We really do have plans to turn our attention toward other issues beyond electoral politics next week. (I’ve got submitted pitches I’m currently reviewing on immigration, a general consideration of the cultural norms that create something like the Trump phenomenon, a book review of a new work on the white working class, and an excellent long essay on podcasting. Plus I’m hoping to do some more personal/reflective work in the next month and to review Katelyn Beaty’s important new work A Woman’s Place.) But as I’ve thought about this issue more, I wanted to draw together a few final notes on the question of evangelicals endorsing Donald Trump.
There are three different points I want to make and I’ll go through them in order from the least to most important.
First, supporting Trump completely destroys our power as a political movement.
On a purely practical level, supporting Trump is a disaster for two different reasons:
First, it tells the GOP that evangelicals are so desperate for a place at the table that we will endorse a candidate whose only possible appeal to us is that he has promised (with relatively little credibility given his other comments on the subject and his personal history) to give us conservative justices on the Supreme Court.
Endorsing Trump tells the GOP we’re cheap. They don’t have to actually protect religious liberty or the family in any substantive way. They don’t need to advance an educational agenda that protects our ability to educate our children. They don’t need to support pro-life legislation. All they have to do is elect a guy who might nominate conservative justices and they have us. This is horrifyingly short-term thinking that torpedoes our long-term position within the GOP.
Second, Trump in particular is a black pit of cynicism and dominance politics. But there’s good news: The only way he can rob you of your dignity and credibility is if you let him. Two prominent GOP pols are going to wake up on November 9 in position to become the new face of the GOP: Ted Cruz and Ben Sasse. (You should support Sasse.) And the reason they are going to be in that position is that they did what no other prominent GOP pols were willing to do—refused to endorse Trump. Cruz has less credibility here since he spent months cozying up to Trump when he thought Trump could be useful to him before pivoting away when he recognized Trump as a genuine threat.
But both Cruz and Sasse will have their dignity on November 9. Chris Christie won’t. Paul Ryan won’t. Mike Pence won’t. Mike Huckabee won’t. Rick Santorum won’t. And as Trump has made clear with his handling of Ryan, he won’t let anyone get away with playing the awkward, dishonest, and cowardly game Ryan tried to play of not condemning but also not endorsing. Trump will call that out and use to this own advantage, even if that means tearing down the GOP. (He doesn’t care about the GOP, if you haven’t noticed.) He’s like a dog trying to dominate a rival. If you won’t submit and you won’t fight, he’ll force the issue.
Second, calls to moderate our tone when condemning cravenness on the right demonstrates the very weaknesses that got us into this position in the first place.
Douthat has said a lot of smart things over the past six months, but near the top of the list is the closing line in a column he wrote from the RNC:
In other words, the coup scenario required leading Republican politicians to show sustained courage and creativity for the sake of their party and their country, and other leading politicians to respond to Trump’s abnormal rise by abandoning party business as usual and leaping into the unknown.
And a Republican Party that had such leaders would not have found itself in this position in the first place.
I want to take that basic principle and apply it to evangelicalism. Many of the evangelical leaders who have endorsed Trump have done so due to fears about what the American church’s future will be in a post-Obergefell America. Will religious liberty for Christian business owners be protected? Will state-level abortion restrictions be done away with? Will Christian universities and seminaries continue to exist? Will Christian parents have the freedom to give their children a Christian education?
All of these concerns are completely valid. Both Matt and myself have been abundantly clear on that point for some time now. We really are facing something of a doomsday scenario in American Christianity. The fact that some readers in response to my essay suggested that we are downplaying these issues or that we never criticize the left made me laugh, if for no other reason than the fact that Rod Dreher himself has said our site is one of the most essential resources for Christians interested in the Benedict Option.
So far, so good then. Here’s where things go haywire though: Because of these concerns we are told by men like Metaxas and Grudem and Dobson that we must endorse a man who, I repeat, has given us no credible reason to think we should trust him to handle any of these questions with Christian wisdom. (Grudem’s endorsement of Trump’s character is particularly galling and is why I took the especially aggressive stance I did toward him in Wednesday’s essay.)
Trump’s disregard for the family is plain to anyone with eyes to see. His apathy about life issues and marriage are equally apparent. And yet, on the basis of a single list of justices he provided under duress (a list, I note, that doesn’t include his extremely pro-choice sister who he has previously said would be a good SCOTUS justice) we are told to support him. And we haven’t even addressed the fact that Trump clearly lacks the sort of attention span or patience necessary to understand the complexities of foreign policy, a fact which could lead to him sparking a nuclear war that would do far more damage to millions of families than any number of policies Hillary Clinton is likely to support.
The desperate attempt to maintain power and position evinced by this move is precisely what got us into this dire position in the first place. The sort of evangelicalism capable of resisting Trump is the sort of evangelicalism that wouldn’t already be in the bleak place we find ourselves in. Trump endorsing evangelicals think they are taking action to protect the church in America when really they are simply demonstrating the very sorts of behaviors that got us into this mess.
I know, I know, I quote Wendell Berry obnoxiously often here, but once again I think he is helpful: In Jayber Crow he talks about the awareness Jayber has as he grows into an appreciation of his own sinfulness and the many ways he is just like his hated rival Troy Chatham. And the turning point in the novel is when Jayber realizes that in order to be saved he would have to become a man unimaginable not only to Chatham, but to himself. Something like that seems about right for where we are right now as evangelicals. If the church in America is to have a future, we must not only become a thing unimaginable (and therefore compelling) to our neighbors; we must become a thing unimaginable to our power- and image-obsessed leaders.
Third, when God calls us to himself he calls us to die.
This is the thing that disturbs my thinking about this issue more than anything else right now. We believe as Christians that we will be resurrected on the last day and in that resurrection resides our hope. What we seem to have forgotten is that only things that have died can be resurrected. I strongly suspect that what we are facing now is a call to die in ways that (white) American Christians haven’t been asked to do at any point in our nation’s history.
We are facing the likely shuttering of many evangelical colleges and universities in the very near future. Christian business owners are already under attack. I fully expect the broader question of Christian education to be broached in the USA in the near future, as it already has been in the UK and Canada. (This would mean that parochial schools and homeschoolers could be subject to government inspections of their classroom or curriculum to insure that it complies with national standards of inclusiveness.) We are facing difficult times.
Those who would have us support Trump would have us suppress concerns about conscience and character to preserve the possibility of a conservative court that would provide some cover from the storm that is to come. If we were talking about endorsing someone like pre-emasculation Chris Christie, Scott Walker, or Ted Cruz in order to obtain that goal, I could tilt my head a bit and understand it, even if I would still ultimately oppose it. But to sacrifice those concerns as completely as we must to endorse Trump suggests a desperation that betrays a lack of faith in Christ’s ability to preserve his church in America. And the question I have, as I observe that, is whether or not we are failing to hear our Lord’s call when he says “come and die with me.”
I am not sanguine about the church’s future in America, as I trust is quite apparent at this point. But I am confident that the same power which resurrected Jesus is at work in the American church, even in our current state of decay and disrepair. And so I harbor great hope for our future. But my hope is not based on the Supreme Court or the Republican party (LOL). It is based on the sure foundation of Christ’s promises to us in Scripture. And so I ultimately cannot endorse Trump, not only because it is tactically disastrous (which it is) but because it seems to me like a spiritually disastrous move which betrays an impoverished understanding in my own heart of the stern call of the Gospel. Our God calls us to die. If we are his followers, we must follow.