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Evangelicalism After Trump: The Moral Bankruptcy of the GOP

May 4th, 2016 | 8 min read

By Matthew Lee Anderson

I am putting together a series of posts about evangelicalism after Trump with a particular focus on our political future after the nomination of Donald Trump by the Republican party. This first post in the series is from Mere O founder Matthew Lee Anderson. I’ll be putting something up later today. I also hope to get contributions from a few other contributors as well. Anyway, here’s Matt:

Last night’s results mean that Donald Trump will almost certainly win the Republican nomination for the Presidency. In light of these events, I have been asked by a few people to update my previous body of commentary on our current political environment.

And perhaps there is some need to do so.

I will not vote for Donald Trump. I have not, and will not, waver or hesitate in my resolve on this matter. It is a conclusion that is as obvious to me as my own existence: I cannot doubt it, for to do so would be to fundamentally oppose all that I have thought and stood for since I first wrote a public word some 13 odd years ago.

Voting is, and always has been, a moral act. It is an endorsement that we offer to a person—a qualified endorsement, to be sure, bounded by the contingencies of our time and the options before us. But as an endorsement of the relative fitness of this person for the office, it must be earned, and where no options exist to earn it there is no principle that requires our participation through this means. Responsible citizenship requires judgment, and sometimes judgment means abstention. Unless events intervene, that is almost certainly the path I will follow.

My previous essay on the matter of Trump explains my reasons for opposing him, and to it I have nothing more to add. I will simply say that the contrast with another unfit person for office does not help his case in the slightest.

The central principle of my decision is that Donald Trump is palpably unfit for the office of the President, and unworthy of the vote of anyone who dares think that the name of Christ still must have some salience for our public and political life. Since I posted my original essay on the matter, events have done nothing to dissuade me of this stance: if anything, they have further confirmed it.

But this is a harsh principle, and I cannot free myself from the burden of taking seriously its potentially far-reaching consequences. I have in mind two specific potential implications, both of which I raised in my original essay on Trump.

The first is whether I will ever vote for another Vichy Republican who stoops to endorse Trump for the sake of “the Party” or on some hope of maintaining influence within it in the years to come. My current answer to this is that I will not: The captivity of the character of our politicians to their parties is a principle that has no boundaries. If Trump can be rationalized for conservatives, anyone can be. What is needed in such an hour are leaders willing to lose their own political lives that we might have saved the country: the absence of such leaders is, perhaps, the most damning aspect of this tragedy.

The second is whether I will consider voting for Hillary Clinton in such a circumstance, a possibility that I had never in my life considered but which now must be addressed. Whether the nomination of Trump represents a proportionately grave reason to justify a prudential affirmation of Clinton is a question that I strongly suspect I will answer in the negative, but am obligated to consider all the same.

The most definitive and concrete question that I face is whether I will continue to identify as a Republican. And here, I can only say that barring some public act of repudiation by the Party for their complicity in bringing Donald Trump to public life, doing so has become impossible. To be the party’s nominee for the highest office in the land means more than being put forward as a plausible option to the public. The nominee is the party’s central standard-bearer, its de facto leader and representative in all other matters. The party that nominates Trump, and the politicians and pundits who demand that the rank-and-file remain “for the sake of the party” cannot be trusted with responsibilities as serious as governing the country. And any party that cannot so be trusted does not deserve our support.

Practically, this means that I will no longer presumptively vote for the Republican candidate in down-ticket races, as I have sometimes done. Vetting every candidate individually is an enormous task. Alleviating the burden of each citizen doing so is one reason why party affiliation exists: party affiliation has, in the absence of other reasons, functioned as a reason to vote for a candidate. Given the irresponsibility of the party at the national level, this can be true no longer: giving up party affiliation means not voting for candidates that I have not vetted, and when voting for them, doing so as individuals whose policies I support rather than as participants in a party that is alien to me.

It may be suggested that this is too ‘idealistic’, that it does not properly account for the intrinsic importance of party machinery for the sake of enacting policies. That may be true. My rejoinder is that I take parties so seriously that I meet their gross and heinous failures with the only (very limited!) censure I can offer. I do not and have never feared political irrelevance. To repudiate the party is not to embrace either quietism or inaction—as the length of this essay should clearly demonstrate. There are more ways of political action than are dreamt of in our society’s stunted imaginations, and it is incumbent upon those like me to recover them.

Whether the apotheosis of Trump is a betrayal of the Republican party, or a clarification of its inner core, does not matter. That the party has left any semblance of conservative principles outside its gates is clear enough, and damning. Such principles are not only of an economic or legislative type, but encompass the indispensability of virtue and the health of soft social institutions for our common good. It is only within such a hollow core that Trump could possibly arise: The absence may be one that we are all complicit in, but that does not entail that we should vote to perpetuate it.

But what will ‘the evangelicals’ do, those institutions and individuals who have made party politics the vehicle of their moral vision? Here is, perhaps, the only silver lining I can find to this sad affair. The rise of Trump is the death blow to any pretenses, any illusions about where the convictions of those conservative Christians involved in politics at our highest levels lie. We face the prospect of a great untethering of the evangelical witness from the Republican party, a prospect that every Christian—including, and especially, those like me who have claimed the Republican name—should meet with joy and gladness.

The restoration of the evangelical witness in American political life must begin with the expunging of the failed forms of influence-seeking that have gripped us, and with a reinvigoration of the proper theological basis of our activity. The reality that “the party” will now turn its attention—is already turning its attention—to demanding fealty for Donald Trump from those whom he has openly and flagrantly mocked is a trumpet blast loud enough to awake even the Religious Right from the deathly slumbers of its partisan captivity, a captivity it has embraced to its own demise.

There is no clearer choice, no more obvious decision than that between King Jesus and the petty, frail would-be Caesar who Republicans now have foisted upon us. If voting for Donald Trump is required for ‘influence within the party,’ now or in the future, then there is no moral limit, no ground of our principles that conservative Christians will not be asked to give up for the same reason. There can be no compromise: there will be no fault for refusing. If the party allows a wicked man to become its nominee, there is no prudential reason in the universe that can enjoin the consciences of those whose special, assumed vocation to bear witness to Christ’s claim in our public life to vote for him.

Will the Religious Right, once more, offer its soul for the temporal, earthly pottage of political influence? I wish I had more confidence that they would not: But its former standard-bearers have been among the quickest to yield themselves up to Trump’s influence. Mike Huckabee, Sarah Palin, Ben Carson—their easy and glad capitulation should cause serious and sober reflection within the halls of the Religious Right’s central organizations. The failure of their judgment is as damning a critique I know of the theological and political formation on offer in the world of the Religious Right. Whether others will see it as so remains, alas, to be seen.

My rejection of Trump can doubtlessly be interpreted, and thereby dismissed, as ‘virtue signaling,’ a rejection of the lower white class who originally made him a force. No protest I make can dislodge the critique besides weaponizing my own life and friendships as evidence against it: That is what makes the charge peculiarly forceful and attractive to a people unable to reason together.

But beyond noting the thick irony of conservatives rushing to class-consciousness and other sub-rational explanations of political discourse, I will only say that the hidden premise that repudiating Trump entails scorning his voters is not only unargued for, but false. The premise of my rejection is that Trump is a cynical liar. That his supporters are grossly wrong about him, I clearly think. But that they have reasons for the hope, optimism, and support they have invested in him, I also know well.

This is the political wasteland that we evangelicals have helped make. Renewal begins by acknowledging such a fact and reforming the inner lives of our churches and institutions accordingly. No such renewal can begin as long as we lack the nerve to stand on our principles, to insistently and repeatedly point to the intrinsic importance of virtue within our leadership for the advancement of the common good.

Such a stance may seem tedious: it may even appear as a form of resignation, a blithe washing of our hands of the serious matters before us. But the witness of the Gospel exceeds the tyrannical urgency of political action in a democratic society: it expands the horizon of our hope beyond the election in November, and beyond its consequences over the next four and four hundred years. The occasional way of negation, the word of judgment on our political order that abstention signifies must be set within such a deeper, more pervasive affirmation of the goods to which we are headed. It must be a word of gladness: In this abstention we yield up the political order into the hands of the God from whom we had illegitimately, irresponsibly attempted to wrest and control it. If this be resignation, it is so only on the grounds of our accompanying announcement in joy of the goods and glories that our political order cannot reach or touch.

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