Book review: ‘Believe Me’

Sep 24, 2018 by

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Donald Trump’s victory in the 2016 U.S. presidential election surprised almost everyone. How did it happen? Evangelical Christians had a lot to do with it. In Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump, John Fea tells part of this story.

"Believe Me"

“Believe Me”

Without the overwhelming support of white evangelicals, Trump would not be in the White House. Trump’s evangelical and even Christian credentials are suspect at best. Still, he won more than 80 percent of the white evangelical vote and continues to maintain their support. Believe Me attempts to explain why by connecting historical trends with contemporary developments. In the words of the author, “This book is the story of why so many American evangelicals believe in Donald Trump.”

Fea is a professor of American history at Messiah College, an institution with both evangelical and Anabaptist connections. He approaches the subject as an insider, an evangelical who attends an evangelical church. His previous book, Was America Founded as a Christian Nation? A Historical Introduction, engages a subject critical to understanding why evangelicals so staunchly support Trump: the belief in a Christian America.

Fea begins by examining the issues central to Trump’s victory. His defeat of Hil­lary Clinton can in part be explained by noting her deficiencies. But what about his triumph in the Republican primaries? Fea argues that Trump’s appeals to fear, power and nostalgia propelled him to the presidency. His positions on issues such as conservative Supreme Court appointees, abortion, immigration, same-sex marriage, religious freedom and a promise to move the U.S. embassy in Israel to Jerusalem energized evangelicals.

Chapter one, “The Evangelical Politics of Fear,” builds on these tendencies, especially the belief that America’s Christian past was rapidly fading. The race and policies of Barack Obama propelled this fear. Yes, many evangelicals believed this was the end of white Christian America.

Chapter two, “The Playbook,” endeavors to explain Trump by connecting him with developments of the post-World War II era: legal abortion, a growing wall of separation between church and state, and the removal of Christianity from the public schools. Due to the influence of theologian Francis Schaef­fer, many evangelicals believed these cultural problems could be corrected by an evangelical “playbook” — electing Christians to the government and passing Christian laws. Thus, began the emergence of the “Christian right.”

Chapter three, “A Short History of Evangelical Fear,” takes current evangelical tendencies — particularly the fear of the decline of the United States as a Christian nation — and pushes such anxieties back to the early years of the nation. These fears include those of the Puritans, the “Catholic menace,” racial fears in the South and more current fundamentalist fears.

How can these fears be addressed? Fea argues that the politics of fear results in the quest for political power. Thus in chapter four, “The Court Evangelicals,” he points to the parade of evangelicals who flatter Trump in their quest for political influence. A short list includes Jerry Falwell Jr., Robert Jeffress, James Dobson, Franklin Graham, Ralph Reed, Gary Bauer and more.

Chapter five, “Make America Great Again,” takes a critical look at the way conservatives have used the past to support Trump. While the question of how “Christian” America once was is complicated, Fea points out how Trump has manipulated the past with his “Make America Great Again” slogan. It relies on the assumption that a golden age once existed and can be restored.

Believe Me is a timely book. Most scholarly works wait until a presidency is over before presenting an opinion. And even this judgment can change when the dust settles. But Fea offers no premature appraisal of the Trump administration. Rather, he attempts to tell us why evangelicals have embraced such an improbable candidate.

Generally, Trump’s evangelical supporters are white and over 57. Fearing their vision of a “Christian America” is rapidly fading, they believe this trend can be reversed only by the political process. Their faith in Trump says little about traditional Republican concerns — small government, tax cuts, a strong military. Rather, the focus is on cultural issues — immigration, abortion, same-sex marriage, secularization of schools and a biased news media. Trump’s anointment as a standard-bearer for evangelical morality may be the ultimate political irony.

Fea has ventured into a precarious area. He notes that his last chapter is more social critique than history. But he has done a commendable job. While he emphasizes evangelicalism’s preoccupation with “fear, power and nostalgia,” he should view these tendencies more in a populist context. Evangelicalism has many credible scholars like Fea, who, if heeded, would nudge the movement in a direction more faithful to the gospel. Instead, driven by fear and misguided nostalgia, evangelicals have placed their faith in the most surprising of presidents.

Richard Kyle is professor emeritus of history and religion at Tabor College in Hillsboro, Kan., and the author of Popular Evangelicalism in American Culture.

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