How Trump Undermines Democracy

Framers CoupMichael Klarman is the Kirkland & Ellis Professor at Harvard Law School and the author of The Framers’ Coup: The Making of the United States Constitution. (See our Author’s Corners interview with Klarman here).

Check out his piece at Process: “Trump, Democracy, and the Constitution.”

Here is a taste:

At the Philadelphia Convention of 1787, Elbridge Gerry, a delegate from Massachusetts, warned against too much democracy. The people, he stated, were “the dupes of pretended patriots” and were “daily misled into the most baneful measures and opinions by the false reports circulated by designing men.” Two hundred and thirty years later, Gerry’s concerns—which most of the framers shared—were vindicated: the American people elected a president who disdains basic tenets of democracy.

Democracy depends on norms, some written into the Constitution, others implicit in it. Donald Trump regularly disparages or repudiates at least ten of these norms: (1) an independent judiciary; (2) the freedom of the press; (3) the presence and function of independent actors within government; (4) the peaceful resolution of political disputes rather than the encouragement of violence; (5) the acknowledgment of the legitimacy of election results and recognition of the sanctity of the right to vote; (6) a refusal to threaten legal prosecution against political opponents; (7) the condemnation of brutal foreign dictators; (8) a respect for transparency within government; (9) a sharp separation between the private and public interests of governmental officials; and (10) at least a minimal commitment to the truth. These norms are essential to American democracy, yet Trump routinely violates them.

Read the rest here.   I discuss some similar ideas in my forthcoming Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump.

Read the rest here.

Approaching Trump Theologically

TrumpThat is what Ed Simon of The Marginalia Review of Books does at History News Network.

Here is a taste of his piece, “Can You Imagine What It Must Be Like to Be Donald Trump?“:

In suggesting that there must be something hellish about the experience of being Trump, I am not trying to engender any sort of sympathy for the man. Questions of his redemption are between him and those he harms, and then to whatever God he directs his prayers. Instead, I worry about what the implications are that such a man occupies so much of our attention, colonizing our very consciousness, dominating not just our livelihood but our inner lives.

Does such a small, angry, cruel man not risk making all of us small, angry and cruel? Does the bully pulpit threaten to turn us all into bullies? That is not to minimize the very real material repercussions of his policies, or the callousness and cruelty of his administration. The assaults on immigrants and workers, women and LGBTQ individuals, Muslims and African-Americans are sadly very real. But I also fear the intangible results of his rhetoric, of his perspective, and his emboldening of hate. If Trump is in his own hell, I worry that every day he threatens to pull us into it with him. Mephistopheles’ said in Marlowe’s 16th century play Dr. Faustus that “Why this is hell, nor am I out of it,” something I understand every time I receive a new push notification. This is the peculiar logic of the autocrat – he demands attention and you no longer have the option to direct your interests outward, to be free of him. His ultimate ideology is narcissism, and his only faith is himself.

Read the entire piece here.

“a historian at an evangelical college and a consistent critic of Trump”

Trump bioI’ll take it!  At least I am “consistent.”

Last weekend someone messaged to tell me that I was quoted in David Brody and Scott Lamb’s book The Faith of Donald Trump: A Spiritual Biography.

Here is what they wrote:

p.307:  Nevertheless, cynical criticism erupted.  William Barber, a North Carolina minister and political leader, said the Oval Office camaraderie and prayer amounted to “theological malpractice that borders on heresy.”  John Fea, a historian at an evangelical college and a consistent critic of Trump, wrote that “Trump  has forced them [evangelicals] to embrace pragmatism that could change the gospel around the world, and force many Christians to rethink their religious identities and affiliations.”

p.311: So, even while understanding that Trump did not “come from us,” the way explicitly evangelical candidates like Mike Huckabee and Ben Carson did, leaders like Jeffress can state, “We thank God every day that he gave us a leader like Donald Trump.”  And Donald Trump returns the love with his own public affirmation: “You fought hard for me, and now I am fighting hard for all of you.”

Now, such language causes some evangelicals concern; Rob Schenk wrote that Believe Me JPEG“Evangelicals are a tool of Donald Trump.  This could be the undoing of American evangelicalism.  We could just become a political operation in the guise of a church.”  And John Fea wrote that “Trump threatens to change the course of American Christianity.”

That seems a bit over the top to say the least….

Of course I have a lot more to say about Trump in my forthcoming Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump.

Randall Balmer on the Christian Right’s Changing Code of Ethics

Trump court evangelicals

Randall Balmer, a lifelong observer of American evangelicalism, reflects on the “flexible” values of the Christian Right.

Here is a summary of Balmer’s sense of the “new” Christian Right ethical code:

  1. “Lying is all right as long as it serves a higher purpose.”
  2. “It’s no problem to married more than, well, twice.”
  3. “Immigrants are scum”
  4. “Vulgarity is a sign of strength and resolve”
  5. “White live matter (much more than others)”
  6. “There’s no harm in spending time with porn stars”
  7. “It’s all right for adults to date children”
  8. “The end justifies the means”

See how Balmer develops this points here.

Trump Evangelicals and “Legitimate Concerns”

Over at my Facebook page some very good historians and scholars who I respect have been critical of Mark Noll‘s blurb for my forthcoming (June) book Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump.

Here is the blurb:

Noll Fea quote

I tried to capture some of this last night in a series of tweets:

John Wilson, the editor of the now defunct Books & Culture, responded to these veiled tweets:

I even had one friend tell me on Facebook that I should get Eerdmans to edit Noll’s blurb to remove the word “legitimate.”

Frankly, I think Noll’s blurb nails it.  (After all, he read the book.  None of the critics have seen it).  Evangelicals do have “legitimate” concerns. They have also responded to those concerns, as Noll writes, in very unhealthy ways.

I thought about all of this again this morning as I read Peggy Noonan’s Wall Street Journal column.  She writes:

We discuss motives, but isn’t it always the same motive? “I have murder in my heart.” Why do so many Americans have murder in their hearts?

That is my question after the St. Valentine’s Day shootings at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla. We all know it is part of a continuing cultural catastrophe. A terrible aspect of the catastrophe is that so many central thoughts about it, and questions, have been flattened by time into clichés. People stop hearing when you mention them. “We talked about that during Columbine, didn’t we? That couldn’t be it.”

So we immediately revert to discussions of gun law, and only gun law. There is much to be improved in that area—I offer a suggestion at the end—but it is not the only part of the story. The story is also who we are now and what shape we’re in.

A way to look at the question is: What has happened the past 40 years or so to produce a society so ill at ease with itself, so prone to violence?

We know. We all say it privately, but it’s so obvious it’s hardly worth saying. We have been swept by social, technological and cultural revolution. The family blew up—divorce, unwed childbearing. Fatherless sons. Fatherless daughters, too. Poor children with no one to love them. The internet flourished. Porn proliferated. Drugs, legal and illegal. Violent videogames, in which nameless people are eliminated and spattered all over the screen. (The Columbine shooters loved and might have been addicted to “Doom.”) The abortion regime settled in, with its fierce, endless yet somehow casual talk about the right to end a life. An increasingly violent entertainment culture—low, hypersexualized, full of anomie and weirdness, allergic to meaning and depth. The old longing for integration gave way to a culture of accusation—you are a supremacist, a misogynist, you are guilty of privilege and defined by your color and class, we don’t let your sort speak here.

So much change, so much of it un-gentle. Throughout, was anyone looking to children and what they need? That wasn’t really a salient aim or feature of all the revolutions, was it? The adults were seeing to what they believed were their rights. Kids were a side thought.

At this moment we are in the middle of a reckoning about how disturbed our sexual landscape has become. This past week we turned to violence within marriages. We recently looked at the international sex trade, a phrase that sounds so 18th-century but refers to a real and profitable business.

All this change, compressed into 40 years, has produced some good things, even miraculous ones. But it does not feel accidental that America is experiencing what appears to be a mental-health crisis, especially among the young. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently reported as many as 20% of children 3 to 17 have, in any given year, a mental or emotional illness. There is research indicating depression among teenagers is worsening. National Public Radio recently quoted a 2005 report asserting the percentage of prison inmates with serious mental illness rose from less than 1% in 1880 to 21% in 2005. Deinstitutionalization swept health care and the psychiatric profession starting in the 1960s, and has continued since. The sick now go to the emergency room or stay among us untreated. In the society we have created the past 40 years, you know we are not making fewer emotionally ill young people, but more.

Not everyone will agree with me, but I do think Noonan addresses “legitimate concerns.”  The issue, as I see it, is less about the diagnosis of the problem and more about how to respond to it.  As I argue in Believe Me, Trump is not the answer.   Read the book and decide whether I am right–both about the “legitimate concerns” and about Trump as the answer.  And don’t forget to pre-order here.  🙂

Believe Me JPEG

“Evangelicals Fell For It”

Trump bioI will confess that I had never heard of conservative pundit Erick Erickson until he started speaking out against Trump. Yesterday The Weekly Standard published Erickson’s scathing review of David Brody’s and Scott Lamb’s The Faith of Donald Trump.  It is brutal.

Here is a taste:

President Trump relishes his reputation as a savvy dealmaker. “Deals are my art form,” he once tweeted. “Other people paint beautifully or write poetry. I like making deals, preferably big deals.” He promised during the 2016 campaign that if elected, he would work with politicians and foreign leaders to make “smart deals for the country.” But since he took office there has been precious little evidence of Trump’s vaunted dealmaking prowess. Such successes as his administration has been able to claim have generally been accomplished without his direct involvement—and sometimes in spite of it.

There is, though, one obvious piece of evidence from the president’s political career that suggests his dealmaking reputation might be deserved after all: the relationship he has with evangelical political leaders. He has lavished them with attention and let them bask in his celebrity star-power, things that they, long feeling like outsiders in American culture and politics, have badly craved. In exchange, they have thrown him their support—unconditional support, by all appearances—and with it, the backing of a political constituency vital to his success at the polls.

In The Faith of Donald J. Trump, authors David Brody and Scott Lamb provide an in-depth look at the relationship between the president and American evangelicals. Brody and Lamb—respectively a newscaster with Pat Robertson’s Christian Broadcasting Network and a vice president at Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University—have written what they dub a “spiritual biography,” even though they come right out and say they have no intention of answering the question of whether Trump is a Christian. Instead, they hope to convey his faith through his actions.

In the process, though, Brody and Lamb inadvertently expose the corruption and moral vacuity of the political evangelical movement in the United States.

Trump only started paying attention to evangelicals once he began to consider running for president—some five or more years before the 2016 campaign. He made a show of cozying up to evangelical pastors who write books that usually don’t sell well outside their own congregations. He reached out to the prosperity-gospel heretic Paula White and flattered her. He asked questions of other religious leaders.

As his ambitions grew, Trump cannily cultivated relationships with evangelicals, and they convinced themselves that those relationships must be sincere since they began before he openly started campaigning for the presidency. Once he did start openly campaigning, the outreach only became more intensive. As Brody and Lamb report, Trump would seek out the preachers to sit next to at events. He would bring his mother’s Bible to meetings to show it off. Evangelicals fell for it. So deluded and distracted are they by the trappings of power, they do not even see what Brody and Lamb see. “He’s the P. T. Barnum of the 21st century,” an anonymous banker in the book says of Donald Trump. These evangelical leaders have yet to realize that they are the suckers.

Read the entire review here.

In case you haven’t heard, we take a different approach to Trump in Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump.

Believe Me JPEG

Trump Follows the Presidential Script in the Wake of the Florida School Shootings

I was happy to contribute to Sarah Pulliam Bailey’s piece at The Washington Post.  Here is a taste:

Trump’s speech mimics a long American tradition of using religion to address a national tragedy.

“We expect our president to address evil and calm fears in this way,” said John Fea, a professor of history at Messiah College in Pennsylvania. “There is nothing in the United States Constitution that says the president must do this, but we still expect it from the man or woman who holds the office.”

Trump’s speech on Thursday closely followed a familiar presidential script, according to Daniel K. Williams, a professor of history at the University of West Georgia. The speech showed how Trump, who is unlike his predecessors in so many ways, conformed.

After the Charlottesville protests last year, Williams said, many Americans expected a speech to follow these categories, but Trump got into trouble for not delivering one and instead suggesting that there was blame on “both sides.”

Trump used the word “evil” in his speeches last year after the mass shootings at a church in Sutherland Springs, Tex., and during a concert in Las Vegas.

Read the entire piece here.

Here are some additional thoughts about Trump’s speech today:

This is a typical speech from a POTUS in the wake of a tragedy, but let’s remember that Trump is not a typical president.  His words here must be considered in the context of other speeches and the policies he defends.  A few quick points:
  1. The reference to prayer is pretty standard fare for presidential speeches in the wake of tragedy, but in Trump’s case it seems like pandering to his evangelical base.  As an evangelical, I believe in prayer.  It is necessary in times like this.  But as many are saying on social media (and have said in the wake of other shootings), prayers aren’t enough.  We need to take action on guns.  Even the court evangelicals believe that the purpose of government is to protect its citizens.  Yet don’t expect them to condemn the pro-NRA politicians any time soon.  The court evangelicals need the NRA lobby to help them get the right candidates, with the right views on abortion and religious liberty, into office.
  2. Trump’s reading off the teleprompter makes him sound like he lacks emotion and empathy.  I am reminded of when Obama started to cry in the wake of Sandy Hook.
  3. Trump says: “Answer hate with love, answer cruelty with kindness.”  I am thinking about this phrase in light of Trump’s immigration and “America first” policy.  I thought the same thing when he said “we must embrace a culture…that embraces the dignity of life.”  The same could be said of his call to create “deep and meaningful human connections.”  Trump can’t really mean this.  His policies and policy programs have cultivated division and disunity.  This is empty rhetoric, not the words of presidential leadership.

It’s Happening Again


From Publishers Weekly:

In its FY2019 budget proposal, unveiled today, the Trump administration has once again proposed the permanent elimination of the National Endowments for the Arts and Humanities, as well as the elimination of the Institute of Museum and Library Services (and with it virtually all federal library funding).

The proposal comes just days after the president signed a two-year budget bill that will add as much as $400 billion in federal spending through the 2019 fiscal year, and it doubles down on Trump’s efforts to eliminate the agencies in his FY2018 budget—which the House of representatives ultimately rejected last September.

Read the rest here.  Time to write another letter and perhaps make a phone call.

Bacon’s Rebellion in the Age of Trump


We covered Bacon’s Rebellion yesterday in my U.S. survey class.  Like last year, the subject seems more relevant than ever.  I wrote this piece a few months ago at The Panorama:

In Spring 2017, I gave a lecture to my history students about a man of privilege, wealth, and power who took up the cause of a growing band of disgruntled, poor, fearful, white Americans. These Americans believed that the government was not listening to their concerns. They were angry about their lack of opportunity and political representation. They felt threatened by their encounters with people from another race and culture. The man of privilege heard their cry and led them in a rebellion that temporarily drove the ruling class from power. To the extent that some of the ruling class owned land near major rivers, it might even be fair to say that this rebellion was an attempt to “drain the swamp.”

Read the rest here

Evangelicals Step Up to the Plate on Immigration


Later this month I am scheduled to give a lecture to the board of trustees of a Christian college.  The college asked me to speak on the following topic: “How Has Evangelical Christianity Made a Positive Difference in the World?”  I am still working on the talk, and I will probably post is somewhere at some point.

I thought about my assignment this morning as I read this editorial in The Register-Guard of Eugene, Oregon.  It is titled “Evangelical heart, finally.”  Here is a taste:

When more than 100 Christian leaders took a stand last week for the right of “Dreamers” to stay in America, it shouldn’t have surprised anybody. Shouldn’t Christians, above all, be concerned with the “least of these” — as Jesus was?

And yet evangelicals’ track record since the rise of Donald Trump has more passion for Trump’s “Make American Great Again” campaign than for Jesus’ “Love One Another” campaign. During a two-year binge in which Trump has sloughed off sexual assault, disparaged Third World countries and refused to disavow the KKK, evangelicals have offered only scattered objections — notably students and alums of Jerry Falwell Jr.’s Liberty University, who have taken a public stand to say Trump should be a source of “shame and anger” for Christians.

Meanwhile, well-known evangelical leaders such as Franklin Graham, James Dobson and Tony Perkins have, at least publicly, emerged less as disciples of Christ than idolizers of, and apologists for, Trump.

Which is why last week’s ad in The Washington Post by the evangelicals was refreshing.

“As Christian leaders, we have a commitment to caring for the vulnerable in our churches while also supporting just, compassionate and welcoming policies toward refugees and other immigrants,” the letter begins. It on to request legal protection for Dreamers who entered the U.S. as children, an increase in admissions of refugees and persecuted Christians, and higher priority for immigrants seeking to reunite with their families.

Read the rest here.

Another Convening of the Court (Evangelicals)

This is from court evangelical Greg Laurie‘s Twitter feed:

I don’t recognize everyone in the picture, but I do see Franklin Graham, Paula White, Tim Clinton, and Robert Jeffress.

After looking at this photo-op I am reminded of former court evangelical A.R. Bernard’s line.

By the way, Chapter Four of my forthcoming Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump is entitled “Power Brokers: The Court Evangelicals.”  The good folks at Eerdmans Publishing tell me that pre-orders help them get the message of the book to the maximum number of people.

Believe Me JPEG


3 Books (So Far) on God and Donald Trump

Believe Me JPEGCheck out the recent piece at Religion News Service on three new books on Trump and Christian faith.  They are:

Stephen Mansfield, Choosing Donald Trump.  I have read it.  It is a straightforward narrative of Trump’s history with evangelicals.  Mansfield is a conservative evangelical, but he is not much a Trump supporter.

Steven Strang, God and Donald Trump.  I have read it.  Strang’s book can be summarized in one sentence:  Trump is God’s anointed one. I have blogged about it here.

David Brody and Scott Lamb, The Faith of Donald Trump: A Spiritual Biography.  I have not read it yet, but I have read Ed Kilgore’s review.  I should also add that Lamb just landed a new gig at Liberty University as “Vice President of Special Literary Projects.” Interesting.

In a few months my own book on Trump and evangelicals will appear.  I don’t need to tell readers of this blog that it will be a VERY DIFFERENT book.  Pre-order Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump.  I will be hitting the road with the book after the June 30 book launch at the Midtown Scholar in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.  We are currently booking dates through the end of the year.

On Balcony Heroes

Many media outlets gave Donald Trump high praise for the so-called “balcony heroes” he used during his first State of the Union Address last week.  The bloggers at Harvard University Press remind us that Ronald Reagan was the first president to weave these heroic stories into his State of the Union addresses.  They also remind us that Princeton historian Daniel T. Rodgers wrote about Reagan’s balcony heroes in his Bancroft Prize-winning book The Age of Fracture.

Here is a taste of Rodgers (as cited by the Harvard UP blog):

The impulse to disaggregate and individualize the people took still more prominent symbolic form in the so-called heroes in the balcony segment of his State of the Union messages. Reagan did not inaugurate the practice of calling forward an individual’s special deeds in a major state address. He was the first, however, to take the inherently public occasion of a report on the nation from the chief of one branch of government to the heads of another and dissolve it, toward the end, into a montage of individual faces. Heroes, volunteers, teenagers with dreams, returned prisoners of war were gathered in the halls of Congress, where Reagan, stepping out of the camera’s eye once more, would introduce them one by one. In 1963, John Kennedy had read the names of three American soldiers killed in Cuba, South Korea, and Vietnam. But here they now were in the flesh, where the applause, the acts of individual accomplishment, and the guest-program tableau all redounded to the administration’s acclaim. The first three heroes in the balconies appeared in Reagan’s State of the Union address in 1982; five more appeared in 1984, two in 1985, four in 1986.

Reagan was fond of saying that his political opponents saw people only as members of groups; his party, to the contrary, saw the people of America as individuals. In fact, no set of Americans was ever chosen with a keener grasp of interest group politics than were Reagan’s heroes in the balconies. A charitable black woman reassured Reagan’s audience that the president had not forgotten the poor; a Hispanic medic drew sympathy for the Grenada invasion; a returned prisoner of war appealed to the patriotic electorate; a teenager whose experiment had been lost in the Challenger explosion lobbied silently for the high frontier of space; the two business figures on the list, a black female advertising executive and a Cuban refugee entrepreneur, spoke to the aspiration of minority business owners.

But the collective calculations of politics brooked no mention. Introduced by the presidential program host, the constituent atoms of the people stood up, for their moment in the camera’s eye, one by one. Reagan asked viewers, not to imitate them or to rise to the challenge they set, but only to applaud them, to believe that their acts were possible. “We the people,” as a collective entity, tacitly disaggregated under the touch.

Read the entire passage here.

Trump’s “God and Country” Language in National Prayer Breakfast Speech

Trump prayer

I offered my take on the speech here. I also contributed to Sarah Pulliam Bailey’s piece at The Washington Post.  Here is a taste:

In some ways, Trump’s speech fit the types of prayer breakfast speeches given by presidents in the past, said John Fea, a professor of history at Messiah College. Trump spoke about the role America has to play to create a more just world, an idea President Barack Obama would have promoted as well.

“There are Christians both on the left and the right who see America as a force for good,” Fea said.

However, Trump went a bit further, he said, where American exceptionalism was implied. “This is something that gets the Christian right … very excited,” he said.

Read the entire piece here.

Some Quick Reflections on Trump’s Prayer Breakfast Speech


G.K. Chesterton once said that America “is a nation with the soul of a church.”  Trump’s prayer breakfast speech this morning was as good as it could be in a nation with the soul of the church.  The speech was infused with the usual themes of civil religion:  “In God We Trust,” “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance, “Praise to be to God” on the Washington Monument,” and plenty of references to the Providence of God.  When you combine Christian theology with nationalism it can breed the worst forms of idolatry.  At the same time, American presidents have been doing this for a long time.  Check out Kevin Kruse’s excellent book One Nation Under God: How Corporate America Invented Christian America.

Some of my anti-Trump friends will trash the speech.  Fair enough.  But there was nothing about this speech that was unusual or unique to Donald Trump.  A version of this speech could have been delivered by FDR, Ike, JFK, Reagan, or Obama.  It was a straight-forward appeal to American civil religion.

A few quick observations:

  • I am glad that there was no reference to Arnold Schwarzenegger this year.
  • I was unsure if the reference to “we are God’s handiwork” was a reference to individuals or the United States
  • Irony:  Trump said prayer helps families to thrive even as he is tearing families apart with his immigration policies.
  • At the end of the speech Trump said we should follow the founders.  It implies that they were Christians or at least people who cared about peace and justice.  This is not entirely true.  The founders were morally complex people.  We should probably not invoke them in a prayer breakfast.

Is Donald Trump a New Cyrus or a “Baby Christian?”

Believe Me JPEGDonald Trump will address the 66th annual National Prayer Breakfast today.  Last night I read a Voice of America piece on the event.  This piece triggered a few thoughts.

It seems that Trump’s evangelical supporters approach his presidency in one of two ways.

First, there is the “King Cyrus” crowd.  These are the court evangelicals who believe that God appointed Trump to deliver evangelicals from secular forces trying to undermine America’s status as God’s chosen people.  In the Old Testament, Cyrus was the Persian King who freed the Jews from captivity and allowed them to return to Jerusalem.  Cyrus was a pagan.  Yet God used him.  In this scenario, Trump does not need to be a Christian or exemplify Christian character for him to play a providential role in human history.  Those who embrace this view believe that they have a firm grasp on the will of God or else they claim that God has given them special revelation.

Second, there is the “baby Christian” crowd.  These are court evangelicals who believe that Donald Trump had a born-again experience.  He is a “baby Christian” who is still growing in his faith.  We should thus understand his blunders and anti-Christian statements and policies as part of this spiritual growth.  Moreover, his past sins have been forgiven and we should now give him a second chance–a “mulligan‘ if you will–because God offers sinners “second chances” through the Gospel.

Here is a third option:  Trump is not a new Cyrus or a “baby Christian.”  He is a political opportunist who is using the court evangelicals to sustain power.

I have done my best to interpret the evangelical support of Trump in my forthcoming book Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump.