07:31So there was certainly the policy.07:33And then on the other hand, you had the character issues.07:39That evangelicals would sort of sell their moral authority to speak truth to the world07:50for a handful of Supreme Court justices or this or that social or cultural issue; for07:57me, the fact that this man had a history of all kinds of . . . involved in the porn industry,08:05he was crude, he disrespected women.08:10The things he said about his opponents, we could go into specifics about that.08:18I’m a believer that there needs to be some kind of moral fabric to a republic in order08:25for the republic to work.08:27Now, where you find that morality, we could debate that question; I’ve written a little08:32about that elsewhere.08:33But a moral republic needs some kind of moral leader, some person of character, and he was08:40not it.08:41And I think you could make an argument against him, not even a Christian argument; he’s just08:45not good for America.08:47But yet evangelicals were so driven by their culture war.08:52Win the culture war, get the justices we need, elect the right guy; this kind of model, “playbook”08:59I call it in the book, this playbook for winning the culture that they were willing to overlook09:05all the character flaws and that was the second thing of course that bothered me.09:10I think it bothered a lot of other evangelicals.09:12I think that character issue bothered most evangelicals, whether they voted for Trump09:17or not, but ultimately the playbook: how to win the culture wars by electing the right09:24justices, the right congressmen, and the right president was so overwhelmingly strong and09:30had been so inculcated, so indoctrinated into the way evangelicals today think about politics,09:38that I should have seen it coming.09:42I should have seen this–if you look at the past 15 years, this was all building up to09:47this point.09:48Now, I think, I tend to think of this as kind of a last gasp of the old Christian Right;09:56I think that most of the people who voted for Trump came of age during the late ’70s10:03and ’80s when people like Jerry Falwell and the Christian Right were articulating this10:08playbook for how to win the culture for the first time.10:12I think the average Trump voter is 57 years old.10:16So I do have hope, especially as I look at young people in Christian colleges, like Messiah10:21College where I teach, who are much more interested in different kinds of questions related to10:27justice and social ills and those kinds of things in terms of how they exercise their faith.10:32But I think, I hope this is, I think I see this as a last gasp–I think in the book I10:39call it–I occasionally teach a course on the Civil War.10:44Some of your viewers might remember the last great engagement of the Battle of Gettysburg:10:53Picket’s Charge where the Confederate, Confederacy made one last charge before they were–and11:00almost were successful–before they were beat back once and for all.11:04Those who know their Civil War history know the war went downhill from that point.11:10I hope that’s what happened, that’s what’s gonna happen, that’s what we’re seeing here.11:16So, as I look back, I looked at the last 50 years, I saw all of these grievances that11:26evangelicals believed were happening, whether they be sexual politics: abortion; the ERA, the11:36Women’s Rights movement.11:38Evangelicalism has always been a patriarchal culture.11:45I think there’s a reaction to that.11:46I think there was a reaction to integration, racial integration, desegregation.11:54I think there were prayer in public schools, Bible taking out of the public schools, prayer11:59removed from public schools.12:00I think there’s this perfect storm that emerges in the ’60s and ’70s that prompts people likeJerry Falwell and others to establish again this kind of political playbook to win theculture back.12:14And Trump proved that, just how powerful that playbook really is and continue–was, and12:22continues to be, even to the point that someone like Donald Trump could win.12:28Again, I’m writing primarily to evangelicals in this book.12:33I think there will be a secondary audience of American religious historians, people who12:38are interested in American religion who want to take a peek into what evangelicals are12:43talking about.12:44I think there’s some good history in the book, though, too.12:46One of the things I try to unpack is show how there’s always been a dark side to American12:52evangelicalism.12:55We can talk about the way in which evangelicals have been on the front lines of anti-slavery,social justice movements, international poverty relief, all of these kinds of things.And we need to celebrate that I think; I’m not one of these people, who–I am an evangelical,so I rejoice that evangelicals are doing these things.But there’s also a dark side.Even as someone like Lyman Beecher, who I write about in the third chapter, even ashe is fighting slavery, he’s also one of the leading nativists.He doesn’t want catholics coming in and undermining his protestant nation.So this story goes back a long way and I think what Trump does, is he appeals to the worstside of evangelicalism in its 2, 300-year history.Every time evangelicals are not representing the true virtues of their faith, where they13:58fail, I think Trump seizes on that history.14:04This is a history that defended the institution of slavery.14:07This is a history that had such certainty about what is true in the fundamentalist movement.14:16This is a movement that prevented, didn’t want certain kinds of immigrants coming into14:20the country.14:21There’s a long history of this.14:23I’d like my fellow evangelicals to at least be exposed to that history.14:29I think when ordinary evangelicals, lay men and women, think about evangelical history14:35they celebrate this providential idea.14:38“God is with us!14:40God is doing great things through people.”14:42And I think that’s important.14:44I think God does obviously work in this world and uses people in this world.14:49But also the reality of human sin: evangelicals are not immune.14:55Obviously!14:56If anyone knows better, it’s an evangelical who believes in this conversion experience,15:03one’s saved from the consequences of sin, becoming born again or becoming–accepting15:08Jesus, or whatever that looks like.15:12So, I want them to see there is a darker side to the history that Trump is tapping into.15:21Am I going to convince the 81% that they made a wrong decision?15:28Most I probably will not, but I do believe there are some fence-sitters out there, people15:32who maybe held their nose and voted for Trump.15:39Maybe they need to think through exactly, they may be open to thinking through a little15:43bit more, in terms of what this man represents and what the policy decisions he is putting15:49forth represent.15:52And hopefully it will force evangelicals–maybe “force” is too strong a word, but it might15:55encourage evangelicals to think more deeply about political engagement.16:04And when a politician comes along and says, “Let’s make America great again,” he’s ultimately–or16:11she, in this case he–is ultimately making a historical statement.16:17So I think evangelicals have to be careful.16:19When was America great?16:22Let’s go back and think about that.16:24What does Trump mean when he says, “Make America great again?”16:28And before you start using these evangelical catch-phrases like “reclaim” and “restore”16:34and “let’s get back to” and “let’s bring back the way it used to be,” we need to think more16:44deeply about what, exactly what it was like back then, how it used to be.16:49So I think even if the book forces evangelicals to kind of rethink even their phraseology16:55and how they, what they say when they enter the public sphere, public square, I think17:00that will be a contribution in some ways.17:02I’ll be happy if that happens.17:06So I think race plays an important role in this book.17:11I think that’s a contribution here.17:13There’s a lot of reasons why evangelicals voted for Trump.17:17Sexual politics I think is a big one.17:19I think race is also an issue.17:22There is a certain degree of, still a certain degree of fear among white evangelicals that,17:30not only African Americans, but Hispanics; America’s becoming less white, there’s been17:36a lot of good sociology written about this lately about the “end of white America.”17:41So I think this is, the white evangelicals who voted for Donald Trump, the 81% of white17:48evangelicals, are responding to these changes with a sense of fear, with a sense of nostalgia17:56for a white world in which they held power.17:59So I think this is part of the story, part of the appeal of Donald Trump.18:06Let’s try to, when they say, “Let’s make America great again,” you talk to most African Americans,18:13the best time to live in America is today.18:16They don’t want to go back.18:18And I’ve had some great conversations over the years with African American evangelicals18:22and worked with them on things and I talk a little bit about that in one of the chapters18:26of the book about this idea that we are somehow a Christian nation that we have to get back to.18:35No African American wants to get back to when we were supposedly a “Christian nation.”18:40So I think this appeal–and again, you see it in the history.18:44Whenever there is some kind of significant cultural change, whether it be religion, race;18:51I mean, I’m half Italian.18:53When my Italian family came over, they were of a “different race.”18:58They were southern Europeans.19:00They weren’t WASPs.19:01So this same kind of racial rhetoric, as well as the anti-catholic rhetoric.19:07Whenever there’s a cultural demographic change in society, largely through immigration, or19:14some kind of slave rebellion where the slaves are threatening to overthrow the racial hierarchy19:19of the South, sadly, evangelicals are always at the front of that resistance.19:28Mostly white, middle class evangelicals.19:30I think that’s what you’re seeing again now.19:32Our culture is changing.19:34We’re becoming less white, we’re becoming more religiously diverse.19:38I think the 1965 Immigration Act which allowed non-Western men and women into this country.19:45They brought their religions with them, they brought their culture with them.19:50And I think Donald Trump stepped in and said, in a very conservative, populist way–which19:55we’ve seen throughout American history, maybe most recently Pat Buchanan, but there were19:59others in the 20th Century–and said, “We are going to make you happy again.20:07We’re gonna give you the kind of world that you once knew as a kid.20:11We’re gonna make America great again.”20:14And I think that is very much tied into these racial, cultural, ethnic changes.20:20For a long time, evangelicals have been, if not leading, very much at the forefront of20:28racism in America.20:31I would argue historically–really more as an evangelical, I would argue–it’s a failure20:40of their, it’s a failure of faith.20:44I think evangelicals have these resources, all Christians have these resources: the dignity20:49of all human beings.20:53I think it’s most important, but also evangelicalism specifically…21:00I remember hearing Mark Galli, the editor of Christianity Today, talking about all these21:06Christian scholars that appeal to the Imago Dei which is we’ve been created in the image21:11of God, and thus everybody has dignity, everybody has worth: racism is not an option as a result21:19of that, if everybody has dignity.21:21And there were people in the 17th, 18th, 19th, and 20th Centuries who were making these arguments,21:27so it’s not as if I’m sort of taking my 21st Century view on this and superimposing it21:33on the past.21:34There are others who were more consistent on this.21:36But Galli said for evangelicals, it even goes deeper than just the Imago Dei, or it’s more21:42thorough than that, in the sense that, if we believe Jesus died on the cross for our21:49sins, redemption, all human beings are worthy of redemption in God’s eyes regardless of21:56gender, race, class, and so forth.21:59So it moves even beyond just the creation to the redemption.22:04So I think evangelicals have an amazing set of resources in their faith to be able to22:10overcome these racial problems and, for a variety of reasons, they’ve failed to do it22:18because I think they’re overcome by fear in many ways.22:23They’re overcome by–and this deeply rooted idea that somehow we are an exceptional nation,22:30God has blessed us above other nations, that we are a new Israel.22:35In some ways evangelicals still believe they’re in this kind of contractual relationship with22:41God–Americans are–Evangelicals believe if we don’t keep a pure Christian nation we’re22:50gonna lose God’s favor in some ways.22:56So I think all of those really bad historical assumptions and theological assumptions–fear,23:06I don’t think–I love the Marilyn Robinson quote: “fear is not a Christian habit of mind.”23:12So there’s these kinds of psychological, theological errors, historical errors that get in the23:22way of us living out our faith with a sense of hope, with a sense of equality, with a23:29sense of what Martin Luther King called the “beloved community.”23:34I think there’s gonna be a lot of people, and there have been a lot of people who after23:37the election of Donald Trump–you know, I was close to this as well; I would even argue23:41at one point that I was there maybe for a few days.23:44I tended to work out my, what’s the word, angst or whatever about this kind of publicly,23:51so, if you follow the paper trail: two days after the election I’m saying, “Here’s what I’m still23:59thankful for!”24:00So, I’m still–I just gave a talk last week to the board of trustees of a Christian college,24:07and they gave me the assignment.24:09The assignment was this: What positive role has evangelicalism played in American history?24:19You know, that’s a tough question for a historian.24:23Especially after the previous question I answered about the dark side of evangelicalism.24:29That’s a tough question because we don’t tend to speak in moral categories, “It’s good” or24:34“bad;” no, this is what happened, and you guys parse it out.24:38But, I respect the people who have decided to leave evangelicalism.24:43A lot of my friends have, and people who–or at least, rejected the label, let’s put it24:48that way–some of my unofficial mentors have said it’s not useful anymore; let’s use the24:57term “evangelical” or “evangelicalism” to describe a historical movement, phenomenon,25:04but it’s become so politicized.25:06So you also have the examples of Princeton’s Evangelical Fellowship, their student group;25:14they took “Evangelical” out of their name.25:17You see a lot of big megachurches–and I think this happened before Trump, but they’re removing25:22the term “evangelical” because it has such political connotations.25:27I respect that; for me . . . and it’s really through a lot of discussions with my editor David Bratt25:35on this; he convinced me that I’m actually in the process of defending the term in this25:42book.25:43I’m not willing to let it go to the politician, to the court evangelicals, or the 81%.25:54I think there’s something about “evangelical,” the word, the good news, the gospel, the authority26:01of the Scriptures, the cross, that’s worth defending, and worth saving from the way it’s26:11been so politicized.26:13So I think when you read this book, I think you’ll still see me kind of struggling with26:17this a little bit because I’ve always been a very uneasy evangelical since I converted,26:24I would say “got saved” at age 16.26:28I’ve always been uneasy because I was formed in another religious tradition that also had26:32a profound effect on my moral formation and upbringing.26:36But,26:39while I remain uneasy with evangelicalism, I’m not willing to go all the way and say26:48I’m not going to identify with that term.26:50I think, I often find myself, since the election–as much as I’m a critic of what the 81% did by27:00voting for Trump, I get, the hairs on my arm raise, too, when I hear secular liberals27:10trashing evangelicals.27:13I want to say, “No!”27:15I get angry, too, at the kind of assault on evangelicals.27:19A perfect example of this is after the death of Billy Graham.27:24My natural instinct was to say this man lived a–he had flaws, we all have flaws; he could27:31have maybe done more in certain areas, but this man lived an honorable, God-fearing life as27:37I understood it.27:38Again, he had his slip-ups.27:39I actually write about some of his slip-ups in the book.27:43But I just thought the sort of secular liberal–whatever you want to call it–the anti-evangelical27:50assault on Billy Graham in some popular pieces was just way over the top.27:56And they were making criticisms that no right-minded historian would make.28:02Talk about the right and wrong sides of history and Graham was on the wrong side, and these28:07were people, a lot of them actually were former evangelicals with axes to grind, I’ll say28:13that publicly I think, you know who you are!28:18But, what fascinates me is someone needs to do a study of how the election of Donald Trump28:30influenced obituaries and other popular op-eds and stuff of Billy Graham.28:38Because some people are just connecting Graham to the court evangelicals and there’s some28:41truth to that, but the venom in a lot of pieces on Graham really got under my skin and that’s28:52maybe saying more about me than them, I don’t know, but that’s an example of where I will. . .29:00people are going to think I’m enemy number one after, public enemy number one after they read this29:05book, but I just want to affirm that I remain an evangelical.29:10I still believe in those things that evangelicals believe in and I’m always going to be a critic, too.29:21Insider/outsider kind of thing.29:24For those who left evangelicalism, or at least don’t want to associate with the term, I respect29:28that; I’m not going to try to write another book to win you back, and I think that’s a29:35fair position to take.29:37I’m just not going to take, I’m not one to take that position.
Ben Rhodes served as deputy national security adviser to Barack Obama. He is currently a writer and political commentator and co-host of the podcast “Pod Save the World.”
Rhodes’ candid, full interview was conducted with FRONTLINE during the making of the two-part January 2020 documentary series “America’s Great Divide: From Obama to Trump.”
Watch Part One here: https://youtu.be/SnMBYMOTwEs
And Part Two here: https://youtu.be/l5vyDPN19ww
The special December issue of The Atlantic focuses on a single theme: “How to Stop a Civil War.” Two contributors to the issue, Harvard professor Danielle Allen and staff writer Adam Serwer, join Editor-in-Chief Jeffrey Goldberg to discuss their arguments in the magazine.
Allen’s piece, “The Road From Serfdom,” asserts that unity must be made a priority again and offers prescriptive steps for how it can be achieved. In “Against Reconciliation,” Serwer argues that the nation’s pursuits of compromise have often led it to abandon its promises of freedom and equality for all its citizens—that Americans have been content to sacrifice civil rights for civil discourse.
The three sat down to discuss where they agree, where they disagree, and how optimistic they are that world’s oldest democracy can survive its bitter divisions.