This is a two-part essay. The first concerns several of the weaker responses to Mark Galli’s recent editorial at Christianity Today calling for President Trump’s impeachment. The latter concerns two of the better critiques and, in particular, one argumentative thread helpfully introduced by Andrew Walker that I want to pull on a bit harder.
Christianity Today and Its Critics
You’ve probably heard the story of the time Carl F. H. Henry, a founder and editor of Christianity Today,met the great Swiss Reformed theologian Karl Barth. If you haven’t, here is Henry’s recounting of the meeting where he asked the famous theologian a question regarding the historicity of Jesus’s resurrection:
“The question, Dr. Barth, concerns the historical factuality of the resurrection of Jesus.” I pointed to the press table and noted the presence of leading religion editors or reporters representing United Press, Religious News Service, Washington Post, Washington Star and other media. If these journalists had their present duties in the time of Jesus, I asked, was the resurrection of such a nature that covering some aspect of it would have fallen into their area of responsibility? “Was it news,” I asked, “in the sense that the man in the street understands news?”
Barth became angry. Pointing at me, and recalling my identification, he asked: “Did you say Christianity Today or Christianity Yesterday?” The audience—largely nonevangelical professors and clergy—roared with delight. When countered unexpectedly in this way, one often reaches for a Scripture verse. So I replied, assuredly out of biblical context, “Yesterday, today and forever.”
That is one response to Christianity Today and it is, clearly, a response that is quite old: a kind of intellectual superiority, a winking glance at one’s allies as if to say “look at these silly rubes.” It is not the only response to the intellectual project of Christianity Today, however.
If you have spent any length of time in broader American conservative Protestantism, you have heard someone make the tired joke in which the magazine is referred to as “Christianity Astray,” as if to say the magazine is not actually run by unsophisticated fundamentalists, but by closeted progressives.
Both responses are tired and annoying. Both are quite common. And both continue to be seen, most recently in response to Mark Galli’s bold (if flawed) call for the impeachment of President Trump.
Bad Responses to Galli’s Editorial
Peter Leithart, writing in First Things and echoing the Barthian attack on the magazine, dings the magazine for being insufficiently sophisticated in its political theology and for failing to reckon with Romans 13 in their handling of the Trump presidency. This point is not altogether wrong, but unfortunately it is not where he stopped.
Leithart then goes on to say, “There are times when you have to oppose something just because you shouldn’t give the satisfaction of victory to its supporters.” In other words: “Support Trump to own the libs.” Given that that is his argument, I struggle to understand how Dr. Leithart has any room whatever for lecturing Galli about intellectual sophistication.
That said, let’s take that line seriously for a moment: The case for supporting Trump is that the decline of Christianity in the west simply cannot be allowed under any circumstances and, therefore, any political alliance that preserves Christianity in the west is good. Unfortunately, such an argument is utterly disconnected from any Christian account of political conduct itself. To take this line is, indeed, to detach political ends from political means and to reduce political activism to a series of alliances with increasingly dubious ‘friends’ that will help us defeat our enemies. That’s how you end up with alleged social conservatives enthusiastically supporting a thrice-married man who has been accused of sexual assault by many women and whose disdain for non-whites has been a consistent theme of both his campaign and his presidency. But none of that matters: Trump is our bully to keep us safe from the other bullies.
There are people who have argued for this sort of approach to politics in the past, of course. Two German philosophers come to mind: One of them died in an asylum. The other was a Nazi. If you want to make the case for reluctantly voting for Trump, then make it. But make an argument. Triggering libs isn’t a political theory, or at least not a political theory that can be sustained for any appreciable length of time.
In considering the political ends we pursue, we must also consider the means by which we pursue those ends. A Christian account of reality will recognize other dangers far greater than political defeat or even cultural dhimmitude, after all. We will return to this line of Trumpist justification later but I wanted to flag this response by the usually excellent Dr. Leithart as an example of how deep the Trumpist rot really goes and how perversely it has distorted our accounting of the political sphere.
Other responses are reflective of the “Christianity Astray,” attack in which CT is seen as a vehicle of closeted progressivism out of touch with the conservatism of its co-religionists. Both Carl Trueman, also in First Things, and my friend Matthew Schmitz, in the New York Post, attacked the magazine for being elitist and too far removed from its evangelical roots to accurately represent the movement. Indeed, Schmitz bizarrely suggests that CT has ceased to be evangelical.
As with Dr. Leithart’s attack, it is difficult to know how seriously one should take the criticisms. Trueman is a Cambridge-educated Aberdeen PhD who teaches at Grove City College. Schmitz is a Princeton-educated editor at a Catholic magazine based in Manhattan. And Trump, himself, of course has palled around with social elites for his entire adult life and, in terms of personal wealth, is obviously an elite. And somehow in all this Mark Galli is the elitist?
That either Trueman or Schmitz would speak for the evangelical masses while the former pastor turned magazine editor working out of the western suburbs of Chicago is somehow an elitist seems to strain the meaning of ‘elite’ past its breaking point.
Indeed, I think it is high time that we retire ‘elitist’ as a political epithet as it is almost always used in deeply misleading ways that introduce new and unnecessary complexities to the argument.
CT and the Evangelical Center
Let us now turn to more intellectually satisfying matters. There is a more general point to be made about CT‘s relationship to broader evangelicalism. To suggest, as Schmitz does, that CT ever spoke for the mainstream of evangelicalism is, at best, highly simplistic and may simply be inaccurate depending on how you define that troublesome term ‘evangelicalism.’
To suggest that the folks at CT have ceased to be evangelical however, which Matt also does, is absurd. The mid-century evangelicalism represented by CT is and always has been a dissident voice relative to much conservative Protestantism in America. Indeed, it was started by Billy Graham and Henry in large part as an attempt to articulate a form of Protestantism more outward focused than fundamentalism and more faithful to classical orthodoxy than mainline Protestantism. Thus CT has always been something of a centrist movement which often means it is a movement without an obvious constituency since it positions itself between and at odds with two far larger movements. In that respect, Galli’s column is deeply in line with the mission and vision of CT since its earliest days.
This positioning may or may not be a good thing—I tend to think it is a mistake to cling to it today given that mainline Protestantism is, in many places, no longer recognizably Christian and fundamentalism is increasingly joined at the hip with the alt-right which is to say that they are also no longer recognizably Christian.
You can position yourself as a centrist when Carl McIntire and Francis Schaeffer are to your right and the Niebuhrs are to your left. But I’m not sure there is a “center” that exists between Pulpit and Pen and Nadia Bolz-Weber. In any case, hopefully we can set aside the question of CT‘s “elite” status or of the degree to which it is representative of American evangelicalism. Both are dead ends.
Trump and the Ten Commandments
Jacobs is concerned that the editorial makes it functionally impossible for CT to actually be the centrist voice it aspires to be within American evangelicalism. Given that Galli’s editorial presupposes the possibility of persuading others, even now, it is hard to argue with Jacobs.
If your chief objection to Trump is that the evangelical alliance with him is destructive to our Christian witness, you are presupposing that people are still persuadable otherwise. But if people are, in fact, still persuadable is that not an argument for a more prudential handling of the question, a handling that is not as stark as Galli’s editorial? I am not sure I know how to answer that, but Jacobs’ point is strong, particularly given the specifics of Galli’s argument which does, as Trueman rightly notes, seem to elevate any kind of support for Trump to the level of sin. To make that move while also trying to position oneself to persuade others is to adopt a strangely muddled rhetorical strategy.
Walker’s criticism, meanwhile, is something that I actually see as a feature rather than a bug, but it is worth addressing:
A lot of chatter on the @CTmagazine editorial. Mine is more an ethics query than direct criticism: Appealing to the Ten Commandments as grounds for impeachment would mean implicating many presidents for impeachment. Lying violates the 9th. What about abortion, violating the 6th?
— Andrew T. Walker (@andrewtwalk) December 20, 2019
In other words, if the case for impeachment is directly tied to Trump’s violation of the Ten Commandments—which is not quite what Galli is arguing though he makes his argument in such a way that I can see where Walker is coming from—then does it not follow that most American presidents are impeachable? Certainly the case for impeaching President Clinton seems obvious enough.
But depending on what you think of President Bush’s relative knowledge of Iraq’s weapon situation on the dawn of the Iraqi war, you might argue that Bush lied to the nation about Iraq in order to justify the war, which would be a violation of the ninth commandment and, therefore, would render him impeachable. Likewise, depending on how you read the just war debate, you could argue that both Presidents Bush and Obama violated the sixth commandment by killing unjustly. You could also hit Obama on the sixth commandment over his support for abortion. Similarly President Reagan could be rendered impeachable depending on how you parse the Iran-Contra Affair.
All of those cases would require making and developing an argument, to be clear. I’m not saying any are clear cut. But they are questions that Galli’s column understandably raises. And if I’m understanding Andrew, he is running this as a reductio on Galli’s whole piece: If Galli’s principle for impeachment is correct, then every president is impeachable, but you can’t possibly think that because impeaching every president would effectively destroy the executive branch so you need to rework your critique.
There are two points worth raising in response to Walker’s reasonable concern.
First, the Ten Commandments are central to traditional Protestant political theology. Indeed, the Reformed political theorist Johannes Althusius says that you destroy all possibility of symbiotic human community if you remove the Ten Commandments from public life. (In as much as many of our arguments about symbiotic communal life today depend on structuring our economy in such ways that human selfishness is ingeniously twisted to promote mutual material prosperity, I think Althusius is almost certainly correct.)
Likewise, many early Protestants, Melanchthon included, would argue that the Ten Commandments are simply a distillation of the Natural Law and so to remove the Ten Commandments from all consideration in public life is to render public life lawless; it is to make the norms of public life equivalent to the wishes of the powerful, who have the ability to wield the power of government to their own ends and who, apart from the law, have no mechanism to limit their power. This, of course, is an echo of Augustine’s much-cited line when he says that kingdoms without justice are but little robberies. Given the state of our republic, I, once again, find this line of thought highly persuasive. Therefore, any attempts to push the Ten Commandments to the center of Protestant political thought is quite welcome, for it is an attempt to return Protestantism to its historical roots.
Second, by foregrounding the Ten Commandments in the way he does, Galli also reframes the conversation about public morality in a helpful way. Critics might object, reasonably, that not all sins are crimes. ‘Sin’ refers to a violation of some kind of religious morality. ‘Crimes’ are violations of civil law. So why are we holding up a religious standard of law as being applicable to public life? Is violating one of the Ten Commandments now a crime? We would not haul a man before the magistrate for having impure thoughts, for example, nor would we haul our child before the magistrate if they lied to us about how much candy they ate after dinner, though both of those are violations of different commandments.
The objection is reasonable, but we need to be careful in how we make it. The sin-crime distinction is not actually a distinction between entirely separate standards of morality. If we allow that ‘sin’ is defined by a ‘religious’ set of moral norms and ‘crimes’ are defined by an entirely non-religious standard then we have already left the tradition of much Christian political thought. Indeed, we have fallen into the very error Althusius and others warned us about. If the measure by which we call something a crime is altogether separate from the content of the moral law, then ‘crimes’ are definable only according to the arbitrary rules set by the government. To make that move is to render the public square lawless.
Thus the distinction between sins and crimes is not a distinction between competing moral standards, but a distinction between jurisdictions. Here a careful understanding of the Two Kingdoms as taught by classical Protestantism is helpful. Sin is a category of moral failing that renders us guilty before God, worthy of his judgment. We are absolved through the grace of God offered to us in the Gospel and made available to us through Christ’s death and resurrection. A “crime” is, likewise, a category of moral failing so judged by the same moral standard that we use in defining ‘sin.’ But a “crime” is a sort of moral failing that publicly disrupts the peace of society and so is subject to the jurisdiction of the government.
The magistrate’s responsibility is to preserve the peace of society through protecting the good and punishing the bad. So while I might sin in my inner life through impure thoughts, coveting, or some other vice, these things are not crimes, properly speaking, because they are strictly internal; if these thoughts are externalized in my conduct then they could become subject to civil law.
That said, even here we ought to move carefully: There are public offenses that disrupt the peace of society but which are imprudent to legally define as crimes—consider the aforementioned case of the dishonest child. Certainly the child has sinned and their sin will disrupt the life of the home. But the only way to make that sin into a legally punishable crime would be to grant the state a level of power over the home that is certain to be abused in ways that violate the life of the family and the home.
Even so, “peace,” “good,” and “bad,” are all terms that need definition and the source for that definition is God’s moral law. Thus even our public life is governed by the norms of the Ten Commandments—and traditionally Protestants would argue that our public life is governed by the entirety of the ten commandments, not merely the second table, as Eric Hutchinson noted in a recent essay in Ad Fontes.
This is all going a good deal beyond Galli’s primary point, of course. But it is worth reflecting on how exactly the Ten Commandments relate to our public life.
Our forefathers in the faith would insist that a) the Ten Commandments supply the moral content that is the basis of our laws, and b) this means that the magistrate can be judged on the basis of his adherence to the Ten Commandments.
Given that, I’m not sure Andrew’s reductio entirely works. It works, like Jacobs’ argument, in a prudential way—if we simply start impeaching every president then we do not have a stable nation. As stability is desirable as a public good, we should not impeach every president. Therefore we should more slowly in how we apply some of these ideas.
But I do not think Walker’s objection works as a principled refutation of Galli’s argument, for what it ultimately amounts to is a political version of the kind of argument you could raise in virtually any arena where we begin taking seriously the demands of God’s law as it pertains to our life in this world: “You can’t possibly expect every couple to be monogamous and faithful,” “you can’t possibly expect me to give away that much money,” or “you can’t possibly expect me to forgive my enemy.”
The objection is that Christian morality is radically disruptive of how we ordinarily live our lives and, therefore, deeply inconvenient and unrealistic. So it is. But it is true. And that settles the matter, doesn’t it? There is and always must be a place for prudence, for faithfulness in the world is difficult and complicated. But we must never flinch when confronted with the full weight of God’s call to his people. “He willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance,” right?
Wanting to hold our governing officials accountable according to the morality of the Ten Commandments is, therefore, good. Indeed, I do not see any other way of Christianly evaluating our political class. Working out the particular ways in which they are held accountable to those judgments is complicated, of course. It raises many questions that must almost certainly be answered on the basis of prudence and wisdom—two things that evangelicals in America have traditionally lacked when it comes to politics, it should be noted. But the key point here is that a Christian account of political life leaves no room for the complete detaching of political means from ends that is the implicit assumption of most Trumpist Christians.
We must be faithful to God’s call not only in the political ends we pursue, but in the means by which we pursue them. That this makes our work far more difficult is, perhaps, precisely the point: It sanctifies us as we pursue lines of work that could, necessarily, involve the acquisition of great power and influence. It also should put to death any number of sins that might tempt us as we approach the work of politics and government. By insisting that the Lord’s Work must be done in the Lord’s Way we open ourselves up to the possibility of martyrdom, but that is simply to say that the cost of discipleship applied to politics is the same as the cost of discipleship applied to everything else: it is a call to die. It is a call to accept a defeat so complete that the only consolation available to us when we experience it is the possibility of aid from outside the world—an aid which, so the Scriptures tell us, is precisely what we have been given.