As a Christian evangelical and an American historian, John Fea, chair of the History Department at Messiah College in Pennsylvania, sought to understand why 80 percent of evangelicals voted for Donald Trump and have deeply aligned themselves to one political party.
“I wanted to explore what that means and how we’ve arrived at this time in our history,” says Fea, author of Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump (Eerdmans 2018; $24.99).
Besides race, much of it has to do with age. The average American trump voter was 57 years old in 2016 and Fea believes that the average white evangelical voter might have even been older, forming their views during the time of Jerry Falwell and the Moral Majority.
“Trump is delivering to a certain type of evangelicals—the Christian right and their vision of reclaiming/restoring Christian values,” he says, noting that this is portrayed as a return to an almost mythical golden age—a nostalgia for what never really existed. “If that’s your playbook, then Trump is the trade-off. And the power of that playbook is so strong they would turn their back on all the other things that are happening now.”
Trading on fears changing demographics and encouraging anti-intellectualism, anti-immigration, anti-gay and anti-abortion, Donald Trump is seen as the person to do something about all this,” says Fea, who previously taught at Valparaiso University in the early 2000s.
Noting that many far right politicians, who are very well educated themselves as well as wealthy or at least very financially secure, disdain colleges and higher education and the “liberal elite,” Fea believes that by encouraging people to be less educated, it helps perpetuate the sense of being overtaken and displaced.
“Four-years of college teach you to think,” he says. “If you understand history and political science, you can see what’s happening. But when you have evangelicals with a faulty view of history, they’re going to be fearful and anxious. They think of themselves as the guardians of American culture but that culture seems to them to be changing so there’s the sense that they need to fight against what’s happening. When people feel this way, they turn to someone they see as strong who will protect them. Too many are trading their Christian ministry for a few federal judges. I conceive of it as being like horse manure ice cream—you think you have ice cream but it tastes and smells like horse manure because that’s really what it is.”
Fea, who teaches young evangelical students, sees changes in the upcoming generations.
“They’re pro-life but their views on immigration, the death penalty, the environment and so forth are broader,” he says.
As the old guard feels surrounded, their world too rapidly changing, there’s a last gasp, says Fea.
“I live near Gettysburg and have walked the battlegrounds many times,” he says. “In history, when there’s change and now as older evangelicals see this generation shift, there’s this last rush.”
Fea compares the adherence to Trump to Pickett’s Charge at the Battle of Gettysburg when 15,000 Confederate troops fought against 6500 Union soldiers on what was the third and last day of the battle. Their loss led to the end of the Civil War.
“It was the final push of the Confederacy and they almost made it,” he says. “In some ways, this is the last rush of the Christian right.”