A Book Review from Books At a Glance
by D. G. Hart
Since the 2016 presidential elections in the United States, evangelical historians have tried to explain the discomforting reality (to many of these scholars) that eighty-one percent of white evangelicals voted for Donald Trump. One of the earliest efforts was John Fea’s Believe Me (2018), a tendentious historical account that reduced evangelical support for Trump – at the ballot box, not necessarily in their family devotions – to fear, fear of immigrants, outsiders, threats to a middle-class way of life. Tommie Kidd’s Who Is an Evangelical? (2019) was not as overtly antagonistic as Fea’s book, but it nevertheless told the history of born-again Protestantism in America that featured its non-Republican followers. Kidd went out of his way to highlight and praise the contributions of women and non-whites with the not-so-subtle purpose of disentangling evangelical Trump voters from the larger Protestant movement.
Jemar Tisby chronicled the pattern of racism among white Protestants (especially evangelicals) in The Color of Compromise (2019). The election of Trump did not so much frame the narrative as it did confirm Tisby’s findings; only with that election could people see the racism that had always been part of the white evangelical experience. One more notable book from an evangelical historian, a New York Times bestseller, was Kristen Du Mez’s Jesus and John Wayne, a book that did for toxic masculinity what Tisby’s did for race. Just as Trump’s election exposed white evangelicals’ racist outlook, so too for Du Mez 2016 allowed observers to see evangelical views about gender roles for what they are – misogynist. These books capture much of the zeitgeist in elite academic and journalistic circles and give the authors room to distance themselves as evangelicals from those who voted for Trump. But whether they will stand up as historical contributions will take some time to determine.
This survey of some of the recent books on white evangelicals is useful for situating Robert Tracy McKenzie’s We the People. To his credit, the Wheaton College historian did not take the bait that Never Trump indignation posed. His book is no less a critique of contemporary evangelicals for their flawed understanding of democracy and the populism that led to support for Donald Trump. McKenzie’s indirect approach has serious merit for raising important questions about the nature of democracy, what the American Founders intended, and the degree to which not just evangelicals but Americans more generally have strayed from the institutions and convictions that sustain a republic. As he explains at the outset, “the pressing need of the moment isn’t a cultural recommitment to democracy per se” but to “reconsider why we favor majority rule at all.” Since Trump did not win a majority of the 2016 votes, McKenzie is from the very start set on a different course from explaining why white evangelicals are hypocrites.
To raise questions about the populism that Trump tapped, McKenzie explores one of the former president’s inspirations – Andrew Jackson. During the seventh president’s political career, American politics shifted decidedly in a populist-inflected democratic direction. Analogies between Trumpist and Jacksonian Americas in turn give McKenzie space to critique naive understandings of democracy without having to tackle Trump head-on. It is a smart strategy and much more unpredictable than the apocalyptic renderings of Trump by evangelical historians who are supposed to have more perspective than your average observer of American politics. But is McKenzie successful? The answer depends on whether his approach to Trump through the pitfalls of Jacksonian democracy can overcome the substantial differences between 1828 and 2016. Just as challenging is distinguishing democracy from populism in ways that preserve the former – a difficult undertaking because political philosophers since Plato have viewed democracy with suspicion.
McKenzie dissects Jacksonian democracy along several lines. Some of the seventh POTUS’ errors are evident in the way he dealt with the Native Americans and a national bank. The question of federal policy toward Native Americans was actually very messy and McKenzie describes it well. He also points out that Jackson’s policy of removal was a departure from the Founders. They had wanted to civilize and assimilate indigenous populations while Jackson favored segregation. Even so, the point about democracy becomes obscure since McKenzie concedes, contrary to arguments that the removal of Native Americans was a betrayal of democracy, that the policy was actually in line with the sentiments of a majority of Americans. The lesson the author draws is that democracy leads to bad and prejudicial policies. But that is not the same lesson that comes from Jackson’s unilateral decision to revoke the charter of the U.S. Bank. In that case, an economic populism reared its ugly head against the seemingly good intentions of economic nationalists. Jackson’s actions were also examples of executive power (and its potential abuse), a point that McKenzie does not feature since the dangers of an imperial presidency are not the same as those linked to popular sovereignty.
McKenzie also engages in a bit of political theory to dissect the follies of democratic society. As the subtitle indicates, he uses the Founders as a standard by which to judge Jackson. This is a tried and true method of critique but not always the most historical since the United States had almost twice as many states and four times as many people in 1828 as it did in 1790. Changes in geography and demography may require similar adjustments in the public administration of a country. To be sure, Jackson represented a kind of vulgar turn in American politics and he came up short in comparisons with the Founder’s political theory. At the same time, McKenzie does not sufficiently acknowledge the Founders’ elitism which was a function of a society that tolerated aristocratic structures far more than most Americans have since 1820 or so.
A similar point relates to McKenzie’s appropriation of Alexis de Tocqueville whose assessment of American democracy continues to fascinate scholars. The author can well use the Frenchman’s observations to raise doubts about a naive faith in democracy and to warn against the tyranny of the majority. But when McKenzie insists that a failure by evangelicals to heed Tocqueville would be “tragic” he goes overboard. The best McKenzie can do to salvage Tocqueville’s hopes for America is to notice the aristocrat’s positive words about the religious roots of American society. That may be reassuring to readers who think faith is very important to human existence and how people live together. But Tocqueville’s general reflections about democracy, as McKenzie outlines them, are fairly thin since the political challenges of administering a country that was in the 1830s expanding in a host of ways – ethnically, geographically, religiously, economically – were beyond even what a smart European could pen after a relatively brief tour of the country.
McKenzie’s appeal to Tocqueville’s views on religion is especially curious since American evangelicalism during the Second Not So Great Awakening took a decidedly democratic turn in patterns similar to Jackson’s political program. The evangelicals who took issue with the elitism of Congregationalists and Presbyterians in the Northeast were running in the lane adjacent to Jacksonian populism. Most evangelicals today feel a certain affinity with Charles Grandison Finney not simply for his evangelism but also for his denunciations of slavery, alcohol, and restrictions on women. If contemporary evangelicals have a naive faith in democracy, it may well stem, not from nostalgia for Andrew Jackson or admiration for Donald Trump, but from a Protestant distrust of hierarchies (ecclesiastical officers, doctrinal formulations, and liturgical forms). As a professor at an evangelical college (Wheaton) that was on the populist side of American Protestantism, McKenzie would have done well to reflect on the overlap between Protestant and political populism.
Even so, McKenzie’s book is well worth reading for those who desire to consider the historical and theoretical dilemmas of democracy as it developed in the United States. The author is clearly within his rights to object to the evangelical support for Trump that saw no downside either to his brand of politics or the populism that sustained him. McKenzie is also valuable for drawing attention to the understanding of human nature (fallen and selfish) that has encouraged caution about the people and produced worry about mobs. At the same time, McKenzie’s book suffers from not recognizing the gap that does exist in 2020s America between powerful economic and political elites and the people who live in “fly over” country. Lessons taken from Jacksonian America may well teach valuable lessons about the limits of popular sovereignty and the virtues of the Founding. But those same lessons could be instructive for understanding why an overwhelming majority of evangelicals saw Donald Trump as a tribune of people neglected if not ignored by the elites who government, finance, and the production of knowledge.
D. G. Hart teaches history at Hillsdale College.
Buy the books
WE THE FALLEN PEOPLE: THE FOUNDERS AND FUTURE OF AMERICAN DEMOCRACY, by Robert Tracy McKenzie