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. 🙂 

 

Wilderness Voices: Repent

repentance_1000A crucial message of the Biblical prophets was for the people to repent.  But is this a message we still need to hear today?

I know I’ve been to plenty of services, prayer meetings, and small groups where the subject was repentance.  Only I’m pretty sure at these events I mostly heard about and prayed for other people’s sins.  Often labeled as the sins of the entire culture or nation, and utilizing the inclusive appeal of “we”, most of the topics covered were about what non-Christians, or liberal Christians, do.  I’m sorry if that sounds harsh, but such has been my experience.

Yes, we need to repent as a nation for abortion, for the acceptance of specific sexual sins and predilections, for the disregard of the glory, worship, and fear of the Lord in public places.  But first and foremost we need to repent for ourselves.  For our personal selves, and then for our own churches and ministry.

I know that I must repent for my self centered wants and desires.  I must repent for greed and an unhealthy desire for worldly praise and acceptance.  I must repent anger.  I must repent pride.  I must repent for the ways I have not represented Christ when I had a chance and I must repent for the risks I never took to share His word when prompted.  I must repent for the ways I have hardened my heart to others.  I must repent for the daily transgressions and temptations that separate me from my holy calling as a child of the King.

Collective repentance is important, but we need to start with a heart of truthful, introspective, contrition for our own personal sinfulness.

The American Church must repent for the ways that we have failed as a body to be good stewards of the gospel.  We must repent for the ways we have divided and broken and looked inward when we should have been reaching out.

We must repent of our own lusts, sexual deviances, and sins: of our own divorces and adultery,  for our own abortions, for our own sexual and spiritual abuse, for our own addictions, and for our own vain glory and pride. We must repent for the ways we have not supported families, for the ways we have not challenged or changed generational sins.

We must repent our racial segregation.  We must repent for each time we have diminished, and not built up, another eternal soul.

We must repent our prejudices, our coarseness of heart, and our weakness of mind.  We must repent our wrath against others, against ourselves. We must repent for sloth in our daily lives and for the gluttony we partake in with our mouths and with our money.

We must repent for the ways that we overlook those in need, and for the ways that we don’t reach out to the lost. We must repent for the times we have turned people away, for the ones we have lost through our own weaknesses and failures.  We must repent for the children who have left the church and for the aged who we never found.

We must repent for the ways we have muddled political aims with gospel witness. We must repent for the ways that we let the desires of our flesh, our greed, trample upon the oppressed around the world.  We must repent our love of power, wealth, and influence.  We must repent our envy of the world and our envy of one another.  We must repent our false idols and for our hypocrisy in how we criticize those who are far from God.

We must repent for the ways we have turned a blind eye to certain transgressions and transgressors when it suits us while harshly condemning others who stand in our way.

We must repent our false teachings and for the ways we lead each other astray.  We must repent our fears, our lack of faith, and for the ways we seek security in anything other than the Lord God Almighty.  We must repent all of our cultural accommodations, which have taken us away from the heart of the gospel.

For all these and more, the American church must repent.

Our nation has many problems.  So yes, let us pray for our nation and for national repentance and national revival.  But first we must pray for a restoration of the American church and for the strengthening of holiness in each person in this country who calls upon the name of Christ.

If we want to see an America that truly honors and glorifies Christ, let us first join together in the spirit and mission of St. Francis of Assisi.  It is time we look to rebuild God’s church, starting first on our knees.

O Come Emmanuel: After November 8th, 2016

We look around at our world right now and there is so much that breaks hearts, plays on fears, and isolates those who are different than ourselves.

Many this week legitimately question if they are really welcome in this country or their communities. Others rightly fear if they are safe in a world where violent protests follow the outcome of a lawful and legitimate election.

On the right and the left, you are weary of being labeled all kinds of evil just because of the political party you vote for. Many of us are confused, for our understandings of the world and our competing narratives of facts can’t fully account for the polarizing and angry actions or thoughts of our peers, our neighbors, our family members, or our fellow countrymen. 

Some are wondering if anyone is left who will stand up for us and our hurts and wounds. Loss, of all kinds, rises to the surface only to pour out into the streets and onto our screens exposing our inner pain. Others finally feel vindicated, only to discover that power does not shield you from the sting of criticism. Victory, it turns out, may not be so sweet when it is bought at a price.

Most ponder if we could have done something, anything, long before November 8th, to have helped make this country less divisive, less reactionary, less hateful; more understanding, more empathetic, and more kind.

We are a bruised and bruising people, searching for some guidance in the midst of our collective pain.

It’s been a difficult week in this country. Sadly, there may be many more yet to come.

But the real truth is that there is a Healer seeking to bind our wounds; there is a true Savior who can and will redeem us in the midst of all this mess.

Come, let us adore Him. Hallelujah!

 

In Memoriam: Christina Grimmie, My Friend

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Christina with my Grandmother at my wedding

My wedding reception had just finished and I was trying to get back to my room to change shoes. After hobbling up a flight of stairs with throbbing feet and a cumbersome dress I realized that I did not have a card key to access the lodge hallway where the bridal party rooms were located.  As I was debating if I could make it back downstairs on my own, and honestly starting to feel quite lonely, a graceful, quiet soul appeared on the landing where I was waiting.  I explained to Christina my predicament, she helped me get in, and then we walked together to our neighboring rooms.

I will never forget this moment.

She told me how beautiful I was. I told her how beautiful she sang.  I thanked her for coming to make my wedding so special.  She thanked me for the opportunity to be a part of our story.  And then I told her something that proved to be more true than ever in the following years. I told her that while we may not be related by blood, her family was our family and I couldn’t imagine celebrating that day without them.  Their family, as she reminded me in that moment, liked to tell everyone that my family are the nicest people they know. But in that moment I knew the truth of who the nicest among us truly was.  We hugged, and we went our own ways.

Yesterday, Christina Grimmie went from ushering others to worship at the throne of the Lord through her beautiful life to standing before Him in heaven at the age of 22.

For those who are left behind, for those experiencing a tremendous grief, for those trying to make sense of the senseless, for those wishing they could just do something, this one is for you.

This is the Story of the Son of God

Hanging on a cross for me*

She was loving.  Christina’s love was genuine.  She loved her family, her pets, and her fans.  She loved music.  In an age full of manipulation and image crafting, Christina was true to herself and how God made her.  She was determined to be faithful to who she was and who God was calling her to be.  She ignored voices telling her to be or do something she wasn’t because she knew her fans and she had a vision for how to love them and minister to them through pop music. She loved others and she loved herself for she knew that God loves us all.

The causes she supported with her celebrity weren’t publicity stunts, they were accurate reflections of her heart.  When she said she loved her fans, she really and truly meant it with her whole being.  She received her success with deep humility, and used it to tirelessly serve those whom she inspired.  Christina gave to her family, just as they gave to her.  She sacrificed for others, and she sacrificed for God.  To all of us who had the privilege of knowing her personally, we know the depth of the love she offered and modeled.  Christina Grimmie was loving.

But it ends with a Bride and Groom

Standing By a Glassy Sea

She was faithful.  Christina’s faith was real.  It truly permeated her life and influenced her decisions, even at a young age.  Through her knowledge of scripture to her prayer life, she privately practiced the faith she came so publicly to claim.  She faced plenty of challenges, disappointment, failures and deep pain in her young life, and yet she always turned to God for healing and guidance.  She might not have been recording “Christian” music or serving on a worship team, but no one who knew her could ever charge that she sought to use her gifts for anything other than the Glory of God.  Christina Grimmie was faithful.

Oh, Death Where is Your Sting 

Because I’ll Be there Singing

She had hope. I remember when she and her friend Sarah were very young and first spent a visit at our home writing songs that they asked to perform for us before leaving.  These mini concerts became a regular tradition for our get togethers with the Grimmie’s, long before Christina uploaded her first video to share with the world.  I can earnestly say that watching God’s hand unfold in her life story from early childhood until now has inspired me time and again in remarkable ways.  God gave her a vision and a dream early on in her life and she believed in it with abandon.

She believed in it so much that she kept working toward it, tirelessly, endlessly, passionately, even when she had no clear path for success.  She had hope that God meant what he was speaking over her heart and into her life.  She had hope that no matter the obstacles, He could bring it to pass and that He would not forget her and her dreams.  She had hope that no matter the number of closed doors she encountered along the way, there was still a future for her.  For those of us who saw that hope in a young girl from South Jersey singing from our balconies and in our living rooms, who was self-taught and self-driven, we saw hope in action.  Christina Grimmie had hope.

Holy, Holy, Holy Is the Lord Almighty

She transformed others for good.  As Christina was performing on The Voice, I heard God speak over her an anointing while we were watching her cover of Drake’s song, “Hold on. We’re going home.”  What I heard that night was a reminder that this, too, was a manifestation of the gospel.  What she had accomplished was an act of taking something that seems to be worldly and hollow at its core and transforming it into something truly beautiful and meaningful.  So many of her covers infused this love and beauty into whatever she chose to sing.

The secret to her professional success in this world, beyond her talent, unique personality, and infectious joy, came in how she used her artistry to touch our hearts and remind us that there really is a Creator of this universe who is Love.  God used Christina’s life, as I believe He will continue to use her earthly legacy, every time she breathed His life, the life and freedom of Christ, into the music she performed.

As her family, her friends, her fans, we were all touched by her time walking along side us and we can honestly say that we are better off having known her.  She helped to transform our lives through her kindness, her testimony, and the work of her hands.  Christina Grimmie transformed others for good.

Who Was and Is and Is to Come

Her story is not over.  For those of you, like myself and my family, who have followed Christina’s journey from childhood on up, there is a particular pain to see her name so publicly renowned today.  We all prayed and hoped and believed a day would come when she would reach this level of recognition for her talents.  Never, never, never, could we have ever imagined that day would come because of how she died.  It is almost too much, too cruel.

It does not end like this.  It does not end in tragedy, just as it did not start in tragedy.  The headlines that now bring her story to the rest of the world are neither the beginning nor the end.  Much like the Savior she loved, the tragic and heedless nature of her death may call attention to her life, but it does not define who she was, is, and will be.

We will miss her here.  We will miss her so much.  We will miss her and all the things we will miss out sharing with her in this earthly life that ended so soon.  I recall on my wedding weekend talking to Christina and her mom at different times about how she was so inspired by the story of how my husband and I met through the divine hand of God.  I remember how she said our story gave her hope for what kind of man God had in store for her, in His timing, and the importance of waiting on God to fulfill these desires of your heart.

In so many ways, it hurts knowing that she never met that man on earth and that we will never have the joy of celebrating her wedding together, as she so powerfully helped me celebrate mine.  And yet – and yet – I know that Christina met her bridegroom last night while she stood all in white.

Her story has just begun.  Her life, her eternal life, began anew last night.  If we thought that she sang beautifully in this earth I can only imagine just how glorious she sounds today.  I know that her life and her heart is fulfilled.  I know that she is loved in ways we can only dream of.  I know that she is whole.

Each time we think of her life and the way that God used it, we continue her story here as well.  When we listen to her music, or watch her videos, or tell others about her, we continue the act of transformation she began.  When we think on how much she was and did in her 22 years and we choose to be and do even a fraction of that with our own, her story lives on.  When we choose to love, to be faithful, to hope, and to use our gifts to transform this world for good, we keep her life’s purpose alive and we point to the life that she now lives.  Christina Grimmie’s story is not over.

This is the Story of a Bride in White 

Singing on Her Wedding Day

Of the God who was and is to stand before a Bride who Sings

Holy, Holy, Holy, Is the Lord God Almighty

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* The words in Italics are the lyrics to the song “Holy (Wedding Day)” by City Harmonic.  This was one of the songs Christina sang at my wedding.  It is the song that she sang as I walked down the aisle on May 11th, 2013.  Never before has this song meant so much to me.  Our glassy sea was upon the shores of Lake Tahoe.  Hers are the glorious seas of Heaven.