This will be the note I sign out on this year. I’ll be off the next seven weeks but we’ll continue to publish other authors during that time.
In the build-up to the 2016 election, American evangelicals were a pessimistic bunch. We racked up an impressive (and depressing) run of unfavorable court rulings and legal battles, featuring photographers, bakers, and florists. These defeats all ran parallel to our biggest cultural defeat, the Obergefell decision. In addition to this, we saw our standing in the Republican party fall sharply as the party nominated a candidate who by every traditional standard held by the religious right was an abysmal failure. (The fact that we supported him anyway will almost certainly teach the GOP that evangelical voters will go with them no matter what. This realization, of course, robs evangelicals of all their political capital that they might use to influence the GOP.)
Add to that the ever-growing number of “nones” that Pew and Gallup found in their religion surveys, the remarkably hostile response to the Indiana Religious Freedom Restoration Act, this summer’s Supreme Court ruling against many state-level abortion regulations, and the alarming court case in Massachusetts that would result in the policing of religious speech from Christian ministers and, well, things looked grim.
This is all backdrop to Rod Dreher’s idea of the Benedict Option as well as Russell Moore’s emphasis on evangelicalism as a “moral minority.” It also explains why so many evangelicals decided that aligning themselves with a self-described sexual predator who has a history of mistreating racial minorities was suddenly OK. It was seen as a last chance at saving ourselves from a dark and dangerous fate.
Well, mission accomplished.
Trump and the Christian Magistrate
Unfortunately, such an analysis of the election, while perhaps factually correct, still fails even basic questions posed by the classical tradition of Christian political theology. In the first place, Christianity has long taught that the character of public officials is important. There is a correlation between the character of the magistrate and the health of the commonwealth. Until recently, leaders of the religious right understood this. The bizarre notion amongst that movement’s leaders that a politician’s character is a matter of indifference was literally invented to excuse support for a sexual predator.
But the failings do not end here. The church’s greatest theologians have long said that a properly Christian commonwealth will be concerned not with the greater good—the most good for the most people—or with the private good of Christians alone, but with the common good. By this test, Donald Trump fails abysmally.
To be sure, both candidates failed this test. The election of 2016 was a radically zero-sum affair with religious conservatives, rural white people, and the old white working class behind one candidate and minorities, urbanites, and the cultural elites behind the other. In both cases, the candidate’s platform is practically intended to promote the good of their base and significant harm to their opponent’s base. This, incidentally, is the greatest tragedy of the 2016 election and the most ominous aspect of it as it concerns the future of our commonwealth: Can you maintain any kind of nation when it has two factions so sharply divided, let alone a republic? I fear the answer is no.
What comes next for evangelicals?
That question, however, is the one that tells us what our work is as Christians in the next four years. It consists of three parts:
First, and most obvious from Scripture, we must pray for our leaders, President Trump included. We should pray that God would give him wisdom and that he would act prudently for the good of our nation. We must also pray that God would draw him to repentance for his part in fanning the flames of racial tension in our country as well as for the host of other grave sins he has committed, most notably his pattern of sexually assaulting women.
Even so, he is, or will soon be, our president, whether we voted for him or not. If Paul can command his readers to pray for the murderous tyrant Nero, then we should pray for Trump. Indeed, we should hope that Donald Trump the president will be a better man than Donald Trump the candidate and that his presidency will serve our republic well and promote the good of all her people.
Second, we must love our home places and labor to make them better. It has become a commonplace on both the right and left to joke about moving to another country if political happening x occurs. That attitude is precisely why our republic has become so diseased. Beautiful places are made such by the loyal love of their members. Love withheld or love given only on condition that the place conform to our standards is not love at all and it will certainly not make anything beautiful that wasn’t already.
Chesterton makes the point well:
“Let us suppose we are confronted with a desperate thing, say Pimlico… It is not enough for a man to disapprove of Pimlico: In that case he will merely cut his throat or move to Chelsea. Nor, certainly, is it enough for a man to approve of Pimlico: For then it will remain Pimlico, which would be awful. The only way out of it seems to be for somebody to love Pimlico: to love it with a transcendental tie and without any earthly reason.”
Third, we must recognize that the call to work for the common good may well require civil disobedience under Trump in ways similar to what might have been required under a Clinton administration, even if we ourselves are no longer the ones in the president’s crosshairs.
When William Wilberforce opposed the unjust British government in its support of slavery, he was condemning his government even though he was not the target of that government’s injustice. The same goes for evangelical pro-life advocacy in more recent years.
White evangelical Christians, who are likely to live in a relatively safe, secure position under President Trump, will need to pay special attention to the president’s treatment of immigrants, toward his Justice Department’s handling of reports of police brutality toward African-Americans, and toward the safety of women in a country that just decided being a self-described sexual predator does not disqualify one from holding the most powerful political position in the world. Should he fail to uphold justice in these domains particularly, it is essential that we call him to repentance on this point and do what we can to support and protect those who are being targeted by his administration. Failing to do this is a failure to love neighbor, but it will also (less importantly, I should add) have a damaging affect on our own witness to a post-Christian world and will teach that we really are as amoral and selective in our Christian practice as they already think we are.
Simply put, our responsibility to the common good would have almost certainly compelled us to opposing the Clinton administration at multiple points. It will likely require no less as we consider the possible actions of a Trump administration. Certainly, we should pray that no such action is needed. We should hope that President Trump rules wisely. But given the president-elect’s record so far, we should be prepared for anything.