Monday, July 1, 2019

The Religious Road to Trump

John Fea is "a historian who identifies as an evangelical Christian." He is the author of Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump (Eerdmans, 2018). 

Initially shocked by the results of the 2016 election, Fea concedes that he "should have seen it coming." For him, 2016 was "the latest manifestation of a long-standing evangelical approach to public life," rooted in an even longer history of white evangelical fear." For Fea, "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 never have existed in the first place. Fear, Power, Nostalgia."

To this one-time political scientist, that triad of Fear, the pursuit of Power, and Nostalgia captures much of American religious-political history surprisingly well.  After all, I am old enough to to remember when what eventually came to be called the Religious Right helped to defeat an authentic, church-attending, Sunday-school-teaching, evangelical Jimmy Carter in order to elect a rarely church attending, divorced and remarried, formerly pro-choice Ronald Reagan. Religious hypocrisy in pursuit of political power pre-dated the rise of Trump and is much more systemic than any focus on Trump's uniqueness or the 2016 election's singularity suggests.

Indeed, it is Fea's walk through American religious history that makes this book worth reading.

For Fea, American evangelicalism is "the story of Christians who have failed to overcome fear." And he traces that fear (especially of others, especially of Catholics) all the way back to colonial New England. From fear, follows the pursuit of political power - regardless of cost. "The court evangelicals have decided that what Donald Trump can give them is more valuable than the damage that their Christian witness will suffer because of their association with the president." 

Nostalgia (as in making America great again) likewise follows from fear. "In times of great social and cultural change, the nostalgic person will turn to a real or an imagined past as an island of safety amid the raging storms of progress." For Fea, such nostalgia becomes a form of "tunnel vision," which "fails to recognize the complexity and breadth of the human experience - the good and the bad of American history, the eras we want to (re)experience (if only for a moment) and those we do not."

Fea wonders whether "it may be time for those Christians who want to influence public policy to think about what it means to face the future from a position on the periphery rather than from 'a seat at the table'." For this he argues for an "evangelical politics" which replaces "fear with hope ... the pursuit of power with the cultivation of humility ... nostalgia with history."

Fea acknowledges, however, that Trump's call to "'make America great again' transcends the concerns of his evangelical base." In the end, I think, the religious significance of the Trump electoral phenomenon may be more significant as a symptom of the rise to power of a post-Christian populism. Prior to the evangelical rise to prominence after 1980 (and until 2016), the not particularly religion-focused libertarian and pro-business elements in the Republican coalition really ran things in the Republican party and in the  so-called "conservative movement." They relied on ostensibly religious conservatives (consisting largely of evangelicals and some non-Hispanic Catholics) for the necessasry votes, but pursued an agenda of primarily pro-business economic policies (e.g., de-regulation, tax-cuts for the wealthy, opposition to universal health care, etc.). Trump's campaign empowered a different group - this time, the increasingly post-Christian "populists" - to hijack the "conservative movement" from the old libertarian and business elite, while relying once again on the predictable votes provided by right-wing Christians.

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