The second post in the Evangelicalism After Trump series comes from my friend Steven Wedgeworth.
When I awoke Wednesday morning in Central Florida the sky was still dark and intermittent explosions of electricity filled the sky. Thunder boomed, as the palm trees bent and the rain poured. As I began to scroll through my social media feed, I quickly learned the cause of this cosmic disturbance: Donald Trump had won the Indiana primary, and Ted Cruz had dropped out of the race for Republican presidential nominee. The fate of our Republic was now sure, and thus the heavens were declaring the verdict. “Either there is a civil strife in heaven, or else the world, too saucy with the gods, incenses them to send destruction” (Julius Caesar Act 1, Scene 3). Now we poor Evangelicals are left to ponder our fate.
Perhaps things are not quite this melodramatic. Donald Trump, who is unlikely to defeat Hillary Clinton, is even more unlikely to be a worse all-around president than our previous ones, particularly the last two. It is also not clear that he would be significantly worse than Hillary, and so there is reason to adopt a more measured response. Yes, everything will be embarrassing and terrible, but it probably won’t be too different than it already is. Life will go on.
Of course, that doesn’t mean that politically-engaged Christians should take it all in stride. No, there are good reasons for them, especially those conservative Christians, to take a stand of opposition against Donald Trump (though I wouldn’t agree with quite all of those arguments), and this now means that they will also have to take a stand against the Republican Party. For some this is a little depressing. For others it is intimidating. But I would suggest that it should also be liberating. Finally, after all of these years, we have our chance to escape the GOP.
For those of us under forty, we have never actually been able to enthusiastically support any Republican presidential candidate. We could tolerate some, but really, we have strongly disliked most of them. We held our nose and voted for the lesser of two evils, usually to no avail. The GOP never was ours. Its elites were happy to simply use Evangelicals as pawns. And we all knew that, but we held out hope that we really did have the numbers on our side and that it was just a matter of time before we could cash in on that.
But now Trump has taught us that that “silent majority” were also not our true allies. They were always something else entirely. Let’s admit it. We voted Republican because of the issue of abortion and a desire to protect our religious values against government coercion. Sometimes we went in for the various economic arguments, but we never really dug in deeply to understand them, and they didn’t actually come from any kind of long-standing conservative root system. For a variety of reasons, not all of them honorable, the GOP was not our home. We were just a passin’ through. And so now we have our opportunity to begin leaving it for good. We do not need to do this all at once, but we need to begin preparing ourselves to do so, and the Donald gives us our best opportunity to get started.
We shouldn’t kid ourselves. This will be hard. It is unlikely that a new third-party candidate could even get on all of the ballots, much less win the presidency for this cycle. At the same time, we shouldn’t miss the fact that more people feel alienated by the Republican party than perhaps ever before. Molly Ball tells us that the GOP is dead, as she surveys many of its more prominent eulogies. The #NeverTrump list is growing, and it includes an impressively wide variety of personalities.
Political pundits like William Kristol, David French, Glenn Beck, and Erick Erickson are well known, but there are also culture warriors like Douglas Wilson and George Grant, leaders of religious and family-policy think tanks like the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, the Ethics and Public Policy Center, and the Institute for Family Studies, and more traditionally “insider” fundraisers and networkers. This isn’t limited to the “true conservatives” either. A recent CNN poll shows that 12% of presumably moderate Republican voters plan to vote for Hilary Clinton. At least for this election cycle, a large and diverse body of otherwise GOP voters will not be voting for the Republican candidate for president. If there were ever a time where voting for some sort of independent or third party candidate were justified, surely this is it.
Having said all of this, we should resist the full-blown alt-right tendency to hope for a disruption that opens up space for reactionary orders which really have no chance of being established. Whenever the “now’s our chance” moment occurs, there is a temptation to grasp for too much. If conservative Christians use the #NeverTrump moment to call for some sort of distributivist theocracy (which holds some personal appeal to me, I should add), then we’re just wasting everyone’s time and being bad stewards to boot. Utopia through cataclysm is a fool’s errand that would result in much pain and an even-greater loss of standing in the American public arena, all of which would still be dependent upon the right combination of highly unlikely events.
No, reactionaryism is not the solution. This means that Christians have to be both boldly ambitious and realistic, depending on the specific political locales. Christians should still support those various politicians on the local and state level who are defending Christian ideals, and many of these are, in fact, Republicans and will continue to be even after Trump. We should not gleefully tear down the scaffolding of our political apparatus in the pursuit of newfound liberation. We shouldn’t have any sort of gleam in our eye at the possibility of defying older expectations. We should work hard to keep as much of what is currently good about the status quo.
So why take the chance with the presidential ticket then? Make no mistake about it, not voting for Trump will most likely result in the election of Hilary Clinton and the continuation and acceleration of recent progressive policies. It will hurt. However, voting for Trump will definitively confirm that suspicion that conservative Christians are owned and exploited by the Republican Party, no matter how contrary its goals are from their own. Worse, voting for Trump will ensure that this trend continues to hold, perhaps more strongly than ever before. It will be a total abdication of Christian moral witness, and it will ensure our longstanding loss of credibility to cynical party leaders as well as more moderate and left-leaning onlookers. If not voting for Trump will encourage a sort of political murder, then voting for Trump will actually be a political suicide.
This is a challenge, no doubt. We want to shore up and defend the smaller and more local political institutions that currently exist. This probably means voting for Republican senators, congressmen, and governors. There’s no virtue in throwing them away. But we should prepare ourselves to gladly sound a defiant note on the national executive level. We should vote for a third party candidate, and we should do so joyfully and boldly. This will require planning and resource-gathering. This won’t be a job for the faint of heart. We will encounter fierce opposition, even from people who were previously friends. So be it. We have tried their way again and again. The lesser evil keeps getting less “less evil.” If a conservative can’t break with the GOP over Trump, what possible future candidate could they ever break with it for?
There’s no magic bullet at the present, particularly if that means being able to elect someone into the office of the president. Instead politically-engaged conservative Evangelicals need to start a different project altogether. They need to carefully consider and clearly demonstrate their political principles, identify and support those politicians currently in office who can enable and protect those principles, and plan to make a very loud dissent on the presidential level in this upcoming general election.
They need to pick a dynamic personality, presumably with some branding power, who can run as an outsider candidate and effectively articulate truly Christian political principles which are different enough from the generic Republicanism of the last twenty-five years to make a meaningful impact. And this person must absolutely have a command of contemporary media tools. If we have to go out, then we should at least go out with a bang, and we should leave a mark on the political landscape for future constructive efforts.
Supporting this person doesn’t require a politically uniform coalition. For this reason, that person should stake out a few key political commitments, namely the rule of law, the role of faith, the integrity and necessity of the family for civic functions, and the chief end of governments, and they should repeat those points loudly and consistently.
The creation of more-lasting institutions will have to be taken care of on a different level than presidential politics. Churches, school, and other community and civic groups need to continue these projects with a new intensity. They need to also see this current crisis as an opportunity to chart a third way between the two dead-ends that our political landscape has presented us for the last quarter-century. Pastors and teachers should prepare their people to withstand the social temptation to fall in line with one of the two undesirable options forced upon them and instead to be satisfied with searching for a truth not yet fully embodied. Instead of a rear-guard action which incrementally slows the inevitable, we have to consider a dramatic change of course which opens up new possibilities in the distant future.
This means that thoughtful Christians should begin seriously thinking about and constructing an alternative to the Republican Party, and this alternative should be really different. It may even break with what most people consider pure “conservatism” in many ways—and that purity strategy has already been rejected this cycle, by the way. Instead, we need to introduce people to historical Christian principles of ethics and jurisprudence, more recent historical political movements like Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum and Abraham Kuyper’s Christian Democracy, as well as contemporary suggestions like Ross Douthat’s “Reform Conservatism.”
This will allow us to question certain common talking points of American politics, particularly its simple binaries and reductionism, and we might even pick up some moderate and left-wing sympathizers along the way (though this must be done by way of shared principles). We need to reclaim political recognition of and protection for the institution of the family, and we need to recognize that we can really only acheive these sorts of things on the local level. We should begin withdrawing from large federal programs and networks (including schools), all the while calling on government, even federal-government, protection of local programs and networks (including schools). This isn’t exactly the Benedict Option, since it can’t exist without some sympathetic government agreeing to not harass it (and perhaps even incentivize it through mechanisms like friendlier tax policies, zoning laws, and liability protections), but it is a call for the rejection of the managerial state in favor of a more open political landscape that allows a variety of civil-society institutions to cultivate the people.
So the plan is three-fold.
First, recruit and support a meaningful opposition candidate for this presidential cycle. Make a loud noise and let the defiance be felt.
Second, support those candidates who are currently in place and defending our interests. Vote for them, even perhaps in spite of their party affiliation, and let them know that you still have their backs.
And then third, get serious about the meaningful non-political institutions which you participate in. They are the only things that can catechize our people in a truly distinctive Christian way of thinking about society and politics.
Is this a desperation move, banking on a hope and a prayer? Certainly. But so is voting for Trump. After all, he might nominate a Supreme Court Justice “in the mold of Antonin Scalia.” But he might also nominate his sister. He might even find a way to do something worse. Another point of desperation is considering what it would it take for Trump to even beat Hillary Clinton, as current polls have him trailing by a historic margin. If we are counting on black swans to elect Trump in the first place, why not count on them to do something we won’t be permanently embarrassed over?
The call to #NeverTrump isn’t about purity. It’s about strategy. It’s just that it’s about the long-term strategy. 2016 may or may not be “the most-important election in our lifetime,” as the cliche always goes, but the one thing that is certain is that it won’t be the last “most-important” election in our lifetime. It doesn’t have to be—and it shouldn’t be—our last move. If we can put up with even Trump, then no one should ever again believe that “character makes a difference.” In fact, people would be justified in wondering if we were ever believable on that point.
You see, Trump is not simply the death of the Republican Party. He is the death of ethos, the ultimate act of self-incrimination for all who support him. If conservative-minded Christians want to ever have a prophetic voice and compelling moral testimony, if we ever want those who disagree with us to seriously consider our arguments, and if we want to ever be able to claim that we are not simply a rival brand of identity politics, then now is the time to take a stand. If we ever want to begin creating an actual solution in American politics, then this is our chance.
Pastor Steven Wedgeworth (M.Div., Reformed Theological Seminary) is from South Mississippi and has been an ordained minister in the Communion of Reformed and Evangelical Churches since 2008. He is currently the pastor of Christ Church Lakeland in Lakeland, FL. Pastor Wedgeworth has also taught in classical and Christian schools for several years and has recently served on the founding school board for St. Augustine School in Jackson, MS. He is also the co-founder and editor of The Calvinist International, as well as a directing board member for The Davenant Trust, a foundation for Christian scholarship. Steven is married to Anna, and they have a two-year-old son and a new baby daughter. Together they enjoy good food, friends, and music, but Anna leaves the gardening and SEC football-watching to Steven.