They love Israel and Trump — the complex world of evangelicals
With a focus on issues such as religious liberty and biblical prophecy, evangelicals often find their "political playbook" puts them on the same page as pro-Israel activists.
More than 80 percent of white evangelical Christians voted for President Donald Trump, a candidate whose personal behavior arguably conflicts with the family values of traditional Christianity.
His purported marital infidelities, the vulgar way in which he spoke of women in the now infamous “Access Hollywood” interview and now, his alleged affair with adult film star Stormy Daniels all seem pretty contrary to the ways of the church.
But in “Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump,” a new book by John Fea, a history professor at Messiah College in Mechanicsburg, Pa., the politicization of evangelicals and their overwhelming support of Trump can be explained as a natural corollary of their “culture war” begun in the 1970s — which includes a resolute stance against abortion and the defense of “religious liberty,” as they define it.
Fea, who was in Sewickley last week to promote his book, argues that Trump fashioned his rhetoric and his policies to garner the votes of white evangelicals, who have become a powerful voting bloc.
Evangelicals comprise about 26 percent of the population in America, according to a Pew survey, and about 15 percent of the Christian population in Pittsburgh. With the exception of the large Allegheny Center Alliance Church on Pittsburgh’s Northside, most evangelical churches in the area are in the suburbs or more rural locales.
There are four beliefs which define evangelicals in a theological way, said Fea in an interview: the centrality of Jesus dying on the cross as a way to provide forgiveness for sins; the idea of conversion, accepting Jesus as savior, and having a “born again experience”; the inspiration of the Bible, both the Old and the New Testament, as an authoritative moral and spiritual code for living; and activism.
Activism, said Fea, who theologically identifies as an evangelical, can be interpreted in a variety of ways.
“Traditionally, when evangelicals think about activism, they think about sharing their faith with others,” he said. “Think of Billy Graham preaching, and people coming forward to accept Jesus. But it also has resulted in evangelicals being engaged in social concerns — feeding the poor, loving their neighbors, serving their neighbors in all kinds of capacities.”
While there are many Christian denominations that practice one or more of these four tenets, most do not embrace all of them.
“When you put all four of them together, you have something unique, and that would be an evangelical Christian,” he said.
‘Co-opted by a political mission’
Most evangelicals would say that their ultimate priority should be being “a witness to the world, preaching the Gospel, living out the Gospel, following Jesus in the world, and following his commandments,” Fea said.
But that mission, in some ways, has been “co-opted by a political mission,” he explained. “So, evangelicals have now become associated in the culture less for what they believe theologically and more for their political alignment with the Republican Party, and now their political alignment with Donald Trump.”
While there are some evangelicals who are Democrats, independents, socialists or associated with the Green Party, “the majority of them align with the Republican Party because of the Republican Party’s effectiveness of tapping into some of their concerns,” Fea said. “But also, it goes both ways. Evangelicals have attached themselves to the Republican Party because of their culture war agenda.”
Although evangelicals promote “religious liberty,” Fea said, its reach tends to be limited.
“You rarely hear them applying this First Amendment principle to anybody but themselves,” he argued. “You rarely will hear them talk about religious liberty for Muslims or for Jews or for non-Christian religions. You will find some that are consistent, but religious liberty has become the new mantra for conservative evangelicals.”
Often, an evangelical’s notion of religious liberty is connected with “sexual politics, especially gay marriage,” Fea continued. “They tried to get an amendment to the Constitution defending traditional marriage between a man and a woman. And when that failed, and when Obergefell v. Hodges was passed by the Supreme Court legalizing same sex marriage, then they began pulling out the religious liberty mantra.”
What that basically means, he said, is the preservation of traditional positions on marriage in educational institutions as well as in businesses, as with the recent Masterpiece Cakeshop case at the Supreme Court. Evangelicals feel “persecuted” and “want to be able to practice their deeply held beliefs in the way that they want without being discriminated against by the government.”
The conservative white evangelical community is driven by a “political playbook” begun in the late 1970s by the Moral Majority and authored by Jerry Falwell, Fea said.
“He was able to mobilize millions of white conservative evangelicals to believe that the best way to live out their faith in America is through gaining access to political power,” he explained.
The evangelical agenda is to elect “the right president who will appoint the right Supreme Court justices, collecting the right members of Congress who will confirm those Supreme Court justices,” Fea said. “That’s how evangelicals function and try to change the world and bring their message to the world.”
Historically, Republican presidents such as George W. Bush and Ronald Reagan were men “who respected American institutions, whether you agreed with their politics or not, they seemed to be generally men of character,” Fea said. “But the 2016 election was really a test of that political playbook. Would the playbook hold up if the candidate was morally problematic, to say the least, like Donald Trump? And it turns out the playbook did hold up.”
The evangelicals relationship with Jews
Historically, evangelicals have had a positive relationship with Jews, Fea said, “because many of them — not all — believe that the New Testament and Old Testament prophecies from the Book of Daniel, especially, still teach there is place in God’s plan for the future for the Jewish people and the Jewish nations.”
Evangelicals strongly support Trump moving the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem because “many of them believe this is going to speed up biblical prophecy,” he added. “Many evangelicals believe that Jesus Christ will one day return to the city of Jerusalem, and one of the signs that he will return is the restoration of the Jewish nation. So, if you could read evangelical magazines in 1948, when the Israel state is created, this was a huge event with the evangelicals because it signaled the prophesy.”
The congregation of the Grace Baptist Church in Monroeville enthusiastically supports Israel, hosting an “Honor Israel Night” event biannually, and raising money to purchase an ambulance for Magen David Adom, Israel’s emergency medical first responders. The congregation also has “a Jewish roots Sunday school class in our church based on what we believe is biblical Judaism,” said member Arlene Berg.
“It comes back to the Genesis 12, verse 3, command for Christians: ‘I will bless those who bless you and curse those who curse you,’” said Arlene’s husband, the Rev. Jeff Berg. “We really have a love for blessing Israel.”
Its most recent Honor Israel Night was held this past May, with keynote speakers Stuart Pavilack, executive director of the Pittsburgh office of the Zionist Organization of America, and Rev. Patrick Neff, of the national church and field ministries director for the Friends of Israel. Rabbi Eli Seidman, director of pastoral care at the Jewish Association of Aging, gave prayers for the welfare of the State of Israel, for Israel Defense Forces soldiers and for captive soldiers at the event.
Jeff Berg said he is “thrilled” about the U.S. Embassy move to Jerusalem and that “as far as we can see, President Trump is showing that he’s good for Israel.”
“We love Israel,” echoed Arlene.
There are some politically “progressive” evangelicals who reject the idea that Israel still has a place to play in biblical prophecy,” according to Fea, and who “believe Israeli treatment of the Palestinians is just wrong.” But historically, evangelicals have mostly “been on the side of Israel.” PJC
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at email@example.com.