Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump
By John Fea
Eerdmans Pp. 238 $24.99.
Review by Benjamin Guyer
John Fea opens the conclusion of Believe Me by relating a conversation that occurred at an unnamed college where he gave a guest lecture about Donald Trump and American evangelicals. After the talk, a student asked him, “How should Christians respond to the election of Donald Trump? What do you think we are supposed to do?” By his own admission, the question was “fair,” but “also a question that my training as a historian and my research for previous books had not prepared me to answer” (p. 179). This episode encapsulates Believe Me as a whole. The book is an exercise in criticism, but although long on critique, it offers evangelicals no plan of action. In the end, Believe Me is, at best, self-defeating.
The book contains five chapters. The first three belong together. Chapter one argues that even before Trump became the frontrunner, the 2016 Republican primary was awash in what the chapter’s title calls “The Evangelical Politics of Fear.” The second chapter, entitled “The Playbook,” explains this by looking at the development of modern conservatism. Fea argues that the religious right has created an ideological framework in which particular political moves attract conservative political support, even at the cost of undermining evangelical witness. The third chapter then offers an even larger historical canvas, upon which Fea purports to trace the history of evangelical fear as a continuous line throughout all of American history.
The fourth and fifth chapters move in different directions. Chapter four takes aim at those whom Fea terms “court evangelicals,” religious leaders who use political channels to achieve their religious ends. He identifies four goals as being especially important: “overturning Roe v. Wade, defending religious liberty, supporting Israel, and appointing conservative federal judges” (p. 122). The fifth chapter argues against the romanticism inherent in the phrase “Make America Great Again.” Central to his argument is that Trump is a racist and that his supporters are thus guilty by association; evangelicals unwittingly romanticize racism when they romanticize the past. After five chapters, evangelical support for Trump appears a profound betrayal of evangelical convictions.
Fea’s main argument against Trump is one unique to evangelicals. The President is guilty of “decidedly un-Christian behavior” and is “a profane man” (p. 4). “His entire career,” Fea later writes, “was built on vices incompatible with the moral teachings of Christianity” (p. 66). This is not an argument about competence, constitutionality, or anything else. Rather, it’s an argument about sex. Trump has divorced and remarried twice, had an affair with a porn star, and made unacceptable comments about grabbing women by their genitalia. Fea apparently belongs to the generation of evangelicals who recoiled with horror at the sexual exploits of Bill Clinton (discussed on pp. 62-64). In the late 1990s, evangelical leaders like James Dobson urged Clinton’s impeachment with the argument that moral character is paramount for political leaders, but now he and other evangelicals support a president whose sexual habits have flouted the same code. It is this hypocrisy that Fea cannot abide.
The practical payout of Fea’s moral high ground is unclear. For example, in his second chapter, he notes that when Trump’s comments about grabbing women’s genitalia were made public, Dobson and other evangelical leaders condemned Trump’s words — but without removing their respective endorsements. Dobson’s reasoning, which Fea notes, was simple. Trump told evangelicals that he would support “religious liberty and the dignity of the unborn” (p. 68). Hillary Clinton, the Democratic candidate, made no such promises. Thus Dobson maintained his support for the Republican candidate. Regrettably, Fea tries to psychologize his subject and claims that by voting for Trump, evangelicals operated under the impetus of fear. This, however, is called the intentional fallacy; because we never know another’s internal motivations, it is invalid to explain their behavior on the basis of presumed intentions. By ignoring Dobson’s stated justification (which is all that we can know), Fea cannot allow that Dobson’s decision was an exercise in moral reasoning. Consequently, Fea does not consider that the alleged evangelical “playbook” has developed rather than changed, with some evangelicals now preferring broad policy goals over their own particular moral scruples.
Genuinely irksome, however, is Fea’s use of the term “white.” Early on, he writes, “For too long, white evangelical Christians have engaged in public life through a strategy defined by the politics of fear, the pursuit of worldly power, and a nostalgic longing for a national past that may have never existed in the first place” (p. 7). Yet, he then goes on to discuss multiple conservatives, including 2016 Republican hopefuls, who belong to various racial minorities. Among others, we have Dinesh D’Souza, an Indian American (p. 19); Ben Carson, an African American (pp. 30-32); Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz, both Cuban Americans (pp. 32-38); and, much later in the book, Rousas John Rushdoony, an Armenian American (p. 58). Yes, Trump became the Republican presidential candidate, but the beliefs he courted (and possibly embraced) were cut from the same ideological cloth as that of his opponents. “White” is an insufficient explanatory framework for contemporary American conservatism, whether political or religious.
While some evangelicals are genuinely enthusiastic about Trump, and while some even consider him a typological fulfillment of Biblical prophecy (discussed in ch. 4), Fea never shows that most evangelicals personally identify with the President’s life and doctrine. A more quotidian explanation of the 2016 election would therefore be more valuable. Allow me to propose that, in a partisan democracy, when people cannot vote their full range of interests, they will vote for the candidate that they consider least bad. Longtime political alliances do not disappear over the course of a single election cycle or even presidential term. Evangelical concerns have an important place in the Republican party, even if Republican politicians sometimes grant them only lip service. (No doubt Democrats do the same with their own constituencies.) Consequently, the concerns and complaints of Believe Me are ultimately unbelievable.
Dr. Benjamin Guyer is a lecturer in the department of history and philosophy at the University of Tennessee at Martin.