Our Dysfunctional Family Values: On Believe Me by John Fea

img_9395.jpegThere is nothing quite so painful nor so beautiful as delving into the study of your own family.  Where there are wounds or unresolved questions, such study becomes all the more necessary yet somewhat halting and – even, at times – haunting. As Oscar Wild wrote in his classic The Picture of Dorian Gray, “I can’t help detesting my relations. I suppose it comes from the fact that none of us can stand other people having the same faults as ourselves.”

Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump, by John Fea, offers fellow white American evangelicals a chance to study the harsher realities of our family legacy by illuminating the detestable parts of our past and laying bare the faults of our present.

For many of us within the church the current era of Trumpism has confirmed our worst fears and challenged our most defensive reflexes about the faith community we call home.  This has been a time of reflection and repentance, but also one of bewilderment.

In describing his first reaction on election night Fea shares his emotions, which to many of us are all too familiar. “I was shocked. I was saddened. I was angry.”  Trump’s victory brought about disillusionment not really because of who lost, but rather because of who and what so many of our fellow brothers and sisters in Christ appeared willing to endorse, enable or empower.  As Fea notes, realizing that eight out of 10 of his fellow church goers most likely voted for Trump “seemed to reflect deep divisions in how we understand the world, and it was deeply distressing.” (5)

For those who, like me, share these sentiments of shock and uncertainty, Believe me offers a renewed explanation for why this happened and sketches tentative suggestions for the road ahead.  He offers us a historical framework mixed with contemporary analysis through which to understand our present time, particularly by focusing on the religious leaders and prominent Trump supporters Fea terms “Court Evangelicals.” In all, the book reads as a satisfying catharsis for unresolved questions about why and how we got to this point in our family history.

Grounded in an overview of the modern dance between evangelicals and the Supreme Court, Fea describes how and why evangelicals have turned to political solutions as a means for devotional salvation, especially in the second half of the 20th century. Also acting as primer on the darker moments in religious American history, from the faults of Salem and Massachusetts Bay Colony, to the theological justifications of slavery and Jim Crow, to the rise of the “Know Nothing Party”, the Scopes Trial, Operation Wet Back and many more, Fea’s book offers us a colorful family album of evangelical foibles, sins, and woes.  He explains:

“Evangelicals have worried about the decline of Christian civilization from the moment they arrived on American shores in the seventeenth century.  They have celebrated values such as ‘freedom’ and ‘liberty’ while simultaneously building exclusive communities that do not tolerate dissent.  They have revealed their fear in the ways they have responded to the plight of the people who do not share their skin color.  White evangelical fear of newcomers – those who might challenge the power and privilege that white evangelicals have enjoyed in a nation of Protestants – has been present in every era of American history.” (65)

Seen in this light, the voting habits and rhetoric of the 2016 election were a continuity of our worst impulses, an almost inevitable outcome for a people who have yet to reckon with the their own darker past.

Playing up the thesis that the evangelical embrace of Donald Trump is driven most prominently by fear, Fea recounts the events leading up to the election by wryly noting, “The evangelical candidates stoked fears of a world they seemed unfit to tame.” (33) The rhetoric, developed over almost forty years by the leadership of the Religious Right, mixed with age-old concerns about foreigners, criminals, and encroaching secularism, is not to be seen as an abrogation but rather as a continuation of the more troubling legacies within the American church.  As Fea explains: “In a sin-cursed world, we should expect anxiety-induced emotions to rise in response to social change.  But evangelicals have not always managed their fears in a healthy way.” (65)

Crucially, he identifies how the over glorification, or nostalgia, of our past has led to a confused mentality of how best to confront the concerns of the present.  While addressing the complex historical implications of the controversial campaign slogan Make America Great Again, he asks for us to question more deeply what message that fourth word conveys.  Which America, which season of American evangelicalism, do we wish to reclaim? What is meant by great AGAIN?

“It is easy for white evangelicals to look back fondly on American history.  There is, of course, a lot to celebrate… At the same time, America is a nation that has been steeped in racism, xenophobia, imperialism, violence, materialism, and a host of other practices that do not conform very well to the ethical demands that Christianity places upon our lives.”  (137-8)

Looking back to this darker past is the key to understanding a path to a brighter, more hopeful, future.  It also helps us put in perspective the widening political gap between white evangelicals and our minority brethren in the faith.  As Fea pointedly queries, “Why would any African-American want to ‘reclaim’ a history steeped in racism?” (134) Yet somehow these voices remain unheard or unheeded and the sins of our forefathers, or perhaps the sins of our own hearts, are the reality we still must confront, repent, and mourn.

What then should we do about these dysfunctional family values?  Fea ultimately concludes with a call to hope over fear, humility over power, and history over nostalgia.  Through further self-reflection and an embrace of values exhibited in the civil rights movement, he thinks we can find creative and faithful ways to respond to the unique (and not so unique) challenges of our times.

Moreover, Fea suggests that we should respond in such a way that is inclusive and welcoming of the entire multi-racial, multi-ethnic body of Christ, seeking after an understanding of the great promise offered by this land of the free that is relatable to all.  “For too many who have been the objects of white evangelical fear,” he says, “real American greatness is still something to be hoped for – not something to be recovered from an imagined past.” (154)  Adopting a posture of humility, we should therefore see both the future of our faith and the future of our polis as one in the making, a work in progress ripe for healing and new growth.

While Believe Me is a helpful and insightful addition to the burgeoning literature seeking to explain how a thrice married, notoriously bankrupt (in more ways than one) former reality tv star ended up as President of the United States of America, I do have three critiques to offer.

First, for a book that proclaims to specifically offer an understanding of the evangelical embrace of Trump or Trumpism, Fea fails to adequately define the distinct roots and branches of our family tree.  Since the 2016 election there has been an ongoing discussion, particularly among scholars of theology and church history, regarding the meaning of the label “evangelical” and the authenticity of the poll numbers which Fea readily cites as the basis of his book.  Not only did Fea choose to overlook this discussion about the contemporary use of the term, but his historic examples of “evangelicals” are quite generous in definition, including faith groups as diverse as puritans, members of mainline protestant denominations, prosperity gospel preachers, and pentecostal churches, among others.

The closest Fea comes to defining what he means by American evangelicalism is found in his categorization of the so-called “court evangelicals” who “come from three primary streams of American evangelicalism: the Christian Right, the followers of what has come to be known as the ‘prosperity gospel,’ and the Independent Network Charismatics.” (106)  While I found this to be a helpful way to group the personalities he features, I am certain some of his peers will question if these are all fair representatives of evangelicalism as a historically defined religious movement.

Even if these are all fair representatives of white evangelicalism, Fea still fails to define with greater clarity what he means by the term. (Personally, I am inclined to give him some latitude for accepting this type of self-identified “evangelicalism” as representing an important sociological grouping, if not a precise theological label.)  A significant part of reflecting on our family roots is looking into our DNA, the unique genetic ties that connect us together throughout time.  In Believe Me, Fea fails to even attempt to make these ties apparent.  He uses the term “evangelical” so broadly at times it ceases to mean much more than just a generic, interchangeable, title for the American Christian.

Second, I am afraid this book is not written in a way that makes it fully approachable to the 81% who voted for Donald Trump.  While the dedication “to the 19%” who voted for someone (or no one) else in 2016 seems quite fitting, this book offers an opportunity to bridge the political divide and invite us all onto a mutual path of familial reflection.  Unfortunately, where Fea diverges from the necessary detachment of historical inquiry, there is a touch of off-putting bias.  More than once I caught myself noting how he describes the fears of those who have embraced Trumpism as merely reacting to perceived threats, while at the same time he qualifies the prejudices of both the present and the past as definite and real.  This pattern is particularly evident in his discussion of the Obama presidency where, for example, he fairly critiques the racism behind birtherism but understates both the political and judicial threats to religious liberty posed by the Obama administration both at home and abroad.

While I concur that the Christian Right, among others, ginned up excessive hyperbole and fear in our recent history, I also think that Believe Me as a whole misses the mark in examining the trends in European and American culture that elicited genuine fear and anxiety among orthodox Christian believers.  As many astute observers of our age such as Rod Dreher in The Benedict Option have noted, some evangelicals (presumably including those within the 81%) are responding to shifts in belief and behavior which could lead to actual persecution over time – more than mere social change or inflexibility as Fea implies.  We certainly need to debate the best, most Christ-like way to respond to such threats, but it is folly to gloss over the actual ways these changing public policies and mores may inhibit our freedom of religion in the days to come.

Fea’s overarching thesis, that our fears should be met with hope and humility, remains timely and significant.  Yet by discrediting most of these fears as over exaggerated, or simply as part of a legacy of religious bigotry, he limits his most likely audience to those already inclined to agree with the prescient warning that fear and nostalgia can all too easily lead to ungodly racism, bigotry and exclusion.

Finally, any great examination of family history eventually needs to look fully and fairly at the entire family tree.  When newly exposed to the foibles and abuses of our elders or peers it is only natural to want to keep digging, to find all the hidden or forgotten skeletons, and to reflect upon them through grief.  This process of emotive truth-telling is an important part of healing, but it is not the entirety of the healing process.  What Believe Me starkly overlooks, a bit oddly given the intended audience, is the historical context for evangelicals who currently dissent.  Be they the 19% who didn’t vote for Trump, or part of an unknown percentage who cast their votes for him but still vocally object to policies and behavior which run counter to the Christian Faith, these white evangelicals are standing in an important tradition that also reaches back before our founding.

Family histories are complex, and any readings that are all positive or all negative tend to miss the mark and fail to give complete justice to the truth of our heritage.  Where Fea fairly derides the positive revisionism of David Barton and his ilk for an all-too-simple storytelling of a mythic Christian America, reading Believe Me in insolation risks leaving us with the impression that the legacy of white evangelicalism is mostly negative: a long, sad, solitary tale of bigotry and hypocrisy.

Such a uniquely sordid picture could not be further from the truth.  Look to every moment of ugliness and shame in our nation’s history and there you will find evangelical dissenters, missionaries, and advocates.  While the darker parts of our past must be reckoned with, a feat Fea does quite well, we should not lose sight of the many ways throughout our own history that evangelical Christians have stood with the marginalized, the poor, and the oppressed.  That story of compassion and sacrifice is just as if not more significant to tell, not so as to lead us into a nostalgic triumphalism but rather to inspire those who are currently distressed with the knowledge that we are not alone.  Others have stood here before us and stayed faithful to God, upheld human dignity for the downtrodden, and fearlessly spoke truth in the face of persecution, isolation, and apparent powerlessness.

I find Fea’s ultimate answer, for us to look to the civil rights movement as a model to follow in these times, quite compelling.  But I also hope we do not forget the legacy of the abolitionists, the suffragettes, and the urban social movements of the 19th century, among so many others.  The examples of fear and hatred in our past run deep and wide and current events suggest this legacy still lives with us, possibly within each of us, to this day.  But there are also so many examples in our history of rugged perseverance, crusaders for justice, and generous biblical hospitality.  Those saints, many of whom were white American evangelicals, offer us ready examples of what it means to live our lives with a bold, unapologetic, public witness in often dark or confusing times.

These concerns aside, Believe Me is a helpful and ultimately hopeful read worthy of further reflection.  Going into this week of national celebration, I hope we can come to see the role of our familial engagement within the public square not as an opportunity to worship the perfection of what we think our country once was, or what it might already be, but rather, using Fea’s description of the outlook found within the civil rights movement, as “a gesture to what” we hope “the United States might become.” (164)

 

Fea, John. Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2018).

I received a free advanced copy of this book to review.  Special thanks to Eerdmans for this opportunity and apologies for not publishing sooner! Reading and writing with four under five is quite the adventure. 🙂