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No, Eric Metaxas Is Not A Proto-Nazi

Mark Oppenheimer's outrageous smear of a pro-Trump Evangelical

A number of conservative Christians have been deeply distressed by Evangelical superstar Eric Metaxas’s enthusiastic endorsement of Donald Trump. Here’s an example of Eric stating his point of view:

Donald Trump’s rise is certainly a symptom of our fading virtue and faith, but ironically he may well be our only hope for finding our way back to bolder expressions of them. The eerie waxworks automaton formerly known as Hillary Rodham Clinton will no doubt double down on President Obama’s two-term repulsion to Constitutional government, in which unutterably sad case we simply wouldn’t ever be able to claw our way back up the abyss into which we shall have been thrust. If two more anti-Constitutionalist judges are shoehorned onto the Supreme Court we will have a Constitutional crisis — actually a cataclysm — in which the last Justices of that hoary institution will take that thing once described by a Constitutionalist Executive as the “government of the people, by the people, for the people” and place it into a coffin gaily decorated with smiley face and rainbow stickers.

I think Eric is wrong about this, very wrong. Well, I think he is right to say that Donald Trump’s emergence is a sign of our decline, and I think he is right to identify Hillary Clinton as an enemy of certain First Amendment freedoms. Where he goes wrong, in my view, is in vastly overstating the nature of the threat from a Clinton presidency, and vastly understating of the threat from a Trump presidency. As a conservative Christian, I find myself unable to choose between either revolting candidate, but I have at least several very serious Christian friends who have told me they’re pulling the lever for Trump out of a hope, however slim, that he will do less damage than Clinton to religious liberty. I think this is a very slim hope, but it’s better than the certainty that Clinton will be a disaster. I can understand Christians voting for Trump in fear, trembling, and desperation, but I can’t understand them being enthusiastic about it.

I have privately told Eric some version of this on several occasions, and have told him that I’ve heard from quite a few of his Evangelical admirers who tell me that he is dramatically hurting his credibility with his full-throated Trump endorsements. We are old friends, and this is the kind of thing old friends say to each other. I love Eric — I really do — and know that he is no different today than he was when he was a struggling writer. True fact: I decided at one point in 2000 that I needed to tell Eric that it was time to quit driving himself crazy trying to launch a writing career, and get a normal job. Yes, you’re a fantastic writer, I planned to say, but you’re hoping for lightning to strike, and it just isn’t going to happen.

I never worked up the courage to stomp on Eric’s dream. Thank God for it! Such is the quality of my professional advice that had I said those things, and had he listened to me and done as I advised, the world would have been denied Bonhoeffer and all the other good work he has done. Maybe I’m wrong in what I’ve said to Eric about his enthusiastic public backing of Trump. I don’t think so, but it’s possible.

Anyway, my judgment is that my old friend is seriously wrong about Trump, and seriously wrong to be such an enthusiastic advocate of the man, especially as a Christian public intellectual. Again, I’ve said this to him privately on more than one occasion. Eric’s a big boy; he can take criticism. And certainly when a public intellectual takes a controversial position on a controversial topic, he’s got to expect to take a lot of it. That’s fair.

Now, having said all that, I was deeply shocked by the smear job Mark Oppenheimer did on Eric over Eric’s Trumpism. Oppenheimer notes that there has been a split between Jewish conservatives and some Christian conservatives (Evangelicals) on Trump, which is true:

This split between Jewish and Christian conservatives is troubling, not because I am rooting for conservative unity—as a liberal, I’m not—but because of what it says about Christians’ real agenda [Note: Not “these Christians” but “Christians,” full stop. — RD] when it comes to Jewish interests. Despite serious Jewish misgivings about Trump, and despite the ominous historical parallels his campaign conjures, his status as the not-Hillary is what really matters.

The alt-right couldn’t have said it better: Here’s this Oppenheimer, a liberal Jews, implying to Christians that if they don’t put Jewish interests ahead of their own interests, they are anti-Semites, or at least fellow travelers of anti-Semites.

Consider what Oppenheimer’s logic would mean if it were used by a pro-Trump conservative Christian. Indulge me for a moment as I lay out some important background to the point I want to make.

Consider that last year, in a Time magazine essay, Oppenheimer argued that post-Obergefell — a decision he cheered for — it is time for churches and religious organizations to have their tax-exempt status removed. To be fair, he wasn’t saying only conservative religious institutions, but all of them. It’s a principled argument. But many, many churches and religious charities operate on such a slim financial margin that losing tax exemption would sink them. Nobody seriously expects the Hillary Clinton administration to follow Oppenheimer’s advice and strip tax exemption from all religious institutions, but the clear trajectory of federal government action since Obergefell, and HRC’s militant and unambiguous support for expanding gay rights, makes it entirely reasonable to believe that a Clinton White House would order the IRS to revoke tax-exempt status of churches, religious colleges, and other religious organizations that do not embrace full gay civil rights. In other words, they would be Bob Jones’d.

Here is an excerpt from the Hillary Clinton campaign website’s LGBT page:

  • Fight for full federal equality for LGBT Americans. Hillary will work with Congress to pass the Equality Act, continue President Obama’s LGBT equality executive actions, and support efforts underway in the courts to protect people from discrimination on the basis of gender identity and sexual orientation in every aspect of public life.

In every aspect of public life. This likely means ending the tax exemption for “anti-LGBT” institutions. It likely means supporting measures like California’s odious SB1146, which, if signed into law, will force scores of Christian institutions of higher education in the state to violate their own religious convictions or close their doors. The bill would do this by banning the use of Cal Grants — state-funded student aid — at schools that discriminate against LGBTs in the state’s eyes. This would disproportionately affect poor and minority students. But then, as so often is the case with the Left, some minorities are more important than others.

And to liberal Jews, advancing gay rights matters more than protecting the religious liberty of Orthodox Jews. In an important essay in the Jewish magazine Mosaic, law professor David Bernstein argues that liberals have made an illiberal pseudo-religion of anti-discrimination, one that directly targets traditionalist Jews. excerpt:

Traditional Judaism, after all, depends entirely on discriminating in the original sense of distinguishing: between holy and profane, Sabbath and weekday, man and woman, Jews and others. Such discriminations cannot be reworked without transforming classical Judaism into something unrecognizable to many Jews. Will Jewish institutions be able to withstand today’s freewheeling assault on religious liberty? Or will the enforcers of state-mandated “non-discrimination” not rest easy until they complete their Orwellian campaign of positive discrimination against every last dissenter from the progressive line?

Also by way of background, Oppenheimer identifies himself as a liberal. Not only is Oppenheimer ardently pro-gay, he has also identified as pro-choice. You may have seen clips of Hillary’s speech to Planned Parenthood in which she said her campaign “belongs to” them, America’s top abortionists.

None of this is surprising for a liberal Jew. Liberal Jews are among the biggest supporters, as a group, of abortion rights. According to a 2012 study, 95 percent of Jewish Democrats and 77 percent of Jewish Republicans support full abortion rights. The Anti-Defamation League cheers pro-choice victories in court, as if abortion rights had a thing to do with the vital work of fighting anti-Semitism. American Jews have shown overwhelming support for gay marriage. Generally speaking, to be a Jewish American is to support gay rights and abortion rights.

So, with all that in mind, think about what a pro-Trump conservative Christian could do with Oppenheimer’s logic: Consider what this says about Jews’ real agenda when it comes to Christian interests: Despite serious Christian misgivings about Hillary, and despite the ominous threat to unborn children and the rights of traditional Christians and their institutions’ liberty, her status as the not-Trump is what really matters. 

What Oppenheimer really says in that paragraph, and in his entire column, is that Christians like Metaxas are prepared to throw Jews under the bus to keep Hillary Clinton from being elected president. If that is true, then it is equally true that Jews like Oppenheimer are prepared to throw orthodox Christians under the bus to keep Trump from being elected president. By framing the stakes of the election in this way, Oppenheimer legitimates alt-right anti-Semites who say that Jews don’t care what happens to Christians, and that opposition to Jewish political goals is going to be denounced as de facto anti-Semitic.

In fact, the situation is worse from the Christian side than from the Jewish side. More from Oppenheimer’s piece:

And finally I got to the Jewish question. I asked what Metaxas would say to Jews, like me, who worry about the mob mentality at Trump’s rallies? Or the online anti-Semitism of many of his followers? Or the tweet from Trump’s campaign of  Clinton against the star of David, and a background of dollars? Metaxas said I was simply misunderstanding.

“You are the kind of a person least likely on planet earth to understand how he’s communicating,” Metaxas said. “If this is a guy whose daughter married a Jew and became Jewish, he has a history—there is no way you can get around that. Any of us who are from New York are culturally Jewish. He didn’t go to Yale or work for the Times—he is in his own cultural universe. You have to understand who he is really. You put these quotes in a paper, and all the intellectuals go clucking. But that is unfair.”

Metaxas said that he would “never give no credence” to Jews’ concerns. “As the author of Bonhoeffer, I was the first one thinking, ‘Is this somebody in the mold of Hitler?’” he said. “Because I wrote the book on Bonhoeffer, I was thinking about this Nietzschian will to power—if you worship power like Hitler did, this is a direction you can go. Since then, I have come to think on some level that is true of Trump, but it isn’t true to the extent that we should be fearful of … I get the parallels, but a lot of this is emotional. I don’t think Americans would put up for that. I think we are very different as a nation than Germany was.”

I wondered if anything would turn Metaxas against Trump. What if Trump was caught on tape talking about the kikes or Christ-killer? “Would you withdraw your support from him?” I asked.

“Hell yes!” Metaxas said. But such an idea was absurd, Metaxas said. “I can’t conceive of it. His grandchildren are Jewish, his son is Jewish. It becomes—to ask that question is silly.”

So, Oppenheimer drops the H-bomb — Hitler — on Metaxas. To be fair, it is by no means unjust to put hard questions to the author of Bonhoeffer about the parallels many people see in the rise of Hitler and the rise of Trump. Personally, I don’t think Trump is anti-Semitic at all, but I also think he doesn’t mind one bit getting the support of open anti-Semites from the alt-right. This is one of the things that bothers me most about him, and I believe it ought to bother Eric a lot more than it does. I think he is far too quick to explain away Trump’s involvement with anti-Semites. I think this criticism of Eric by Oppenheimer is tough but fair:

In trying to explain away the signs that Trump has fascist tendencies, Metaxas—who, remember, thinks himself a historian—has, without realizing what he’s done, given a catalogue of the naïve ways that people have explained away budding fascist movements. Either the movement is just shtick; or mere politicking (he’s not “genuinely xenophobic or bigoted”); or the rantings of the harmless crazy uncle; or simple populism, not comprehensible by the elites. And if it is scary, it’s not that scary, because saner forces will keep it in check.

I don’t think Trump is Hitler. Not in the least. But what he represents is bad enough on its own. We don’t have to resort to the most extreme historical analogy to object to Trump and Trumpism. But Oppenheimer does, and he goes off the rails:

But there is something sinister in Metaxas’s rationalization. In giving Jews a privileged place—he would, he promises, ditch Trump if Trump ever said anything totally, irrefutably anti-Semitic—Metaxas has in fact insulted us. Jews know that demagogues who demonize immigrants and the disabled cannot, to put it mildly, be counted on to look out for the Jews. Fascist tendencies don’t always start with the Jews, but they end with us. That’s true even if their spokesperson is, as in this case, a father to Jews, a grandfather to Jews, and, by virtue of being from New York, “culturally Jewish.” What Metaxas seems to mean by “culturally Jewish” is, in the case of Trump, hard to say. That he’s brusque? That he drives a hard bargain? Trump is culturally Jewish only if you believe the worst in Jewish stereotypes.

And so, we go from “Eric Metaxas is dangerously naive about Donald Trump” — something I think is true — to “Eric Metaxas is an anti-Semite.” And that is not only thoroughly untrue, it is a vicious, disgusting slander. I know and like Mark Oppenheimer, but I find this smear to be entirely beneath him. He makes it pissily personal here (emphasis mine):

As the host of Socrates in the City, a New York speaker series that mostly features conservative men talking about the big questions of life, Metaxas has hosted live discussions with, in addition to Christian usual suspects like Mike Huckabee, religious Jews like physicist Gerald Schroeder and Rabbi Jonathan Sacks. And as a New Yorker, as a Yalie, as a media guy, Metaxas lives and works with Jews all the time.

Yet Metaxas came out for Trump last month, and has spoken widely of his support since. Metaxas’s cultivated persona—pocket squares are involved—and his demonstrated interest in the well-lived life make him an oddity as a Trump supporter, doubly odd because of his familiarity with Jews. But while most of the Jews I know—even the Republicans—are terrified by Trump, I was curious that, in interviews, Metaxas, in effect a historian of fascism, didn’t seem to perceive a conflict between his Jew-friendliness and his Trump support.

Look, I have known Eric since he was a virtual nobody, and he has always dressed this way. It’s who he is. He’s a dapper, cosmopolitan guy. Oppenheimer’s tarring him as some kind of phony because of his sartorial tastes is just cheap. Besides, the clothes you wear say nothing about your politics. Roger Stone is one of the nattiest dressers in Manhattan, and he’s a hardcore, mischief-making Trumpkin. Oppenheimer’s piece says to me that he sees Eric Metaxas’s support for Trump as a betrayal of his intellectual class. After all, he is, like Oppenheimer, a graduate of Yale and someone who moves within the Manhattan cultural orbit. He is not supposed to endorse someone like Trump. But he has, and that is why this is so personal.

Read the whole thing. Or rather, don’t. It’s a morally shabby piece of writing, one that took an important, fair, and necessary point — that the way certain Christian conservative intellectuals and opinion leaders are supporting Trump is troubling — and turned it into an occasion to denounce a good and decent man, one who doesn’t have even the slightest bit of anti-Semitism in him. In so doing, Oppenheimer has unwittingly made a case that can be seen as backing Christians support of Trump, and regarding Jewish opposition to this as anti-Christian.

At the risk of overexplaining myself, let me make it clear that I am with Oppenheimer in sharing his confusion and frustration that the author of Bonhoeffer is so enthusiastic in his support of Trump. In fact, I may be even feel it more acutely than Oppenheimer because I know how profoundly good Eric is. On the other hand, I recognize that Eric’s steeping himself in the history of the rise of Nazi Germany, and what the Nazis did to churches that refused to obey the dictates of the state, arguably makes him more aware than Oppenheimer of the dangers posed by Hillary Clinton and the militantly secularist Democrats.

The Law of Merited Impossibility — an epistemological construct governing the way the liberal overclass frames the clash between gay rights and religious liberty, as if to say, “What you Christians fear will never happen, and when it does, you bigots will deserve it” — is exactly what this is about. When liberals wanted gay marriage, they denied that it would have any impact whatsoever on religious liberty and the rights of religious traditionalists opposed to same-sex marriage. Now that they have what they want, and we see that in fact LGBT rights clash directly with religious liberty, and that Christians (as well as Muslims and traditional Jews) are going to lose and lose and lose, we are told that we bigots have it coming. That if we would just give up our bigotry, they would leave us alone.

This is shockingly illiberal. Liberals — even religiously observant liberals like Mark Oppenheimer — are so enamored of egalitarianism that they don’t grasp the damage they are doing to religious dissenters, and to religious liberty, a foundational principle of the United States. Eric Metaxas does see this, and he is right to see it, because it is true. 

He believes that electing a flawed man like Donald Trump is a better bet than voting for Hillary Clinton, because we don’t know what Trump is going to do on religious liberty, but we do have a very good idea what Clinton will do — and it’s bad. That is the reasoning that my Christian friends who are voting for Trump offer to justify their votes. I do not share it, but I can respect it.

Where I differ with Eric and conservative Christians like him is in their willingness to overlook Trump’s massive character flaws out of fear of Hillary, and what Trump’s emotionally unstable personality would mean for national security. I agree with some of what Trump is said to stand for — non-interventionism abroad (though I don’t think he means it), and immigration restriction (though I hate the way he frames it), but I stand with the Southern Baptist leader Russell Moore on this:

Jesus taught his disciples to “count the cost” of following him. We should know, he said, where we’re going and what we’re leaving behind. We should also count the cost of following Donald Trump. To do so would mean that we’ve decided to join the other side of the culture war, that image and celebrity and money and power and social Darwinist “winning” trump the conservation of moral principles and a just society. We ought to listen, to get past the boisterous confidence and the television lights and the waving arms and hear just whose speech we’re applauding.

To support Trump, especially to support him with the enthusiasm my friend Eric shows, requires far too much of Christians, in my view. The reason the Trump vs. Clinton contest is so agonizing for many conservative Christians is that we know that if Clinton wins, we are going to suffer serious damage, likely for decades (if Democrats win the Senate and she gets to put liberals on the Supreme Court, and in federal judgeships). But we also know that Donald Trump is a bad man who we would never, ever support if not for fear of what a Clinton presidency would mean for us. Speaking only for myself, I cannot vote for either one. I suppose something might change between now and November, but if I do find myself pulling the lever for either candidate, I will be disgusted with myself, and will feel soiled — more so than the day I, a conservative, voted for the crook Edwin W. Edwards to keep the neo-Nazi David Duke from being elected governor of Louisiana.

Here’s the bottom line: Mark Oppenheimer looks at Trump and asks, “Is he good for the Jews?”, and answers, “Hell no!” Fair enough. But Eric Metaxas looks at Hillary Clinton and asks, “Is she good for the Christians?” and answers, “Hell no!” That too is a legitimate judgment. Is Oppenheimer suggesting that Jews have the right to vote for their own perceived interests, but Christians don’t have the right to vote for their own perceived interests? Surely not, because if that were true, it would embody the worst in Jewish stereotypes.

(Now I have to spend the rest of the day spiking anti-Semitic comments on this blog from alt-rightists. I’ll warn you right now: if you say anything anti-Semitic in your comment, I will send it to spam without even thinking twice about it.)