Interview with John Fea, author of BELIEVE ME

Historians, you know, are not used to writing,
kind of–I look at this book as a sort of, not only a historical exploration of why evangelicals
came to Trump, taking the long view, so to speak, thinking about, you know, the last
50 years or maybe even the last 250 years about American evangelicalism. So, we tend to take the long view, why things
happened the way they did, but I also see this book as writing from the kind of, whether
it be the “center” or not, I’m not sure, but evangelicalism. I am an evangelical Christian, and–so it
is a piece of sort of social criticism, a political commentary, if you will. And I’ve never written a book like that. Historians like to lay out what happened,
and then you draw your own conclusions. Hopefully we trigger your moral imagination
or your political sensibilities in some way, and then you do something with the, you know,
you go do something. You decide what to do with the information
you have. This is very different because I am actually
being somewhat prescriptive in the book. So is it a work of history? I’ve been asked this, “Is it a work of history?” In a sense it is, because, again, I’m trying
to understand: what are the long term patterns that led 81% of American evangelicals to vote
for Donald Trump in 2016? What were the factors? Social, cultural, economic factors that led
to this. And I actually trace this all the way back
to, say, the 17th Century. And then, but then, I’m also kind of suggesting
that this may have been a bad decision for evangelicals; or, evangelicals were not true
to their own identity by throwing their support behind this person. So, that’s been the struggle: thinking about
how to do a historically inflected piece of social criticism, or using the past to kind
of promote some kind of a ideal, political ideal, political statement, about my tribe
evangelicals and how they’ve responded to politics. Well, I responded as an evangelical. I responded just as a normal, political citizen
of the country. I’ll never forget the first–I’ll never forget
election night. I was watching with my laptop there; I was
tweeting and so forth. And all of a sudden — I can’t remember what
station I was watching, probably CNN — they started parading different pro-Trump Christian leaders
onto the, onto the screen. I started seeing retweets of people, I won’t
name their names here, but leading Christian–a lot of people today who I call the “court
evangelicals”–kind of, “Praise the Lord!” you know, this providential thing had happened. And I got very angry that evangelicals would
even consider throwing their support behind this guy. Now, again, prior to the election I kind of
knew this was going to happen, but 81% is a very high number, as I found out, I think this
was a couple days later. And then, you know, that it happened–not
only that it happened in such big numbers, but that I didn’t think Trump would win. I thought this would all go away tomorrow. Whatever you think of Hillary Clinton, I just–you
know, I said, this is, this’ll be done with. And all of the writing that I had done and everything had
maybe helped or something. But it didn’t help. I mean, it was clear that evangelicals were
behind this guy and I think I tweeted out something like, “If this is evangelicalism,”
or “If this is what an evangelical is, I’m out.” Now, the next day, I find out that that got
retweeted a lot, and Jonathan Merritt had a piece in the Atlantic in which he quoted
me. So then I’m getting all these emails, “Don’t
leave!” or, you know, these kinds of things. And other people are using what I said
to kind of say, well, here’s Fea, one of many, who says we can’t tolerate this anymore,
that evangelicals would throw their support behind such a person that represented nothing
of evangelical values. Policies and values, policy and character
was the problem here. So, that was my initial reaction. I was angry; I’ll never forget going to church. I write about this in the book, going to church
the Sunday after the election. And, I come from central Pennsylvania, I live
in central Pennsylvania and attend a big evangelical church, some might call it a megachurch, even;
and there I am, singing my praise songs and looking around, and thinking, “8 out of 10
of these people”–maybe more, in central Pennsylvania where Trump carried over 70% of the county
I live in–“voted for this guy.” It took me awhile. It took me awhile to kind of get over the
initial anger, betrayal, that I felt. And I didn’t think about writing a book, though, until
my historical hat, I put my historical hat back on and began to say, “Well, what caused
this?” That’s how I’m wired. I tend to, after doing this for awhile I tend
to think historically about things. And, I said, I still feel like I have something
to say to my fellow evangelicals because I think they took a wrong turn here; at the
same time, I want this to be a respectable analysis, a historical analysis and so forth. So, I, you know, I decided that I was gonna,
I was gonna try to do my best to be a historian and write why this happened the way it did. But also kind of say a word to my fellow Christians
as to where they may have gone wrong. I felt betrayed for two reasons. One is the policies of Donald Trump. Now, I’ve been critical of other GOP presidential
candidates. I was also critical of George W. Bush. I’ve been critical of, I was critical of Barack
Obama on things, too. But the way Trump doubled down on things like
race, on things like immigration, the nativism, the xenophobia associated with that; the way
he would take his kind of–you know he often referred to the race as “the Mexicans” and
“the Blacks” and this was often applied to his policy decisions. So there seemed to be this kind of ugly populism
that was emerging which was very much tied to a racial, nativist, fear-mongering. . . “We
need to protect our borders with a wall.” So I thought, none of these things mesh very
well with my understand of what Christianity is, evangelical Christianity is. So there was certainly the policy. And then on the other hand, you had the character
issues. That evangelicals would sort of sell their
moral authority to speak truth to the world for a handful of Supreme Court justices or
this or that social or cultural issue; for me, the fact that this man had a history of
all kinds of . . . involved in the porn industry, he was crude, he disrespected women. The things he said about his opponents, we
could go into specifics about that. I’m a believer that there needs to be some
kind of moral fabric to a republic in order for the republic to work. Now, where you find that morality, we could
debate that question; I’ve written a little about that elsewhere. But a moral republic needs some kind of moral
leader, some person of character, and he was not it. And I think you could make an argument against
him, not even a Christian argument; he’s just not good for America. But yet evangelicals were so driven by their
culture war. Win the culture war, get the justices we need,
elect the right guy; this kind of model, “playbook” I call it in the book, this playbook for winning
the culture that they were willing to overlook all the character flaws and that was the
second thing of course that bothered me. I think it bothered a lot of other evangelicals. I think that character issue bothered most
evangelicals, whether they voted for Trump or not, but ultimately the playbook: how to
win the culture wars by electing the right justices, the right congressmen, and the right
president was so overwhelmingly strong and had been so inculcated, so indoctrinated into
the way evangelicals today think about politics, that I should have seen it coming. I should have seen this–if you look at the
past 15 years, this was all building up to this point. Now, I think, I tend to think of this as kind of a
last gasp of the old Christian Right; I think that most of the people who voted
for Trump came of age during the late ’70s and ’80s when people like Jerry Falwell and
the Christian Right were articulating this playbook for how to win the culture for the
first time. I think the average Trump voter is 57 years
old. So I do have hope, especially as I look at
young people in Christian colleges, like Messiah College where I teach, who are much more interested
in different kinds of questions related to justice and social ills and those kinds of
things in terms of how they exercise their faith. But I think, I hope this is, I think I see this as
a last gasp–I think in the book I call it–I occasionally teach a course on
the Civil War. Some of your viewers might remember the last
great engagement of the Battle of Gettysburg: Picket’s Charge where the Confederate, Confederacy
made one last charge before they were–and almost were successful–before they were beat
back once and for all. Those who know their Civil War history know
the war went downhill from that point. I hope that’s what happened, that’s what’s
gonna happen, that’s what we’re seeing here. So, as I look back, I looked at the last 50
years, I saw all of these grievances that evangelicals believed were happening, whether
they be sexual politics: abortion; the ERA, the Women’s Rights movement. Evangelicalism has always been a patriarchal
culture. I think there’s a reaction to that. I think there was a reaction to integration,
racial integration, desegregation. I think there were prayer in public schools,
Bible taking out of the public schools, prayer removed from public schools. I think there’s this perfect storm that emerges
in the ’60s and ’70s that prompts people like Jerry Falwell and others to establish again
this kind of political playbook to win the culture back. And Trump proved that, just how powerful that
playbook really is and continue–was, and continues to be, even to the point that someone
like Donald Trump could win. Again, I’m writing primarily to evangelicals
in this book. I think there will be a secondary audience
of American religious historians, people who are interested in American religion who want
to take a peek into what evangelicals are talking about. I think there’s some good history in the book,
though, too. One of the things I try to unpack is show
how there’s always been a dark side to American evangelicalism. We can talk about the way in which evangelicals
have been on the front lines of anti-slavery, social justice movements, international poverty
relief, all of these kinds of things. And we need to celebrate that I think; I’m
not one of these people, who–I am an evangelical, so I rejoice that evangelicals are doing these
things. But there’s also a dark side. Even as someone like Lyman Beecher, who I
write about in the third chapter, even as he is fighting slavery, he’s also one of the
leading nativists. He doesn’t want catholics coming in and undermining
his protestant nation. So this story goes back a long way and I think
what Trump does, is he appeals to the worst side of evangelicalism in its 2, 300-year history. Every time evangelicals are not representing
the true virtues of their faith, where they fail, I think Trump seizes on that history. This is a history that defended the institution
of slavery. This is a history that had such certainty
about what is true in the fundamentalist movement. This is a movement that prevented, didn’t
want certain kinds of immigrants coming into the country. There’s a long history of this. I’d like my fellow evangelicals to at least
be exposed to that history. I think when ordinary evangelicals, lay men
and women, think about evangelical history they celebrate this providential idea. “God is with us! God is doing great things through people.” And I think that’s important. I think God does obviously work in this world
and uses people in this world. But also the reality of human sin: evangelicals
are not immune. Obviously! If anyone knows better, it’s an evangelical
who believes in this conversion experience, one’s saved from the consequences of sin,
becoming born again or becoming–accepting Jesus, or whatever that looks like. So, I want them to see there is a darker side
to the history that Trump is tapping into. Am I going to convince the 81% that they made
a wrong decision? Most I probably will not, but I do believe
there are some fence-sitters out there, people who maybe held their nose and voted for Trump. Maybe they need to think through exactly,
they may be open to thinking through a little bit more, in terms of what this man represents
and what the policy decisions he is putting forth represent. And hopefully it will force evangelicals–maybe
“force” is too strong a word, but it might encourage evangelicals to think more deeply
about political engagement. And when a politician comes along and says,
“Let’s make America great again,” he’s ultimately–or she, in this case he–is ultimately making
a historical statement. So I think evangelicals have to be careful. When was America great? Let’s go back and think about that. What does Trump mean when he says, “Make America
great again?” And before you start using these evangelical
catch-phrases like “reclaim” and “restore” and “let’s get back to” and “let’s bring back
the way it used to be,” we need to think more deeply about what, exactly what it was like
back then, how it used to be. So I think even if the book forces evangelicals
to kind of rethink even their phraseology and how they, what they say when they enter
the public sphere, public square, I think that will be a contribution in some ways. I’ll be happy if that happens. So I think race plays an important role in
this book. I think that’s a contribution here. There’s a lot of reasons why evangelicals voted
for Trump. Sexual politics I think is a big one. I think race is also an issue. There is a certain degree of, still a certain
degree of fear among white evangelicals that, not only African Americans, but Hispanics;
America’s becoming less white, there’s been a lot of good sociology written about
this lately about the “end of white America.” So I think this is, the white evangelicals
who voted for Donald Trump, the 81% of white evangelicals, are responding to these changes
with a sense of fear, with a sense of nostalgia for a white world in which they held power. So I think this is part of the story, part
of the appeal of Donald Trump. Let’s try to, when they say, “Let’s make America
great again,” you talk to most African Americans, the best time to live in America is today. They don’t want to go back. And I’ve had some great conversations over
the years with African American evangelicals and worked with them on things and I talk
a little bit about that in one of the chapters of the book about this idea that we are somehow
a Christian nation that we have to get back to. No African American wants to get back to when
we were supposedly a “Christian nation.” So I think this appeal–and again, you see
it in the history. Whenever there is some kind of significant
cultural change, whether it be religion, race; I mean, I’m half Italian. When my Italian family came over, they were
of a “different race.” They were southern Europeans. They weren’t WASPs. So this same kind of racial rhetoric, as well
as the anti-catholic rhetoric. Whenever there’s a cultural demographic change
in society, largely through immigration, or some kind of slave rebellion where the slaves
are threatening to overthrow the racial hierarchy of the South, sadly, evangelicals are always
at the front of that resistance. Mostly white, middle class evangelicals. I think that’s what you’re seeing again now. Our culture is changing. We’re becoming less white, we’re becoming
more religiously diverse. I think the 1965 Immigration Act which allowed
non-Western men and women into this country. They brought their religions with them, they
brought their culture with them. And I think Donald Trump stepped in and said,
in a very conservative, populist way–which we’ve seen throughout American history, maybe
most recently Pat Buchanan, but there were others in the 20th Century–and said, “We
are going to make you happy again. We’re gonna give you the kind of world that
you once knew as a kid. We’re gonna make America great again.” And I think that is very much tied into these
racial, cultural, ethnic changes. For a long time, evangelicals have been, if
not leading, very much at the forefront of racism in America. I would argue historically–really more as
an evangelical, I would argue–it’s a failure of their, it’s a failure of faith. I think evangelicals have these resources,
all Christians have these resources: the dignity of all human beings. I think it’s most important, but also evangelicalism
specifically… I remember hearing Mark Galli, the editor
of Christianity Today, talking about all these Christian scholars that appeal to the Imago
Dei which is we’ve been created in the image of God, and thus everybody has dignity, everybody
has worth: racism is not an option as a result of that, if everybody has dignity. And there were people in the 17th, 18th, 19th,
and 20th Centuries who were making these arguments, so it’s not as if I’m sort of taking my 21st
Century view on this and superimposing it on the past. There are others who were more consistent
on this. But Galli said for evangelicals, it even goes
deeper than just the Imago Dei, or it’s more thorough than that, in the sense that, if
we believe Jesus died on the cross for our sins, redemption, all human beings are worthy
of redemption in God’s eyes regardless of gender, race, class, and so forth. So it moves even beyond just the creation
to the redemption. So I think evangelicals have an amazing set
of resources in their faith to be able to overcome these racial problems and, for a
variety of reasons, they’ve failed to do it because I think they’re overcome by fear in
many ways. They’re overcome by–and this deeply rooted
idea that somehow we are an exceptional nation, God has blessed us above other nations, that
we are a new Israel. In some ways evangelicals still believe they’re
in this kind of contractual relationship with God–Americans are–Evangelicals believe if
we don’t keep a pure Christian nation we’re gonna lose God’s favor in some ways. So I think all of those really bad historical
assumptions and theological assumptions–fear, I don’t think–I love the Marilyn Robinson
quote: “fear is not a Christian habit of mind.” So there’s these kinds of psychological, theological
errors, historical errors that get in the way of us living out our faith with a sense
of hope, with a sense of equality, with a sense of what Martin Luther King called the
“beloved community.” I think there’s gonna be a lot of people,
and there have been a lot of people who after the election of Donald Trump–you know, I
was close to this as well; I would even argue at one point that I was there maybe for a
few days. I tended to work out my, what’s the word,
angst or whatever about this kind of publicly, so, if you follow the paper trail: two days after the
election I’m saying, “Here’s what I’m still thankful for!” So, I’m still–I just gave a talk last week
to the board of trustees of a Christian college, and they gave me the assignment. The assignment was this: What positive role
has evangelicalism played in American history? You know, that’s a tough question for a historian. Especially after the previous question I answered
about the dark side of evangelicalism. That’s a tough question because we don’t tend
to speak in moral categories, “It’s good” or “bad;” no, this is what happened, and you guys
parse it out. But, I respect the people who have decided
to leave evangelicalism. A lot of my friends have, and people who–or
at least, rejected the label, let’s put it that way–some of my unofficial mentors have
said it’s not useful anymore; let’s use the term “evangelical” or “evangelicalism” to
describe a historical movement, phenomenon, but it’s become so politicized. So you also have the examples of Princeton’s
Evangelical Fellowship, their student group; they took “Evangelical” out of their name. You see a lot of big megachurches–and I think
this happened before Trump, but they’re removing the term “evangelical” because it has such
political connotations. I respect that; for me . . . and it’s really through
a lot of discussions with my editor David Bratt on this; he convinced me that I’m actually
in the process of defending the term in this book. I’m not willing to let it go to the politician,
to the court evangelicals, or the 81%. I think there’s something about “evangelical,”
the word, the good news, the gospel, the authority of the Scriptures, the cross, that’s worth
defending, and worth saving from the way it’s been so politicized. So I think when you read this book, I think
you’ll still see me kind of struggling with this a little bit because I’ve always been
a very uneasy evangelical since I converted, I would say “got saved” at age 16. I’ve always been uneasy because I was formed
in another religious tradition that also had a profound effect on my moral formation and
upbringing. But, while I remain uneasy with evangelicalism,
I’m not willing to go all the way and say I’m not going to identify with that term. I think, I often find myself, since the election–as
much as I’m a critic of what the 81% did by voting for Trump, I get, the hairs on my arm
raise, too, when I hear secular liberals trashing evangelicals. I want to say, “No!” I get angry, too, at the kind of assault on
evangelicals. A perfect example of this is after the death
of Billy Graham. My natural instinct was to say this man lived
a–he had flaws, we all have flaws; he could have maybe done more in certain areas, but this
man lived an honorable, God-fearing life as I understood it. Again, he had his slip-ups. I actually write about some of his slip-ups
in the book. But I just thought the sort of secular liberal–whatever
you want to call it–the anti-evangelical assault on Billy Graham in some popular pieces
was just way over the top. And they were making criticisms that no right-minded
historian would make. Talk about the right and wrong sides of history
and Graham was on the wrong side, and these were people, a lot of them actually were former
evangelicals with axes to grind, I’ll say that publicly I think, you know who you are! But, what fascinates me is someone needs to
do a study of how the election of Donald Trump influenced obituaries and other popular op-eds
and stuff of Billy Graham. Because some people are just connecting Graham
to the court evangelicals and there’s some truth to that, but the venom in a lot of pieces
on Graham really got under my skin and that’s maybe saying more about me than them, I don’t
know, but that’s an example of where I will. . . people are going to think I’m enemy number one after,
public enemy number one after they read this book, but I just want to affirm that I remain
an evangelical. I still believe in those things that evangelicals
believe in and I’m always going to be a critic, too. Insider/outsider kind of thing. For those who left evangelicalism, or at least
don’t want to associate with the term, I respect that; I’m not going to try to write another
book to win you back, and I think that’s a fair position to take. I’m just not going to take, I’m not one to
take that position.

8 thoughts on “Interview with John Fea, author of BELIEVE ME

  1. I am angry as well as an evangelical looking around me in church on Sunday morning. I am very much looking forward to the release date of the book. Your 30 minute preview has made me even more exited to get it into my hands. Thank you for writing it.

  2. You just repeat the multiple lies from the filthy Left. You are a liar too, no less. Barack is a communist, and this was a problem for you? No!
    Hillary is a "baby killer IN THE WOMB" and a traitor of her own people and you, hypocrite, wanted her as president.
    What a disgrace. Shame on you. Everybody wants to live in the USA, including me, much more now with this incredible president, DONALD J. TRUMP.
    God bless him and protect him from snakes like you.

  3. I just discovered this book at my local Barnes and Noble today, and I am so, so grateful to John Fea for writing this. Although I would not exactly characterize myself as an "evangelical," I am a believer, and I attempt to be a Christ follower. The huge support for Trump among evangelicals breaks my heart. It feels like a betrayal of the Gospel on a deep, deep level. Fea's patient and kind explications are surgical in their precision, and a start at rooting out this cancer at the heart of public faith. He is pastoral and prophetic in equal measure. I thank God for Fea, literally.

  4. This is a book that makes me feel less lonely. I have been hurt, confused, angry and gut punched by what has happened among my evangelical brothers. Fear is a terrible motivator and so incompatible with the life of Jesus Christ. We are His followers. This book is encouraging and discouraging at the same time. It was encouraging because his thoughts are my thoughts. It is discouraging because so few evangelicals think like this. I especially loved the suggestions at the end: Hope over fear, humility instead of seeking power and history instead of nostalgia. Thanks Brother Fea for the difficult task of writing this book. I want to include one of my favorite quotes. It is from Emmanuel Katongole, in his book Mirror to the Church: Resurrecting Faith after Genocide in Rwanda. "The church’s primary purpose is not to make America more Christian, but to make American Christians less American."

  5. I agree with comments below. Fea's book makes me feel less lonely. I am grateful for it. His key points: as believers, we should be characterized by hope (instead of fear); humility (instead of a lust for power, political or otherwise); and knowledge of history (instead of nostalgia for a world that never was).

  6. "May have been a bad decision….? " In what sense of " May have?" . And the needle hasn't moved. 81% remain full-on Trumpers. May I suggest instead of lamenting, perhaps a little repenting? Thought experiment: What did the 20% of Germans who quietly anguished over Nazism (effectively) do with the feeling? Let's all meditate on that.

  7. I keep on seeing evangelicals wanting to believe that this isn't what evangelicalism and christianity is. IT IS. Evangelicalism and christianity IS a craven bid for political power by any means possible. It IS about racism, bigotry, hate, and above all else POWER. Evangelicals and christians feel that they are entitled to complete political power. Evangelicalism/christinity isn't something with a dark side. It IS a dark thing. Evanglicalism/christianity IS Trump. It always has been.

    Morality is important for a nation to succeed. I hope that we as a nation will turn to the higher moral values of godless heathenism and reject the amorality of christianity.

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