One of the major mysteries of the 2016 presidential election is why 81 percent of white evangelicals abandoned almost everything they have stood for in terms of morality and voted for Donald Trump.
My last effort to offer light on this darkness can be found here.
One of the things that has been missing from nearly all of these explanations and analyses has been a deep sense of the history of evangelical Christians in the U.S., starting at or even before the official birth of our nation. John Fea, who teaches American history at Messiah College and who describes himself as an evangelical, has rectified that in his new and enlightening book, Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump. The official publication date is next week, but it can be pre-ordered now.
Fea is aghast and embarrassed by the choice so many of his fellow evangelicals made in the election. But he finds precedents in history for the way they responded not to hope but to fear. And, he asserts, it was fear and nostalgia for an imagined past that never existed that helped to move them into Trump's camp. Indeed, Fea writes, "it is possible to write an entire history of American evangelicalism as the story of Christians who have failed to overcome fear."
"Prior to his decision to run for office," Fea writes of Trump, "very few Americans, including American evangelicals, were even aware that he was anything but a profane man -- a playboy and adulterer who worshiped not at the throne of God but at the throne of Mammon. . .This election, while certainly unique and unprecedented in American history, is also the latest manifestation of a long-standing evangelical approach to public life. This political playbook was written in the 1970s and drew heavily from an even longer history of white evangelical fear."
In the spirit of what theologian Ronald J. Sider wrote in his 2005 book, The Scandal of the Evangelical Conscience, Fea says that evangelicals "have become intellectually lazy, preferring to respond to cultural change by trying to reclaim a world that is rapidly disappearing and has little chance of ever coming back. This backward-looking approach to politics can be seen no more clearly than in the evangelicals' embrace of Trump's campaign slogan, 'Make America Great Again.'"
In the end, Fea asserts, "fear is the political language conservative evangelicals know best."
He then spends a considerable portion of the book describing various periods in American history when fear drove evangelicals, whether it was fear of Catholics, fear of people of other religions and races other than white, fear of the teaching of evolution in public schools, fear of nuclear war (a fear many Americans shared), fear of the growing population of American Muslims and on and on.
When people life in fear, they often seek deliverance from some kind of strongman. Which is the role the blustery, make-it-up-as-you-go, dishonest Trump has played: "The various fears that combined to drive white evangelical Christians into the arms of Donald Trump have deep roots in American history."
Fea contends that the desire by evangelicals for a strong leader to allay their fears is evidence that they aren't taking their faith seriously: "Even the most cursory reading of the Old and New Testament reveals that, ultimately, Christians have nothng to fear. Scripture reminds us that we already have a strong protector in times of need."
Among the most interesting history that Fea recounts has to do with the rise of such evangelical stars as Jerry Falwell, Ralph Reed, James Dobson, Jim Bakker, Pat Robertson, Paula White, Robert Jeffress and others -- the whole story of the so-called Moral Majority and similar movements up to the present. Each one of them played on some fear that was close to the surface of evangelical minds. And it led those evangelicals to make devilish bargains with the Republican Party.
The problem for evangelicals, as Fea notes about Trump, is that "his entire career, and his success as a television star and public figure, was built on vices incompatible with the moral teachings of Christianity. . .The only way to get around Trump's flaws was to somehow Christianize him. Paula White (a Prosperity Gospel preacher who is now a Trump spiritual adviser) claimed that she had led Trump to accept Jesus Christ as his savior. Jerry Falwell Jr. said that Trump's moral life had changed since he had become a born-again Christian. . .The kind of forgiveness and understanding that was never given to Bill Clinton was now available in seemingly endless supply to Donald Trump."
As Fea correctly notes, for evangelicals "character simply didn't matter as much as the opportunity to seize a seat on the Supreme Court."
Kansas City readers will be interested to note that as Fea lists leaders in what is now known as Independent Network Charismatic (INC) Christianity, he lists as one of the INC leaders Mike Bickle of the International House of Prayer in KC. That group has been around for some years now and continues to be theologically controversial in many ways.
As other scholars and political theorists do, Fea wonders what period of our history Trump has in mind when he says he wants America to be great "again." Yes, America has done wonderful things, but does he want us to return to the 1950s when black people couldn't ride in the front of the bus and it was assumed most women were built to stay home and have babies or to the 1960s when our government was lying to us about how many of our young people in the military were dying in Vietnam or the 1970s when our president caused a constitutional crisis and had to resign or, or, or. . .?
Fea contends that a much better model for a legitimate way evangelicals can engage in political matters is to learn from faith leaders in the civil rights movement. They understood American history and "did not use the past as fodder for a national reclamation project. They knew there was little to reclaim. Instead they used the past as a means of moving forward in hope and calling the church and the nation to live up to the principles they were built on. . .Evangelicals can do better than Donald Trump."
What is so painful is knowing how few evangelicals seem to understand that.
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THE PROBLEM IS MORAL BANKRUPTCY
To continue the theme today, two authors of a forthcoming book about the evangelical world have written this piece for the Daily Beast saying that our political troubles today are because of "the moral bankruptcy of the single largest group of American Protestants, white evangelicals." Sounds like a growing consensus.