Here’s a great read: Ross Douthat in conversation with David French and John Zmirak, on the subject of Christians and Donald Trump. The background: Douthat is a NeverTrump Catholic conservative; Zmirak is a pro-Trump Catholic conservative; French is a NeverTrump Evangelical conservative.
What’s so interesting about this discussion is that all sides have good points, even when they may be wrong. Here are some highlights:
David French: My problem with John’s analysis is quite simple. Christians don’t get to compartmentalize. When we’re the living representatives of Christ’s church, we don’t get to proudly support politicians who lie and commit dishonorable acts for the sake of a few policy wins. I know it’s fashionable to scorn “mainstream” or “respectable” politicians or ministers, but these individuals at least had the virtue — as imperfect as they were — of a degree of personal honor and integrity. The church always must be mindful of its witness, and it can’t sacrifice its moral credibility to a culture by declaring, “I did it for the judges.”
I belong to the camp of Christians who are grateful when Trump makes good decisions but also quite mindful that our political witness is inseparable from our Christian witness. Thus, we have no option but to condemn his worst impulses and work to counteract his toxic influence on our larger culture. While policy positions are important (though Trump’s real impact is often vastly overblown), a nation is ultimately shaped far more by its culture than its policies, and we can never forsake the greater power for the lesser win.
Zmirak argues that Christians who fuss over Trump’s vulgarity and sinfulness are being fussbudgets, and ignoring the practical realities of this fallen world. More:
Zmirak: We’re fallen creatures trying to render unto Caesar as well as unto God. The nexus between those two is how we as sovereign citizens direct our government to treat the vulnerable.
We supported Constantine, and Harry Truman, and many other imperfect men who were better than the alternatives. I don’t even expect saintly behavior of popes, much less of presidents. If the circumstances in which God saw fit to place us make us choose between the “squeaky clean” persecutor of the unborn and the Little Sisters of the Poor, or between Barack Obama and Donald Trump, the choice is obvious. If we pick the persecutor because he pleases us more aesthetically, better fits our internal self-image, then we will answer for that on the Day of Judgment.
The Hollywood that was howling for Trump’s head over the “Access Hollywood” tape, we now know, had been mopping up for Harvey Weinstein for decades. I don’t expect Christians to be naïve or prissy. We know more about sin than most people, since we believe it in fact exists. And can be repented.
I’m generally on the opposite side of Zmirak here, for reasons I will explain below. But let me ask liberal readers: if you were faced with a choice between a liberal version of Donald Trump — a bad man (or woman) who could be counted on to promote policies that protected abortion rights, gay marriage, and other things important to you — or a personally respectable Republican who would probably attack those very things, how would you choose? Would the choice be easy for you?
Douthat: My views align pretty closely with yours, David, so let me play devil’s advocate (if you will) against our shared perspective. Suppose that Trump appoints another Supreme Court justice, ensuring both the persistence of an expansive understanding of religious liberty and widening the possibilities for pro-life legislation. And further suppose that some of the dire consequences of a Trump presidency that some of us feared — stock market plunges, accidental nuclear wars — don’t materialize. Is there any scenario where you might come around to the view that the bargain was, in fact, worth making?
French: I am very willing to be persuaded that he will ultimately be a better president than Hillary Clinton. I was opposed to both Clinton and Trump in the general election on the grounds that both were unfit — though in different ways. So I’m genuinely happy when Trump accomplishes good things, relieved when he tempers his worst impulses, and more than willing to give him credit when credit is due. For example, the success of the campaign against the Islamic State is an underappreciated part of his presidency.
However, for the sake of encouraging or even achieving these policy wins, Christians cannot be seen to excuse lies, rationalize incompetence or impose double standards. A person can simultaneously say that Trump has accomplished good things while also seeking to hold him to a proper standard of conduct. My great disappointment during this first year of the Trump presidency is not with evangelicals who have rightly lauded, say, the Neil Gorsuch appointment, but rather with Christians who’ve defended, rationalized and excused conduct they’d never, ever condone in a Democrat. There are not two standards of morality depending on judicial appointments or regulatory reform.
Douthat raises with Zmirak the issue of Trump and Trump’s GOP driving away people who aren’t already onside with Republicans. If I’m reading his point correctly, he’s also asking about whether or not the lock-step support of many conservative Christians for Trump and the unpopular GOP will turn outsiders off from conservative Christianity. The answer:
Zmirak: I think much of the drift [away from Christianity] is driven not by politics but by internal scandals, like the sex abuse crisis among Catholics, and financial scandals among evangelicals.
But to politics: Were Christians scandalized by the spectacle of George W. Bush leaving Iraqi Christians to face jihadi violence? They should have been. It was far worse than anything Trump has done. I must confess that I am deeply embittered by the callousness that George W. Bush displayed toward the lives and liberties of religious minorities in Iraq — when as U.S. commander in chief, he had essentially absolute power over that occupied country. Of about one million Christians, some 900,000 were ethnically cleansed, most of them while our troops still occupied the country. I can put up with Donald Trump’s old Howard Stern tapes all day long, compared with that.
In Syria, Trump aided the Kurdish militias allied with Syrian Christians. Now instead of a massive catastrophe for an ancient Christian community, there are Christmas trees going up in Damascus again. Christian pastors in America who helped Trump during the campaign have been keeping Trump apprised of the real-world, on the ground concerns of Syrian Christians. None of that happened under Bush.
I don’t think the savage hatred of Donald Trump is mostly driven by his genuine excesses. Trump is serving as a catalyst to expose just how unhinged, anti-Christian, anti-Western, and frankly anti-rational the dominant factions on the left have become.
On that final point, I think Zmirak is mostly wrong, for reasons I’ve elaborated at length on this site. I won’t bore you with going into them again. I think that David French is more likely correct: that the world will see conservative Christians as hypocrites who are really only interested in political power.
But I don’t believe Zmirak is 100 percent wrong. Though his view serves to dismiss (quite foolishly) Trump’s outrages and the cost of conservative Christian complicity with them, it really is true that Trump is only vivifying splits and hatreds that were already there. Liberals, in my view, really did buy the “we are on the right side of history” story. They did not need Donald Trump as an excuse to demonize conservative Christians as bigots and a threat to decent society. Again, I think it is a serious mistake to wave away the effect Trump is likely to have on the credibility of conservative Christianity by saying, in effect, “Oh, the world hated us anyway.” But it is also not entirely false — and that’s important for conservative Christians to know going forward, so they (we) don’t make the mistake of scapegoating Donald Trump.
I wrote the entire Benedict Option book under the reasonable assumption that Hillary Clinton would win the presidency. I had to go back and rewrite a section of it after Trump’s astonishing win. In the final version of the book, I wrote:
Post-Obergefell, Christians who hold to the biblical teaching about sex and marriage have the same status in culture, and increasingly in law, as racists. The culture war that began with the Sexual Revolution in the 1960s has now ended in defeat for Christian conservatives. The cultural left — which is to say, the American mainstream — has no intention of living in postwar peace. It is pressing forward with a harsh, relentless occupation, one that is aided by the cluelessness of Christians who don’t understand what’s happening. Don’t be fooled: the upset presidential victory of Donald Trump has at best given us a bit more time to prepare for the inevitable.
[F]air or not, conservative Christianity will be associated with Trump for the next few years, and no doubt beyond. If conservative church leaders aren’t extraordinarily careful in how they manage their public relationship to the Trump phenomenon, anti-Trump blowback will do severe damage to the church’s reputation. Trump’s election solves some problems for the church, but given the man’s character, it creates others. Political power is not a moral disinfectant.
And this brings us to the more subtle but potentially more devastating effects of this unexpected GOP election victory. There is first the temptation to worship power, and to compromise one’s soul to maintain access to it. There are many ways to burn a pinch of incense to Caesar, and some prominent pro-Trump Christians arguably crossed that line during the campaign season. Again, political victory does not vitiate the vice of hypocrisy.
There is also the danger of Christians falling back into complacency. No administration in Washington, no matter how ostensibly pro-Christian, is capable of stopping cultural trends toward desacralization and fragmentation that have been building for centuries. To expect any different is to make a false idol of politics.
What’s more, to believe that the threat to the church’s integrity and witness has passed because Hillary Clinton lost the 2016 presidential election is the height of folly.
I wrote those words before Trump was sworn in, and I stand by them today — even as I am grateful for Justice Gorsuch (and other judges), and for Trump’s surprising victory over ISIS (Douthat wrote a good column yesterday congratulating the president on this.)
That said, I think Zmirak is wrong here:
If we pick the persecutor because he pleases us more aesthetically, better fits our internal self-image, then we will answer for that on the Day of Judgment.
He is confusing morality with aesthetics. No serious person objects to Trump because he is a vulgar person. It’s that he is an immoral person, and his personal vulgarity is an outward sign of his inward state, as manifest in his words and deeds. And it’s a fundamental (and self-serving) error to say that people reject Trump because he doesn’t suit their “internal self-image” — as if people who dislike Trump only do so out of personal vanity. That is a logical fallacy called Bulverism. It’s easy to look down on a negative judgment on Trump if that judgment is made from shallow, vain reasons, which is why Zmirak characterizes anti-Trump Christians’ motives that way. But what if the reasons are morally serious? And how does Zmirak’s view not amount to consequentialism: the belief that the moral worth of an act depends on its consequence?
These things are not cut and dried. Lying is wrong, but I can’t think of a single serious Christian who would say that one is bound to tell the truth when one is hiding Jews in the basement, and the Gestapo comes to the door and asks if there are any Jews in residence. If Zmirak’s point is that the moral situation we’re in as a nation is so dire as to justify a teleological suspension of the ethical, then let him argue that. But to dismiss Christian objections to Trump and Trumpism as fancypants legalism is cheap, and it’s wrong — and it will have a tremendous cost, in the long run. I’m sure of that.
UPDATE: Reader St. Louisan speaks for me:
When Zmirak points to the genuinely good results of Trump’s policies, like a better situation for Mideast Christians or an emphasis on religious liberty, it only makes me more furious at Trump’s excesses…because all those things are going to be washed away in 2021.
People like Zmirak don’t take into account that Trump is historically unpopular, and taints anything he touches with his unpopularity. His surprise win in 2016 fools some people into thinking of him as a popular figure. He’s not–he’s the most unpopular President in the history of modern polling. That he’s polling so low despite a booming economy and the defeat of ISIS is like a reverse miracle.
Donald Trump is not going to be re-elected in 2020 (the polls in 2016 allowed for the possibility of a Trump win, especially the state polls. They are far, far worse for him now). He will be succeeded by a Democrat who will reverse everything he’s done, and that Democrat will be buoyed by the vast numbers of people (especially young people) who have been thoroughly alienated by Trump and all he stands for. Any cause hitched to his wagon will have a black mark against it.
After the Crash of 1929, Democrats successfully ran against the ghost of Herbert Hoover for decades. So think of this: for an entire generation of voters, the idea of a Republican President will be based on George W. Bush and Donald Trump.
Trump’s presidency will probably be a net loss for most of the worthy causes he advances, as the next fifteen years play out.