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Voting and Virtue

August 4th, 2022 | 6 min read

By Jake Meador

A further note re: the Orbanism piece: When we talk about how citizens engage in political life, there are really two separate things we can talk about. We can talk about a relatively narrow category concerned with voting, perhaps some volunteer work on behalf of a cause or candidate, writing letters to representatives, getting involved in city or county-level work with the GOP or the Democrats, etc. Point being, this is a relatively narrow conversation.

The other possible topic concerns how we imagine our place in our neighborhood, city, state, etc. as well as how through our work, family life, church life, and so on we help to build up or tear down the life of our home places.

Much of the time, these are two things that can be kept somewhat apart from each other. This, for example, is why I wasn’t into the handwringing some evangelicals did after Dobbs. A political institution used its power to do something and, in this case, the something it did brought an end to on-demand abortion in America and addressed one of the areas where our nation’s laws were most flagrantly in violation of divine law. That’s a good thing, period. Demanding that our properly political victories come only under very specific terms is naive and is simply not how politics work.

It’s the evangelical version of the Democrats who spend all their time moaning about Joe Manchin, all the while ignoring the fact that from a Democrat point of view, everything about the past seven years would be far worse were it not for Manchin. There is not another Democrat in the world who could win in West Virginia. And if you’re a Democrat, try imagining the last seven years with one less Democrat in the Senate: Goodbye Obamacare. Goodbye all the judges they’ve appointed this term under Biden. Goodbye Expanded Child Tax Credit. Goodbye possible climate change bill.

There’s a certain sort of evangelical—prone to sentimentalism, naive about power, desperate to be liked by their progressive neighbors—who simply needs to get more serious about what political power does and what it is for. (Of course, before that, they just need to get far more comfortable with being disliked by progressives.) You don’t need to be squeamish about ending Roe.

The trouble, of course, is that other arena I mentioned. You can’t keep the two areas totally separate. The behavior that we allow in one soon takes hold more broadly. When you decide, for instance, that “being a groper” is not disqualifying for political leadership, which is what the GOP announced to the world in 2016, then you don’t get to be surprised when more gropers show up in your party.

Here’s one example that hit close to home for me: The Nebraska GOP melted down at its convention a few weeks ago in part because of a contentious primary campaign in which the Trump-endorsed candidate was opposed by many state leaders.* The candidate in question, Chuck Herbster, has been credibly accused of groping multiple women. Governor Ricketts, to his credit, condemned Herbster in the aftermath of the accusation.

Unfortunately, I’ve not found any record of Ricketts issuing a similar statement after many similar accusations were made against President Trump. And that’s the problem: Once you embrace power at basically any price, you can’t put that genie back into the bottle. You’ve told everyone that power is divorced from character, from virtue, from any sort of private morality at all. And if you tell people that, they are going to believe you. And so here we are.

None of the above means that we ought to be anarchists and give up on politics altogether. We still need political bodies, we need the law, we need government. And that inherently means we need people who are using political power to help society toward what they believe the good to be. That’s just politics.

So, sure, I can imagine scenarios where one might vote for an Orbanist candidate, just as I can imagine scenarios where one might vote for any number of other types of politician. But that isn’t the primary thing that concerns me with the Orbanist move on the American right.

What I’m concerned about is two-fold:

First, I am concerned that Christians actually be living their lives amongst their neighbors in recognizably Christian ways. By that I mean that we live lives defined by the fruit of the spirit. I do not see that fruit much, if at all, when I look at many of the Trumpier types in public-facing Christian ministry or vocational roles. What I see there is a total indifference to the rule of law, an obsession with power, and a willingness to do almost anything to secure power.

Second, I am concerned with the ways that the things we tolerate in the first arena creep into the second. If you’re a Christian who is genuinely marked by generosity, kindness, and care such that your public life is “above repute”, then I think there’s a fairly wide range of who you might reasonably vote for when you’re standing in the voting booth on election day. Indeed, I am quite confident that a number of Trump voters match that description. But what I have seen over and over in recent years is that the obviously Christian folks trying to participate in the Trumpier political or ministry worlds eventually go one of three ways: sell out, pushed out, burned out.**

In other words, they either lose hold of the virtue they once had and become an apparatchik, making excuses for 1/6, saying horrid things about their fellow Christians or neighbors online, and so on, or they are pushed out of the movement, or they get burned out and leave. That is why I have such concerns with the Orbanist program. I’m increasingly convinced that the whole strategy is founded in a fundamentally flawed imagining of politics proper. Why? Because what I am seeing more and more is people who seem to have no concern whatever with credible power or authoritative power or durable power.

To have that requires more than simply laying hold of power at any cost; it requires living a public life marked by character and having that character continue to shape you once you enter a political position. That is the kind of power that can endure, that can persuade others to join the cause, and that can maintain trustworthy, credible political institutions.

Perhaps this is a way of putting it, to wrap up: Eric Hutchinson has written that the magisterial reformers believed that tyranny was preferable to anarchy.

Peace and order are possible without justice. Personal experience and human history alike prove that it is so. The order may be vicious—on a football team, in a barracks, in a banana republic. It may well be unjust insofar as it does not render to each what is due to him. But it is only within the confines of order that it is even possible for justice to emerge. One does not seek justice when someone yells “Fire!” in a crowded theater; one simply tries to avoid being trampled. Without peace and order, there can be no upholding of justice even in principle. For that reason, the mainstream of magisterial Protestant political reflection holds the prima facie surprising view that tyranny is preferable to anarchy.

That can sound jarring to our American ears. But the Reformers got that idea from Paul who, after all, demanded submission to a government whose head was Nero and had been Caligula prior to that. So I don’t think Eric is overstating the point. But if that is true, then I think many conservative reformed people need to reckon far more seriously than they have to this point with the dangers posed to our republic by the lawlessness of Donald Trump and, now, the more general indifference to the rule of law across the GOP.

In a book on environmental care, Noah Toly argues that we need a tragic lens for understanding the current problems of ecological stewardship. By that Toly means that there is no plausible outcome free from calamity. I think it is likely that we are in such a moment now in the American republic. What that means is that if we begin with the goal of discerning a path that protects the church from disaster, then we may already be off on the wrong path for no such path exists. (Further, in pursuing such a path, we will likely end up neglecting the work that must be done if the church is to survive this moment, work that will be centered around prayer, discipleship, growth in discernment, and so on.)

What we have before us, rather, are dangerous paths where many evils might befall us, but as is so often the case in the Christian life, the greatest dangers facing us are likely not coming from outside the church or outside ourselves. The dangers outside threaten us, at worst, with physical death. But we can resist, even unto that end. And to those who overcome a crown of life awaits. But the dangers within threaten us with a greater, more fearsome death—and there is no crown that awaits us at that end.

* There were some other long-standing issues to which I am more sympathetic, principally a long standing hostility that the third district feels to the first two congressional districts in Nebraska, a hostility which I think is quite understandable.

** (That’s a line I heard from Jemar Tisby, though he used it to describe the experience of many black evangelicals in predominantly white church contexts.)

Jake Meador

Jake Meador is the editor-in-chief of Mere Orthodoxy. He is a 2010 graduate of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln where he studied English and History. He lives in Lincoln, NE with his wife Joie, their daughter Davy Joy, and sons Wendell, Austin, and Ambrose. Jake's writing has appeared in The Atlantic, Commonweal, Christianity Today, Fare Forward, the University Bookman, Books & Culture, First Things, National Review, Front Porch Republic, and The Run of Play and he has written or contributed to several books, including "In Search of the Common Good," "What Are Christians For?" (both with InterVarsity Press), "A Protestant Christendom?" (with Davenant Press), and "Telling the Stories Right" (with the Front Porch Republic Press).