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Monday, May 21, 2018

"Believe Me" (John Fea)

TITLE: Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump
AUTHOR: John Fea
PUBLISHER: Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 2018, (208 pages).

Famous words are often uttered by Presidents. For President John F Kennedy, people remember his powerful words "Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country." President Jimmy Carter is remembered as a man who fought for peace: "We cannot be both the world's leading champion of peace and the world's leading supplier of the weapons of war." President Barack Obama rode into office under the banner of change said: "Change will not come if we wait for some other person or some other time. We are the ones we've been waiting for. We are the change that we seek." For Donald Trump, it's the cliche "Believe Me," a phrase peppered throughout his rallies and speeches to his party faithful.  In this book, author John Fea takes a closer look at Trump's appeal to the evangelical public in America. More specifically, he tries to examine why despite Trump's denigration of women; his superficial Bible knowledge; and multiple moral questions; many evangelicals, particularly "die-hard white evangelical supporters" still think he is a Christian. This contrasts with James Davison Hunter's warning to believers not to politicize faith. The problem is less of Trump but more of the unwavering support for Trump's brand of politics in spite of moral failings. How do we make sense of it all? What does it say about the evangelicals in America? Why are these evangelicals supporting Trump's politics of fear, power, and nostalgia? These three factors are examined in greater detail as Fea looks at why the 81% of white evangelicals supported Trump for presidency. He attributes the frustrations among evangelicals due to the widening separation of Church and State; the secularization of public education; how government is creeping and controlling individual beliefs; and issues like abortion. The desire for change is strong. Underlying this mood is a climate of fear. This fear leads to a desire for power which in turn is linked to a nostalgia of a past where Christendom dominated culture.

This book is Fea's attempt to make sense of why Donald Trump managed to win and why a sizeable number of evangelicals in America voted for him. Instead of targeting Trump, he aims at the underlying subcultures that helped put Trump in office. As a historian, he gently points out that what we had seen in 2016 started way back in the 1970s. There were restless subcultures of triumphalism; desires for Church to influence state; "nativism, xenophobia, racism, intolerance, and an unbiblical view of American exceptionalism." It is a cultural war of left vs right, magnified and intensified. The more the left controls parts of America, the more the right hits back. His aim is to remind the American public, evangelicals in particular that it is God who is going to rule, to bring hope, and to save the world, and not any human person installed in the oval office. Using one of Trump's populist statements, other than "Make America Great Again," Fea chooses the words "Believe Me" which had been used frequently in Trump's rallies and speeches. Whether he is boasting about his own version of women's rights, his stand against racism, or his policies against immigration, he peppers these statements with multiple use of "Believe me." Fea challenges this throughout this book by taking aim at an insecure American evangelical mood and a desperate attempt to bring back the "good old days" of nostalgia into an increasingly complex climate of change.

My Thoughts
First, Fea has a point. In fact, he has a lot of great points to make. By taking aim at the subcultures rather than the president, he is in fact putting the finger on the real problem: A confused evangelical based that lacks direction. Out of this vacuum uncertainty arises the politics of fear ready to fill in the emptiness and disillusionment among evangelicals even as Church attendance wanes and secularism flourishes. Fear is a major trap. Adam and Eve feared not having the knowledge of good and evil and fell into sin. Fear trips us up. Fear makes us think our hasty actions are most rational when they are not. As Fea points out, "fear is a powerful political tool" and it is not surprising if Trump's political team had been using this to their advantage. Moreover, religious fear according to Jason Bivins has that tendency to make people more attuned to feelings rather than facts. This is an important note because it makes us susceptible to external manipulations. From fears of cultural immorality, rising religious extremism to acts of terrorism, one small incident could be magnified into some fearful monster. The Bible reminds us that there is no fear in love for perfect love casts out fear. Perhaps, evangelicals must be reminded once again to put their hopes in God, and not their interpretation of some human powers. If there is any conspiracy theory, it would have been the playbook of fear that unless the evangelicals do something, the world will become worse. However, for all the good intentions, the road to making this world a better place has been fraught with misinformation, misguided hopes, and fake news from all sides. The more the fear the greater the susceptibility to fake news, especially information that purportedly supports our cause.

Second, the danger of "court evangelicals" is spot on. Lord Baron reminds us of the danger of power that, power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. People who have direct access to the institutions of power are always beholden to the policies and wishes of the powerful people in office. The way recent firings of "top advisers" and dissenting voices is a case in point. If one has to toe the line set by the powers, where is freedom of speech and expression? The desire to appease the ruler and the need to rationalize policies will lead to a complex situation of compromise and unbiblical acts. Fea describes the "court evangelicals" as coming from the three major streams: 1) Christian Right; 2) Independent Network Charismatics (INC); and 3) Megachurches that flaunt the prosperity gospel. They are also looking to get Trump to help them with their cause, which makes it a symbiotic relationship. Fea makes a point about how Trump was more attracted to Christianity via the Prosperity Gospel more than anything else. Why? Based on Trump's close relationship with Paula White, a prosperity preacher, the one who declared Trump having a "born-again experience," and the way the preachers had come out to support him, Fea comments that "Donald Trump and the prosperity gospel are a perfect match." This is not an unreasonable nor unrealistic assessment. It would seem like both these court evangelicals and Trump himself are using each other as means to their own ends. Plus, Billy Graham who was once a "court evangelical" learned the hard way about the seductions of power. For example, he regretted that Nixon was one person in his presence and another in his absence. Court evangelicals may enter the white house religious scene with good intentions but the seductions of power and worldliness may corrupt these very intentions. Thus, having top religious leaders rubbing shoulders with top political bigwigs may not be a good idea after all.

Third, is Fea overly critical and cynical of Trump? Honestly, Christians are split. Some would say that any tilt toward a simple majority would only be slight. The split roughly parallels the Left-Right cultural distinction, which is a sad reflection of the state of the Christian Church today, that it has become too fused with culture than with Christian principles. Walking a fine-line between critique and encouragement is tricky. On the one hand, Christians must be the conscience of the state, as taught by the late civil rights leader, Dr Martin Luther King Jr to let truth speak to power. On the other hand, we hope that the religious leaders would have an inside track to help guide the president on what is the right thing to do for the nation, not just for the Church. King's reminder is most apt.
“The church must be reminded that it is not the master or the servant of the state, but rather the conscience of the state. It must be the guide and the critic of the state, and never its tool. If the church does not recapture its prophetic zeal, it will become an irrelevant social club without moral or spiritual authority.” (MLK Jr)
If this book can become that conscience, that guide, and that constructive critic, I believe Fea's voice would be prophetic indeed. Whatever the case, his call for us to resist the three forces of fear, power, and nostalgia is relevant. Let our choices be led by faith, not fear. Recognize the seductions of power and to resist its temptations with all our might. Instead of being stuck in our nostalgic past, look forward to the new Jerusalem that only Jesus can bring forth.

Dr John Fea is Professor of American History and Chair of the History Department at Messiah College in Pennsylvania. He blogs about the intersection of American history, religion, politics, and academic life at "The Way of Improvement Leads Home." This book was written after settling from a wave of emotions from shock, to sadness, to anger, and finally to measured reflection about the recent American Presidential elections and the state of evangelicals today.

Rating: 4.5 stars of 5.


This book has been provided courtesy of William B. Eerdmans and NetGalley without requiring a positive review. All opinions offered above are mine unless otherwise stated or implied.

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