At the November 2018 gathering of the Evangelical Theological Society, I participated in a review panel for historian John Fea’s book, Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump (Eerdmans, 2018).
Professor Fea’s concern in the book is that evangelicalism is now known more for its association with fear-based, power-hungry, nostalgia-longing partisan Republican politics than it is with the good news of Jesus Christ.
[It should be noted that the book equivocates on the identity of “evangelicals.” The most fair way to read the book, I believe, is (1) to bracket to one side the more historical definitions of broader evangelicalism; (2) to read the historical references in the book as confined to white right-wing Protestants, and (3) to read contemporary references of evangelicals as white right-wing Protestants who self-identify as born-again or evangelical, whether they are self-consciously part of the historic movement or not.]
On fear and evangelicalism, then, Fea writes: “Despite God’s commands to trust him in times of despair, evangelicals have always been very fearful people” (7).
What follows is an excerpt from the part of the review analyzing what he says about evangelicals and “fear.”
Fear is the organizing principle for three of the book’s five chapters.
Fea rightfully identifies the appeal to fear as “a powerful political tool,” one that has been “a staple of American politics since the founding of the republic” (13). He notes, “Political fear is so dangerous because it usually stems from legitimate concerns shared by a significant portion of the voting population” (14). Citing political scientist Corey Robin, he writes that when it comes to political fear, legitimate concerns metastasize into “imminent threats” (14). “Moral panics” tend to “rely on presumptions more than facts; they dramatize and sensationalize so as to keep audiences in a state of continual alertness” (14).
I appreciated the way in which Fea explained how Christians in particular are to think about fear:
Fear is a natural human response in times of trouble or difficult; the fear we have is evidence that we live in a broken world. We should expect to be afraid. . . . Fear is an ever-present reality on this side of eternity, but when we encounter it, we should feel it leading us toward a deeper reliance on God and his grace. (39)
The Bible teaches that Christians are to fear God—and only God. All other forms of fear reflect a lack of faith, a failure to place one’s trust completely in a providential God who has promised to work all things out for good for those who love him (Rom. 8:28). (37)
Questions start to arise, however, when I come across a passage like this:
Despite the biblical passage exhorting followers of Christ to “fear not,” it is possible to write an entire history of American evangelicalism as the story of Christians who have failed to overcome fear. (65)
I don’t believe this is possible—at least not the way in which Fea has articulated it. Can we trace the theme of fear throughout evangelicalism? Sure, as long as
- the term is carefully defined,
- criteria are articulated,
- historical empathy is utilized, and
- counter-examples are acknowledged.
If those things were in place, one could theoretically show that evangelicals are uniquely fearful, provided that sufficient social research is available and that control groups are in place for comparative analysis.
But none of those things really feature in this book. The more sweeping the narrative, the more difficult it is to argue against.
There are differences—sometimes subtle, sometimes substantial—among the concepts of
- moral panic
- fear mongering.
But by and large, those distinctions are ignored here.
The exact form of the argument is not laid out in the book, but here is my best attempt to reconstruct what Fea seems to be arguing implicitly:
- Fear is understandable, even natural.
- Failing to overcome fear is always sinful.
- The act of voting for Trump is itself a sufficient condition to indicate a failure to overcome fear.
- Therefore, voting for Trump is a sign one does not trust God.
Fea never raises the question of whether the 16% of white evangelical voters who voted for Hillary Clinton—those to whom the book is largely dedicated—did so out of “fear” of electing Donald Trump, and if so, whether their failure to overcome that fear was a sign of their sin. (In fact, 94% of Trump voters said they would feel “scared” if Clinton won; 92% of Clinton voters said they would feel “scared” if Trump won—a statistically insignificant difference, given the margin of error in exit polling.)
John Wilson, the former editor of Books and Culture, has been reading a number of works lately on the “discourse of fear” and made the following observation while reviewing a different book on the subject:
Many instances of what we might call the discourse of fear depend on a rhetorical sleight of hand: To describe those you are arguing against as being driven by fear is thought to be effective, even as you are appealing to fear of the outcome should these fearful types get what they want. . . .
I think Fea identifies some significant areas where evangelicals are indeed susceptible to fear-mongering and moral panic. But the implication seems to be that evangelicals are uniquely bad at this, that this has always been the case, and that this applies to most evangelicals when it comes to most areas of the public square.
I think the argument could have been strengthened here by (1) choosing a more modest thesis, (2) laying out the relevant criteria that would meet a proposed definition, and then (3) producing the quantitative evidence to support the thesis.