10 questions with John Fea

Sponsored by BYU Studies—I recently had the privilege to interview John Fea. He is a renowned historian, active Evangelical, and the author of a new book that merges politics, religion, and history, “Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump.

Kurt Manwaring: Welcome! Before we begin, could you tell us a little bit about yourself and your new book?

John Fea; Sure!  I have taught American history for sixteen years at Messiah College in Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania and served as chair of the History Department for half of that time.  I have been married for twenty-four years and have two daughters and a dog named Jersey.

Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump will be published in June with Eerdmans Publishing.  I am not sure how to characterize the book’s genre.  It is mostly historical reflection, but it includes a bit of social commentary and even some moral exhortation.  The book explores why 81% of white American evangelicals voted for Donald Trump in 2016 and challenges my fellow evangelicals to think differently about political engagement.

“Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump,” by John Fea. Image provided by John Fea.

Kurt Manwaring: What was the process of bringing this book to life? How did you come up with the idea, how did conversations get started with the publisher, what was your original word count (and final tally), how long did it take from outline to final submission, etc.?

John Fea: I had been writing about Trump and evangelicals at my blog (www.thewayofimprovement.com) and other venues from the moment he declared his candidacy and my fellow Christians began flocking to him. Believe Me draws heavily on this early writing.

After I concluded that I wanted to write a book for evangelical Christians, I cut-off conversations with literary agents and trade presses and turned to Eerdmans, a publisher of thoughtful Christian books who I was confident would get the piece into the right hands.

I think I made a great decision.  I approached Eerdmans with a book proposal in August 2017 and handed in the final draft of the book on January 1, 2018.   If I remember correctly, the book is roughly 60,000 words long.

Kurt Manwaring: Have any schisms developed between prominent Evangelicals because of the current political environment? Have you experienced any strained friendships as a result of differing feelings about the president?

John Fea: Great questions.  Support for Trump among average white evangelicals remains very high.  Those who did not vote for him and continue to oppose him make-up a significant minority.

So-called evangelical leaders are also divided.  The most significant split is between the leaders who regularly visit the White House and advise the president (Jerry Falwell Jr., Robert Jeffress, Johnnie Moore, Paula White, Franklin Graham) and those who organized the April 2018 gathering of leaders at Wheaton College to address the ways the Trump presidency has corrupted evangelical Christianity.  This group includes Richard Mouw, Mark Labberton, Mark Noll, Harold Smith, Jenny Yang, Tim Keller, Doug Birdsall, Jim Wallis, and Gabriel Salguero.  I would also put evangelical pundits such as Michael Gerson, David French, and Peter Wehner in this latter group.

I have not experienced any strained friendships.  In January 2018, I taught a Sunday-morning class on Christianity and politics at my evangelical church and got some push-back, but not too much.  I come from a boisterous Italian-American family who likes to yell at each other and debate politics over long dinners.  Most of my extended family voted for Trump and many of them continue to support him, so that has made for some very intense “conversations.”

Kurt Manwaring: How can voters weigh moral policies of candidates against moral shortcomings of candidates?

John Fea: Each election is different, with a new set of pressing concerns and a new slate of candidates.  Many evangelical voters will see abortion as the most important issue on the political agenda.  But serious evangelicals could respond to this moral problem in diverse ways that may not always lead to an obvious choice of one candidate over the other.

Other voters will prioritize the campaign against poverty, protecting the environment, protecting traditional family structures, fighting for religious liberty, or energizing the economy as the best way to create economic opportunity for the poor.

Different elections in different years may bring different issues to the fore, and thus tip the balance of the evangelical vote.  Furthermore, some may vote with a different set of priorities in a presidential election that they would in a local or state race.

In the end, we should at least expect a president who displays some respect for the office, tells the truth, exemplifies moral character, and has some understanding of his or her place as a steward of our democratic institutions.

Kurt Manwaring: To what degree should the Savior be an example of the ideal political leader? At what point do voters recognize shortcomings of humanity and choose the best available candidate — and at what point do they rationalize weaknesses as a mere result of living in a fallen world?

John Fea: Indeed, we live in a broken world.  As James Madison said, “if men were angels, no government would be necessary.” Yet I am of the belief that government has a responsibility to promote justice and some form of the common good.  See my answer to question 3.

Kurt Manwaring: You mention in the book that you should not have been surprised at the election of President Trump as an historian. Do you think historians in 50 years will have any significantly new perspectives on why Americans voted the way they did — or do you think the history is already sufficiently available?

John Fea: Future historians will have perspective and distance.  They will be able to judge the entire Trump presidency and I am sure there will be new information—documents, records, interviews—available to them. So yes, I fully expect future historians will provide us with a much more accurate and nuanced take on Trump.

Kurt Manwaring: In Chapter 2, you write, “Ironically, evangelicals’ hatred of Hillary Clinton only prepared them to do exactly what she had done.” Could you expound on this thought? Are there any other ironies that strike you as especially forceful in evangelicals support of the president?

John Fea: Irony and hypocrisy abound.  In the 1990s, when Hillary Clinton went on the Today show and said that GOP criticism of her husband’s cover-up of his affair with Monica Lewinsky was part of a “vast right-wing conspiracy,” she was covering-up his moral indiscretions to keep him in office.

Similarly, evangelicals look past Trump’s moral indiscretions (Access Hollywood, Stormy Daniels, etc.) because they like his political policies.

Many of the same people who publicly claimed that Bill Clinton was morally unfit for the presidency because of his affair with Lewinskly are now part of Trump’s evangelical advisory group, a collection of sycophants that I have called the “court evangelicals.”

Kurt Manwaring: You explain part of the reason Trump won evangelical support was because of a near pathological fear of Hillary Clinton. Does this mean evangelicals may be less inclined to support Trump in 2020 — or will fears of democratic policies still be enough to justify their support?

John Fea: It will certainly be interesting to see.  I am not a prophet or prognosticator, I am a historian.  But let’s remember that in 2016 Clinton won the popular vote by three million.  The 2020 Democratic candidate will not need to win over too many white evangelicals to defeat Trump.  Of course, a lot of things can happen, and will happen, between now and 2020 (including the 2018 election) that can change things.

Excerpt from “Believe Me.” Meme provided by John Fea.

Kurt Manwaring: Your book is focused on evangelicals, but can influence other religious believers? How can Mormons refine their political leanings by reading your book?

John Fea: I don’t think I would change my message if writing this book for Mormons.  All Christians, when engaging the political sphere, should privilege hope over fear, humility over power, and good history over nostalgia.

Kurt Manwaring: What is your next writing project?

John Fea: I am going back to my roots as an early American historian.  I owe Rutgers University Press a history of the American Revolution in New Jersey and I plan on delivering it soon.

Kurt Manwaring: Write a short dialogue C.S. Lewis-style in which Wormwood and Screwtape discuss efforts to lead mankind astray today by persuading people to make politics a religion. 

John Fea: I can do one better.  Here is a taste of one of Screwtape’s letters to Wormwood in The Screwtape Letters:

“Let him begin by treating the Patriotism…as part of his religion.  Then let him, under the influence of a partisan spirit, come to regard it as the most important.  Then quietly and gradually nurse him on to the state at which the religion becomes merely a part of the ‘cause,’ in which Christianity is valued chiefly because of the excellent arguments it can produce…Once [he’s] made the world an end, and faith a means, you have almost won your man, and it makes very little difference what kind of worldly end his is pursuing.”


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