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It’s a religious movement, not a disease

Historians may be changing the way they look at contemporary evangelicalism

James Dobson speaks at a prayer event in San Diego on Nov. 1, 2008. Associated Press/Photo by Denis Poroy

It’s a religious movement, not a disease
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Calls for amnesty among those who defended and implemented the protocols of the COVID-19 pandemic are hardly news. Emily Oster was the first to call for clemency of advocates for governments’ restrictive measures. She argued that many officials simply did not have sufficient knowledge for a better outcome. Since then Gavin Newsom, governor of California, and Gretchen Whitmer, governor of Michigan, have also pled for understanding. They admit they did not know the best practices for mitigation or consequences of lockdowns.

A similar call has surfaced among evangelical scholars for assessing born-again Protestants who voted for Donald Trump. For almost eight years, evangelical historians have diagnosed white evangelicals as carriers of the MAGA bug. From there they have examined the “medical” histories of evangelicals and found long-term evidence of disease. John Fea recently pushed back on this assessment. He complains that the diagnosis and prescribed treatment were flawed. He also confesses that he was part of a rush to misdiagnosis. His book, Believe Me, was one of the first to claim that evangelicals had tested positive for the Trump virus. Now, the Messiah University historian is having second thoughts.

Fea writes, “the story of American evangelicalism isn’t all negative.” His father’s conversion through James Dobson’s Focus on the Family in one example. “For all the bad that’s come out of this movement,” Fea asserts, “there are still countless stories of personal transformation leading people to become better parents, better spouses, and better members of their communities.”

Analogies between Oster and Fea break down under closer scrutiny. Although Oster may claim that she and lockdown defenders were ignorant about many aspects of the virus and pandemic policies, Fea cannot plead ignorance about evangelicalism. A graduate of Trinity Evangelical Divinity School and member of the Conference of Faith and History (an association of evangelical scholars), he has written widely on different eras of born-again Protestantism, from the colonial era to the 1920s. If Oster was out of her depth on COVID, Fea was in his wheelhouse with evangelicalism.

His reasons for second thoughts, however, may be similar to Oster’s. Although each writer has different academic training, both recognize the effects of illiberal treatments of ordinary Americans (who either refused Trump’s vaccine or voted for Trump—or both). In Fea’s case, he uses his father to praise Dobson’s influence. The “Focus on the Family” host taught Fea’s dad “that he should exercise paternal discipline because children had strong wills that needed breaking, but that such discipline should never be delivered in a spirit of anger.” The elder Fea did not need Dobson to learn “how to be a patriarch.” He did need to learn “love and compassion.”

For the past seven years the historical profession has operated as if current events alter understanding of the past.

Because Dobson’s influence could go in two very different directions, to parents at home or to legislators in Congress, Fea worries that the recent scholarly emphasis on male toxicity warps understanding of evangelicalism. He singles out Beth Barr (Baylor University) and Kristin DuMez (Calvin University) whose histories of evangelicalism are “woefully flat.” These scholars ignore that Fea’s father and “millions of other men and women” learned “from Dobson how to love their families as Jesus loves his church.” Instead of assuming that evangelical Protestants are a threat to America, Fea thinks good history will include the good parts like his “father’s story.” But he is not “holding my breath.” (For background on this scholarly debate, see Kevin DeYoung’s post.)

Fea does not explain what changed his mind. Part of the background may be his decision to decline participation in the new Rob Reiner documentary, “God and Country,” which sounds the alarm about Christian nationalism. Fea had to choose between candor or hurting fellow Christians. “When do we consider how truth-telling” might affect “our neighbors or family or the people we sit next to in the pew every Sunday?” he asked. Written before his essay about his father, Fea was already worried about the damage done by historians. Perhaps speaking truth to power was really “casting pearls before swine.”

Fea’s mea culpa may signal a return to viewing evangelicalism not as a disease but a religious movement. Everyone understands that scientists, both natural and humanistic, interpret evidence, whether viruses, presidents, or evangelists. Historians evaluate data as much as public health experts. Still, the best historical judgments do not change with the headlines. A virus may require government to respond, but Protestants from the past do not. The 1969 Moon landing did not require historians of Puritanism to reconsider John Winthrop’s 1630 arrival in Boston.

For the past seven years, however, the historical profession has operated as if current events do alter understanding of the past. In the disorienting summer of 2020, the University of Pennsylvania removed the statue of George Whitefield, a good friend of the university’s founder, Benjamin Franklin. In 1919 at the statue’s unveiling, a group of New York City Methodist alumni delighted in their efforts to construct a Whitefield monument that recognized his role in the university’s genesis. As late as 2013, Whitefield’s support was the chief way the institution remembered him. “Penn Today” (a year ahead of the tricentennial of Whitefield’s birth) featured the evangelist’s labors for higher education—in addition to Penn, he had assisted Princeton and Dartmouth. By 2020, however, headlines about police brutality and racism had overwhelmed historical judgment. The university explained that Whitefield’s principle legacy was slavery and removed his statue. In 2013, Penn’s history faculty apparently did not object to remembering Whitefield as an advocate for education. In 2020, the university removed the story about Whitefield’s importance to Penn’s founding.

John Fea’s reminder of historians’ proper task is clearly welcome. But it may be too little, too late. Fea’s own training did not prevent him from writing that evangelical Trump voters had “traded their Christian witness for a mess of political pottage and a few federal judges.” The rush to judge wicked men—from Nixon to Clinton—and their supporters is a persistent temptation to scholars who would be journalists.

D.G. Hart

D.G. Hart teaches history at Hillsdale College and is the author most recently of Benjamin Franklin: Cultural Protestant (2021).

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