Court Evangelicals Tony Perkins and Eric Metaxas Talk About Their Court Evangelicalism

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4 Court Evangelicals:  Robert Jeffress, Ralph Reed, Tony Perkins, and Eric Metaxas

On July 5, 2019, court evangelical Tony “Mulligan” Perkins of the Family Research Council  hosted court evangelical and author Eric Metaxas on his “Washington Watch” radio program.  The conversation was devoted to Metaxas’s 2016 book If You Can Keep It: The Forgotten Promise of American Liberty,  Readers of The Way of Improvement Leads Home blog are aware that this book is riddled with historical problems, many of which I wrote about in a series of posts when the book was published.

Listen to the Perkins-Metaxas conversation here.

Here are some comments:

2:00ff:  Metaxas, citing Christian author Os Guinness, suggests that the founders believed that virtue was essential to a republic and that people could not be virtuous without “faith.”  There are some problems with this formulation.  The founders did believe that virtue was essential to a healthy republic.  Virtue was a political term.  The virtuous person–usually a man–was someone who sacrificed his own interests for the greater good of the republic.  With this definition, it seems as if there would be a lot of present-day Americans–including socialists–who might have a claim on this kind of eighteenth-century political virtue.  In fact, one of our best historians of American socialism, Nick Salvatore, has argued that socialists like Eugene Debs drew heavily upon this tradition of republic virtue.

Moreover, as I argued in my book The Way of Improvement Leads Home: Philip Vickers Fithian and the Rural Enlightenment in Early America, many founding fathers, including Ben Franklin (who uttered the saying in the title of Metaxas’s book), believed that Christianity or religion was not the only source of this kind of virtue.

2:45ff:  I don’t know of any “progressive” or person of “the Left” who is invoking the French Revolution these days.  (I am willing to be proven wrong on this).  Metaxas describes the French Revolution in terms of bloodbaths, anarchy, madness, egalitarianism, socialism, and the general lack of freedom.  Later in the interview Metaxas says that fear was not a factor in the evangelical turn toward Donald Trump.  As I argued in Believe Me, fear-mongers often build on false or exaggerated claims.  Isn’t this what Metaxas is doing here?  Perkins and Metaxas want to keep everyone scared so they pull the lever for Trump in 2020 and continue to man the ramparts of the culture wars.

4:50ff:  Metaxas says that we have been given a “sacred charge, a holy charge by God” to preserve the United States of America.  Here Metaxas equates the fate of America with the will of God as if the United States is some kind of new Israel.  He also says that if the Christian church does its job in the United States, “freedom will flourish.”

Is this true?  Is the role of the church to promote political freedom?

Metaxas confuses the mission of the Christian church with American freedom.  He fails to recognize that if the church does its work in the world, Christians will realize that their American freedoms are limited by a higher calling.  For example, if the church is doing its work fewer Christians will “pursue happiness” in terms of materialistic consumption. Fewer Christians will commit adultery or file for divorce.  The number of abortions will be reduced.  Hate speech will decline.  The number of people viewing pornography will be reduced.  The right to be gluttonous, greedy, slothful, and envious will decline. The right to own vehicles that destroy the environment will be curbed.  Of course all of these things–materialism, consumerism, adultery, divorce, hate speech, pornography, gluttony, greed, sloth, envy, the ownership of a big SUV– are legal and protected under our freedoms as Americans. They are also contrary to Christian teaching. Americans are “free” to hate their neighbor and their enemies.  But if you claim to be a follower of Jesus you are not free to do these things.  So if the church is doing its work in world, Christians should become less, not more, “free” in the American sense of the word.

9:40ff:  Perkins implies that those evangelicals  who do not support Donald Trump do not “think,” “pray,” or “act.” (For the record this anti-Trump evangelical does try to think, pray, and act).  Metaxas says that those who oppose the POTUS are “prideful” and “myopic.”

I’ve noticed that when Metaxas is talking with critics such as Kristin Powers and Jonathan Merritt he backpedals and issues calls for civility.  But when he is on the air with a fellow court evangelicals like Perkins, he returns to his 2016 Wall Street Journal op-ed mode of calling out the judgement of God on anti-Trumpers.

10:35ff:  Metaxas says: “we are at a tipping point in America…we could go back to the 1750s where we no longer have American style freedom.”  This is more fear-mongering.  It reminds me of when Ted Cruz said that if Clinton won in 2016 the government would start erasing crosses and stars of David from tombstones.  Metaxas also fails to realize that his conservative approach to the world looks very much like the British freedoms all the American colonists enjoyed in 1750.

11:30ff:  Metaxas brings up David French’s article on fear and notes that the piece attacks him by name.  Read this and this.

11:50ff: Metaxas defends Richard Nixon. He claims that George McGovern wanted to “take us down a socialist road.”  The last time I checked, McGovern was not a socialist. Here Metaxas implies that Nixon may have indeed committed a crime in office, but at least he wasn’t a big-government liberal.

12:00ff:  Metaxas compares those evangelicals who do not “get their hands dirty” voting for Trump to those who did not stand up to Hitler.  (Of course Hillary Clinton is the “Hitler” figure here–a comparison Metaxas has made before).

12:30ff:  Throughout this interview, Metaxas sloppily (although I don’t think he believes it is sloppy) mixes Christian faith and American ideals.  He talks about the blood of Jesus dying for sinners and in the very same sentence references the “minute men” in the American Revolution dying for “freedom” and the un-“biblical” Loyalists.  This is not unlike the way in which many 18th-century patriotic ministers interpreted Galatians 5:1 to mean freedom from British tyranny instead of freedom “in Christ.”  (I discuss this old American evangelical bad habit in Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?: A Historical Introduction).

If we want a quick introduction to Metaxas and his thinking, listen to this interview.

David French Elaborates on Evangelical Fear

 

Believe Me 3dWe covered this last week after several folks e-mailed me to ask if I sent David French a copy of Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump.  Read that post here.

David French and Jon Meacham were on “Morning Joe” this morning:

In this interview, French does say that this fear has been present before 2016.  (I challenged him to think historically in the post to which I linked above).

Both evangelical “fear” and the evangelical pursuit of “power” are mentioned in this interview.  Of course these are the main themes of Believe Me.

David French and the Fear Factor

Meme-believeme 2Today I received multiple e-mails, tweets, and messages asking me if I know David French or if I have given him a copy of Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump.  His recent piece in Time, “Evangelicals Are Supporting Trump Out of Fear, Not Faith,” sounds quite familiar.

Here is a taste:

White evangelicals are largely Republican, and they’re generally going to vote for Republicans. And proximity to power has always had its attractions for religious charlatans of all stripes. But I’d suggest the real reason for the breadth and depth of evangelical support is deeper and–perversely–even more destructive to its religious witness.

That reason is fear.

Talk to engaged evangelicals, and fear is all too often a dominant theme of their political life. The church is under siege from a hostile culture. Religious institutions are under legal attack from progressives. The left wants nuns to facilitate access to abortifacients and contraceptives, it wants Christian adoption agencies to compromise their conscience or close, and it even casts into doubt the tax exemptions of religious education institutions if they adhere to traditional Christian sexual ethics.

These issues are legally important, and there are reasons for evangelicals to be concerned. But there is no reason for evangelicals to abandon long-held principles to behave like any other political-interest group.

Instead, the evangelical church is called to be a source of light in a darkening world. It is not given the luxury of fear-based decisionmaking. Indeed, of all the groups in American life who believe they have the least to fear from American politics, Christians should top the list. The faithful should reject fear.

Read the entire piece here.

And no, I have never met French, nor, as far as I know, did Eerdmans Publishing send him a copy of Believe Me.

French also writes:

But in 2016, something snapped. I saw Christian men and women whom I’ve known and respected for years respond with raw fear at the very idea of a Hillary Clinton presidency. They believed she was going to place the church in mortal danger. The Christian writer Eric Metaxas wrote that if Hillary won, America’s chance to have a “Supreme Court that values the Constitution” will be “gone.” “Not for four years, not for eight,” he said, “but forever.”

This is true, and I write about it in Believe Me, but I go one step further by showing that 2016 was not the first time that white evangelicals have played the fear card.  In fact, it is a longstanding (three centuries!) feature of evangelical political engagement.

Last Night’s Court Evangelical Tweetstorm

For those who missed it (the link in the first tweet is now correct):

More Politics of Fear

And the politics of fear continues.  This sounds like the New England Federalists after Jefferson got elected in 1800.  Some of them thought Jefferson and his henchman would invade New England, steal their Bibles, and close their churches.   The video embedded in Aaron Rupar’s tweet confirms a major part of my argument in Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump.

One more thing: I want to know what court evangelical Jerry Falwell Jr. would actually do to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez if she comes after his cows.

Fear Not

I John 4:7-21:

Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God. 8Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love. 9In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him. 10In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins.11Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. 12No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God abides in us and his love is perfected in us.

13By this we know that we abide in him and he in us, because he has given us of his Spirit. 14And we have seen and testify that the Father has sent his Son to be the Savior of the world. 15Whoever confesses that Jesus is the Son of God, God abides in him, and he in God. 16So we have come to know and to believe the love that God has for us. God is love, and whoever abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him. 17By this is love perfected with us, so that we may have confidence for the day of judgment, because as he is so also are we in this world. 18There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not been perfected in love. 19We love because he first loved us. 20If anyone says, “I love God,” and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannota love God whom he has not seen. 21And this commandment we have from him: whoever loves God must also love his brother.

Despite these biblical calls not to dwell in fear, it seems like evangelicals have embraced what Washington Post columnist Catherine Rampell describes as the Republican Party’s “closing argument” in the 2018 midtern election: “Be afraid, be very afraid.”

Here is a taste of her piece:

Immigrants are coming for your children and lake houses. Socialists are coming for your Medicare (huh?). Black football players are coming for your flag. And now the Democrats are coming for your 401(k).

Republicans’ closing argument: Be afraid, be very afraid.

The GOP has had unified control of government for nearly two years now. Yet, somehow, Republicans’ promised return to morning in America, that end of “American carnage,” still hasn’t arrived, according to both their own standard-bearer and their terrifying campaign ads.

It’s funny, in a way. Unemployment is historically low. Consumer confidence is buoyant. There actually is a compelling, positive story to tell about the state of the country — or at least, the state of the economy — today. Whether President Trump can legitimately claim credit for recent economic trends is a nonissue; we know he has no problem taking credit for things he inherited, including his personal wealth. So at the very least, he could be emphasizing those economic milestones.

Read the rest here.

Of course “fear” among evangelicals is a central theme in this book:

Believe Me 3d

 

Billy Graham’s *Decision* Magazine Says Christians Will be “Open Targets” if Democrats Take Congress in 2018

Graham Decision

An early issue of *Decision*

Court evangelical and fear-monger Franklin Graham obviously has the reigns at the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association (BGEA).  The editors of Decision, the official magazine of the BGEA, recent published an article titled “How the White House has Strengthened Religious Liberty.”  Here is a taste:

The past 22 months have brought significant progress in restoring religious liberty in the United States. But if Christians do not remain engaged, those gains could be brought to a screeching halt or even lost after next month’s midterm elections. If progressives reclaim a majority in Congress, not to mention in state and local governments, believers will once again be open targets for punishment by left-wing activists bent on silencing those who wish to live out their faith in society.

The article goes on to praise Donald Trump for appointing Gorsuch and Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court, cutting funding to Planned Parenthood, proclaiming that Christians will not “be bullied anymore,” protecting international religious liberty, and revoking the Johnson Amendment (which has not happened).  See the entire list here.

Billy Graham got burned by getting too close to politics.  I chronicle this story in Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump.  So it is sad to see his organization and his magazine becoming so political.  How this will hurt the BGEA’s ability to spread the Gospel around the world is yet to be seen.  That will be a story for future historians to tell.

Will Christians be “open targets” if the Democrats are elected?  I don’t think so.  But even if we are, perhaps it is time for the church to suffer a little persecution.  It might do us some good and help us to figure out what we are supposed to be doing in these days.  It might also help us to articulate a more “confident pluralism” and relinquish our Christian nationalist longings.

John Wilson is Still Not Convinced by the Fear Thesis

Fear Nussbaum

Some of you may recall John Wilson’s review of Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump in the Hedgehog Review.  I wrote about it here.  Wilson does not seem to think that “fear” explains the evangelical support for Donald Trump.  He makes a similar critique of fear in his recent review of Martha Nussbaum’s latest, The Monarchy of Fear: A Philosopher Looks At Our Political Crisis.  Here is a taste of his review of Nussbaum in The Weekly Standard:

Are we living in an “Age of Fear”? Are Americans today more fearful than they were in the 1960s, say? The 1950s? The 1940s? The 1930s? How would we know? (By the way, how long is an “age” nowadays? Ten years? Five years? Two years? Ages aren’t what they used to be.)

One thing we do know for certain: A lot of people are talking about fear. In July in these pages, I reviewed Matthew Kaemingk’s important book Christian Hospitality and Muslim Immigration in an Age of Fear. Around the same time, Eerdmans published Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump, in which the excellent historian John Fea offered a “short history of evangelical fear” as an explanation for the mess we find ourselves in. In July, Vox critic Alissa Wilkinson (who is on my always-must-read list) posted a piece on the fictional Gileads of Margaret Atwood and Marilynne Robinson. “You’d have to be extraordinarily blind,” Wilkinson wrote, “to not know that fear is a dominant, if not the dominant, feeling in 2018.” (Oh, no. On top of all my other problems, I’m extraordinarily blind!) And then there’s Bob Woodward’s Fear: Trump in the White House.

Many instances of what we might call the discourse of fear depend on a rhetorical sleight of hand: To describe those you are arguing against as being driven by fear is thought to be effective, even as you are appealing to fear of the outcome should these fearful types get what they want. In his recent remarks on the Trump administration, a critique in many respects persuasive, former president Barack Obama denounced “the politics of fear,” as he had while he himself occupied the White House. Never mind that President Trump’s critics have themselves routinely waxed apocalyptic. Lisa Sharon Harper, a widely respected African-American evangelical speaker, writer, and organizer, tells us that “majority conservative rulings have already whittled back civil rights protections, leaving this generation’s children as vulnerable to a new Jim Crow as my great-grandparents, who fled for their lives from the terror of the Jim Crow South,” a warning clearly intended to inspire fear and dread.

Does such argumentation by fear prove that fear really is pervasive, bone-deep, or does it rather suggest the perceived advantage of employing a particular rhetorical strategy?

Read the entire piece here.

Even More Fear-Mongering

Eric-Trump

I just got this message in my mailbox.  It’s from Eric Trump.  He is apparently assembling an “army” to fight the “radical agenda” of the “liberal Democrats.”

 

Authorized From Trump Headquarters

NATIONAL DAY OF ACTION: SEPTEMBER 15TH

Supporter: jfea@messiah.edu
Volunteer Status:
PENDING

Sign up for National Day of Action 9/15

JOIN US NOW

John,

The stakes could not be any higher for this year’s midterm elections.

Liberal Democrats are determined to win and force their radical agenda on all of us.

They want to repeal every successful policy my father has signed and abolish ICE — and they’re willing to do whatever it takes to do it. Including calling for the harassment and intimidation of Trump supporters like you.

But, John, we can stop them.

We are assembling a Trump Army on September 15 — our National Day of Action.

We need every supporter on board to knock on doors and reach voters. We need to reach EVERY patriot and make sure they’re committed to voting this November.

Are you on board? Please, sign up to volunteer here: gop.com/national-day-of-action-september-2018

John, I cannot stress how important it is that you join us. This is the best way to support the MAGA agenda.

Without the support of people like you helping us reach voters, the left could succeed.

You’ve heard what they’ve had to say. You’ve seen their agenda. And you must agree that we cannot let them win.

Please, join our National Day Of Action to help conservatives win this November.

Counting on you.

Eric Trump

Cal Thomas, an architect of the Moral Majority in the 1980s, described the effectiveness of these kinds of messages during the heyday of the Christian Right.  Here is a section from my book Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump in which I quote from Thomas’s book (co-authored with Ed Dobson) Blinded by Might: Why the Religious Right Can’t Save America:

For example, Moral Majority fundraising letters always followed a basic formula: “First, they identify an enemy: homosexuals, abortionists, Democrats, or ‘liberals’ in general. Second, the enemies are accused of being out to ‘get us’ or to impose their morality on the rest of the country.  Third, the letter assures the reader that something will be done…Fourth, to get this job done, please send money.”

This playbook has been around for a long time.

More Politics of Fear

Believe Me 3dMembers of my extended family are sharing this on Facebook.  It has apparently been shared over 479,000 times:

Fear

There are people who say that I was wrong for suggesting in Believe Me that “fear” may have motivated people, especially evangelicals, to pull the lever for Trump in 2016. Fear is often stoked by false information and propaganda.  Without this kind of fear-mongering, Trump has no base.  How did we allow ourselves to elect a president who consistently appeals to the darkest corners of the human mind?

Fear-Mongering and Politics in the Pulpit: A Wrap-Up of Trump’s Dinner with the Court Evangelicals

Metaxas at Party

Court evangelical Eric Metaxas in the court

Over at Religion News Service, Emily McFarlan Miller and Jack Jenkins have a nice wrap-up of all the tweets, guests, speeches, etc….  Here is a taste:

WASHINGTON (RNS) — The White House hosted a dinner Monday night (Aug. 27) for about 100 evangelical Christian leaders and senior-level officials, honoring evangelicals, as one participant explained, “for all the good work they do.”

Calling America “a nation of believers,” President Trump said at the event that they had gathered to “celebrate America’s heritage of faith, family and freedom.”

“As you know, in recent years the government tried to undermine religious freedom, but the attacks on communities of faith are over,” the president said. “We’ve ended it. We’ve ended it. Unlike some before us, we are protecting your religious liberty.”

Trump also took the opportunity to press evangelicals to turn out their supporters on Election Day later this year, according to an audio recording of the event leaked to The New York Times.

“I just ask you to go out and make sure all of your people vote,” Trump told the crowd, according to the Times. “Because if they don’t — it’s Nov. 6 — if they don’t vote we’re going to have a miserable two years and we’re going to have, frankly, a very hard period of time because then it just gets to be one election — you’re one election away from losing everything you’ve got.”

Trump then appeared to claim that if Democrats win, they “will overturn everything that we’ve done and they’ll do it quickly and violently.”

Read the entire piece here.

I have to give Trump credit.  He knows that fear-mongering is one of the best ways to motivate evangelicals in the public square.  Trump’s remark about “violence” reminds me of the 2016 GOP primary when Ted Cruz said the federal government would soon be removing crosses from tombstones.  This kind of rhetoric, as I argued in Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trumpworks very well with evangelicals.

Trump also asked evangelical leaders to use their power to influence the 2018 midterm elections.  Several folks writing today on social media think that evangelical churches with preachers who use their pulpits to endorse candidates should lose their tax-exempt status.  And they are correct.  The so-called Johnson Amendment forbids churches from endorsing candidates.  Trump promised his evangelical followers that he would remove the Johnson Amendment from the tax code, but so far he has not been able to do it.  But it is unlikely that it will be enforced while he is in office.  (In fact, it was rarely forced before he took office).

But what about the other side of this equation?  What will the preaching of politics from pulpits do to the church?

Is the Government Banning the Bible in California?

We have seen this before.  It is yet another example of what happens when fear drives evangelical approaches to public life.

In Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump, I wrote about the response of some New England congregationalists after the election of Thomas Jefferson.  Because Jefferson did not believe in certain aspects of orthodox Christian belief–the deity of Christ, the resurrection of Jesus, the inspiration of the Bible–many of the region’s evangelicals were afraid of what he might do once he assumed the presidency.  Some thought that Jefferson or his henchman were going to come into their towns on a mission to confiscate Bibles and close churches.

I thought about this story when I read Peter Lawrence Kane’s piece in San Francisco Weekly.  The title says it all: “Evangelicals Convince Themselves California is About to Ban the Bible.”    Here is a taste:

As we’ve documented many times, several strains of conservatism insist — against all evidence to the contrary — that California is an abject failure. It’s usually that we’re teetering on the brink, we’re hopelessly “ungovernable,” or we must be destroyed in order to be saved. Unquestionably, the state faces existential crises that pertain to the cost of living and to the future of the Sierra snowpack that keeps the world’s most productive agricultural region afloat and lets 40 million people flush their toilets. But we never stop hearing the end of the lies and distortions: high environmental standards caused the Mendocino fire complex, it’s a sanctuary state bleeding the federal coffers dry, we’re a corrupting force on Real America, they’re never coming back here and they really really mean it, et cetera, et cetera.

This is largely because of three undeniable facts: California is diverse, California rejects Republicanism and (almost) all that it stands for, and California recovered from the Great Recession to find itself well-prepared to face the next fiscal cliff. Although the Golden State retains the dubious distinction of being the only U.S. state to allow same-sex marriage and then take it away, it’s since become a strong protector of LGBTQ rights — and this week’s top right-wing lie wormed out of the news that California is about to join a dozen other states in banning ex-gay torture — sometimes known as “gay conversion therapy” — for adults. (The state has banned it for minors since 2012.)

In light of the state Senate passing AB 2943, many evangelicals have convinced themselves that California just banned the Bible.

Read the entire piece here.

What Does the Trump Administration Mean by “Religious Freedom?”

jeff-sessions

At the State Department’s recent “Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom,” Attorney General Jeff Sessions claimed that there is a “dangerous movement, undetected by many” that is “challenging and eroding our great tradition of religious freedom.”  This “dangerous movement,” Sessions added, “must be confronted and defeated.”

I am part of the camp that believes people with deeply-held religious beliefs on social issues should be free to uphold those beliefs in a pluralistic society.  In other words, there are times when liberty of conscience in matters of religion should be protected despite the fact that others might see these beliefs as discriminatory.  When it comes to living together with such deeply-held convictions, I hope for what Washington University law professor John Inazu has described as “confident pluralism.”

Having said that, I am not a fan of the way the Trump administration uses “religious liberty” to invoke fear.  I wrote about this kind of fear-mongering in my book Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump.  Sessions’s use of words like “dangerous” and “undetected by many” and “confronted and defeated” wreaks of political scare tactics and culture-war rhetoric.  I am surprised he did not roll out the phrase “deep state.”

Sessions claims that “ministers are fearful to affirm, as they understand it, holy writ from the pulpit.”  First, I don’t know of any contemporary cases, if any, in which government has threatened ministers from preaching from the Bible.  Fear is often based on false information.  Second, I suspect Sessions is conflating the preaching of “holy writ” from the pulpit with the endorsement of political candidates from the pulpit.  This is how many pro-Trump evangelicals understand “religious liberty.” This is why Sessions and Trump get so bent out of shape by the “Johnson Amendment.”  (Frankly, I think Trump could care less about the Johnson Amendment, but if he can promise its repeal he can gain political points with the evangelicals in his base).

Sessions goes on.  He talks about the ways the Pilgrims in Plymouth, the Catholics in Maryland, the Quakers in Pennsylvania, the Scots-Presbyterians in the middle colonies (Sessions apparently does not realize that Pennsylvania is a middle colony and most Scots-Irish came to Penn’s colony), and Roger Williams in Rhode Island championed religious freedom.  He adds: “Each one of these groups and others knew what it was like to be hated, persecuted, outnumbered, and discriminated against.”  What Sessions fails to note is that the Pilgrims (and Puritans in Massachusetts Bay) did not provide this precious religious freedom to people who did not have the same religious beliefs as they did.  He fails to note that Roger Williams founded Rhode Island because he was kicked out of Massachusetts Bay for failing to conform to Puritan orthodoxy (among other things).  He fails to note that Puritans executed Quakers in Boston Commons.

I could go on, but I don’t have the time or inclination right now to exegete Sessions’s entire speech.  It is worth noting, however, that all of Sessions’s examples of religious liberty are Christian examples.  There is no mention of religious liberty for Muslims, Jews, or other people of faith.  Parts of Sessions’s address read like a Trump stump speech.  He lauds Trump for making it safe to say “Merry Christmas” again.  Really?  Is this what the Trump administration means when they say they are going to champion religious liberty?  This sounds more like the kind of Christian civilization those “liberty-loving” Puritans and Pilgrims wanted to create back in 17th New England.  (Ironically, these early American Calvinists did not celebrate Christmas because they thought it was a pagan holiday).

OK, I am rambling.  But if you want some context on the way Trump and his minions think about religious liberty, I encourage you to check out Jason Lupfer’s recent piece at Religion & Politics.  It is worth your time.

What About the Left? Aren’t They Afraid?

Believe Me 3d

I get this question all the time.  Too many times to count.  This is the kind of question I should expect after writing a book about evangelicals and Donald Trump in which I suggest that “fear” motivated evangelicals to pull the lever for Trump in November 2016.

Some folks have tried to turn the tables on me.  They have accused me of being afraid of Donald Trump’s presidency.  One Trump-voting blogger recently suggested that I would never have written such an “impassioned book if not motivated by fear for what Christian support for Trump was doing to the church’s witness.”

I have never thought of myself as a person of the Left, but I can understand why my critics put me in this box.  I prefer to think about the world from the perspective of my Christian faith.  Such an approach means that I don’t feel comfortable in either of the two major political parties in the United States.  As a Christian, I believe that fear is inevitable.  It is a natural human response to change.  I think American history confirms this.  Nativism, xenophobia, racism, Christian nationalism, etc. are all products of fear.  Fear is the product of a broken–I would say sinful–world.

In other words, I expect human beings to be fearful.  But I also see Christianity as a counter-cultural faith.  If the world is defined by fear, then Christians must always counter fear with hope–not a rosy liberal optimism, but a deeply theological approach to hope rooted in eschatological faith.   Having hope in the midst of fear is not easy to do. But if I am, or have been, fearful about what Donald Trump’s presidency will do to the republic or the church,  I am not living up to the demands of my faith.

I think there are a lot of folks on the Left who are afraid of the damage Trump will do, and is doing, to American democracy.  I expect them to be fearful.  I did not write Believe Me to tell them not to be afraid.  But for me, as a Christian, I agree with Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Marilynne Robinson when she says “Fear is not a Christian habit of mind.”  I wrote the book to my tribe.  And in this case, my tribe helped carry Donald Trump to the White House.

Are Anti-Trumpers Paranoid?

Paranoid StyleI have argued that fear helps explain the evangelical embrace of Donald Trump in 2016.  When I speak, blog, and tweet about Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald TrumpI am often asked about the role fear might play in the political lives of anti-Trumpers.  Are Trump’s opponents afraid of what he will do to the country?  Of course they are.  But I did not write a general book about the relationship between fear and politics.  Instead, I wrote a book about why 81% of white evangelical voters pulled the lever for Donald Trump.

Historian and cultural critic Andrew Bacevich thinks that anti-Trumpers are paranoid and such paranoia is bad for the republic.  Princeton historian Julian Zelizer disagrees.  Here is a taste of his piece at CNN:

Making his opponents look paranoid has in fact been a conscious strategy of the President. This is why he warns that critical news is not real and how a “deep state” is driving the investigation against him.

Paranoia is certainly a relevant problem in US political history. But Hofstadter’s theory doesn’t capture most of what is going on with Trump’s opponents. Nor does the President when he sweeps aside the critics of his jaw-dropping press conference in Helsinki, Finland, as “haters.”

Brushing aside a majority of the President’s critics as showing signs of paranoia misses the new political reality of the Trump administration.

Read the entire piece here.

I’m Not the Only One Talking About Fear These Days

FearOver at the website of the Marty Center at the University of Chicago, Martin Marty writes about Martha Nussbaum’s new book The Monarchy of Fear: A Philosopher Looks at Our Political Crisis.  I have not read Nussbaum’s book, but I relied on some of her previous work on fear in my own book,  Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump.

Here is a taste of Marty’s piece:

“Our summer of fear” was a headline that greeted us one day this week. It captioned Christopher Borrelli’s published “conversation with Chicago philosopher Martha Nussbaum” (Chicago Tribune, July 9). The other three dailies which arrived the same morning offered other headlines above other subjects covered, but one could have appropriately filed many of them under the Nussbaum topic, “fear.” Perhaps autumn events and moods will soon elicit the name of some different emotion, but for now the Nussbaum interview addresses our fears expansively and credibly. The emphasis derives from the title and subject of her new book, The Monarchy of Fear: A Philosopher Looks at Our Political Crisis (Simon & Schuster, 2018), which draws notice among philosophers and pundits, and, as in newspapers and online magazines, the public. One cannot not deal with this author, so commanding is her presence, especially once her expressions reach publics.

Perhaps we have hurried past Nussbaum too briskly. Not everyone hears about or deals with every philosopher, including even the most public ones. To slow a bit: since 1995 this one has taught on “the law, philosophy, classics, divinity, South Asian studies and political science” faculties at the University of Chicago. Those interested in researching her can check out her Wikipedia entry or other sources which list bibliographies too long to get more space in this column. “Look her up!” we advise, and use the recent Tribuneinterview for launching. It is common practice to connect events and themes with temporal terms, such as the “Age” or “Era” or “Year” or “Epoch” of “Belief” (Dickens), “Enlightenment,” “Progress,” etc. Now we are down to the moment in the “summer of fear.”

Professor Nussbaum has famously written about the cultural and societal effects of various emotions. Asked what her current choice means, she draws on Aristotle, and paraphrases: “Fear is the sense that there are things that are bad for you and your well being, looming over you, and you are not fully in control of warding them off … We learn early on” that “we will die … and fear never goes away, we are all powerless over it. So fear can be easily hijacked and grow out of control—arguably more so than other emotions.” The interviewee observes that fear can lead “to anger, and anger can make you feel in control of your fear … Other emotions like disgust and envy get revved up when we feel afraid.”

Fear challenges democracies: “democracy means you have to work with people you may not like but you must still believe are your equals.” She considers what fear can do to a child. As for grown-ups? “[F]earful people never trust the other side … right now this country is like an abused child.” The interviewer goes on to ask what philosophers have to contribute in such a situation. Nussbaum has some fairly cheery things to say about the potential of philosophy and what we can learn from the classics, like Socrates, Lucretius, and Cicero, beginning with their stress on the “examined life.” Critics might charge that she would say that; after all, that’s what many tenured philosophers at her university have long taught.

Read the entire piece here.

Yesterday’s Piece in *USA Today*

Trump court evangelicals

Yesterday USA Today published a piece I wrote about Trump and evangelicals.  The editors chose the following title: “White evangelicals fear the future and yearn for the past.  Of course Trump is their hero.”  The article draws heavily from the introduction to Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump.

Here is a taste:

Donald Trump is about to name his second conservative Supreme Court justice now that Anthony Kennedy is retiring. Conservative evangelicals are celebrating. They have been waiting, to quote the Old Testament book of Esther, “for a time such as this.”

For the last year I have been thinking deeply about why so many of my fellow evangelical Christians support Donald Trump.

I have wondered why they backed his zero-tolerance immigration plan that separated families at the border. I have tried to make sense of why some of them give him a “mulligan” (to use Family Research Council President Tony Perkins’ now famous phrase) for his alleged adulterous affair with adult film star Stormy Daniels. Why did so many evangelicals remain silent, or offer tepid and qualified responses, when Trump equated white supremacists and their opponents in Charlottesville, Virginia last summer?

What kind of power does Trump hold over men and women who claim to be followers of Jesus Christ? Evangelical support for Trump goes much deeper than simply a few Supreme Court justices.

Read the entire piece here.

Believe Me 3d

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.”

FAMILIAR WITH THEIR WRITING?  Seriously?

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.

My Piece at *The Atlantic*: “Evangelical Fear Elected Trump”

Trump court evangelicals

This piece draws from Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump, but it also include material that is not in the book.

A taste:

White conservative evangelicals in America are anxious people. I know because I am one.

Our sense of fear, perhaps more than any other factor, explains why evangelicals voted in such large numbers for Donald Trump in 2016 and continue to support his presidency.

 

The Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist and essayist Marilynne Robinson once wrote, “Fear is not a Christian habit of mind.” The great poet of the Jersey shore, Bruce Springsteen, sings, “Fear’s a dangerous thing. It can turn your heart black you can trust. It can take a God-filled soul, and turn it to devils and dust.”