I am a fan of the John Fea’s history podcast, The Way of Improvement Leads Home. I do not remember how I ran across it, but I have listened to it almost from the very beginning. Some of the ideas of Believe Me (title is from Trump’s often used phrase) trickled out over the past months. And the most recent podcast episode was directly about the book Believe Me. On Saturday, when I had a six hour drive by myself, I listened to the audiobook of Believe Me basically in one sitting.
After demonstrating that he is in fact an Evangelical, Fea starts with the common ’81% of White Evangelicals voted for Trump’ and his wondering if 81% of his Evangelical megachurch voted for Trump the next Sunday after the election. This is not unlike many Evangelicals that I know that have been against Trump all along. They felt the election personally.
The main explanation of the Believe Me is that Evangelicals voted for Trump out of fear, a desire for a Christian nation and the power to construct it that way, and nostalgia. I think that Fea is best when he is attempting to be generous in understanding the reluctant Trump voter and his historical explanations. Fea’s other books include books about whether the United States was founded as a Christian nation, why we should study history and a history of the American Bible Society, all of which make their ways into the book at one point or another.
Fea places all three factors, fear, nostalgia, and power (Christian nationalism) in historical context, asserting that it is not just in this one instance that these three factors have come into play, but that there is a history of Evangelicals choosing these over their Christian ideals. There are places where I think that Believe Me may have been rush to print just a bit too quickly. He explains the DACA program incorrectly. He could be clearer about what the 81% number really was. The definition of what an Evangelical is I think should have been developed more clearly from a historical perspective. In many ways Evangelical, which means something pretty specific in the second half of the 20th century, is mixed up with conservative Protestantism or Fundamentalism or any Protestantism of earlier generations. I think that weakens his historical argument in a few places because some of the historical parallels he is drawing may not be quit as clear for some that want to haggle about what Evangelicalism has meant historically or today.
Largely I really appreciate Believe Me. I have been historically a Democratic voter, so I was less likely to be a Trump voter to start with. That also means I am less likely to take Believe Me personally as a critique, which I do think matters. It is a critique, not just of the idea of Christian nationalism or of the political movements of the Religious Right or Moral Majority, but also of the dispensational fear mongering that goes on in many parts of the Evangelical world. Fea is right that even though Clinton had almost no appeal to most Evangelicals, Evangelicals that have been primed to view the political world through a game of power over the past 35-40 years. So any Republican was like to get most Evangelical votes. What was mentioned, but not really explored was that Trump appears to have received more (self identified) White Evangelical votes, as a percentage, than any GOP candidate in history.
Fea coined the term Court Evangelicals, which is being used fairly widely to describe the Evangelical Court to Presidential power of people like Jerry Falwell and Paula White and Robert Jefferies. I have not thought clearly about it previously, but it is interesting that there are three rough groups that are strong public Trump supporters and from whom the Court Evangelicals are largely from: the Religious Right, the Independent Network Charismatics (INC) and the Prosperity Gospel advocates. Part of what seems a weakness to this explanation is that many Evangelicals would not consider the INC or Prosperity Gospel groups to be Evangelical. I am more taken with Fea’s description of the concept of Christian Nationalism or Dominionism as a binding factor than Evangelical theological allegiance directly. Christian Century has an article that suggests that the binding factor is Whitness more than Evangelical theology, which I think also makes some sense.
The descriptions of how Evangelicals have chosen fear over opportunities to actually be evangelistic is very well done. This is Fea’s strength as a historian walking through examples from before the founding of the nation until recently of how fear has overcome the theological inclination toward openness that was also present. I could not help but think of the section in The Half That Has Never Been Told, about slavery as the economic engine of the American Economy, which directly argues that the northern legislators and business people that were against slavery ideologically, were unable to actually vote against it, either through the economy or through their direct legislative votes, because they benefited from it directly or indirectly. In a similar way, Fea charts how Evangelicals have been a mainstay in fear based politics against immigration or ‘the other’ throughout American history.
The sections about nostalgia in Believe Me, investigating the ‘Again’ part of ‘Make America Great Again’ seem to me the most damning. Evangelicals have quite often been nostalgic for an earlier age, but one that was not accurately remembered. It is here that Fea brings up the White Evangelical part of Evangelical most clearly. And I think it is here that the current discussion about the actual meaning of Evangelical matters. If you only use Bebbington’s quadrangle as the definition, then most non-white protestants are actually theologically Evangelical. They may not be the largest share of the group, but as a percentage of their portion of Protestantism (for instance the percent of Black protestants that are theologically Evangelical is a higher percentage of than the portion of White Protestants that are Evangelical) minorities are more likely to be Evangelical by a theological definition. The problems is that minorities that are theologically Evangelical are not very likely to call themselves Evangelical because of the social connotations of the term. The book Still Evangelical discussed this well. Fea rightly notes that minorities in the US tend to not be nostalgic for the past in the same way that Whites are. That lack of understanding of the central message of how the campaign rubbed many minorities wrong is a good sign of the racial isolation of many White Evangelicals (see Divided by Faith.)
The end of Believe Me is a bit unusual in a history book. Fea notes some of his discomfort with giving prescriptions for ‘what now’. But as he tested the material with students or church groups or lectures, he kept getting a variation of ‘so what does history tell us we should do’ or ‘so now what’. It may not be super specific, but this Fea presents the exact lesson that I critiqued the Benedict Option for missing. Last summer, Fea and took his family on a group historical tour of the civil rights era. This tour went to many of the sites and talked to a number of people that participated in the civil rights movement. Many of them have already passed away, but the tour awoke in Fea an understanding of the church as a resistant body. Not as one that was fighting a political culture war, but as one standing up for their own and others humanity.
In many ways I am more sympathetic to the reluctant Trump voter than I was before I read Believe Me. While I do not agree with voting for Trump, I do understand better the cultural forces that would move someone toward that choice. That does not make me much more sympathetic toward those that are still active Trump supporters (although I understand why people double down on decisions both emotionally and rationally.)
If I were to ask for another section or a follow up, I think I would like to see some historical work on the Church that has upheld its ideals against the human inclination to be safe beyond the quick ending. I understand that there is likely no long term example of a movement that always upheld their ideals of Christianity. But it would be good to see some short term movements. Fea cites James Davidson Hunter’s To Change The World several times, which does have some of that type of political theology. Maybe James KA Smith’s Awaiting the King: Reforming Public Theology has more of what I am looking for. Living up to the ideals of our faith is not easy. I have no illusions about that. (I am currently slowly working through a book of essays about Bonhoeffer and Martin Luther King, which keeps reminding me of the problems of reality.)
Even though it does have some problems, Believe Me is worth reading whether you are part of the 19 or 81 percent. It is probably an easier read for the 19 percent. But it is challenging to both sides of this divide because neither side is pure in its allegiance to Christ.
For another take, Christianity Today has a good review of Believe Me.