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Evangelicals Still Agonizing Over Trump

David French, Andrew T. Walker, and the politics of prudence
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David French wrote a strongly-worded piece cracking on Trumpy Christians after the president’s embarrassing display at the National Prayer Breakfast. Excerpt:

American Evangelicals represent one of the most powerful religious movements in the world. They exercise veto power over the political success of any presidential candidate from one of America’s two great parties. Yet they don’t wield that power to veto the selection of a man who completely rejects—and even scorns—many of their core moral values.

I fully recognize what I’m saying. I fully recognize that refusing to hire a hater and refusing to hire a liar carries costs. If we see politics through worldly eyes, it makes no sense at all. Why would you adopt moral standards that put you at a disadvantage in an existential political struggle? If we don’t stand by Trump we will lose, and losing is unacceptable.

The pastor of my old church used to refer to the kingdom of God as “upside down.” The last are first? To gain your life, you have to lose it? It simply defies earthly common sense. As Paul said, “[T]he wisdom of the world is foolishness to God.” I’m reminded of the old Christian hymn, “Trust and Obey.” While it ruins the rhyme, I like the concept with the words reversed—obey and trust. Obey the creator of the universe when he tells me to love my enemies and then trust that justice will still be done and that God’s will still prevails.

On the other hand, Andrew T. Walker — also a conservative Evangelical — explains at length why some Christians dislike Trump but plan to vote for him anyway. Excerpts:

But an event on October 10, 2019 explains the odd-couple relationship of religious conservatives and Donald Trump. That evening, during a CNN townhall on LGBTQ issues, the now-former Democratic presidential candidate Beto O’Rourke proclaimed that churches failing to toe the line on gay and transgender rights would lose their tax-exempt status in his administration. O’Rourke’s comments represented a high-water mark of a culture that has jettisoned anything resembling a Christian moral ecology. Never mind that O’Rourke’s candidacy is over. It was an Overton Window–shifting moment.

O’Rourke’s comments reminded religious conservatives why so many of them voted for Trump in 2016, even if doing so felt hypocritical and seemed like a betrayal of their principles — and why they will likely do so again in 2020, despite their realism about his character. O’Rourke’s promise to remove tax exemptions only reinforced the embattled mentality of most religious conservatives, which mobilizes them as voters. The problem was not only with O’Rourke’s tax policy, however. It’s also that the rhetoric of progressives around sexual orientation and gender identity logically leads to the conclusion that O’Rourke simply dared to state honestly: It is illogical to say that Christianity is “harmful” to gay and transgender persons and then not to want it somehow punished. For years, religious conservatives predicted that the sexual revolution would eventually affect government policy and directly threaten churches. They can now point to O’Rourke and other examples as evidence of a massive cultural shift that has realized their predictions. Even the most convinced progressive should sympathize with religious conservatives who are concerned about federal law possibly turning against them.

While Christians must cast off both unwarranted fear and moral panic, rejecting both does not remove the real concerns that persist among religious conservatives. Most criticisms of how religious conservatives understand the world miss the mark. They fail to capture fully the moral landscape and moral contrasts that are formed by believing in a world richly enchanted with divine order. Christians who refract cultural disputes through sexuality and gender do so not because they are obsessed with either, but because the two reflect larger debates about morality, human nature, authority, the role of government, and the nature of justice. Our moral debates are not ephemeral; they are, rather, metaphysical and cosmological. Thus, when religious conservatives of the Reluctant Trump variety vote, they are not thinking merely about one man, even if he has reconfigured the relationship between character and electability and defined both the presidency and elections as character tests downward. They are thinking about the larger moral worldview to which the party is committed.

Walker brings up a real-life example to illustrate the complexity of the Evangelical response to Trump:

To understand this complexity, take my real-life friend. Let’s call him Steve. Steve is a white evangelical in his forties, a middle-school teacher, the father of two daughters, and a deacon at his Southern Baptist church. These are identities that media narratives depict as culprits for Trump’s ascension: White, male, Christian, middle-class, husband, father. He’s the token “white evangelical” that the media depicts as red-state reprobates.

But there is more to Steve. Steve serves the homeless, sees diversity as a pillar of God’s creation, and helped an Iraqi refugee family resettle in his own hometown. I daresay he cares more about justice in real life than those who preen about it on Twitter.

Steve voted for Trump, and will again. Why? For one, he thinks abortion is America’s Holocaust, and will not support any party that supports abortion on demand. Whatever Trump’s eccentricities are, Steve won’t vote for a progressive, even if the media tells him that to do so would save America and its institutions. For Steve, saving abstractions like “America” and its “institutions” can make America a lot less worthy of survival if abortion on demand continues apace. To the average religious conservative, in fact, saving America means saving it from the scourge of abortion.

Those are the stakes that many religious conservatives live with. My advice to progressives is that, if they want religious conservatives to let go of their devotion to the Republican Party’s platform, progressives should weaken their commitment to unfettered abortion access. The same goes for their support for gender fluidity, and opposition to any person or institution that does not affirm such things as gay marriage. Until that happens, complaining about “white evangelicalism” and ascribing to it every imaginable authoritarian impulse will be like shouting into a void; no one will listen.

Also, in Steve’s thinking, the mainstream media is so blinded by its anti-Trump rage that it has seriously impaired its credibility. This is not #FakeNews conspiracy-peddling, but a real belief that the media’s trustworthiness has collapsed under its derangement. Trump criticism becomes ignorable once every action of Trump is subject to criticism.

Steve does not think President Trump is a Christian. He’s embarrassed by Trump’s moral failings and thinks he’s a terrible model for his daughters. But is this the stereotypical “white evangelical” responsible for America’s downfall, who wants to revive racism and drive immigrants out of this country? No.

It’s a really good piece. Walker says he doesn’t write to justify voting for Trump, but only to explain that the factors going into a Trump vote from Evangelicals are a lot more complicated than the simplistic portrait of the media. And note well, he criticizes fellow Evangelicals who talk and think about Trump as if he were a good and admirable person, even a believer in Christ.

As regular readers know, I come down more on the side of Walker than French, though I wouldn’t post French’s column if I didn’t think he had important things to say.

I was talking politics the other day with a close friend, a pro-life Christian who is a Bernie Sanders supporter. He doesn’t like Sanders’s views on abortion, but he is planning to vote for Sanders in the Louisiana Democratic primary (though he’s an Independent) for other reasons. I disagree with his prudential reasoning, but I recognize it as exactly that: as a thoughtful voter trying to figure out the best way to use his vote when all of the available candidates have what are to him serious lacunae in their positions. In other words, I think he’s simply wrong, not a bad person, or an accomplice to baby-killing, or anything like that. Similarly, I hope he realizes that if I vote for Trump this fall, I’m doing so as the least bad of available options, based on weighing prudentially the things I care about politically.

It’s not sexy to say it, but I don’t hate people who vote for Trump, I don’t hate people who vote against Trump, I don’t hate people who vote for Sanders, or anybody. I don’t believe we are facing a Twilight Of The Gods showdown between Good and Evil. I believe we are facing a particularly vivid, emotionally charged version of the usual choice between deeply flawed candidates. Maybe it’s just me, but I can’t get worked up into spiting the Other, because if I put myself in their shoes, I can see why they would vote as they do, even if I think they’re wrong. Is this lukewarmness?

OK, it’s lukewarmness. But politics are not my god, so I don’t care.