconventional and unqualified, into a refreshing outsider who tells it like it is. Obama’s progressivism, coupled with heightened concerns about religious liberty and a sharpened focus on the Supreme Court, created space for a wordmonger who would say anything to get a massive bloc of votes. Sure, Trump is a racist adulterer whose dueling life conceits are unpaid bills and unsavory associations—but his middle name is not Hussein.

Read the entire review here.

The Wrong Kind of Hope


Last night, after I spoke about how white conservative evangelicals too often privilege fear over hope, a friend noted that Trump’s evangelical supporters seem pretty “hopeful” right now.  Trump is delivering on the Supreme Court.  He has moved the Israeli embassy to Jerusalem.  He is trying to do something about religious liberty (at least as white evangelicals understand it).  For a group of evangelicals who see political and cultural engagement in terms of winning the culture wars, Trump has been anointed for such a time as this.

I thought about my friend’s comment this morning as I read Laurie Premack‘s review of Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trumppublished at The Conversation.  Here is a taste of her very fair review:

Do you remember that Barack Obama poster? The one of him looking into the middle distance, as if gazing upon a future only he could see, the word “HOPE” spelled out across his chest in blue – the colour of clear days and sunny skies? It was in Obama’s speech at the 2004 Democratic Conference – the one that catapulted him to the presidency four years later – that he first made the audacious promise that the country had the power to choose hope over cynicism. Farewell to the grim ironies of the 20th century, hello to the brave promise of the new millennium.

But Obama’s hope was always a vague one: something to do with slaves, immigrants, soldiers and mill workers. He said it was “something more substantial” than “blind optimism” but didn’t go into the details. It was simply what you harness in the face of difficulty and uncertainty. The thing that keeps you believing that the future will be better than today.

The general public is accustomed to thinking about hope in political terms. That is the American eschatology (the belief in the nation’s ultimate destiny) – that through democracy the country will enter the promised land. Indeed, hope is, at its essence, faith in the future. And people tend to talk about hope, as Obama famously did, assuming a shared understanding of what it means. It is not a loaded term. It is a light one – bright, buoyant, chirpy.

Or so I thought. John Fea, author of Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump has a different take. For him – an evangelical historian of American politics – hope is not the vague optimism of Obama, but the precise hope of Christian theology. Hope rests on the truth of Jesus Christ. It is, as Christian political philosopher Glenn Tinder described it, a divine gift “anchored in eternity”. There can be no real hope without God.

Read the rest here.

Jared Burkholder Reviews *Believe Me*

Believe Me Banner

When you get a chance, check out the new look at Jared Burkholder‘s blog The Hermeneutic Circle.

Today he is running a review of Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump.

This is my favorite review so far! Not only is it a positive review, but I appreciate the way Jared connects Believe Me to some of my earlier work in the history of 20th-century evangelicalism and fundamentalism and my experience as a student at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School.  I am also guessing that he will be the only reviewer to suggest that the Anabaptist heritage of Messiah College may be rubbing-off on me!

Here is a taste:

Historian John Fea gets back to his roots in explaining the “81%.” (The percentage of evangelicals who supposedly voted for President Trump.) Though he has a long list of accomplishments in mainstream historical circles, Fea’s original forays into writing about history was as a graduate student at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School where he studied the history of fundamentalism and evangelicalism under old-school church historian, John Woodbridge. I got to know John after he moved on from Trinity, but it was through the influence of him and others like him that I enrolled in the same program. In fact, when I had Woodbridge as a professor, our class used a bibliography on American fundamentalism that Fea had compiled while he was a student. While at Trinity, he completed a thesis on hard-core conservative fundamentalists. So while Fea has moved on to weightier topics such as the American Revolution, the early Republic, and Christian nationalism, he knows a thing or two about conservative evangelicals and the roots of the Religious Right. Fea draws on all these experiences in writing about how evangelicals helped to put Trump in office and why many continue to support the president, despite the president’s lack of Christian virtue.

Read the entire review here.

John Wilson’s Review in *The Hedgehog Review*: A Response

Believe Me 3dI am very appreciative of John Wilson and his lifelong work in promoting evangelical thinking, especially as the editor of the now-defunct Books and Culture.  I have written for Wilson and he has published my writing.  He has always encouraged me in my work. I consider him a friend.

A week or so ago, I called your attention to Wilson’s review of my book Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump at The Hedgehog Review.  At the time I wrote the post, much of Wilson’s review was behind the paywall.  Wilson had warned me that he had some issues with my book, but I was unable to read the critical parts of the review due to the paywall.

Today the paywall was lifted.  Here is the most critical section of Wilson’s review:

As a mea culpa of sorts, Fea has written three chapters—“The Evangelical Politics of Fear,” “The Playbook,” and “A Short History of Evangelical Fear”—that together make up more than half of his book (not counting the footnotes) and that precede his extended treatment of the court evangelicals. “Evangelical Fear”: That’s the answer! Oh, dear. It’s not just dismaying to me, it’s shocking (to borrow a word from Fea himself) to see such an excellent historian relying on the tired trope of “evangelical fear” to reduce the story of a many-sided movement and its infinitely various membership over several centuries to a simple morality play. “It is possible,” Fea says, “to write an entire history of American evangelicalism as the story of Christians who have failed to overcome fear.” Possible, yes, just as it’s possible to write triumphalist histories of evangelicalism (of which we’ve had all too many). But are those our only choices?

Of the people I know well—including fellow evangelicals, Christians from other streams of the faith, and those who aren’t Christian—a minority voted for Trump. Their reasons for doing so (based on what they’ve said) vary predictably. For some, abortion was the key issue, or the Supreme Court, or both. For the handful of small-business owners I know, it was their conviction that Trump would ease what they regarded as unfair burdens on them. For a handful of Christian intellectuals, it had to do with their loathing of “liberalism.” The same could be said of people I don’t know well personally but admire through their writing, with whom I’ve had at least some contact. Certainly, as Fea notes, none of them could imagine voting for Hillary Clinton.

What most of them have in common—and what distinguishes them from my wife and me and many of our friends, but also countless other people with whom we otherwise have little in common—is the perception that Trump’s flaws, his “character,” and other qualities do not distinguish him from the general run of flawed candidates and elected presidents of the postwar era. (“Sure, he’s flawed,” they’ll say, “but look at X.”) This baffles me, though I am very far from idealizing presidents past, and nothing in Fea’s disquisition on “evangelical fear” has eased my bafflement even a little. But I remind myself (not for the first or indeed the thousandth time) that such disjunctions in perception are all too familiar. There are people very dear to my wife and me who believe that our (Christian) understanding of the world and our place in it and our hopes for it are fundamentally mistaken. Yet we continue to love them, and they continue to love us.

This section deserves a response:

Wilson seems to suggest that “fear” is not a legitimate interpretive category for a historian.  He can’t believe such an “excellent historian” would use such a “tired trope.”

I don’t understand what Wilson means by “tired trope.”  I know of very few scholarly works that examine the relationship between fear and evangelicalism.  (The best work available right now is Jason Bivins’s excellent book Religion of Fear; The Politics of Horror in Conservative Evangelicalism).   Fear seems like a fresh and exciting angle to examine American evangelicalism.

Moreover, historians regularly appeal to emotions such as fear.  My footnotes are filled with these well-respected historical works. In fact, the “history of emotions” is one of the hottest fields in historical scholarship right now.  My work draws on some of this scholarship.  One great place to start is Carl Lawrence Paulus, Fear of Insurrection and the Coming of the Civil War.  I also like Peter N. Stearns’s essay “Fear and History.”

Wilson writes: “It is possible,” Fea says, “to write an entire history of American evangelicalism as the story of Christians who have failed to overcome fear.” Possible, yes, just as it’s possible to write triumphalist histories of evangelicalism (of which we’ve had all too many). But are those our only choices?  No.  These are not our only choices.  I tried to imagine what a more nuanced history might look like in my recent piece at The Atlantic.  But let’s remember that this book is about Donald Trump, a president who has managed to tap into some of the darkest moments in the history of American evangelicalism.  I did not write a general history of evangelicalism.  I wrote a book about the deep roots of why evangelicals voted for Trump.

Wilson’s critique of my argument seems to be rooted in his own personal experience.  His evidence for why I am wrong (and why he is so “shocked” that I am wrong) seems to be based on the views “of the people I know well.”  He says that some of the small number of people he knows who voted for Trump did so because of “abortion” or the “Supreme Court.”  He implies that such motivations are unrelated to fear. The other people he knows who voted for Trump did so out of economic or political (“I don’t like liberalism”) motives.

He then says that many voted for Trump because they could not stomach voting for Hillary Clinton. That is true.  But Wilson fails to realize that many evangelicals could not stomach voting for Hillary because they were scared to death about what Hillary would do to the nation.  The hatred for Hillary Clinton among evangelicals is very real and, for some, it goes well beyond just political disagreement.

Frankly, it seems like Wilson is really out of touch with the majority of church-going evangelicals who supported Donald Trump.  Most of these people do not live in the upper-middle class suburbs of Wheaton, Illinois or attend churches filled with evangelical intellectuals or educated members of the white middle-class.  Most of them have never heard of Books & Culture.  Most of them do not read Christianity Today or First Things or The Englewood Review of Books.

I don’t know who John Wilson hangs out with.  I don’t know the socio-economic makeup of his church or his neighborhood.  So I could be wrong.  But Wilson’s review of my book reads like he does not even know these people exist.

At one point in Wilson’s review, he says that he knows most Trump voters are not motivated by fear because he is familiar with their writing. He writes: “The same could be said of people I don’t know well personally but admire through their writing, with whom I’ve had at least some contact.”


It might surprise Wilson that most evangelical Trump voters do not write for publication.

Finally, I am not sure how Wilson can ignore the historical evidence I presented in the book about the long history of evangelical fear.  I am most proud of Chapter 3: “A Short History of Evangelical Fear.”  As I noted above, it is based on some of the best historical scholarship available.

As long as we are talking about the people we “know well,” I would like to take John Wilson to a few places that might change his mind about evangelical fear:

  • We could go to my white-working class, non-college-educated, central Pennsylvania neighborhood–a neighborhood filled with Trump voters and evangelicals.   The sense of fear in this neighborhood is palpable.
  • I’d like to introduce Wilson to four white evangelical baby boomers who meet every week for coffee at a New Jersey diner.  Their conversations are dominated by their fear of Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton.  They see Trump as a savior–a strongman who will protect them from the direction these Democrats wanted to take the country.  I know some of these guys.  They are afraid.  They will even admit they are afraid.  They will also tell you that they are less afraid now that Donald Trump is POTUS.
  • I’d like to introduce Wilson to an evangelical women’s Bible study in the northeast where the majority of members are Trump supporters who are afraid of the demographic and cultural changes they see taking place all around them.  One of the members of this study truly believed Obama was the next Adolph Hitler.

I am sure many of you could take John Wilson to similar places or introduce them to evangelicals motivated by fear.

If I had not deleted them, I could have sent Wilson dozens and dozens of fear-mongering e-mails fills with conspiracy theories about liberals, Obama, Clinton, and other threats to Christian America.  Friends and family members sent them to me.  These people were either Trump supporters or wanted  me to give them an educated opinion about whether the content in the e-mails was accurate.

I am sure some of you have received similar e-mails.

The fear is real.  It has been throughout American history, and it is today.

Kristin Kobes Du Mez Reviews *Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump*

Believe Me 3dKristin Kobes Du Mez teaches history at Calvin College and she is writing a book about evangelical masculinity, militarism, and Donald Trump titled Onward Christian Warriors.  I appreciate her review of my Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump at Christianity Today.

Here is a taste:

John Fea has two intended audiences for his new book, Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump. On the one hand, he dedicates this book “to the 19 percent”—to the segment of white evangelicals who (at least according to exit poll data) voted against Trump in the presidential race. But in another sense, Fea is also writing to the remaining 81 percent, to those who decided that Trump could best advance the cause of Christianity in America.

Fea writes as both a historian (he teaches at Messiah College) and a self-identified evangelical. In this second vein, he offers a sympathetic portrayal of the predicament in which evangelicals found themselves during the 2016 election season. He frames his discussion of the Obama administration as a period of intensifying fear for American evangelicals. Once the Obama administration sided with progressives on the same-sex marriage issue, he writes, it “became relentless in its advocacy of social policies that not only made traditional evangelicals cringe but also infused them with a sense of righteous anger.” According to Fea, the speed with which evangelicals found themselves “marginalized and even threatened” is “difficult to overestimate.” With important institutions seemingly “crumbling around them,” they were increasingly worried about the health of American society. At that point, many Republican candidates were more than willing to exploit these fears for political gain.

Read the entire review here.

*PopMatters* Reviews *Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump*

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Here is a taste of Justin Cober-Lake‘s article about Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump and my work as a historian.

The number 81 percent may have permanent resonance among political analysts by now. That percentage represents the number of white evangelicals who voted for Donald Trump in the 2016 presidential election. While conservative Christianity has been tied to voting Republican for many years, the fact that a man so seemingly opposed to Christian values could garner such a high number of votes – regardless of voiced opinions on hot issues – surprised many people. But what feels counterintuitive may in fact make perfect sense when looked at from the proper angle, in this case, from the mindset of a historian.

Enter Messiah College historian John Fea with his latest book Believe Me, a highly readable and convincing “story of why so many American evangelicals believe in Donald Trump” (10). The book tracks through recent developments in US religion and politics, but does so in the context of longer historical developments and patterns. Fea talks about the rise of the Moral Majority with as much ease as he does Jeffersonian America, all developing a single line that greatly expands understanding of our current political moment.

The primary reading audience is my fellow evangelicals,” Fee explained in a recent interview, “but there’s a secondary audience, and that is anyone who wants to understand why 81 percent of evangelicals supported Donald Trump.”

Both of those groups would do well to engage with Fea’s arguments. His own faith may lend an urgency to his work, but it won’t turn off secular readers. He tackles the topic “not as a political scientist, pollster, or pundit, but as a historian who identifies as a Christian” (6). Media over the past two years as been saturated with takes from political wonks, but getting to the core of the previous presidential election and the ongoing state of affairs requires a historical point of view. Fea, whose previous works include Why Study History?: Reflecting on the Importance of the Past (Baker Academic, Sep 2013) and Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?: A Historical Introduction (Westminster/ John Knox, rev. Feb 2011) , recognizes the tie between what’s been happening in the US and a necessary understanding of the past.

Read the rest here.

Brian Franklin’s “10 Tweet Review” of *Believe Me*

Believe Me 3dToday Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump got its first Twitter review.  Brian Franklin is Associate Director of the Center for Presidential History at Southern Methodist University.  Here is his review:


*Salon* Reviews *Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump*

Believe Me BannerI am grateful to Salon for publishing Paul Rosenberg’s lengthy review of Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump.

Here is a taste:

Fea’s first chapter is especially riveting for the light it sheds on how evangelicals came to support Trump when they had so many other superficially better-looking options to choose from. He argues convincingly that other GOP candidates did a superior job of courting evangelical voters by traditional means, after eight years of Obama had brought more change than they could handle — Marco Rubio with an impressive advisory council, Mike Huckabee with a track record and issue positions, Ben Carson with an appealing personal story, but most of all Ted Cruz, who “turned fear-mongering into an art form,” which should have trumped everyone else, especially given his father’s history as a popular apocalyptic preacher.

But collectively, Fea writes, they succeeded too well.

Between the summer of 2015 and start of the primary season in early 2016, they were able to diagnose the crisis that the United States was facing in a way that brought great anxiety and concern to American evangelicals. But their strategy backfired. … The evangelical candidates stoked fears of a world they seemed unfit to train. Desperate times call for a strongman, and if a strongman was needed, only Donald Trump would fit the bill.


It’s a powerful, convincing explanation — though incomplete, as I’ll return to below. But Fea is not content just reflecting on what has been. “I want to explore alternatives to the fear, the search for power, and in nostalgia,” Fea writes. “How do we reconcile the white evangelical politics of fear with the scriptural command to ‘fear not’?”  he asks.

“What would it take to replace fear with Christian hope?” The answer he at least prepares the way for comes from an unlikely source — the black church, as reflected in the history, spirit, and legacy of the civil rights movement, which he turns to in the book’s concluding chapter. They model a contrasting triad of hope, humility and history that Fea highlights as providing a powerful alternative model, a road not taken by white evangelicals.

But because the preceding five chapters have been so insular, concerned with the white evangelical world, this solution has the feeling of deus ex machina. Fea himself provides no model for what it might mean or how it might work, until his seemingly belated epiphany. It’s an effective cri de coeur, though as serious sociological and theological critique, much less so. 

Read the entire review here.

John Wilson Reviews *Believe Me* in the *Hedgehog Review*

Believe Me 3dI cannot read the entire review because it is behind the Hedgehog Review paywall, but if Wilson wrote it, I am sure it is a fair review.  John has told me that he disagrees with some of my take on Trump, so I am eager to see what he wrote.

Here is a taste:

We hear a great deal of huffing and puffing about the gap between academic history and the general reader. But we don’t hear enough about the first-rate historians who work in various ways in their various spheres to bridge that gap: figures as wide-ranging as Danielle Allen, Eleanor Parker, Tom Holland, and Kevin Kruse, to name a few.

Any adequate account of such bridge builders must include John Fea, a history professor at Messiah College who is best known for his book Was America Founded as a Christian Nation? “I have long defined myself as a ‘public historian,’ but not in the traditional way that the academy defines public historian,” Fea explained in a recent lecture. “I do not work in a museum or historical society. I teach American history to undergraduates. But having said that, I have worked hard at trying to bring history to bear on public life—to bridge the gap between academic history and public history and to introduce historical interpretation to the public in a way that is accessible and easy to digest. I have tried to do this through my books, my daily blog, my podcast, and, of course, in the classroom. This is my so-called platform.”

The latest product of this desire “to bring history to bear on public life” is Fea’s sardonically titled book Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump. Here, Fea reports on the “court evangelicals” (a memorable phrase he put in circulation) who have given their uncritical support to Trump in exchange for access to the throne and the opportunity, so they suppose, to advance their Christian agenda. To what precise extent their endorsement contributed to the notorious 81 percent of white evangelicals who voted for Trump, we can’t be sure, but certainly they represent at least three significant factions within the vast, unruly evangelical constituency: in Fea’s reckoning, “the new old Christian Right,” which harks back to the heyday of the Moral Majority; followers of the “prosperity gospel”; and the “Independent Network Charismatics,” a movement made up of loosely affiliated groups that operate outside traditional denominational and parachurch settings, with an emphasis on charismatic gifts, “spiritual warfare,” and the need for Christians to occupy critically influential positions in American society.

By providing a lucid narrative of the rise of the court evangelicals, their fawning pronouncements, and their self-contradictions (e.g., character mattered mightily during the Clinton presidency; now it can be brushed aside), Fea has performed a great service. For brazen effrontery, it’s hard to top Jerry Falwell Jr., president of Liberty University. As Fea relates, when presidential candidate Trump was visiting the Liberty campus on Martin Luther King Day 2016, “Falwell Jr. pointed out” that Jesus, Martin Luther King Jr., and Trump “all were persecuted for their ‘radical’ and ‘politically incorrect’ ideas.”

So how did it happen that so many evangelicals, of all people, should vote for a candidate who is manifestly unfit to be president of the United States? For many longtime critics of all things evangelical, the overwhelming support for Trump wasn’t a surprise at all: It merely confirmed their judgment of a fatally flawed movement: hypocritical, intolerant, and deeply infected by white supremacy. (In this view, Trump is the evangelical id, unleashed.) Fea himself takes a slightly different angle, noting that he was initially shocked as well as deeply dismayed by the “large number of my fellow evangelicals” who voted for Trump. Yet, he goes on to say, as time passed, “my distress did not wane, but my surprise did. As a historian studying religion and politics, I should have seen this coming.”

Chris Gehrz Reviews *Believe Me* at The Anxious Bench

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I have yet to hold a published copy of Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump, but I understand that others have copies.    The reviews have already starting rolling in.  Over at The Anxious Blog (Patheos), Chris Gehrz has written a very generous review.  Here is a taste:

Perhaps that makes it seem like he pulls his punches on an issue like racism. But I’d read Fea’s approach differently.

For example, in the first half of ch. 5, on Trump’s promise to “Make America Great Again,” Fea confronts evangelicals with the historical and theological problems inherent in the idea of America as a Christian nation. (Familiar territory for him.) Then while the rest of that chapter reveals the racist and xenophobic subtexts of Trump’s appeals to nostalgia, Fea holds back from indicting white evangelicals themselves. Instead, I think he trusts that such readers who have made it that far in Believe Me can make the connection themselves and question — maybe for the first time — just why they yearn to revive what Russell Moore dismissed as “the supposedly idyllic Mayberry of white Christian America. (“That world,” Moore continued, “was murder, sometimes literally, for minority evangelicals.”)  

Maybe such readers won’t ask that question, or even read the book in the first place; since 2016 I’ve had my own doubts about the possibility of changing evangelical hearts and minds. But there’s some evidence even in recent weeks of conservative Protestants rethinking their commitment to a Trump-led culture war. And believe me, if any historian can succeed in getting American evangelicals to take an even longer, more honest look at themselves in the mirror of their own past, it’s John Fea.

Read the entire review here.

“Fea wonders what period of our history Trump has in mind when he says he wants America to be great ‘again'”

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Here is a taste of a great review of Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump from veteran Kansas City Star religion writer Bill Tammeus:

One of the things that has been missing from nearly all of these explanations and analyses has been a deep sense of the history of evangelical Christians in the U.S., starting at or even before the official birth of our nation. John Fea, who teaches American history at Messiah College and who describes himself as an evangelical, has rectified that in his new and enlightening book, Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump. The official publication date is next week, but it can be pre-ordered now.

Fea is aghast and embarrassed by the choice so many of his fellow evangelicals made in the election. But he finds precedents in history for the way they responded not to hope but to fear. And, he asserts, it was fear and nostalgia for an imagined past that never existed that helped to move them into Trump’s camp. Indeed, Fea writes, “it is possible to write an entire history of American evangelicalism as the story of Christians who have failed to overcome fear.”

Read the entire review here.

“Trump…is the logical conclusion of a conservative evangelicalism that is built on a foundation of sand”

Believe Me 3dThe reviews of Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump are starting to appear at a more rapid rate.  Here is a taste of a review by religion blogger Justin DaMetz:

John Fea, professor of history of Messiah College, has been grappling with this same conundrum at his blog, The Way of Improvement Leads Home, since Trump burst onto the national political scene several years ago. Fea himself is a self-described evangelical Christian. Having read his blog daily for almost three years now, I can safely say he is a true moderate in every sense of the word, someone who never seems, in writing at least, to swing too far left or right from his center, but who doggedly sticks to his moral foundation that is rooted in Christianity. On his blog, you will find posts praising Barack Obama for showcasing a singularly Christian attitude during his presidency, side by side with posts condemning abortion in unequivocal terms and pushing back against the kind of secularism embodied by Bernie Sanders and the progressive movement. He always approaches these issues from the dual lenses of his evangelical beliefs, and his knowledge of American history. If you aren’t a regular reader of his blog, well, you should be.

All of that is to say, Fea is uniquely placed to think and write about the phenomena that is American evangelicalism’s rabid support for Donald Trump. And, he has done just that, in his newest book, Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump. In this book, Fea traces the history of American evangelicalism, and the apocalyptic fear it has always carried around, to the current situation it finds itself in, where its numbers are rapidly shrinking and its influence on the cultural conversation has diminished to the point that the need is felt to throw the weight of the movement behind a thrice-married, openly admitted adulterer and reality TV star. Its the kind of move that reeks of death throes and desperation, and that becomes clear in the pages of Believe Me.

Read the entire review here.

Thanks, Justin!

And don’t forget to pre-order your copy of Believe Me or join us at one of many stops on the book tour.

*Believe Me* Gets a Starred Review from *Publishers Weekly*

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I am pleased to see this.  I hope my publicist won’t mind me quoting part of her e-mail to me, sent last night at 10:52.  (That is one committed publicist!  Thanks, Rachel!).  She writes: “Below you will find a starred review (starred reviews are KIND OF A BIG DEAL) from Publishers Weekly for Believe Me.”

Here is the review:

Fea (Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?), professor of American history at Messiah College in Mechanicsburg, Pa., unpacks the historical roots of Trump’s support among evangelical Christians in this clear, concise, and convincing work. A self-identified evangelical who was appalled by the 2016 election, Fea attempts to explain the overwhelming evangelical support for a president who seems antithetical to traditional Christian values. Fea uses his training as a historian to trace a chronology of the evangelical attraction to political power and locates three historical appeals to evangelicals that Trump exploits: fear of perceived threats (both foreign and domestic), desired access to political power, and nostalgia for a perceived American golden age. Fea looks for connections between Trump’s nostalgic rhetoric and particular historical events such as the racist Andrew Jackson presidency and the “America First” movement that strove to keep the U.S. out of WWII. He also provides a frightening portrait of outspoken evangelical leaders with direct access to Trump (including Baptist writer Robert Jeffress and Christian Zionist Mike Evans), and offers an alternative way (relying on hope and humility) for evangelical leaders to think about their relation to power. Although Fea downplays the mythic side of Trump’s appeal, that does little to undermine this important title, which brings to the surface the recurring fear tactics that underpin American evangelical politics. (June)

Don’t forget to pre-order at your favorite bookstore.

*Religion Dispatches* Reviews *Believe Me*

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Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump will not be released until late June, but several folks have already received advanced reader copies.  The first substantial review of the book comes from the progressive religion website Religion DispatchesGreg Carey, who teaches New Testament at Lancaster Theological Seminary, has provided a very fair review.

Here is a taste:

Messiah College historian John Fea has earned the right to author a book on this topic. His research focuses on American Christianity, including his nuanced, Was America Founded as a Christian Nation? that book put the lie to David Barton’s Christian nationalist mythology, and his critiques of evangelical writer Eric Metaxas, which earned a blocking on Twitter. Fea’s blog, “The Way of Improvement Leads Home,” enjoys wide appreciation. I consider John a friendly and admired acquaintance.

Fea is an insider who teaches at an evangelical college and attends an evangelical megachurch. When he describes the experience of walking into his church the Sunday after the 2016 election, surmising that most of his fellow believers had voted for a horrible person like Donald Trump, I feel his pain.

Fea begins by setting forth the obvious reasons one might expect evangelicals to reject Donald Trump. Trump’s faults extend beyond personal moral failings and “virtually no evidence of a Spirit-filled life.” Other Republican candidates shared conservative policy values, and with greater consistency than Trump, and possessed far more compelling spiritual bona fides. Yet before Trump defeated Hilary Clinton, he defeated those conservative Christian candidates. White evangelicals still support Trump.

Fea walks a fine line between empathy for his fellow evangelicals and critical appraisal. He believes evangelicals hold legitimate grievances against Democrats. He explains that during the Obama administration evangelicals experienced setbacks at a dizzying pace, particularly with respect to matters of gender and sexuality. Obama’s stance on abortion could be taken as a given, but his change of mind on same-sex marriage—if it was indeed a change of mind—was an unwelcome surprise. Fea perceives attacks on religious liberty in the Affordable Care Act’s requirements concerning birth control and the Obama Justice Department’s enforcement of civil rights for LGBT persons. All of these factors motivated evangelicals to believe that they and their movement were under siege.

But evangelicals will also feel Fea’s sting. In Fea’s analysis, three tropes—fear, nostalgia, and power—primarily account for Trump’s appeal to evangelicals. A sense of cultural disorientation tinged with racism plays into the long-standing conservative strategy—the appeal to fear, nurtured by Trump more effectively than any other candidate. If evangelicals disagreed with his policies, “Obama’s biracialism, single-parent upbringing, and global experiences made him a poster child for the demographic changes taking place in the country.” Fea’s chapter, “A Short History of Evangelical Fear,” is worth the price of the book.

Read the entire review here.