A Warning To Historians Who Would Be Journalists

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.

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D. G. Hart | “It’s a religious movement, not a disease” | March 7, 2024


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