Evangelical Fear Elected Trump

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.

  1. 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
  2. God told Job: “At the destruction and famine you shall laugh, and shall not fear the beasts of the earth.”
  3. 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

  • immigration,
  • 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.”

What is a Post-Jesus Christian?

 

Post-Jesus Christians are “Christians” who have decided to postpone following Jesus’s teaching until Jesus returns and ushers in 1000 years of peace.

Post-Jesus Christians hold that Jesus’s teachings do not need to be followed in our present era if they are a hindrance to obtaining the power they fear they need to help usher in the Kingdom of God.

Post-Jesus Christians (privately) hold that Jesus’s teachings are a nice thing to follow when dealing with the in-group of their fellow PJCs but may be disregarded when dealing with non-PJC neighbors.

Prophecy: What God Can Do For You

Post-Jesus Christians talk a lot about about prophecy, and unlike the Biblical Prophets, when they do, they punch down, rather than up:

You will know them by their fruit, because they only have one key message – God is going to “enlarge your tent” and “expand your influence“, he’s going to “give you great favor” and “bless you mightily”.

Later Craig Greenfield writes:

In Biblical times, there were two types of prophets.

  1. Firstly, there were those who feasted at the King’s table because they had been co-opted to speak well of evil leaders (1 Kings 18:19). They were always bringing these smarmy words of favor and influence and prosperity to the king. And the king lapped it up. Like a sucka.
  2. Secondly, there were those who were exiled to the caves, or beheaded (like John the Baptist) because they spoke out about the injustice or immorality of their leaders (1 Kings 18:4). The king didn’t like them very much. He tried to have them knee-capped.

An Inversion of Ben Franklin’s Morality

While many Post-Jesus Christians appeal to a historical “Christian Nation” , Post-Jesus Christians appear to be an inversion of founding father Ben Franklin, who in historian John Fea’s description, wanted to discard Jesus’s Divinity but retain and celebrate his ethical teachings.

Examples:

So what does this look like in practice?

Below are public quotations from prominent Court Evangelicals.  These quotations are less extreme that I would expect to hear in private.  A friend of mine speaks to supporters in private.  He reports that they would (privately) celebrate the stuffing of election ballots in favor of their preferred candidate as a righteous act.

1) Court Evangelical: Anti-Sermon on the Mount


John Fea wrote about a conversation he had with Rob Schenck  for the “Schenck Talks Bonhoeffer” podcast @ 19:27.  Here’s a quote from Schenck talking about a conversation he had with a prominent evangelical at the Trump Inaugural Prayer Service:

I must tell you something of a confession here. I was present at the Trump Inaugural Prayer Service held at the National Cathedral — not the smaller one held  at  Saint John’s Episcopal church across from the white house, but the one following the inauguration at the National Cathedral and I saw one of the notable Evangelicals that you’ve named in in our conversation. One of them, I won’t say which and we had it short exchange and I, I suggested to him that we needed to recalibrate our moral compass and that one way to do that might be to return to The Sermon on the Mount as a reference point. And he very quickly barked back at me. “We don’t have time for that. We have serious work to do.”

2) Jerry Falwell Jr:  Anti-Turn the other cheek

John Fea writes:

We have blogged about Liberty University’s Falkirk Center before.  The more I learn about this center the more I am convinced that it does not represent the teachings of Christianity.   Recently someone on Twitter pointed out this paragraph in the Falkirk Center mission statement:

Bemoaning the rise of leftism is no longer enough, and turning the other cheek in our personal relationships with our neighbors as Jesus taught while abdicating our responsibilities on the cultural battlefield is no longer sufficient. There is too much at stake in the battle for the soul of our nation. Bold, unapologetic action and initiative is needed, which is why we just launched the Falkirk Center, a think tank dedicated to restoring and defending American ideals and Judeo-Christian values in all aspects of life.

John Fea’s Update:

Several smart people have suggested that I may have misread Liberty University’s statement.  They have said that the Falkirk Center was not denying that Jesus’s call to “turn the other cheek” is “insufficient” for individuals.  Instead, the Falkirk Center is saying that we should not “abdicate” (the key word here) our responsibilities to engage on the “culture battlefield.”

I think this is a fair criticism, and I indeed may have misread the statement.  For that I am sorry.  But I don’t think I want to back away too strongly from what I wrote above.  While several have correctly pointed out that Liberty University is not saying Jesus’s command to “turn the other cheek” is “insufficient” for individual Christians, the Falkirk Center does seem to be suggesting that it is “insufficient” for culture engagement.

Evangelicals are naked before the world

“There has never been anyone who has defended us and who has fought for us, who we have loved more than Donald J. Trump. No one!”

This recent statement by religious-right activist Ralph Reed is objectively true, at least when it comes to sloppy kisses for the president. Considered purely as a political transaction, religious conservatives have gotten two appointments to the Supreme Court who set their hearts aflutter. They, in return, have shifted from the language of political realism to the language of love.

Trump has not gone back on the conservative promises of his 2016 campaign. More than that, he has not let up in his attacks against liberal elites who disdain religious conservatives. Reed is correct that Trump has “defended us” and “fought for us.”

But this language itself should raise warning signs. Is this really how most conservative Christians view the political enterprise — as the vindication of their own interests rather than the good of the whole? Were Christian political activists of the 19th century — such as William Wilberforce , Frederick Douglass , Charles Grandison Finney and Harriet Beecher Stowe — primarily concerned with the respect accorded to their own religious community? No, they were known for taking the side of the oppressed and vulnerable.

It now seems like a different world. Maybe even a different conception of God.

Religious conservatives are now firmly allied in the public mind with a leader who practices the politics of exclusion. And there is every indication that this community will hold Trump in an ever-tighter embrace. Even if the Democratic nominee is Joe Biden, the process of securing that nomination will push him further to the left on social issues (which he demonstrated in his about-face support for federal funding of abortion). This will make the contrast between Trump and his eventual opponent all the more dramatic on social issues.

A lot of attention has been given to the risks to the GOP (at the national level) of placing all their electoral bets on white voters who resent and fear a morally and ethnically changing country. In 2008, white Christians constituted 54 percent of the population. By 2014, that figure was more like 47 percent . And the slide continues. Republicans seem doomed to ride a retreating wave.

There is also, however, much to be said about the risk to evangelicalism. Evangelical Christians are tying themselves to an institution — the GOP — that is actively alienating college-educated voters, minority voters and younger voters. Evangelicals are thus entrenching a public perception that their movement consists of old, white Christians who want to restore lost social status through political power. Maybe this is because the perception is often accurate.

But there is no strategy of Christian evangelism that would take the Republican political strategy as a model. There is no conception of the Great Commission that would present Hispanic migrants as villains or encourage millennials to continue their flight from religious association. (Around 36 percent of people age 18 to 34 never attend religious services — a percentage that has roughly doubled since 2004.)

The moral consequences of being a loyal part of Trump’s political coalition come into ever-sharper focus. During the 2016 presidential election, evangelical Christians could comfort themselves that it was possible — just possible — for Trump to grow in office and become something greater than the sum of his tweets. Doesn’t someone whom James Dobson called a “baby Christian ” deserve a chance to grow up? Isn’t that the essence of grace?

This argument was a small fig leaf when it was made. Now, evangelical Christians are naked before the world. Trump’s cruelty (see the treatment of migrant children), his bigotry (see Charlottesville), his obstruction of justice (see any fair reading of the Mueller report), his vanity (see any time he speaks in public), his serial deception (also see any time he speaks in public) have become more pronounced and unrepentant over time. Can there be any question that reelection would result in Trump unbound?

At the same time, some evangelical Christian leaders have become more effusive in their praise of the president. More willing to defend the indefensible on his behalf. More dismissive of the importance of character in public life.

In the process, evangelical Christian leaders have placed themselves — uncritically, with open eyes — into a political coalition that is inspired by ethnic nationalism. Such are the occupational hazards of calling good evil and evil good.

Evangelical Fear Elected Trump

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.