A lot of us remember the sense of shock we felt the night of November 8, 2016. For white evangelicals who opposed Trump, the sense of horror and disorientation were compounded by the actions of our fellow white evangelicals. When we woke up Tuesday morning, we already knew that most of them would vote for Trump that day. But we didn’t know that they would do so in possibly record numbers, or that they would actually succeed in electing their new king.
“I should have seen this coming,” writes John Fea in his new book, Believe Me. The toxic mixture of fear, nostalgia, and desire for power so vividly on display in 2016 was not an aberration, Fea tells us. Instead, it’s part of a long white evangelical tradition. The alliance with Trump may have come as a shock to some, but the roots of this strange embrace run deep into the white evangelical past.
These deep roots are best seen in the most effective chapter of the book, a “short history of evangelical fear.” Fea describes Puritan narratives of moral decline and social decay–narratives begun almost before there was time for decline to occur!–as perhaps “the first American evangelical fear.” As for the Puritans, so for contemporary white evangelicals: fear of national decline is not an evidence-based conclusion; it is a constant presence, part of the basic script by which they understand the world around them.
While historians are often reluctant to draw close comparisons between past and present, many readers are likely to be astonished and impressed by the thick resonance between historic events and contemporary white evangelicalism. It is hard to read Fea’s account of evangelical anti-Catholicism and not draw a parallel to fears of Islam today.
In contrast to Michael Gerson’s recent cover story in the Atlantic that described a nineteenth century evangelical golden age, Fea shows that white evangelicals’ commendable zeal to reform society was inseparable from their anxieties about what was happening to their “Christian nation” and their fears of Catholic foreigners. Also in contrast to Gerson, he does not ignore the fact that the predominant form of white evangelicalism in the South was a white supremacist heresy. For many white evangelicals, Trump’s racial demagoguery was not offensive. It spoke to their longstanding fears.
If white evangelicals, even at the height of their power, have often been afraid, what happens when their worst fears are realized? What happens when they seem to have lost their Christian nation? Hope for the future curdles into an easily manipulable nostalgia, and fear metastasizes into a desperate final grasp for power.
I guess that brings us to the Christian Right. Fea is perceptive in his understanding of it. He describes a decades-old “playbook” of trying to restore America to its supposedly Christian roots by electing the right people to political office. Specifically, it means electing conservative Republicans who will appoint judges to overturn Roe and other decisions held responsible for American decline. This playbook is often judged a failure because Roe is still the law of the land and the gay rights movement has transformed American culture. But Fea astutely notes that there is more than one way to measure the success of this playbook. It has been much more successful in granting a measure of power to a small cadre of white evangelical political activists. As far as they are concerned, this is no small thing.
More important, for millions of ordinary white evangelicals the Christian Right’s playbook has set the agenda for what political engagement looks like and is imagined to be. Fea wants readers to realize that there are healthier ways to think about the relationship between church and state and Christian political responsibilities, but the Christian Right has succeeded in crowding out these alternatives. For many white evangelicals, there is no plan B. When a transparently evil candidate came along, departing from the playbook was not an option.
Make America Great Again was not simply a catchy campaign slogan. It spoke directly to white evangelicals’ nostalgia and offered a salve for their fears. As Fea notes, these impulses are basically selfish. Seeking a return to a time when America was great for them, they overlook the struggles of other groups in American history.
This book is an excellent starting point for white evangelicals who have the courage to become students of their own tradition. Neither dismissing white evangelicalism nor sugarcoating it, Fea writes as a critical insider, one who knows of what he speaks through both personal experience and academic study.
Fea has dedicated the book “To the 19 percent” of white evangelicals who did not vote for Trump. It will be a useful resource for people in that camp. It may help them to better understand where they’ve come from and engage in dialogue with the 81%. It is less a criticism of the book than a sad commentary on our times that Fea’s analysis seems unlikely to move many who are part of the 81%.