Much has been made of how eight in 10 white evangelicals voted for Donald Trump. Now, John Fea, author of The Bible Cause (Oxford, 2016) and a self-described conservative who teaches history at Messiah College in Mechanicsburg, Pa, has written Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump, (Eerdmans, June), which he calls “the first book written by an evangelical Christian who is an anti-Trumper.”
The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Your book is dedicated “to the 19%.” Why?
Most polls show that 81% of white evangelicals voted for [Trump], so I am a proud member of the 19% of white evangelicals who didn’t. Many evangelicals have moral and spiritual problems with Trump. I would argue that the 19% were more consistently Christian in their engagement with politics. It could be to vote for Hillary or not—but definitely not Trump.
Are you ashamed to be described as an evangelical at this political moment?
The word “evangelical” means good news—and evangelicals believe in the good news of the gospel. But when 81% of the people who believe in the gospel associate themselves with a man with no prior experience identifying with it, whose policies seem to undermine that gospel, and who lacks the character that exemplifies a follower of that gospel—it does bother me that the word has become associated with people who throw their support behind this president. As an evangelical myself, I have one of two choices: I can abandon the word to describe myself or I can fight to reclaim it.
Is this book your way of "fighting?"
I was angry when I realized that my fellow evangelicals—my tribe—voted for Trump. But the more I thought about it, I realized this was just the latest manifestation of evangelicals being afraid of changes taking place in the culture and reacting with fear. I sympathize with that 81% and understand their fears. These are my people. But I also will nudge them to think about the issues more deeply. I chose a faith-based publisher because I wanted the primary audience of this book to be evangelical Christians who, perhaps voted for Trump, but are open to rethinking their decision—people on the fence, people who held their nose and voted for him and now regret it, or could be convinced it wasn’t the best idea.
Why did you highlight a sharp distinction between younger evangelicals and the older ones who voted for Trump?
The average evangelical Trump voter was [age] 57 and was raised on a political playbook influenced by people like Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson—people associated with the Christian right. For example, most evangelicals believe the only way of dealing with the problem of abortion is to appoint a Supreme Court justice against it. The character and policies of the candidate don’t matter if that candidate is going to appoint a justice that opposes Roe v Wade. There is no discussion of other ways to curb abortion, whether through poverty relief or helping unwed mothers. And many of those issues are favored by the Democratic Party. Because evangelicals are so wedded to the GOP, they can’t imagine someone who is pro-choice could also pass legislation that in the long run would reduce abortions.
Most of the kids I encounter at evangelical Christian colleges may be conservative and also pro-life, but they are much more open to thinking about issues in a broader way. For them, the church should be promoting justice that is directly connected to the dignity of human life at all levels.
What do you hope this book might do?
I hope it gets into the hands of evangelicals who want to think more deeply about how to be a faithful witness in the public square, those who take seriously Marilynne Robinson’s idea that fear is not a Christian habit of mind, who want to think more about hope, humility, and service rather than the pursuit of power, and who want to faithfully engage public life from the position of the gospel.