Trump and the Christians: Evangelical historian John Fea on decoding the great paradox

Historian and author of "Believe Me" on his struggle to reach the embattled evangelicals who oppose Trump

By Chauncey DeVega

Senior Writer

Published February 19, 2020 8:00AM (EST)

President Donald J. Trump bows his head during a prayer at a meeting with inner city pastors in the Cabinet Room of the White House on Wednesday, Aug 01, 2018 in Washington, DC.  (Donald Trump)
President Donald J. Trump bows his head during a prayer at a meeting with inner city pastors in the Cabinet Room of the White House on Wednesday, Aug 01, 2018 in Washington, DC. (Donald Trump)

To quote the bumper sticker: "What would Jesus do?"

Assuming that he existed and held the views imputed to him, Jesus Christ would not support Donald Trump.

Donald Trump's behavior, values, policies and their consequences are the opposite of what Jesus Christ represented. Trump has put migrants and refugees in cages and delighted in their suffering. He feels contempt for the poor, the sick, the vulnerable and the needy. He has lied at least 16,000 times. He is corrupt and wildly greedy.

Donald Trump is violent, a militarist, a nativist and a white supremacist. He has given aid and comfort to anti-Semites, neo-Nazis and other hate-mongers.

We are told that Jesus Christ lived a life of love, humility and sacrifice. Donald Trump has lived a life of selfishness, greed and wanton cruelty.

Why are white evangelical Christians so overwhelmingly supportive of Donald Trump? While some have tried to present it as a riddle with no evident solution, the answer is quite simple: Donald Trump does the bidding of the Christian right. He has advanced its policies in a war against secular society, women's freedom, LGBTQ rights, multiracial democracy and the U.S. Constitution.

But it's important to note that the Christian evangelical community is not a monolith. There are many people within it who oppose Donald Trump and his movement, because they see it as antithetical to the life and teachings of Jesus Christ.

One such voice is historian John Fea, a professor at Messiah College in Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania. His new book is "Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump." Fea recently published an op-ed in USA Today entitled "'Evangelicals for Trump' was an awful display by supposed citizens of the Kingdom of God," in which he explained that he had spent his "entire adult life in the evangelical community" following a "born-again experience" at age 16:

But I have never seen anything like what I witnessed as I watched President Donald Trump speak to a few thousand of his evangelical supporters at King Jesus International Ministry, a largely Hispanic megachurch in Miami, during the kickoff to his "Evangelicals for Trump" campaign…Trump painted himself as a president who is protecting American evangelicals from those on the political left who want to "punish" people of faith and destroy religion in America. ...

I am used to this kind of thing from Trump, but I was stunned when I witnessed evangelical Christians — those who identify with the "good news" of Jesus Christ —raising their hands in a posture of worship as Trump talked about socialism and gun rights.

I watched my fellow evangelicals rising to their feet and pumping their fists when Trump said he would win reelection in 2020.

Trump spent the evening mocking his enemies, trafficking in half-truths in order to instill fear in people whom God commands to "fear not," and proving that he is incapable of expressing anything close to Christian humility.

His evangelical supporters loved every minute of it. That night, Christians who claim to be citizens of the Kingdom of God went to church, cheered the depraved words of a president and warmly embraced his offer of political power. Such a display by evangelicals is unprecedented in American history.

I usually get angry when members of my tribe worship at the feet of Trump. This time, I just felt sad.

I recently spoke to John Fea about the rise of Trump and his power over Christian evangelicals and the Christian right. Fea explained that the Age of Trump is a continuation of a long history in America where too many white Christians have supported racism, nativism and other regressive social causes. Fea also argued that while the "dark side" of Christian evangelicalism is flourishing under Donald Trump, the groundwork for this moment was laid down decades ago by the likes of Jerry Falwell Sr. and Pat Robertson.

Fea also told me that evangelicals have begun to use religious language about "demons" and Satanic power as a way of publicly targeting the Democrats and others who oppose Donald Trump's assault on American democracy.

This conversation has been edited for clarity and length.

You recently wrote a USA Today op-ed about Donald Trump's corruption of evangelical Christianity and his power over its adherents. How are you feeling?

I've had my ups and downs. It's been an emotional roller coaster since Donald Trump got elected. It started out with anger. I can honestly say that I've gotten rid of that anger. It's not anger towards Trump per se. Trump is Trump. He's a fool, he's absurd, he's a narcissist. What bothers me are the Christians, the evangelical community, who are so supportive of Trump, who are so willing to look the other way when he does these blatantly and grossly immoral things.

I'm an academic by nature, so I want to try to step back at times and try to understand what gave rise to Trumpism and his power over Christian evangelicals. Sometimes I'm numb. Sometimes I've debated whether or not I still belong in that faith community. I am still an evangelical. That is how I identify. But this has all been a roller coaster ride.

What's really affected me the most is being on the road with my new book, "Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump." It came out in 2018, and talking to people who are hurting and emotionally scarred from how they've been treated in evangelical churches, simply because they don't support Trump and what he represents, has really impacted me.

What are some of those personal stories?

At first, I believed that I would have all these Trump supporters criticizing me, yelling at me at my book talks. But what actually happened was that I encountered people who were looking for some kind of community, as they sought out like-minded evangelicals, or former evangelicals, who were looking for other Christians who do not support Donald Trump. We would talk for hours after my events. People were sharing with each other how they were more free having a conversation here at this book talk than talking to people about politics in their own churches. That was a huge eye-opener for me.

There were a lot of tears. I prayed with people. Many of these people were women who were struggling not only with the fact of evangelicals supporting Trump, but the misogyny that went along with it. They were also struggling with how the misogynistic attitudes within American evangelicalism were foregrounded by the Trump election. There were also people at my talks sharing how they were ostracized from their church in 2008 or 2012 because they voted for Barack Obama. There were also people who had spoken out about sexual harassment in the evangelical community and were then told to remain quiet by their pastors and other church leaders.

Most of the people I talked to were just saying, "How could I have worshiped with these people all these years and not have realized that they would have supported everything that Donald Trump stands for, both in terms of his character and his policies?"

Some of them would tell me that they are "pro-life" but that there are other more important issues. They would explain how they are willing to put that issue to the side right now because there are issues which are much more important with the Trump presidency, such as immigration, his personal character, religious liberty for non-Christians or just Trump's blatant lying to the American people.

In the United States white Christianity, especially in the South, was a tool for enforcing and legitimating white supremacy against nonwhites. Why is there any surprise about Donald Trump — who is an evident white supremacist — being a natural partner and champion of right-wing Christians?

I know the history of evangelicalism. I still had hope in 2016 that evangelicals were going to do the right thing and not vote for Trump. They're my tribe. I was optimistic that Christian evangelicals were going to do the right thing and make the right decision and oppose what Trump stands for.

It took me a few days, not long, to take off my scorned evangelical hat and replace it with my historian's hat. So yes, you are exactly correct. There is a dark dimension of evangelicalism. One sees that wherever there were moments of demographic change within United States history. There is always a backlash to those changes in American history and it is usually evangelical Christians who are not only part of the backlash but are largely leading that backlash.

I would also argue that there are many things that evangelicals do and have done throughout American history that have brought about some moral improvement in our country. That would include anti-slavery causes, international relief in poverty-stricken countries, actions in support of social justice and other forward-looking issues and concerns. That is not the dimension of the evangelical tradition tapped into by the 81% of white evangelical voters who voted for Donald Trump. Donald Trump appealed to all the darkest sides of American evangelicalism in 2016. 

Part of what my work since 2016 has been trying to get evangelicals, a group who are largely an anti-intellectual bunch, to think about the fact that they should not have been surprised by the rise of Donald Trump and the evangelical community's relationship to it. My book is dedicated to the 19% of evangelicals who did not support him. My book's message is, "Let's not pretend that Trump is new. Let's come to grips with the fact that Trump is just the latest manifestation of a long string of dark moments within our faith's history in America."

Did Trump just give right-wing evangelicals permission to be who and what they really are?

The dark side of Christian evangelicalism flourishes under Trump. Did Trump create these racist evangelicals or is he just a manifestation of racism in that faith community? I would probably say it's the latter.

Since the late 1970s and early 1980s, conservative evangelicals in the Moral Majority, such as prominent figures like Jerry Falwell Sr., Pat Robertson and others, began engaging with politics with the goal of trying to reclaim and renew and restore America's "Christian" roots. They were very disappointed with Jimmy Carter for a variety of reasons and they began to turn towards Reagan and the GOP. We began to see a political playbook develop. A generation of white evangelicals embraced a strategy of "elect the right people, elect the right president, appoint Supreme Court justices, change the world, and bring about Christian witness in the world through the pursuit of political power." In many ways that political power is normally associated with fear.

Much of this is driven by a fear-mongering narrative about white Christian America: We're going to lose our "Christian nation" that we believe the country was founded upon. We need to make America great again, as if it was great in the 1950s or the 1920s with Jim Crow and other forms of oppression. We need to revisit the past, as if it was a much more moral Christian era — which it wasn't. The right-wing Christian leaders were and are essentially longing for an era that never really existed in the first place.

Now, what's fascinating about Trump is for many white evangelicals that political playbook was always associated with a Republican candidate. In the minds of most white evangelicals, they believed that person would be of moral character. A Ronald Reagan or George W. Bush or John McCain or Mitt Romney were, in the eyes of white evangelicals, people of moral character. As compared to Donald Trump, they would not be tweeting out lies every day. Yes, they were liars, but they weren't doing it to the extent of Trump. Most evangelicals would admit Donald Trump does not have the same kind of character as a Reagan or a Bush. Would the evangelical political playbook survive with a person that most evangelicals believed was not a person of moral character? As we discovered, the answer is yes.

When the Christian right talks about "religious freedom" and says that America is a "Christian nation," what do they really mean?

No one was debating whether the United States was a "Christian nation" until the 1970s. It was manifested through a culture war debate and trying to superimpose that assumption about a "Christian nation" onto the founding fathers who were never asking the question to begin with.

There are two ways of considering that claim. One is the historical argument. The Christian right will make this case that the Constitution is somehow a "Christian" document even though it never mentions God or Jesus. They also try to make a claim about the Declaration of Independence. That document contains four references to God. Most of them are these vague references to a kind of deist God. There's nothing in the Declaration of Independence about a God who sacrificed his son for the sins of the world or anything of that manner.

There is also an argument that the larger ethos of the culture was Christian and somehow it seeped into to the mindset and the framework of the founders. There is no empirical evidence to suggest such a thing.

So how do you connect that with religious liberty? I think within the Christian right's mindset, you saw a real transition in the rhetorical approach of the Christian right after Obergefell v. Hodges, the Supreme Court decision that legalized same-sex marriage. But once they lost that battle, unlike Roe v. Wade — which the Christian Right still fights — they were like, "Hey, we lost this and we're never going to get it back."

Then the Christian right begin to switch their rhetorical strategy to "religious liberty," which is something they rarely spoke about before a period of 2000 to 2010. Now the narrative is, "We have a traditional view of marriage and we have all of these traditional values that we uphold, and we want the liberty to be able to continue to practice these values without the government interfering." For them, "religious liberty" is always the right of white conservative evangelicals to uphold their position. 

What moved you to write the USA Today op-ed? Who was your specific audience?

There was a time when I could have written that essay in a place like Christianity Today or in some other periodical that most evangelicals read. But evangelicalism is so diverse at present. Evangelicals are fractured. There is no longer any kind of mass publication for that community. My thinking was, given that there is no flagship evangelical publication, let me try to pitch this to USA Today. I wanted to speak to my fellow evangelicals — but not the ones who were at the Trump rally I wrote about in the USA Today op-ed. They're not going to listen to me. There is a group of evangelicals that do not want to listen to reasoned arguments. They are politically calcified.

I was trying to write to the evangelicals who voted for Trump in 2016 because they couldn't stand Hillary Clinton. I wanted to get those evangelicals to see how our people are sitting in a house of worship and raising their hands singing praises to this morally corrupt individual. I also wanted to show that not all evangelicals support Donald Trump. We are not homogeneous.

How do right-wing evangelicals reconcile Trump's obvious wicked behavior with their claims to be Christian?

I think it's mixed. I believe that there are people from within certain sectors of evangelicalism, these are mostly charismatic Pentecostals, who really do believe that Donald Trump is the chosen one. They really believe that Donald Trump is anointed by God for "such a time as this." He is a new King Cyrus and they know this because they have received prophecies telling them that this is the case. God has told them.

We can laugh at that or say such a belief is foolish, but there's a world of charismatic Pentecostal evangelicalism that is deeply committed to their leaders, who argue that Donald Trump is the chosen one. They have tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of followers. These are large communities. They are led by very strong and powerful personalities. Paula White, counselor to Trump, is one of these leaders. Lance Wall is another one. He actually made the prediction about Donald Trump and King Cyrus. He had a vision of Trump as King Cyrus. As to these prophetic visions, I really do believe that some of these evangelicals, especially charismatic Pentecostals, think their visions are true. And yes, there are some who use it for political gain.

Many of the evangelicals and other people who I wrote about in my USA Today op-ed probably do believe that Donald Trump is an anointed figure from God who will deliver us out of the clutches of secularism and socialism, the latter being largely understood by most of these anti-intellectual evangelicals as some kind of a Soviet-style socialism. In the uneducated evangelical mind, there is no ability to separate a democratic kind of socialism from Joseph Stalin.

When right-wing Christians, especially evangelicals, start talking about "demons" and "the devil" attacking Donald Trump and that they need to use "spiritual warfare" against Trump's "enemies," what do they mean?

Evangelicals have always talked about demonic forces in the world and spiritual warfare. In their minds, God and Satan are still battling with each other, and then one day at the great battle of Armageddon or something akin to it, Satan will be defeated and we'll move into a new heaven. For evangelicals, the world is always enchanted. There are always angels and forces of evil and devils and demons and so forth. That's how they see the world around them. What's fascinating about these discussions of spiritual warfare, though, is that they normally take place behind the closed doors of churches. Now evangelicals are bringing this type of talk and logic to American public life in defense of Donald Trump.

Evangelical leaders such as Franklin Graham and others have recently been saying, "There are forces out there that are trying to undermine this president." If someone who is not a Christian evangelical were to hear the word "forces," they would think that means the Democrats or the deep state. But any evangelical who hears someone like Franklin Graham say that knows exactly what those forces are. These are demonic forces.

After the impeachment, evangelicals upped their game. "Demonic" and "spiritual battle" and "the devil" did not come into the public discourse in the way they are at present until Donald Trump was impeached. When the impeachment inquiry started, you had all these people saying that this is the devil at work trying to undermine God's anointed. Devils are trying to undermine a nation and its president who is trying to bring that nation back to its godly roots.

If right-wing Christian leaders are saying that the Democrats are demonic forces, is that an encouragement to violence?

Perhaps I am naïve, but I guess I have enough faith in my fellow evangelicals to prevent this from moving towards violence. But to affirm what you're saying, I think you're right. The logical implications of this certainly could be, at this point, very harsh, un-Christian like attacks on people who do not support Trump.

What do right-wing evangelicals and other Christians want? What is the Christian right's dream for America?

There's a theological concept in the New Testament known as the "Kingdom of God." Many non-evangelicals and non-Christians become very concerned when they hear Trump cabinet member Betsy DeVos or someone else with power saying, "We want to bring about the Kingdom of God." Outsiders see that as a kind of dominionist, reconstructionist, theocratic kind of statement. But when evangelicals theologically talk about the Kingdom of God, they're normally talking about what the world would be like if Jesus was King and if you put Jesus on the throne of the so-called Kingdom of God. We're all citizens of this kingdom as believers. I think they've confused this idea of a Kingdom of God" with some form of American exceptionalism or the idea that America is a "City on a Hill" and that God has specially blessed us.

When they talk about the nation becoming more Christian, again, it's all filtered through this recent history of the last 40 years. So how do we create a Christian nation? Well, we fight against abortion. We fight for religious liberty for our views only. We try to privilege Christianity, our version of Christianity, above everything else. If you push many of these Christian right leaders, it is hard to find an answer as far as what they actually want this vision to look like in practice.

For example, they are against abortion. What does that look like in practice? Do you want to take every woman who had an abortion and put her in prison? Put abortion doctors in prison? What is the logical outcome of these kinds of policies? And they would immediately back off and say, "Oh, no, no, no. We don't want to create a theocratic state, or a state governed by the teachings of the Bible." But in some ways, they do.

Most evangelicals, because they've committed to this notion of reclaiming America as a "Christian nation," have no model for pluralism. They cannot grasp any idea of a pluralistic society in which there are people who differ from them and question what American evangelicals believe. How do white evangelicals live together in a society with people who have deep differences on a variety of issues?

How do right-wing Christians reconcile the public policies they support with the actual teachings of Jesus Christ? The contradictions are obvious and stark. Jesus would not be a Republican or a conservative. 

They ignore it. They don't try to make sense of it. They completely ignore the contradictions between Trump's behavior and the Bible. Or they might talk about what their church is doing locally. They would say, "We have a food pantry in our church, or we help the homeless in our community through our church," and so forth. But when it comes to public life and national life, that is not what they are focusing on. Culture is the national state of the nation. These evangelicals do not possess an integrated view of the way their faith and practices are related to American culture as a whole.

To me, this is a great advertisement for why religion really should not be included in government. This is exactly why we have separation of church and state. Faith is a belief in that which cannot be proven by empirical means. Faith is not part of empirical reality. How does one litigate matters of faith, and other types of magical thinking, relative to a proper government? 

I believe that politics is generally a corrupt sphere. Politics is the best example, the best kind of microcosm of that brokenness. What are we as a church doing mixing ourselves up in politics? Our religious convictions can lead us toward certain policy issues. But when we're arguing in the public square in a pluralistic society and using demons and the Bible and these kinds of things as evidence, there is a problem. Evangelicals are awful at not understanding those distinctions and the problems that result.

Evangelicals think their private internal language is somehow going to convince secular humanists that a given policy should be enacted because the Bible says it's true. That is just one example where evangelicals have not thought through political engagement in a serious way.

By Chauncey DeVega

Chauncey DeVega is a senior politics writer for Salon. His essays can also be found at He also hosts a weekly podcast, The Chauncey DeVega Show. Chauncey can be followed on Twitter and Facebook.

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