Finally, I have to ask a serious question of folks like Rod Dreher who are seriously considering voting for Donald Trump because of judges. If you really believe that traditional Christian conservatives are on the brink of suffering real and substantial persecution, and you believe that electing Donald Trump so that he’ll appoint some right-leaning judges will prevent that from happening, then it seems to me you believe two contradictory things.
This country has had Democratic and Republican Presidents in recent memory. The pendulum swings this way and that. Each side periodically gets to pick a bunch of judges, and some of those judges vote more or less the way you want them to on some of your pet issues. Meanwhile, the country continues to change — and the judges often change their views along with it. Frankly, in the face of a real popular movement to stifle traditional Christian witness, a handful of additional judges would prove largely impotent. And if a handful of judges really could sway things, then how much more so could a real and substantial movement of public engagement, civil disobedience, etc.
If the political tide is running strongly against you, that’s not a reason for apocalypticism. It’s a reason to rethink your political strategy — which is the exact opposite of what a vote for Trump would represent.
After all, Donald Trump’s primary victory is the final proof that even the religiously conservative base of the GOP doesn’t really care about things like abortion and gay rights, because Trump manifestly didn’t care about these questions or was actively on the other side from religious conservatives, and yet he won plenty of evangelical Christian votes in the primaries. So voting for Trump out of religious conservative conviction sends a clear-as-day message that Republicans need do absolutely nothing on those issues in order to win religious conservative votes. It is a statement of abject surrender.
Look: there is nobody running in this election in whom religious conservatives should put the slightest sliver of hope with regard to their issues. If you really care overwhelmingly about those issues, you have a practical obligation not to vote for President. Large scale abstentions by religious conservatives would make it abundantly clear that attention must be paid to their concerns, in a way that voting for Trump never could do.
Or, if issues like abortion are just one of a complex of issues that have to be weighed in any election, then vote for the person who you think is best on balance, and fight for those other issues on another front. Maybe that means voting for Trump — in which case you’ll still need to be doing that fighting on other fronts, because trust me, Trump is not going to have your back. Regardless, don’t kid yourself that a vote for Trump will advance the cause of religious conservatism one iota. You know full well it won’t.
Well, look, I cannot claim to speak for all religious conservatives, so my opinion is only my opinion. At this time, I find it impossible to imagine voting for either Hillary or Trump — a fate that I am spared because I live in a state that should go pretty comfortably to Trump. But I accept that there’s the possibility that something might happen between now and Election Day that might cause me to vote for one or the other candidates, though I honestly cannot imagine what that thing might be. In either case, it would be fear of the Other Candidate taking office. I would cast my vote with immeasurable disgust, and never tell a soul for whom I voted. That’s how revolted I am by both candidates, though for different reasons.
For the record, I would happily vote for a candidate who stood for many of Trump’s positions (versus an Establishment Republican), if he were not Donald Trump, who is a volatile, thin-skinned narcissist without convictions or principles, in my view. The only unambiguously good thing Donald Trump has done with his presidential run is destroy the GOP Establishment.
That said, let me answer Noah’s points.
1. As a political force, Christian conservatives are done. Republicans have proven that they care more about what Big Business thinks than they do about what religious conservatives think. Christians should be under no illusion about this.
2. Christian conservatives are a declining political force because we are a declining force, period. We have lost the culture. In my forthcoming book, I will be making this argument using detailed studies, but the unavoidable conclusion is that we are going to become a small minority within the lifetimes of the Millennials. Why? Because most of them are either rejecting religion outright, or affiliating with it so loosely, and with such a generic version of it, that they may as well not be Christian at all. Religious progressive triumphalists ought to be careful not to gloat too much. When Millennials reject conservative Christianity, most of them don’t join a progressive church. They leave church altogether.
3. Trump doesn’t give a fig about the issues that we care about. He’s not one of us, and can’t even fake it very well. Those who believe that Trump had an authentic come-to-Jesus moment recently are fooling themselves. Whenever I see Trump talk about religion (which is rare), I’m reminded of an interview I did in the mid-1990s with Charlie Sheen, who had washed out in some awful scandal, and then declared that he had found God. When we talked face to face, it was clear to me that the “I got saved” business was a publicity ploy, not a conversion. And of course I was correct.
4. Again, I can’t speak for all religious conservatives, but I would not expect a President Trump to advocate for causes important to religious conservatives. That’s not who he is, and that’s not what will have gotten him elected. The best we can hope for is that he will appoint judges to the federal bench, especially to SCOTUS, who will interpret the law so as to give maximal protection to religious liberty. There are still some Japanese-soldier Religious Rightists hiding out on a desert island in the South Pacific, thinking that if we just elect the right people, we can overturn Obergefell. I don’t know any serious political Christian who believes that, or who expects that to happen in any plausible scenario. We just want to be left alone to run our institutions.
5. Which brings us to the only religious conservative case for Trump that makes any sense to me. Trump may not care about our issues, but that also means he doesn’t care to fight against them. There is a chance that if elected president, he would defer to his advisers on picking judges, especially for SCOTUS, and give us judges that understand the vital importance of the First Amendment. There is no chance that Hillary Clinton will do this, in my view, and an overwhelming chance that she will appoint judges and advocate policies that drive orthodox Christians further out of the public square. She will consider it a virtue to bankrupt small businesses that resist the LGBT steamroller, and consider it a good deed to unmask and exile “bigots” wherever they are — and smash their institutions. Pepperdine’s choice the other day to give up its Title IX exemptions in the wake of pressure from the State of California is a sign of things to come. Government under progressive leadership will compel Christian institutions to capitulate or die. (In the case of progressives leading Mainline Protestant churches, they are compelling their own institutions to capitulate to social liberalism and die at the same time. Progressive religion is a suicide cult.)
This is going to happen under President Clinton. It might not happen under President Trump. For some religious conservatives, this is reason enough to vote for him. Think of it this way. If you are a Jewish American whose most important issue is the survival of Israel, and you had to choose between a presidential candidate of very low character who was indifferent to Israel but not actively hostile to it, and a presidential candidate who wanted to see it weakened, and even destroyed, would the choice be so difficult? This is what it looks like to conservative Christians.
6. If Trump becomes president and judges he appoints rule favorably on religious liberty issues, this does nothing to prevent the decline of conservative religion. Why would Noah think that we believe that? We are simply trying to hold what ground me have around our institutions. We live in a post-Christian nation, and barring divine intervention, that’s not going to change anytime soon. We are fighting now to be left alone.
7. If I believed that there was a political solution to our nation’s problems in general, and to the political and cultural dilemma of conservative Christians in specific, I wouldn’t be busy at work on The Benedict Option, a book that is about how we small-o orthodox Christians should live as an increasingly despised minority. All a Trump presidency could possibly do is buy us time by protecting our right to run our own institutions, for now. I doubt this would last beyond a Trump presidency, but I could be wrong.
8. The problem with focusing laser-like on religious liberty is that you have to exclude many other things that are deeply worrying about Trump, and even offensive. I know some conservative Christians who despise Trump’s stance on immigration (for the record, I personally am an immigration restrictionist). Me, the thing I worry most about with Trump is his lack of core principles, his volatility, and his lack of self-discipline — qualities that are terrifying in a US president.
That’s not nothing. We are citizens of the City of God first, but that doesn’t mean we cease to be citizens of the USA. People who tell themselves that Trump is less likely to get us into a war than hawkish Hillary are betting that he has the inner strength of character to resist being baited by foreign leaders. I wouldn’t take that bet.
9. Furthermore, there is strong reason to believe that Trump is scamming his religious conservative backers like he scams everybody else. Michael Brendan Dougherty has a good piece up today on this point. Excerpts:
One of Trump’s few proven and consistent traits is making whatever outlandish promises he has to make to close the sale, and then leaving his creditors and business partners in the lurch later. He creates scam businesses, and he does so by selling his marks on a fantasy. Come to Trump University and become a real-estate billionaire. Finance Trump Taj Majal with junk bonds, and I’ll save Atlantic City. I’ll sign your pledge, but I won’t be held by it. Make me president, you’ll get four more Scalias. Subject to terms and conditions, of course.
[Pro-Trump Reformed theologian Wayne] Grudem’s argument for Trump only makes sense if you make a strong effort to avoid the evidence about what kind of man Trump is. Trump has been serially unfaithful to his wedding vows, to his creditors, to his political personas. He doesn’t just back away from extreme positions, he runs away from his campaign promises even during the campaign. The one believable statement Trump has made about himself is that he “doesn’t bring God” into his life such that he would ask for forgiveness for his sins.
MBD, talking about a public statement Grudem signed in 1998, during the Clinton impeachment scandal, saying that character in our political leaders counts, and that’s why Bill Clinton must be made to answer for his immoral behavior, including lying under oath:
And what does it say about the quality of our convictions if we argue in 1998 that “the moral character of a people is more important than the tenure of a particular politician or the protection of a particular political agenda,” but then, as soon as our political agendas are threatened, find a handy excuse for installing a “flawed” man in the same office? It says that our convictions come with a political out-clause.
But I’m not an expert. I suppose it takes a celebrated systematic theologian to construct an argument so dizzying that you temporarily forget the words that are printed in red letters: By their fruits, you shall know them.
So, in conclusion, the religious conservative case for Trump comes down to gambling. That Hillary would be a disaster for religious conservatives is one of the safest bets you can make in American politics. Betting on Trump is a long-shot gamble, but as I tell myself when I buy lottery tickets, hey, you never know. Even if Trump were to come through on religious liberty protections, voting for him is still taking an incredible gamble on so many other things, both domestically and internationally.
Still, it might be worth it to some. If a religious conservative takes all of this into consideration and still chooses to vote for Trump, I won’t judge him. I suppose it is possible that I may be that man come November. I don’t see how, but maybe I will be. (I also might be the man who votes for Hillary Clinton, though it’s even more unlikely.) But I do not understand religious conservatives who enthusiastically support Trump, as opposed to supporting him in fear and trembling, knowing what a bad man he is. They are no better than the feminists who rallied to Bill Clinton’s side during the Lewinsky scandal because no matter how much Bill’s actions and character went against the things they believe in, it was more important to deny the Right a victory than to stand on principle. Similarly, many conservative Christians involved in politics this fall are not covering themselves with glory, to put it charitably.