How long can the white evangelical Trump romance last?

Historian John Fea speaks out on the relationship between Trump and his Christian Right fans and whether it will harm their ability to gain converts
President Donald J. Trump delivers remarks at a Faith and Freedom Coalition Road to Majority 2019 Conference Wednesday, June 26, 2019, at the Washington Marriott Wardman Park Hotel in Washington, D.C. Photo: Joyce N. Boghosian/White House

Political books often have the useful lifespan of an insect, especially in today’s rapidly changing news cycle. One exception is John Fea’s 2018 volume Believe Me: The Evangelical Road To Donald Trump, which continues to be relevant nearly a year after Joe Biden won the 2020 presidential election

I finally got a chance to read this still-pertinent book and was able to speak with Fea both about his book and his view of white evangelicals in the post-Trump era. (This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)


JAMES LANDIS: So where does the post-Trump era leave evangelicals? Will anything ever change from all this?

JOHN FEA: That’s the $64,000 question, isn’t it? The first thing to consider is that evangelicals are a very diverse group, and one of the things I’ve learned since I wrote Believe Me is that even the evangelical Trump voters are diverse. This diversity is really beginning to show now that we are months past the 2020 election. So during the Trump presidency, most of the press and smart political observers, thoughtful commentators and historians, lumped the 81 percent of Trump evangelical voters together. And I think there were some legitimate reasons for doing that: 81 percent of white evangelical voters pulled the lever for this guy, they acted with a sense of unity.

LANDIS: That’s pretty monolithic, especially compared to other faith groups.

FEA: Agreed, that is monolithic. Now, what I learned from writing the book and the criticism I received, was that you can hold these two things together: white evangelicals acted in a unified way and, at the same time, people voted for Trump for different reasons.

I think you’re now seeing a group of evangelicals who have doubled down on Trumpism. This is the Mike Lindell/Eric Metaxas crowd. These are the people that really believe the election was stolen, that Trump is God’s anointed one, and that Biden is not a legitimate president. These are the kind of people who are going to stay with Trump through 2024. They and the people who listen to them are going to continue to embrace what I would call “evangelical Trumpism.”

But I also think there is a significant number—keeping in mind that I can’t speak with any certainty of the size of these groups—who voted for Trump and held their noses, or perhaps thought Trump was better than Clinton or Biden. Many of these voters became disillusioned with Trump after the January 6th insurrection and I imagine they are now ready to move on. These voters remain socially conservative and will probably vote Republican in the next election. They admit Biden won the election and they think the insurrection was a disaster. I also think there is a third group of conservative evangelicals who have been anti-Trump from the beginning—people like David French or Michael Gerson. This group is trying to heal the wounds inside the evangelical community. They either voted for Biden, chose a third-party candidate, or abstained from voting altogether.

We also need to think about how we are defining the word “evangelical” or “evangelicalism.” There was a religious, social and cultural movement after WWII that called itself “neo-evangelicalism” or “evangelicalism.” They founded the National Association of Evangelicals, started Christianity Today, and saw Billy Graham as their spokesperson.

Much of the rank-and-file of this new evangelicalism were politicized by Jerry Falwell and other televangelists in the 1980s. Trump is the logical result of such politicization. I think there are also a lot of folks out there who use “evangelical” as an adjective modifying the word “Christian.” These people are born-again, believe in the authority of the Bible, but might not be comfortable with being part of an evangelical movement that has been co-opted by the Christian Right, a movement that is political, not religious.

LANDIS: Well, it’s a hard question to answer right now.

FEA: Evangelicalism is in the midst of a crisis moment. Where is it gonna move? Can it rid itself of Trump? Yeah, it’s a hard question.

LANDIS: Did evangelicals have a plan for the post-Trump era or did they put all their eggs into his basket, counting on him to win?

FEA:I think conservative evangelicals had a political playbook. I talk about this playbook in Believe Me. This playbook existed since the 80s with the rise of the Christian Right and it has proven to be quite effective.

Coming into the 2016 election, conservative evangelicals were looking for the candidate who could best executive that playbook. Many of them supported Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio or Ben Carson in the primaries. But then I think a combination of things happened as the primary season developed. Donald Trump began to learn that he could win by being friendly with some of these evangelical leaders. Conservative evangelicals liked his fighter’s attitude. Evangelicals were willing make a kind of Faustian bargain as if to say “We are willing to ignore the Access Hollywood tape, the record of him being a ladies man, sleeping with porn stars, the lies, the social media anger; we will look past all of this if he delivers on what we want.”

Politically, it was a good bargain. Trump gave conservative evangelicals everything they wanted. He moved the American embassy in Israel to Jerusalem. He gave them three Supreme Court Justices who just might take down Roe vs Wade…

LANDIS: Three Justices in four years; it’s unprecedented.

FEA: Yeah, if you wanted to execute this playbook, you couldn’t have asked for a better result!

LANDIS: Unfortunately, that’s an incentive for them to try something like this again.

FEA: Absolutely! And we won’t know what kind of damage the Trump years brought to evangelical Christianity in America for another generation or so. The damage to the witness of the Gospel, the spiritual mission of the Church, whether it be at home or abroad, could be devastating. We’re already hearing of missionaries abroad who are embarrassed because so many people at home support Trump. That’s where people like me, the historians, in 40 years or so will have to sort all this out; right now it’s all anecdotal. But the anecdotal evidence is out there. I hear from evangelical pastors all the time that say their congregations are shattered, divided by politics. Many people are leaving the churches.

LANDIS: Does Trump really have any parallel in evangelical history or is he some kind of new breed?

FEA: Yeah, good question. It depends on if you are defining Trump as a politician or as a person who can appeal to evangelicals. Historians are always saying “This has happened before, this is not new.” We call attention to the continuity between past and present. Of course we also study the way people and societies change over time: “Are evangelicals doing something they’ve never done before?” Again, we must always hold these in tension. Donald Trump unveiled, lifted the curtain, so to speak, on a lot of dark aspects of American evangelicalism. American evangelicals have always been resistant to social and cultural change. There have been all kinds of nativist, white supremacist, and racist movements in American history and evangelicals are not only involved in those movements but they’re often leading them, they’re at the forefront. When Irish Catholics started pouring into the country in the 1850s, evangelicals were saying “You’re destroying our Protestant nation.”

There have been Senators and members of Congress who have been able to do this play on evangelical fears, especially in the South. In terms of modern U.S. history, I’m thinking of Strom Thurmond, Jesse Helms or George Wallace. They appealed to white evangelical fears about cultural change, especially desegregation. None of these figures held the bully pulpit of the presidency, however.

Since the rise of the Christian Right, you had Ronald Reagan, who held the evangelicals at arm’s length. They loved him and he knew how to tell them what they wanted to hear, but he wasn’t exactly the most evangelical president; he knew how to speak their language. George W. Bush, on the other hand, didn’t just appeal to the Christian Right, he was the Christian Right. But Bush was also willing, through his program of “compassionate conservatism,” which I think died after 9-11, to be involved in social justice causes like AIDS relief in Africa through the PEPFAR program or taking a liberal position on immigration. He was willing to break with the Christian Right when possible and it’s now known that his advisors, especially Karl Rove, thought evangelical votes were the key to getting Bush a second term. Trump is unique. There has been no one else who has catered to every single whim of the Christian Right.

LANDIS: It’s probably because he was so empty as if he said to them “Yeah, yeah, whatever you guys want.”

FEA: Well, he’s a narcissist with one goal: to maintain power. He’d cater to whoever would help him towards that goal. I don’t know Donald Trump’s heart; if he is a Christian he doesn’t behave or act like one, but yet he was able to appeal to so many evangelicals this way. Whatever you think about the last six GOP presidential candidates, most evangelicals believed that these guys—Reagan, H.W. Bush, Bob Dole, George W Bush, John McCain and Mitt Romney—were men of character, as they understood the definition of character.

Most evangelicals would say that Donald Trump has a questionable character. So it came down to this: Do you vote for character or the playbook? Again, the playbook has always been tied to the character of the man, but this is the first time they were not connected. In the end, the playbook won. That is new for the short history of the Christian Right. We haven’t seen that before.

LANDIS: I do have a question I didn’t write down that goes along with those ideas: those couple books you’ve seen in the last few years, like The Faith of Donald Trump. I never read any of those books but where were they coming from? Was it just window-dressing?

FEA: I think you’re referring to the one by David Brody of the Christian Broadcasting Network and Scott Lamb.

LANDIS: That’s the one, thank you. I can’t imagine how empty those books were, how many gaps they had to fill in!

FEA: Yep! There was also one, God and Donald Trump, by the editor of Charisma magazine, Stephen Strang. These were pieces of political propaganda passed-off as real journalism. There was also a book by Ralph Reed, the savvy GOP political operative who’s been around since the 1990s. Reed at least admitted that Trump is not a Christian, but he said Trump still deserved the evangelical vote because he was delivering on social issues. Strang and Brody tried to make the case that Trump was a legitimate Christian. This goes back to the primaries when James Dobson described Trump as a “baby Christian” or Paula White’s declaration that she had led him to Christ. These were just outrageous attempts to win uneducated and unthoughtful evangelical voters. But saying that might get me in trouble.

LANDIS: No, I think that’s fair. My last question is a very broad one: Trump is incapable of seeing himself as part of our presidential history that’s larger than himself. You quoted Michael Gerson in your book: “Trump seems to have no feel for or interest in the American story he’s about to enter.” So how should we as a people remember Trump as a historical figure and where are we going to put him in the pantheon of American history?

FEA: I think Gerson’s point, and a point I’ve developed a lot in my own writing since then, is important. I want to reiterate it: a narcissist is incapable of seeing himself as part of something larger than his own ego. Every other president has seen themselves as sort of a steward of American institutions, they took it seriously, they saw themselves as part of something larger, something that existed through time over the course of the last 250 years. So yeah, it is kind of ironic, with his narcissism in mind, to think about where he falls in the pantheon of American history because Trump himself does not care about history beyond his one legacy.

I think there are several things that historians will say about the Trump presidency. I do expect over the course over the next 100 or 150 years, (laughter), if we’re still here, that there will be ebbs and flows in the terms of the way that historians look at Trump. For example, there was a period where even Richard Nixon was considered favorably because of his relations with China. There’s been a lot of Ulysses S. Grant revisionism.

So I do think there will be ebbs and flows but it’s gonna be really hard to ignore that Trump was the only president to be impeached twice and had something to do with the Capitol insurrection. There’s no way that any good historian is going to tell the story of January 6, 2021 without stressing that Trump was somehow involved with inciting it, if not the primary reason why it happened. Trump will be a victim of his own celebrity. He always wants attention. He thrives on drama. Think about him standing with a Bible in front of the church immediately following his claim that he is the “law and order” president. He stands on the balcony of the White House and takes off his mask. He does these things to appeal to his base.

I think Trump will be viewed as the worst president an American history alone on the fact that he was impeached twice and incited a riot against the Capitol. I say to my classes prior to this that James Buchanan was the worst, the only Pennsylvanian president was once the worst and Trump has taken us Pennsylvanians off the hook.

LANDIS: Thanks Trump. (laughter)

FEA: So I think that will be his legacy. Yet there will be revisionism. Some future historians might talk about his Supreme Court appointments. But I think any kind of attempt to spin Trump in a positive way is going to say more about the particular historian than it will about the historical facts. Historians are never objective, but I think it will be really hard to present a glowing picture of this man 100 years from now.