American History

‘Believe Me’: John Fea Questions the Evangelical Road to Donald Trump

Many of the same people who publicly claimed that Bill Clinton was morally unfit for the presidency . . . are now part of Trump’s evangelical advisory group.

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John Fea’s Believe Me continues the author’s exploration of the crossroad between religious history and politics. The book stems from his desire to understand why fellow evangelicals voted for Donald Trump. Dr. John Fea explores the apparent conflict between Trump’s character and policies from an evangelical perspective and mourns the divide it’s creating in his religious community.

Who is John Fea?

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.

What is Believe Me by John Fea about?

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. 

Historian John Fea explains how (and why) “Believe Me” is a combination of history and moral description.

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.

Why did John Fea write Believe Me?

I had been writing about Trump and evangelicals at my blog and other venues from the moment he declared his candidacy and my fellow Christians began flocking to him. Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump 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.

Have any schisms developed between prominent Evangelicals because of the current political environment?

Great question.  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.

Nothing Trump could say or do would deter his diehard white evangelical supporters. This is still the case. Most evangelicals were willing to ignore his moral lapses because he had, to their way of thinking, the correct policy proposals

John Fea, “Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump

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, and those who organized the April 2018 gathering of leaders at Wheaton College to address the ways the Trump presidency has corrupted evangelical Christianity.

Evangelicals who regularly visit the White House and advise the president

  • Jerry Falwell Jr.
  • Robert Jeffress
  • Johnnie Moore
  • Paula White
  • Franklin Graham

Evangelicals examining ways the Trump presidency has corrupted evangelical Christianity

  • Richard Mouw
  • Mark Labberton
  • Mark Noll
  • Harold Smith
  • Jenny Yang
  • Tim Keller
  • Doug Birdsall
  • Jim Wallis
  • Gabriel Salguero

I would also put evangelical pundits such as Michael Gerson, David French, and Peter Wehner in this latter group.

Has John Fea experienced any strained friendships as a result of differing feelings about Donald Trump?

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.”

How can voters weigh moral policies of candidates against moral shortcomings of candidates?

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.

To what degree should the Savior be an example of the ideal political leader?

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.

Will future historians have new insights about why so many Evangelicals (and Americans) voted for Donald Trump?

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 Donald J. Trump.

What does John Fea mean in Believe Me when he says, “Ironically, evangelicals’ hatred of Hillary Clinton only prepared them to do exactly what she had done.”

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.”

Will evangelicals may be less inclined to support Trump in 2020 — or will fears of democratic policies still be enough to justify their support?

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.

How can Latter-day Saints refine their political leanings by reading Believe Me?

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.

What is John Fea’s next book?

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.

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. 

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.

C. S. Lewis, “The Screwtape Letters”

Further reading

John Fea resources

John Fea books

  • American Exceptionalism and Civil Religion: Reassessing the History of an Idea
  • Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump
  • Confessing History: Explorations in Christian Faith and the Historian’s Vocation
  • New Jersey: A History of the Garden State
  • The Bible Cause: A History of the American Bible Society
  • The Museum of the Bible: A Critical Introduction
  • The Way of Improvement Leads Home: Philip Vickers Fithian and the Rural Enlightenment in Early America
  • Tradition in a Modern World (Cato Unbound)
  • Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?: A Historical Introduction
  • Why Study History?: Reflecting on the Importance of the Past

By Kurt Manwaring

Writer. History nerd. Latter-day Saint.

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