I almost didn’t click the New York Times Opinion headline “Is Trump a Blessing or Curse for Religious Conservatives?” But since it was by “OpEd Contributors” rather than the Editorial Board (from which I would have expected disingenuous concern trolling had they adopted such a headline), I clicked, and found Ross Douthat, a Never-Trumper, interviewing Never-Trumper David French (Evangelical/Calvinist) and Trump Supporter John Zmirak (a Crisis Magazine type Catholic). It is outstanding and well worth using one of your free looks at New York Times pieces should you not be a subscriber.
The views of French and Zmirak are starkly opposed to one another, but the disagreement remains polite. Zmirak (whose articles at Crisis were sometimes off-putting when I followed Crisis) skillfully and unexpectedly pushes some of my buttons:
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.
Well, yes, as a matter of fact, I was scandalized. And embittered. That is closely related to why I declared my break with the GOP, and why Ted Cruz turned my stomach and earned my hostility with his calculated provocation of folks at an In Defense of Christians conference.
Zmirak almost had me with the seductive “skeptical prudence” until French weighed back in:
Douthat: So when we see polls showing a wild swing between the 1990s and the present in the share of evangelicals who think character matters in a politician, John, you think evangelicals are actually coming around to a more sensible view than they held in the Clinton era?
Zmirak: Yes. Just as evangelicals are coming around to using Natural Law (philosophical) arguments — rather than biblical proof-texts for their political positions, I think they are moving closer to the skeptical prudence that always marked Catholic, Lutheran and Anglican political thinking. Read what the Family Research Council, or National Organization for Marriage, publish on social issues. They’re not thumping the Bible. They’re citing Cicero and Aristotle.
French: I’m sorry, but the transformation of the evangelical public from the American segment most willing to hold leaders to a high moral standard to the segment now least likely smacks of pure, primitive partisanship, not high theological principle. Evangelicals aren’t coming around to using Natural Law at all. It’s pure instrumentalism. They’ve made an alliance of convenience. They haven’t made some sort of thoughtful intellectual shift.
The interview goes beyond political ramifications and also discusses such things as how Trump relates to the surge of “nones.” There, too, there’s a point-counterpoint that is skillful and make some sorting out and critical analysis necessary to decide.
Here’s my sorting: Zmirak is riding an a wave of kept promises by Trump. I consider that wave welcome, but entirely unexpected.
Before November 8, 2016, I had no reason to expect Trump, a man of extraordinarily base character and a world-class bullshitter, to keep a single promise to Christian supporters. All I felt fairly confident of was that on religious freedom, his fickleness would be preferable to Hillary’s hostility to orthodox Christians who want to live openly as such. But that one issue was not sufficient to outweigh what has proven to be epic narcissism (I knew it was severe narcissism, possibly sociopathy, but events have proven it worse than I feared) that drives him to irrational and counter-productive behavior.
Zmirak has at least one more notable comment:
I have this from pastors who met with Trump for many hours: He genuinely listens to them. They’re the kind of people most playboys from Queens never encounter. He connected with some of them personally. He saw their concern for his soul. And he took and takes their concerns seriously.
Trump sees that the church is a big part of what made America great, and he sees that the state persecution that President Obama began hurts the country. I hope that he sees more, sees Christ as his savior. But in his role as Caesar, protecting our rights is quite enough.
If I had known this from credible sources before the election, it would have impressed me somewhat that narcissist Trump is actually capable of listening for longer than it takes to compose a Tweet. But such was the sycophancy on display from Trump-friendly pastors that it would have been hard to persuade me that such a report was credible.
So in the end, though I’m closer kin to Zmirak religiously than to French, I’m with the latter, for reasons this can serve to summarize:
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.
Where Christians once demanded honesty, they rationalized lies. Where Christians once sought evidence of ideological consistency, they accepted incoherence.
Many of us, however, looked at these accommodations and asked a simple question. Where is your faith? Christians were acting as if not just the nation — but the church itself — was in peril based on the outcome of a single election. Yet is God not sovereign over all the nations, including our own? Doesn’t scripture repeatedly condemn the exact kinds of moral compromises that so many Christians made? Don’t we believe those scriptures?
There is nothing more dangerous to the church than a lack of faith. I don’t at all mind it when Christians cheer the good things that Donald Trump has done. I join them. I do mind when they rationalize and excuse bad acts out of a completely misguided and faithless sense of cultural and political necessity.
It is possible that in 20 years, I’ll say “God in his providence used this most improbable Caesar to good end,” but I don’t think I’ll ever regret my write-in vote, which was based on what I knew then. That God can use evil men, or turn evil to good, never justifies voting for evil men or evil policies.
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