Sometimes Writing History for the Public Means Forgetting Everything You Learned About Writing in Graduate School

John Fea

Donald Trump Delivers Remarks at Liberty University. Photo by Shealah Craighead, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Not every historian will feel called to write for the public. But those who are called to this kind of work will face unique challenges. Sometimes overcoming those challenges will require compromising scholarly habits of historical writing or engaging in the rough-and-tumble world of social media.

In 2018, I published Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump. The book is an analysis of, and response to, the 81 percent of white American evangelicals who voted for Trump in the 2016 presidential election. I argued, as an evangelical Christian myself, that this embrace of Trump is the logical outcome of a long-standing evangelical approach to public life defined by the politics of fear, the pursuit of worldly power, and a nostalgic longing for an American past.

On one level, Believe Me is a work of history. Unlike other books on Trump and evangelicals, I tried to take the long view. I trace evangelical fear, the pursuit of power, and nostalgia all the way back to the seventeenth century. Believe Me thus focuses much more on continuity than it does change over time. Yet, on another level, this book is unlike any of my five previous books in the sense that I chose to bring my historical work to bear directly on contemporary politics and American religious life. Believe Me is a piece of historically inflected cultural and social criticism.

In the weeks surrounding the release of Believe Me I published several op-eds for the purpose of introducing the general public to the argument of the book. I pitched one of those pieces, titled “A Short History of Evangelical Fear,” to Yoni Appelbaum, Ideas editor at The Atlantic. As originally conceived, this essay traced the evangelical propensity to indulge in the politics of fear from John Winthrop and the Puritans, through nineteenth-century evangelical nativism, and into the cultural and demographic changes of the 1960s and 1970s.  I chided American evangelicals—my religious tribe—for letting fear drive their politics while at the same time worshipping a God who taught his followers that “perfect love casts out fear.” The original piece was full of historical examples supporting my argument, but it read like a screed—something akin to the politically driven historical writing of the late Howard Zinn or the conservative activist David Barton.

Appelbaum identified this problem immediately. He suggested that my submission blamed evangelicals for all of America’s ills and seemed to characterize the entire movement as one defined by fear and hate. He knew that I was someone rooted in the evangelical world who understood the movement’s strengths and failings. Appelbaum also understood, perhaps better than I did at the time, that I did not want to paint evangelicals with such a broad brush.  He encouraged me to add a additional historical “strand” to the piece pointing readers back to how evangelical Christianity might be a source of something other than fear. Rather than suggesting that Donald Trump was the inevitable outcome of evangelical belief as a whole, Appelbaum encouraged me to see the evangelical support of this president as the latest manifestation of political behavior shaped by longstanding flaws within the community.

Appelbaum was right. His commentary made me realize that my emotional investment in the story of Trump and evangelicals had temporary blinded me to the nuance and complexity that is essential to writing good history. I rewrote the piece in a way that focused more on historical contingency. Yes, evangelicals had a long history of engaging in a politics defined by fear, power, and nostalgia, but they also could have pursued other evangelical options that might have been more consistent with biblical morality or historic Christian teaching. The piece eventually appeared under the title “Evangelical Fear Elected Trump.”

For example, early nineteenth-century evangelicals who translated their fear of Catholic immigrants into political organizations such as the nativist Know-Nothing Party and religious tracts cautioning fellow believers of the threat of “popery” might have chosen to follow the biblical mandate to welcome strangers in their midst as a sign of Christian hospitality. While some of the most prominent evangelicals of the era, such as Charles Finney and Lyman Beecher, were spewing anti-Catholic rhetoric, other evangelicals could not reconcile such hatred with Christian love. These evangelicals, as the historian Richard Carwardine has written, “could be found in all evangelical denominations” in the 1840s and 1850s.

This kind of nuance and complexity is not easy when writing for public audiences. Appelbaum gave me nearly 2,000 words to unpack my revised argument, but most op-eds usually run around 800 words. When writing these shorter pieces,sometimes nuance and complexity must be sacrificed on the altar of clear writing and straightforward arguments void of phrases like “on the other hand…” or “don’t get me wrong…” and words like “maybe” or “perhaps.” This is often the most difficult part of translating scholarship to the general public and one of the main reasons why more historians don’t do it.

There are, however, ways around this dilemma. When I feel that an op-ed or popular piece of writing lacks nuance, I often turn to my blog, Facebook page, or Twitter feed to develop my thoughts more fully or offer a more complex rendering of my argument. Anyone who is engaged in this kind of public historical writing should think seriously about using social media in this way.

Public writing is not for the faint of heart. The comments sections of online platforms are some of the darkest places on the internet. The discourse occurring every day on Twitter may be one of the strongest arguments for the Christian doctrine of original sin. But if we are serious about challenging citizens to think more deeply about the links between past and present, it is a cross that we must bear with courage.

18 December 2019

About the Author

John Fea is Professor of American History at Messiah College.

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