The history of evangelicalism in America is shot through with fear—but it also contains an alternative.
White conservative evangelicals in America are anxious people. I know because I am one.
Our sense of fear, perhaps more than any other factor, explains why evangelicals voted in such large numbers for Donald Trump in 2016 and continue to support his presidency.
The Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist and essayist Marilynne Robinson once wrote, “Fear is not a Christian habit of mind.” The great poet of the Jersey shore, Bruce Springsteen, sings, “Fear’s a dangerous thing, it can turn your heart black, you can trust. It’ll take your God-filled soul and fill it with devils and dust.”
Robinson and Springsteen echo verses in nearly every book of the Bible, the sacred text that serves as the source of spiritual authority in evangelical life.
- Moses told the Israelites to “Fear not, stand firm, and see the salvation of the Lord, which he will work for you today.” The Hebrew
- God told Job: “At the destruction and famine you shall laugh, and shall not fear the beasts of the earth.”
- The Psalmist wrote: “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff they comfort me.”
The Gospel of John teaches Christians that “there is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear.” St. Luke writes: “Fear not, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.”Despite all these scriptural passages, it is still possible to write an entire history of American evangelicalism as the story of a people failing miserably at overcoming fear with hope, trust, and faith in their God. But it is also possible to find evangelicals, drawing deeply from Christian theological resources, who sought to forge an alternative history.
A history of evangelical fear might begin with the 17th-century Puritans in Salem, Massachusetts, who feared that there were witches in their midst threatening their “city upon a hill” and their status as God’s new Israel. They responded to this fear by hanging 19 people.
But other evangelical options were available. As Puritans began to lose control over Massachusetts Bay, they might have turned to their sovereign God for guidance and trusted in his protection to lead them through a new phase in the history of the colony. Or they could have heeded the warnings put forth by those—such as Roger Williams, Anne Hutchinson, or the growing number of Baptists in the colony—who saw potential problems with such a close relationship between church and state.
Our history of evangelical fear might also include a chapter on the early 19th-century Protestants who feared the arrival of massive numbers of Catholic immigrants to American shores. They translated their panic into political organizations such as the nativist Know-Nothing Party and religious tracts cautioning fellow believers of the threat that such “popery” posed to their Christian nation.
But other evangelical options were available. Biblical faith requires evangelicals to welcome strangers in their midst as a sign of Christian hospitality. While some of the most prominent evangelicals of the era, such as Charles Finney and Lyman Beecher, were spewing anti-Catholic rhetoric, other evangelicals could not reconcile such hatred with Christian love. These evangelicals, as the historian Richard Cawardine has written, “could be found in all evangelical denominations” in the 1840 and 1850s.
A history of evangelical fear might also note that Catholics made up just one front in the battle for a Protestant America. “Infidels” made up the other front. At the turn of the 19th century, evangelicals went to war against unbelievers, deists, skeptics, freethinkers, and other assorted heretics who threatened the Godly character of the republic.
Elias Boudinot, a former president of the Continental Congress, agonized that unless he and his team of evangelical Federalists curbed the influence of the followers of Thomas Paine, the United States would end up like the Church of Laodicea in the Book of Revelation: “Because you are lukewarm [in your faith] … I am about to spit you out of my mouth.”
Jedidiah Morse, a Massachusetts minister and the author of geography textbooks, worried that the Bavarian Illuminati, a German anti-Christian secret society, had infiltrated America to “abjure Christianity, justify suicide, advocate sensual pleasures agreeable to Epicurean philosophy, decry marriage, and advocate a promiscuous intercourse among the sexes.”When “godless” Thomas Jefferson was elected president of the United States in 1800, frightened New England evangelicals thought the Virginian’s henchmen would soon be arriving in their towns and homes on a mission to take away their Bibles.
But other evangelical options were also available. While Federalists like Boudinot and Morse railed against Jefferson and his followers, frontier evangelicals—mostly Baptists and Methodists—flocked to Jefferson in droves. They understood that Jefferson’s defense of religious freedom would allow evangelical faith to flourish in America. They were right. When religion in America was separated from state sponsorship, it resulted in a massive religious revival which historians have described as the Second Great Awakening.
In the antebellum South, evangelicals, according to some historians, made up close to 80 percent of the region’s population. Southern evangelicals were caught up in a slave system that kept them in constant fear for their lives and the lives of their families. Slave rebellions against their white masters were relatively scarce, but when insurrections did take place they brought paranoia and panic. One South Carolina widow claimed to lie in bed each night fearing that at any moment one of her slaves would break into her house and hack her to death with an axe.
The aggressive moral rhetoric and publishing campaigns of Northern opponents of slavery threatened the white Southern evangelical way of life and prompted fears of a race war. In response, some of the South’s best evangelical minds went to work constructing a complex biblical and theological defense of slavery.
But other evangelical options were available. Modern-day attempts by Southern evangelicals—especially those in the Southern Baptist Convention—to come to terms with its slaveholding and racist past imply that the Northern abolitionists, the thousands of evangelicals who came to South during Reconstruction, and those who fought for racial equality during Jim Crow, were on the religious high ground. They represented a much more consistent evangelical ethic on this moral problem.
The very short history of evangelical fear would certainly need to spend some time in the decades following the Civil War as evangelicals waged intellectual and religious battles against Darwinism and the higher criticism of the Bible. Some of the worst aspects of American evangelicalism converged in the Fundamentalist movement of the early 20th century. It was stridently anti-Catholic, and on occasion worked closely with the Ku Klux Klan to guard the white Protestant character of the country.
Fundamentalists, committed to the otherworldly teachings of the Holiness or “Higher Life” movement, chose to separate from the world rather than engage it. They promoted a theology of the “end times” that led them to spend considerable energy trying to identify the appearance of the Antichrist on the global stage.
In defending the “fundamentals of the faith,” these anti-modernists relied on authoritarian clergymen. These fear-mongers gained followers, built large congregations, and established national reputations by sounding the alarm of the modernist threat whenever they saw it rearing its ugly head. They took on the role of ecclesiastical strongmen, protecting their congregations from outsiders who threatened to destroy their faith and the Christian identity of the nation.
But once more, other evangelical options were available. Those concerned about doctrinal drift could have learned something from the biblical virtues of love and humility. The sense of certainty that defined the fundamentalist movement in America might have been replaced with a sense of mystery and the embrace of a God who could not always be confined to man-made doctrinal formulations and end-times speculations. Perhaps such an approach might have tempered the militancy of the movement and provided fundamentalism with a more respected public platform in the decades following the 1925 Scopes Trial.
Since World War II, evangelical anxiety has intensified. In 1947, in the landmark case Everson v. Board of Education, the Supreme Court announced a “wall of separation between church and state [that] must be kept high and impregnable.” The court drew on this decision when it banned prayer and mandatory Bible reading in public schools in 1962 and 1963 respectively.
The demographic makeup of the country was also changing. The Hart-Cellar Act of 1965 opened American shores to millions of Africans, Asians, and Middle Easterners. Many of these new immigrants brought their non-Christian religious beliefs and practices with them, creating unprecedented religious diversity.
In the late 1960s and early 1970s, Supreme Court efforts at desegregating Christian academies and colleges led to fierce resistance from Southern evangelicals who viewed the federal government as taking away their local autonomy and the religious freedom to control their own admissions policies. (These arguments were not unlike to those put forth by the Southern states that seceded from the Union in 1860 and 1861.) By the late 1960s, the feminist movement was posing a threat to the long-held conservative evangelical commitment to patriarchal households, and in 1973 the Supreme Court legalized abortion in Roe v. Wade. For those who saw all these things contributing to the decline of a Christian culture in the United States, there was much to fear.
Any effort to make sense of the 81 percent of evangelicals who voted for Donald Trump cannot ignore evangelicals’ fear of the Barack Obama administration. Obama was an exotic figure to many white conservative evangelicals. He grew up in Hawaii and spent time as a child in a predominantly Muslim country. He was the son of a white woman and an African man. He had a strange name; that his middle name was “Hussein” did not help.Obama had a Christian conversion story, but it was not the kind of conversion story from which many white conservative evangelicals would find inspiration. His embrace of Christianity took place in a liberal African American congregation in Chicago under the guidance of a pastor, Jeremiah Wright, who was not shy about calling America to task for its past sins of slavery and racism.
Obama’s social policies alienated conservative evangelicals. Though “pro-life” could be used to describe his views on
- health care,
- the death penalty,
- the fight against poverty, and
- civil rights for racial and ethnic minorities,
Obama was “pro-choice” on abortion and, for most evangelicals, that was all that really mattered.
And then there was gay marriage. When Obama ran for president in 2008, he supported same-sex unions, but defended marriage as a union between a man and woman. During his first two years in office, he supported the Defense of Marriage Act, a law that prohibited married same-sex couples from collecting federal benefits.
But in February 2011, he changed his position on the Act and instructed Attorney General Eric Holder to stop defending it in court. In a May 2012 interview with ABC News, Obama announced that he had gone through an “evolution” on the issue. He was now willing to affirm that “same-sex couples should be able to get married.”
In 2013, the Supreme Court, in United States v. Windsor, declared the Defense of Marriage of Act unconstitutional and the Obama administration began extending federal rights and benefits to same-sex married couples. By 2015, when the Court ruled in Obergefell v. Hodges that the United States government would recognize same-sex marriages, the practice was legal in 36 states and Washington, D.C. On the evening after the Obergefell decision, Obama showed his appreciation by illuminating the White House in rainbow colors.
The LGBT community saw the Obergefell decision as the culmination of a long struggle for civil rights. Conservative evangelicals cringed. For them it all happened too fast. In the hours after the decision they turned to their blogs, websites, and media outlets and wrote apocalyptic opinion pieces on how to cope in a post-Christian society.
This history of evangelical fear would come to an end, at least for the moment, with a chapter on Hillary Clinton. After a recent lecture on Trump and his evangelical supporters, a woman approached me at the lectern and identified herself as an evangelical who voted for Trump. “I am part of the 81 percent,” she said, “but what choice did I have?” I have heard something similar many times from evangelicals who voted for Trump.
Evangelicals are not supposed to hate. But many hate Hillary Clinton. The history of that antipathy is long, reaching back at least to Bill Clinton’s first presidential campaign in 1992. But it was solidified among white evangelical baby boomers when revelations of her husband’s marital infidelities surfaced in 1998. Conservatives who challenged Bill Clinton’s character were outraged when Hillary attacked her husband’s accusers and went on The Today Show and claimed that the impeachment charges against her husband were part of a “vast right-wing conspiracy.”Hillary Clinton did not help herself among evangelicals in the 2016 election campaign. She lied about using a private email server in her role as secretary of state. She placed Trump supporters in a “basket of deplorables.” She made no effort to court evangelical votes, a strategy that the progressive evangelical writer and Clinton supporter Ronald Sider called “dumbfounding and incredibly stupid.”
On the policy front, Clinton was, for most white evangelicals, an extension of the Obama presidency—a candidate who would steamroll their long-cherished conservative values.
Faced with a choice between Clinton and a race-baiting, xenophobic, lying adulterer who promised to support conservative Supreme Court justices, white conservative evangelicals chose the latter. In 2016, American evangelicals were looking for a strongman to protect them from the progressive forces wreaking havoc on their Christian nation. Donald Trump was the strongman.
Most evangelicals did not believe more traditional candidates of the Christian right such as Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, or Ben Carson could protect them as well as the bombastic big-talking New York real-estate tycoon. As Robert Jeffress, the pastor of the First Baptist Church in Dallas and early Trump supporter put it, “I couldn’t care less about a leader’s temperament or his tone of his vocabulary. Frankly, I want the meanest, toughest son of a gun I can find. And I think that’s the feeling of a lot of evangelicals. They don’t want Casper Milquetoast as the leader of the free world.”
Ironically, some evangelicals have found a savior. They sought after Trump, he answered them, and he delivered them from all their fears.
But other evangelical options are available. Evangelicals are people of hope, not fear. The practice of Christian hope points us to a life beyond this world, but it also requires us to act in such a way that models God’s coming kingdom. The Kingdom of God is characterized by the love of enemies, the welcoming of strangers, the belief in the human dignity of all people, a humble and self-sacrificial posture toward public life, and a trust in the sovereign God of the universe. Fear is a natural human response to social change, but evangelicals betray their deepest spiritual convictions when they choose to dwell in it.
The Trump era presents a host of new challenges for evangelicals who believe in the Gospel—the “good news” of Jesus Christ. The first step in addressing these challenges must come through a reckoning with our past. Evangelicals have taken many wrong turns over the decades even though better, more Christian, options could be found by simply opening up the Bible and reading it. We must stop our nostalgic gaze into a Christian golden age in America that probably never existed to begin with and turn toward the future with renewed hope. It is time, as the great theologian of hope Jurgen Moltmann taught us, to “waken the dead and piece together what has been broken.”
<iframe width=”560″ height=”315″ src=”https://www.youtube.com/embed/HLMhoLHYzIA” frameborder=”0″ allow=”accelerometer; autoplay; encrypted-media; gyroscope; picture-in-picture” allowfullscreen></iframe>talking about the rabid Pro Trumper you48:34know the48:35you know the poll of whites of the world48:38Paula white I think firmly believes that48:40he’s a Christian and and God is using48:42him as a Christian to carry out you know48:46the purposes of the gospel or the church48:49in the world there’s others for example48:51someone like Robert Jeffress from the48:55pastor of the First Baptist Church in48:56Dallas or even Franklin Graham the son49:00of the evangelist Billy Clayton49:02evangelist Billy Graham who would say49:04sure Trump has his problem sure Trump is49:06a sinner I don’t know if Trump has49:08accepted Jesus as his Savior or not but49:12God like Cyrus God uses imperfect people49:17to carry out his plan so so they would49:22say it really does you know they would49:23say really doesn’t matter whether49:25Trump’s a Christian or not he is faith49:28friendly and God is using him in this49:31kind of incredible way God uses sinners49:34and God uses you know people who you49:39know have these corrupt lives or immoral49:41eyes to carry out his purposes God’s49:43ways are not our ways would be the49:45arguing and while we well we would think49:48that it should be a godly Christian49:50leader to help us sometimes God has49:52other plans would be the idea here so so49:55you get you got a kind of mixed mixed49:58views on that depending on which pro50:00Trump evangelical you talk to but you50:04know and I minded I grew up hearing a50:06lot of people who were evangelicals50:08saying something those basically the50:10reverse about Jimmy Carter were there50:13where they would completely grant thatJimmy Carter was was a you know anddevout then but even even argue that hewas a bad president because he was agood Christian to be a good presidentbecause he was done you know kick assand take names I guess I don’t know50:31you’ve encountered during Carter Carter50:34is interesting because evangelicals did50:36flock to him in 1976 you know he might50:40stop supporting that just ants they50:42voted for Carter in 76 and 8050:45I mean an aphid errol’s Ford50:49seventy-six claimed to be some kind of50:51an evangelical Christian too so that’s50:52very interesting but the Carter was so50:54kind of authentic right he he he talked50:57about being born again50:59even his even his uh even his statement51:02about like being tempted to lust from51:04you know from women you know was was it51:09appealed to certain evangelicals right51:11you know that this guy’s honest truly he51:13meant they knew at length nobody and I51:16think I think what happened was when51:19Carter several things I mean one just51:22you know you can’t count out the economy51:24you know the recession and so forth also51:27Carter just did not deliver on the51:29things that evangelicals hoped he would51:32we talked earlier about the green calmlyto Bob Jones case Jimmy Carter supportedto Bob the supreme court on that hewanted to desegregate these academiesand this this you know there wasopposition that emerged almostimmediately to Carter when it didn’tlook like he would deliver on abortionoverturn roe v– wade you know try totry to try to keep the keep thesegregation in place in these academiesso uh you know this is where Falwell andothers so many of you know the storymany our listeners will own story thisis where Falwell and others kind of sayno we thought this guy was was one youknow was going to help our moral causeand he doesn’t seem to be doing it so uhso yeah Carter’s a car is a fascinatingcharacter I think it’s probably you knowit’s probably true to say the fact thathe tried to actually live out a kind ofauthentic evangelicalism probably did uhyou know hurt his his presidency I meanhe has that famous 1979 malaise speechin wrench you know he says we are a52:36nation that is self-centered selfish we52:40only care about each other we don’t52:41think about the common good you know and52:43then Reagan comes in and just says you52:45know do whatever you want right52:47individualism freedom right you know52:50freedom of religion they love these52:52kinds of things no I felt this message52:55of self-discipline that Carter puts52:57forth which you know is this52:59authentically Christian message but you53:01know that’s I think53:02says a lot about the evangelical53:04electorate as well I have one more53:07question that you will wrap up but I I53:12know you know there’s been debates in53:15the Democratic Party about you know53:17what’s the right calculus to to defeat53:21Trump in 2020 and you know one sidebar53:27in that debate is how much should they53:30try and win over people who voted for53:33Trump yeah yeah and a part of that is53:38you know it is it worth trying to talk53:41to some evangelicals to vote for Trump53:43and to appeal to them you know appeal to53:49their values there professor53:52what do you think about that yeah yeah I53:55mean I wrote a whole book about this so53:57I hope yours I hope there’s a53:59possibility but I see I see those54:01eighty-one percent as as very you know54:03there’s there’s diversity within that 8154:05percent one of the things I worry about54:07with this with the media is that they54:09don’t see the diversity of 81 percent54:12that 81 percent includes the rabid Trump54:16supporters who are evangelicals the54:18people who go to the rallies the people54:20who supported this guy in the primaries54:22when there were other options54:24the GOP primaries the people who wear54:26the manga hats you know I mean there’s a54:29lot of Evangelicals you know I remember54:30I remember when Trump came to Harrisburg54:33Pennsylvania I’m watching the news54:36coverage on it at night you know local54:37news coverage and you know I see like54:40four or five people from my church in54:42line my evangelical church in line right54:45so there’s that group what I found afterdoing close to 20 or 30 book talks andand I’m on the road a lot with this bookis that many of those people are justnot going to be convinced by kind ofrational arguments you know politics isoften so much emotional and and and it’sjust gonna be hard to convince thosepeople however there’s a large large55:10number and I don’t know what the55:11percentage is but but I also find55:13there’s a large number who just don’t55:14like Donald Trump they wish55:16they didn’t have to vote for him they55:18hated Hillary Clinton even more they55:22were they they kind of walked the line55:24between not voting for the president and55:26voting for Trump right or voting for a55:30third party candidate and voting for55:33Trump and they decided that they were55:34going to vote for Trump it’s those kind55:36of people that I hope my book is going55:38to reach you know and get them to sort55:42of rethink you know especially in light55:44of everything that’s happened since55:46Trump’s been elected all of the kind of55:49misogyny and racist Arbenz a comet if55:53charlottesville he has an awful55:54immigration policy and so forth on the55:57other hand you can’t count out the56:00economy right the economy is doing56:02really really well a lot of youth56:03angelica’s may not vote on moral issues56:06they may vote on economic issues in 202056:08but when you think about it this way56:10right you don’t need too many56:11evangelicals to have their minds changed56:14for for for a Democrat to win in 2020 I56:19mean Hillary won by three million votes56:22the popular vote so so you know in56:26places like Pennsylvania which you know56:29where we saw in the 2018 midterms we saw56:33mostly Democratic candidates being56:35elected governor senator the the conquer56:40Congress seats almost all many of them56:42flipped to Democrat you know place like56:46Michigan and Wisconsin you don’t need56:48too many votes to turn those states back56:50towards a Democratic candidate so I’m56:52not you know I’m kind of you know a lot56:56of people are saying well if the56:57economy’s good Trump’s gonna win again56:59I’m not entirely convinced about that at57:02least if you can turn some evangelicals57:04you know you might you might have a57:06chance to knock him off in 2020 well57:09here’s here’s a question then if if the57:14Democrats have a nominee who is more57:17likable than Hillary Clinton yeah do you57:20think at least there’ll be sizeable you57:23know statistically significant number57:26vocals who will at57:28perhaps not vote for the Democrat but57:30feel like they don’t have to vote for57:32Khurana57:32yeah Hillary Clinton is a problem with57:35the problem for white conservative57:36evangelicals for two reasons one is one57:40is one as she represents everything57:42about sort of what white evangelicals57:45see as progressivism right pretty57:47pro-choice not doing much to defend57:50Christian values religious liberty57:52particularly marriage you know she’s big57:56government and so forth any Democratic57:58candidate that runs is going to have58:00those same problems with white58:01evangelicals unless it’s like a pro-life58:05democrat right that’s like Bob Casey58:07from Pennsylvania runs who completely58:10who evangelicals backed over Rick58:12Santorum right and then drove Rick58:14Santorum out this is my home state so I58:16know these races pretty well the other58:20problem the other problem white58:21evangelicals had with Hillary Clinton58:22was that she was Hillary Clinton you58:24know the baggage going back to the bill58:27scandals with Monica Lewinsky going back58:30to the lying the you know she’s saying58:33right-wing conspiracy and blah blah blah58:36the deplorable slide you know nobody58:39Clinton made a lot of mistakes among58:41white evangelicals I don’t think I don’t58:43think if she corrected those mistakes58:45she would have won over many white58:46evangelicals to her side but she may58:48have turned some white evangelicals away58:51from Donald Trump towards a third party58:53candidate or towards just not voting in58:56the presidential election so you know58:59we’ll see what happens you could have a59:01Democrat who and if it’s a traditional59:05Democrat on the moral questions that59:07Emma Jellico’s hold dear in 2020 I just59:11I think I think they’re still gonna59:14they’re not gonna vote for that Democrat59:16but because it’s not Hillary Clinton59:18they may say well we could put up with59:19this guy or this one as opposed to you59:23know their four years of Trump I heard59:26something you said this but someone59:29compared Hillary Clinton’s sort of59:33relationship as a cultural icon to the59:37women’s rights movement to Jesse59:39Jackson’s relationship to the civil59:41and the argument was that in the same59:47way that Jesse Jackson couldn’t become59:50president because of just all the59:53baggage that comes with being part of59:54that generation yeah someone from the59:59second generation like Obama didn’t have60:01that package60:02yeah next woman right is the argument60:07that I’ve heard from women’s rights60:11movement but not be associated with all60:14the baggage came with having to fight60:16that fight yeah no no six or seven yeah60:19yeah no it’s there’s probably some truth60:21to that we’ll see you know I don’t know60:24how many women candidates are out there60:25you hear about come out Kamala Harris60:28Kristin Gillibrand I mean you know we’ll60:32see what happens I’m not sure well I I60:37forgot to mention the start but I will60:39plug you are you run a great blog that’s60:43also the title of your first book and60:46the title of your podcast which is right60:48the way of improvement leads home which60:53what’s the URL is it way of improvement60:56way of improvement calm way of60:59improvement calm or no that’s instead61:06Zealand yes I encourage people check out61:17your blog your podcast and you tweet at61:22John fear one john thea one yep jo hn f61:28EI one yeah and i tweet at william are61:35black and in your book believe me the61:39evangelical road to Donald Trump would61:42be a good stocking stuffer when you have61:47those conversations at Christmas right I61:49did a promo for the book on I tweeted I61:52said you just got done with these61:53conversations over Thanks61:55giving with your pro-trump evangelical61:57friends and you wish you had some more61:58arguments for when Christmas or the62:00December holidays come around right get62:03this book you have a month to read it in62:05preparation for Christmas dinner or62:07whatever it might be well thanks for62:12coming on I love to have you on again62:14sometime and great thanks for having me62:17bill thank you