Columns Jana Riess: Flunking Sainthood Opinion

Why white evangelicals voted for Trump: Fear, power and nostalgia

Historian John Fea, author of “Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump.”

(RNS) It’s now a famous (infamous?) truism that 81 percent of white evangelicals supported Donald Trump in the 2016 presidential election. In doing so, evangelical leaders cast aside their past and very public statements about the importance of strong moral character for those in leadership.

It makes a certain kind of sense that some white evangelicals voted for Trump instead of Hillary Clinton in the general election because they objected to Clinton on abortion and other issues. It does not, however, make sense that many of these same voters supported Trump as early as the primaries, when there were experienced evangelical candidates still in the race.

How did this realignment happen in American religion and politics? Or is it even a realignment?

John Fea has recently written the book Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump, which takes a deeper look at how this fits into nearly two centuries of white evangelicals’ history. Fea, a historian at Messiah College, traces it to three things: fear, power and nostalgia.

Religion News Service interviewed Fea about the book. His responses follow.

Of the three elements you highlight, you start with fear, saying that white evangelicals’ embrace of Donald Trump stems out of their long history of being afraid of certain kinds of change. So did you see his victory coming?

No. Frankly, I was so caught up in the moment myself that I kind of lost my historical sensibility for a month or two. It wasn’t until the emotions died down that as a historian I began to see the pattern, the continuity. This is not new.

At every moment of social, cultural or demographic change in history, there have been Americans who have felt threatened, and have responded with fear. Almost every time that happens, evangelicals seem to be at the forefront of the backlash to change. For example, when Catholic immigrants start arriving in the country in the 1840s and ’50s, it’s evangelical Christians who are fearful about a change taking place in their Protestant nation. Or when slaves rebel in the 19th-century South, there becomes this great fear of slave rebellions, which prompts evangelicals to promote slavery in their writings.

So white evangelicals see Trump as a strongman who will protect them from their fears? He seemed very adept at stoking those very fears.

It’s not that the other GOP candidates didn’t also appeal to fears. Ted Cruz was one of the biggest fearmongers that there was. But somehow Trump managed to convince voters that he was stronger and better at protecting them than these other candidates.

I think this gets at why evangelicals turned to Trump when there were other, more traditional Christian conservative candidates in the race, like Cruz or Marco Rubio or Ben Carson.

Your second point is that white evangelicals have bought into the idea that the only way to have an impact on the culture is to seize upon worldly power. What were the roads not taken? What else could they have done instead?

The history of American evangelicals appealing to political power is a relatively new history, maybe going back to the late 1970s and 1980s with the rise of the Christian right. I argued in “Was America Founded as a Christian Nation? that evangelicals had been in power in America up until the 1960s in terms of determining what would be America’s cultural symbols, understanding of marriage, and position on other social issues. It’s not until those traditional values become challenged in the 1960s that evangelicals begin this new strategy of pursuing political power as a way to reclaim the culture.

Since the 1960s, there have also been some evangelical approaches to politics that are unrelated, or do not call for the pursuit of political power, like James Davidson Hunter’s idea of “faithful presence” or Michael Gerson’s call for evangelicals to learn more from Catholic social theory. Or there are Dutch Reformed people who are followers of Abraham Kuyper, who did not advocate seizing political power in the way the Christian right wants to do. And since the early 1970s, people on the evangelical left, like Jim Wallis and Ron Sider, have called for a different kind of evangelical power. But the right refuses to adopt any of these models, and has instead built their entire political philosophy on changing the culture by trying to elect leaders who will follow their agenda.

Your third point is that white evangelicals voted for Trump because of nostalgia. “Make America Great Again” is a slogan custom-built for white people, men especially. For the rest of us, the past really wasn’t so great.

I think a lot of people, when they hear “Make America Great Again,” tend to focus on the word “great.” But as a historian, I’m immediately attracted to the word “again.”

If white evangelicals are going to embrace that slogan, I think they at least have to articulate: When was America great? What golden age do they want to return to? The 1980s? The 1950s? So as a historian, I want to think more critically about the phrase “Make America Great Again.” First identify which period they mean, and then look at the period in more depth. Who was benefiting in that period, and who was not included?

Race is at the heart of this. I ask my African-American friends, “What is the best time in American history to live?” and they say, “Right now!” No African-Americans want to go back to a previous era.

You’ve coined the phrase “court evangelicals” to describe religious leaders like Robert Jeffress and Paula White who have cozied up to Trump. What do you mean?

I was struck by the fact that Trump created an evangelical advisory council, which he did not do for any other religious group. When religious leaders invest in political power in that way, it becomes very difficult for them to speak with a prophetic voice to the political leader they are hoping is going to champion their views.

So as I watched many of these evangelical ministers visiting the White House for photo ops with the president, then sharing these photos on Twitter and boasting about the “unprecedented access” that they had to the president, all of this reminded me as a historian of the Renaissance-era priests and other courtiers who came to the king’s throne to flatter him and praise his greatness. They did not speak any kind of prophetic critique to the king — they were there for selfish reasons, to get in his good graces. So I worry when evangelical ministers like Paula White, Jerry Falwell Jr. and Robert Jeffress praise Trump as the most Christian president we’ve ever had. This has the potential of weakening their credibility among people who may actually need to hear the good news of the gospel, the good news of Jesus Christ.

Finally, you dedicate your book to the 19 percent of white evangelicals who did not vote for Trump. What do you want to say to them with this book?

I dedicate the book to the 19 percent not because they’re my primary audience, but because they seem to have seen through Trump. They’ve made a decision that Trump is not good — not just for the nation, but also for the church. So I hope the book might provide some history and arguments that the 19 percent can offer to their evangelical friends who did vote for Donald Trump and are having second thoughts, or are at least open to further evidence and dialogue. But my main audience, I think, is those evangelicals who voted for Trump who are open to reason and evidence and historical arguments that may suggest electing Trump was a bad idea.

 


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About the author

Jana Riess

Senior columnist Jana Riess is the author of many books, including "The Prayer Wheel" (2018) and "The Next Mormons: How Millennials Are Changing the LDS Church," which will be published by Oxford University Press in March 2019. She has a PhD in American religious history from Columbia University.

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