Gerson’s Agony Over Trumpy Evangelicalism
I’m working hard to get caught up on a lot I missed while being overseas. A number of you wrote me to ask for my opinion on Michael Gerson’s big Atlantic magazine story on Evangelicals and Donald Trump. Gerson is an Evangelical and a #NeverTrump conservative. His piece, as you will have guessed, is extremely critical of his fellow Evangelicals for jumping on the Trump train. This excerpt will give you the gist of his piece:
Trump’s background and beliefs could hardly be more incompatible with traditional Christian models of life and leadership. Trump’s past political stances (he once supported the right to partial-birth abortion), his character (he has bragged about sexually assaulting women), and even his language (he introduced the words pussy and shithole into presidential discourse) would more naturally lead religious conservatives toward exorcism than alliance. This is a man who has cruelly publicized his infidelities, made disturbing sexual comments about his elder daughter, and boasted about the size of his penis on the debate stage. His lawyer reportedly arranged a $130,000 payment to a porn star to dissuade her from disclosing an alleged affair. Yet religious conservatives who once blanched at PG-13 public standards now yawn at such NC-17 maneuvers. We are a long way from The Book of Virtues.
Trump supporters tend to dismiss moral scruples about his behavior as squeamishness over the president’s “style.” But the problem is the distinctly non-Christian substance of his values. Trump’s unapologetic materialism—his equation of financial and social success with human achievement and worth—is a negation of Christian teaching. His tribalism and hatred for “the other” stand in direct opposition to Jesus’s radical ethic of neighbor love. Trump’s strength-worship and contempt for “losers” smack more of Nietzsche than of Christ. Blessed are the proud. Blessed are the ruthless. Blessed are the shameless. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst after fame.
I think this is all true, and have said so in this space for a while. It really is a shocking development, and there are more than a few Evangelicals who will never regain their reputations after all this is over. Gerson explains why — and his essay is a worthwhile read.
But Gerson has a couple of important blind spots. Excerpts:
With the return of this greater institutional self-confidence, evangelicals might have expected to play a larger role in determining cultural norms and standards. But their hopes ran smack into the sexual revolution, along with other rapid social changes. The Moral Majority appeared at about the same time that the actual majority was more and more comfortable with divorce and couples living together out of wedlock. Evangelicals experienced the power of growing numbers and healthy subcultural institutions even as elite institutions—from universities to courts to Hollywood—were decisively rejecting traditional ideals.
As a result, the primary evangelical political narrative is adversarial, an angry tale about the aggression of evangelicalism’s cultural rivals. In a remarkably free country, many evangelicals view their rights as fragile, their institutions as threatened, and their dignity as assailed. The single largest religious demographic in the United States—representing about half the Republican political coalition—sees itself as a besieged and disrespected minority. In this way, evangelicals have become simultaneously more engaged and more alienated.
I am certain that Gerson has read his James Davison Hunter. In Hunter’s 2010 book To Change The World, the prominent University of Virginia sociologist explores the diminished role of Christians in 21st century America. He points out that Christians are influential in politics, but (emphasis below is Hunter’s):
In terms of the cultural economy, however, Christians in America today have institutional strength and vitality exactly in the lower and peripheral areas of cultural production. …
It is fair to say, then, that in any social and culturally significant way, Christians are absent from the institutions at the center of cultural production. The cultural capital American Christianity has amassed simply cannot be leveraged where it matters most.
Hunter cites the Alpha Course and homeschoolers as important but “defensive actions by small communities that simply do not have the resources to go up against the behemoth institutions of modern secular culture.”
Hunter explains how all this happened, but that’s not worth getting into here. The point is that it is possible for Evangelicals to hold a substantial amount of political power and to still accurately see themselves as culturally besieged and defensive.
Recall the story I tell here often, and repeated in The Benedict Option: of going to Capitol Hill several months after the Obergefell ruling, asking key Christian GOP Congressional staffers what Congressional Republicans were going to do to protect religious liberty for dissenters … and being told that the answer was nothing, because it wasn’t on the GOP agenda.
The fact is, these elite Republicans — and Gerson is among them — have made their peace with same-sex marriage, either embracing it or dismissing it as important. They want it to go away as an issue. As Terry Mattingly put it in his analysis:
The crucial factor in the current political equation was, of course, the U.S. Supreme Court and the very real possibility that the First Amendment’s protection of the free exercise of religion would, to one degree or another, be redefined or erased.
That’s the threat that Gerson is talking about. To be blunt: He sides with the GOP country club (and the media elites) and says this threat has been overrated.
He cites this passage from Gerson’s essay:
The evangelical political agenda, moreover, has been narrowed by its supremely reactive nature. Rather than choosing their own agendas, evangelicals have been pulled into a series of social and political debates started by others. Why the asinine issue of spiritually barren prayer in public schools? Because of Justice Hugo Black’s 1962 opinion rendering it unconstitutional. Why such an effort-wasting emphasis on a constitutional amendment to end abortion, which will never pass? Because in 1973 Justice Harry Blackmun located the right to abortion in the constitutional penumbra. Why the current emphasis on religious liberty? Because the 2015 Obergefell v. Hodges decision legalizing same-sex marriage has raised fears of coercion.
It is not that secularization, abortion, and religious liberty are trivial issues; they are extremely important. But the timing and emphasis of evangelical responses have contributed to a broad sense that evangelical political engagement is negative, censorious, and oppositional. This funneled focus has also created the damaging impression that Christians are obsessed with sex. Much of the secular public hears from Christians only on issues of sexuality – from contraceptive mandates to gay rights to transgender bathroom usage. And while religious people do believe that sexual ethics are important, the nature of contemporary religious engagement creates a misimpression about just how important they are relative to other crucial issues.
Mattingly continues, commenting on the above Gerson passage:
Whoa. So Obergefell merely raised “fears” of coercion?
The basic idea here is that traditional religious believers – not Hollywood, academic elites, the editorial page at The New York Times and political activists – picked sex, marriage and family as the beach on which the First Amendment battles would be fought. #REALLY
This is exactly right. When the things that you consider to be hugely important — the traditional family and marriage, the right to life, religious liberty — are under assault legally, politically, and culturally, of course you’re going to be defensive and “oppositional”! To be a traditional Christian and to read, watch, and listen to the media (news and entertainment) discuss these issues is to understand that elite cultural opinion is monolithic on matters of sex, marriage, and the family. It is so monolithic that it can only perceive objection to what it believes as true as negative, censorious, and oppositional.
Gerson is correct that Evangelicals (and other conservative Christians) sometimes lose perspective on which battles are worth fighting. For instance, the Kim Davis case. Nevertheless, David French — a religious liberty lawyer — hones in on the serious problem with Gerson’s piece:
While Gerson ably explains that Evangelicals feel as if they’re under siege, he doesn’t give an adequate explanation as to why. He communicates the reality that Evangelicals feel embattled without providing sufficient explanation for that belief, belittling their concerns as hysterical and self-pitying. The effect is to make Evangelicals appear irrational when, in fact, Evangelicals made their political choice in response to actual, ominous cultural and legal developments that jeopardized their religious liberty and threatened some of their most precious religious and cultural institutions.
Yes, some went too far and adopted the “Flight 93 election” rhetoric that helped poison American political discourse, but one doesn’t have to think that the republic was at stake to understand that the issues in play were very serious.
This is an omission of no small consequence. Until the progressive community understands the gravity of its attacks on Evangelical institutions, there is little hope for understanding — much less changing — an increasingly-polarized American political culture.
French goes on to cite the infamous exchange between the Obama administration’s Solicitor General arguing the Obergefell case and Justice Samuel Alito, in which the Solicitor General conceded that if he won the Obergefell case, that Christian universities that didn’t accept the new public LGBT orthodoxy could suffer significant repercussions. He also lists other big factors that pushed Evangelicals into the Trump camp — and he could have listed many more (look back at the 2015 “Professor Kingsfield” analysis for some ideas). These things are more or less invisible to liberals and even many conservative elites because they don’t know or socialize with people to whom they are important. It’s easy to conceive of conservative Evangelical concerns as irritable mental gestures when you don’t stand to lose much personally from their losses.
You may not know that French, himself a conservative Evangelical, was a leading #NeverTrump Republican voice, and that he and his family (including their adopted black daughter) suffered horrific slander, and even threats of violence, from Trump supporters because of French’s stance. He adds:
The true tragedy of Evangelical support for Trump is that a group of Americans who have a higher call on their lives — and faith in a far greater power than any president — now behave (with notable exceptions) exactly like simply another American interest group.
This is Gerson’s key insight, but it matters exactly how Evangelicals arrived where they are today. It wasn’t the hysterical reaction of a self-pitying people. For most it was the sad result of a series of tough choices — made in response to difficult and unreasonable challenges. Even today there are millions of Evangelicals — people who still count themselves reluctant Trump supporters — who are deeply uneasy with the president and the state of their own religious movement. It serves no one’s interests to minimize the legitimacy of their deep political concerns.
Please read the entire French piece. It has some really important details. As French avers, it does not do readers of The Atlantic much good to be told by a white Evangelical conservative that white conservative Evangelicals are just as wicked as they already believe they are. His essay has an “Even the liberal New Republic…” feel to it.
Look, I agree with Gerson that conservative Evangelicals who cheerlead for Trump often make utter clowns of themselves, and are profoundly damaging the integrity of their religious witness. But I do not agree with Gerson at all that their votes for Trump were in every case wicked or unreasonable. Most of the Trump-voting Christians I know well enough to discuss politics with are not under any illusions about his character. They aren’t Jerry Falwell Jr. and Robert Jeffress. They voted for him because they are also not under any illusions about the character of Hillary Clinton and the Democratic Party, and what it would mean for their religious liberties.
As regular readers know, I am a religious conservative who, like French, withheld his vote for president in 2016, because I could not in good conscience vote for either candidate. It was an easy call to make, because I live in a state that was always going to go overwhelmingly for Trump. Since Trump’s election, I have been appalled by most things he’s done, but the reactive malice of the left, and of cultural elites, has me doubting that I’ll sit out the 2020 race. It’s not paranoia when they really are out to get you.
The problem for culturally conservative Trump voters is that the best he can do is slow down the advance of the enemy. Politics is downstream from culture, and in the culture war, the Left is an advanced industrial power, while the Right can only muster the equivalent of lightly armed local militias. But that’s another issue.