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.”
The poem originated in the 1960s from a soul singer and social activist in Chicago, Oscar Brown Jr. Its appropriation as a tool to drum up fear about immigrants has turned heads; some of Brown’s family are asking Trump to stop using it.
.. Democrats (“They’re always fighting for the criminal”),
.. The lyrics were written in the 1960s by Brown, an outspoken black singer, songwriter, social activist and former Communist Party member from Chicago... Brown’s work has been described as a celebration of black culture and a repudiation of racism... Brown, who died at 78 in 2005, wrote “The Snake” during a time in which he was performing regularly in nightclubs and writing songs that used biblical references and animal allegories for simple stories that held deeper meanings.. Brown’s family has been harshly critical of the president’s appropriation of the song, and Maggie and Africa said they wished he would stop using it. In particular, they are upset by the fact that it has been repurposed to serve prejudice, saying that use flies in the face of their father’s work... Trump has also failed to credit Brown for the song, which the family takes as another slight. During one rally in Florida, Trump said it was written by the R&B singer, Al Wilson, who popularized the song in the “1990s.”.. I can see how telling your crowd that you were quoting a man who resigned from the Communist Party in 1956, declaring himself ‘just too black to be red,’ might be problematic.”.. “Trumps snake story is vicious, disgraceful, utterly racist and profoundly Un-American,” conservative operative Steve Schmidt wrote on Twitter after CPAC on Friday. “That this is how an American President speaks of immigration is a tragedy. This crowd of cheering extremists are the heirs of the Know-Nothing’s and nativists that have always plagued us.”.. Trump’s love affair with the poem represents a subconscious confession: The president identifies with the snake... “Historians will view it as obvious that Trump was describing himself in ‘The Snake,’ ”.. Josh Marshall, the liberal editor in chief of Talking Points Memo, called Trump’s use of the poem “some weird psycho-sexual” thing that “must appeal to Trump on like ten levels and also appeal to bible literalists.”
If you’re a student of history, you might be comparing that person to a member of the Know Nothing party of the 1850s, a bigoted, xenophobic, anti-immigrant group that at its peak included more than a hundred members of Congress and eight governors. More likely, however, you’re suggesting that said person is willfully ignorant, someone who rejects facts that might conflict with his or her prejudices.
.. The parallels between anti-immigrant agitation in the mid-19th century and Trumpism are obvious. Only the identities of the maligned nationalities have changed.
After all, Ireland and Germany, the main sources of that era’s immigration wave, were the shithole countries of the day. Half of Ireland’s population emigrated in the face of famine, while Germans were fleeing both economic and political turmoil. Immigrants from both countries, but the Irish in particular, were portrayed as drunken criminals if not subhuman. They were also seen as subversives: Catholics whose first loyalty was to the pope. A few decades later, the next great immigration wave — of Italians, Jews and many other peoples — inspired similar prejudice.
.. Yet conservative professors are rare even in hard sciences like physics and biology, and it’s not difficult to see why. When the more or less official position of your party is that climate change is a hoax and evolution never happened, you won’t get much support from people who take evidence seriously.
But conservatives don’t see the rejection of their orthodoxies by people who know what they’re talking about as a sign that they might need to rethink. Instead, they’ve soured on scholarship and education in general. Remarkably, a clear majority of Republicans now say that colleges and universities have a negative effect on America.
So the party that currently controls all three branches of the federal government is increasingly for bigotry and against education. That should disturb you for multiple reasons, one of which is that the G.O.P. has rejected the very values that made America great.
.. Think of where we’d be as a nation if we hadn’t experienced those great waves of immigrants driven by the dream of a better life. Think of where we’d be if we hadn’t led the world, first in universal basic education, then in the creation of great institutions of higher education. Surely we’d be a shrunken, stagnant, second-rate society.
.. Moretti argues, rightly in the view of many economists, that this new divergence reflects the growing importance of clusters of highly skilled workers — many of them immigrants — often centered on great universities, that create virtuous circles of growth and innovation. And as it happens, the 2016 election largely pitted these rising regions against those left behind
.. one way to think of Trumpism is as an attempt to narrow regional disparities, not by bringing the lagging regions up, but by cutting the growing regions down. For that’s what attacks on education and immigration, key drivers of the new economy’s success stories, would do.
How politically-driven bugaboos always distract us from the real monsters.
Back in 1835, Samuel F.B. Morse (who went on to invent the telegraph and the Morse Code), wrote a book about a plot to overthrow the American republic. The conspiracy, Morse wrote, was well-funded, highly secretive, and hatched in Vienna by members of the The St. Leopold Foundation, which had dispatched cells of Jesuit missionaries to the U.S. to forcibly convert the nation to Roman Catholicism. This was no small intrigue: The plot’s leaders, as Morse meticulously catalogued, were Austrian diplomat Klemens von Metternich, Ferdinand V of Hungary, and (of course) Pope Gregory XVI. “It is high time that we awakened to the apprehension of danger,” Morse wrote.
.. Morse’s book seeded the rise of the nativist“Know-Nothing” party, whose goal was to curb immigration, root out Catholicism, and return America to its protestant ideals. In essence, they were the America-firsters of the nineteenth century. The Know-Nothings swept into office in Chicago, were strong in Massachusetts and, in 1856, nominated a national ticket (Millard Fillmore and Andrew Donelson), for the presidency; they tallied nearly 900,000 votes, one-quarter of those cast. “I know nothing but my country, my whole country and nothing but my country,” they chanted.
.. Before the Know-Nothings there were the Anti-Masons, a political movement that warned of a takeover by secretive apron-wearing do-gooders who met for god-knows-why. And before that Americans were warned about witches named Dorothy, Rebecca, Martha, and Rachel, dancing in New England’s forests. Some 120 years after Morse, in 1964, historian Richard Hofstadter dubbed this “the paranoid style in American politics”—a paradigm-shifting essay that catalogued a raft of intrigues peopled by witches, Illuminati, Masons, Jesuits, Mormons, Jewish bankers, Bilderbergers and, in Hofstadter’s time, communist dupes doing Moscow’s bidding.
.. The problem is not that this is patently false (The Germans! The Japanese! The Russians!), but that it’s often exaggerated—and, sometimes, purposely so. Then too, as Hofstadter implied, preying on these fears for political gain not only isn’t new, it’s tried, tested, and often successful. Scaring the dickens out of voters is as American as the 4th of July.
.. John Kennedy insisted that the Soviet Union had outstripped the U.S. in ballistic missile production. There was a growing and dangerous “missile gap” Kennedy claimed, placing the nation in great peril.
.. As it turns out, Kennedy was right: there was a missile gap, but not in a way that he thought—we had plenty, while they had none (a later CIA report speculated that, actually, they might have had three, maybe).
.. The same kinds of claims were retailed by U.S. intelligence services about Russia’s allies: a 1987 CIA fact book said that East Germany’s GDP per capita was higher than West Germany’s, a claim so ludicrous that Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan dismissed it to a panel of CIA officers with a legendary quip: “I know a Berlin taxi driver who could have told you that wasn’t true.”
.. The world has problems, big problems but it is not going to hell. Here’s what going to hell looks like. In the autumn of 1941, Europe was under the domination of a genocidal regime that had extended its murderous policies through all of Europe and whose armies were headed towards Moscow. In Asia, large swathes of China and all of Southeast Asia were occupied by Japanese militarists. The two, with Italy, had formed an axis and controlled significant portions of the globe. Their enemies were teetering on the edge of defeat. The world was going to hell, alright, but the U.S. had yet to get into the war.
.. During the early morning hours of September 26, 1983, Lt. Col. Stanislav Petrov was notified by his computer system that the U.S. had launched five intercontinental ballistic missiles at Russia. Petrov sat there for a moment, when he should have been on the telephone to his superiors. After several moments he concluded that the warning just didn’t make sense. Why would the U.S. launch only five missiles at Russia, when everyone in the Soviet military supposed they would launch a barrage. “The siren howled, but I just sat there for a few seconds,” he later told the BBC, “staring at the big, back-lit, red screen with the word ‘launch’ on it.” Petrov ignored the warning—and may well have prevented a nuclear holocaust.
Trump’s candidacy relies on the power of fear. It could be the only way for him to win.
.. Overall crime rates may be down, but a sense of disorder is constant.
.. His acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention similarly made clear the extent to which his message revolves around fear. “The attacks on our police, and the terrorism in our cities, threaten our very way of life,” Trump thundered. “Any politician who does not grasp this danger is not fit to lead our country. Americans watching this address tonight have seen the recent images of violence in our streets and the chaos in our communities. Many have witnessed this violence personally; some have even been its victims.”
.. But he also, in a more unusual maneuver, summons fear in the abstract: There’s something going on, folks.
.. When back-to-back terror attacks hit Paris in November and San Bernardino in December, he pointed to them as proof that his warnings about Muslims were justified, and voters flocked to him ..
.. Trump’s standing in the polls rose about 7 percentage points in the aftermath of the attacks
.. Trump supporters, recent polling has shown, are disproportionately fearful. They fear crime and terror far more than other Americans; they are also disproportionately wary of foreign influence and social change. (They are not, however, any more likely than other Americans to express economic anxiety.)
.. It is a feedback loop: He stirs up people’s latent fears, then offers himself as the only solution.
.. fear is a handy tool. “Fear is easy,” Rick Wilson, a Florida-based Republican ad maker, told me recently. “Fear is the simplest emotion to tweak in a campaign ad. You associate your opponent with terror, with fear, with crime, with causing pain and uncertainty.”
.. A majority of Americans now worry that they or their families will be victims of terrorism, up from a third less than two years ago
.. Nearly two-thirds worry about being victims of violent crime. Another poll, by Gallup, found that concern about crime and violence is at its highest level in 15 years.
.. “the psychological management of uncertainty and fear” to be strongly and consistently correlated with politically conservative attitudes.
.. the characteristic most predictive of a person’s political leanings is his or her tolerance for ambiguity. “The more intolerant of ambiguity you are—the more you seek control over your surroundings, certainty, clear answers to things—the more you tend toward conservative preferences,” ..
.. he would bring order and control to a chaotic world... I really thought this was a rational policy disagreement that was headed toward a logical compromise,” Sharry told me recently. “Now, I see it as deeply cultural. It’s racially charged, it’s tribalism, it’s us-vs.-them. It’s a referendum on the face of globalization,.. The fearful mind sees immigrants as an invasion force, refugees as terrorists, rising crime as a threat to one’s family, drugs as a threat to one’s children, and social change as a threat to one’s way of life.
.. “Trump speaks to our id, something latent in all of us to different degrees. This is not a political campaign. It’s an identity campaign.”
.. From colonial times to the early 19th century, the pervasive, virulent fear was of Catholics, who were seen as inferior, unassimilable, and in thrall to a foreign dictator (the Pope).
.. The mass immigration of Irish Catholics in the 1830s and 1840s ratcheted up the panic and convulsed American politics, with the Whig Party collapsing and the anti-Catholic nativist Know-Nothing Party briefly becoming America’s second-largest political party.
.. His opponent, Hillary Clinton, is now campaigning on a fear-based appeal of her own—the fear of Trump.
.. as President he would escalate the likelihood of catastrophic violent conflict from without and within, posing a serious threat to the future of the United States,” her team wrote in a memo outlining their findings. This message, they noted, was far more effective than emphasizing Trump’s “misogyny” or depicting his economic record as bad for working people.
.. “Every time Clinton says, ‘Trump is dangerous,’ what people are hearing is, ‘The world is dangerous, it’s dangerous, it’s dangerous,’” she told me. “It just plays into the message of chaos.” And the more chaotic the world feels, the more people may look to Trump for comfort.