There has been a lot of Christian handwringing about American politics and the 2020 election. Al Mohler updated the same line of thought that has led to four decades of alliance between conservative, pro-life evangelicals with the Republican Party by arguing for the overriding, all-consuming importance of the prolife cause. By contrast, Tim Keller and John Piper made waves when they suggested Christians do not fit well into the two-party system, that they should embrace their political independence, and that they should recognize the evils of both sides. Piper emphasized that character matters and bad character can be just as ruinous to a nation as bad policy, while Keller emphasized that the complexities of politics required practical wisdom not easily amenable to simplistic moral reasoning.
So much Christian analysis of the election implicitly frames the contest as, more or less, the evils of Trump’s character against the evils of abortion. American politics is reduced to a contest between “Trump is mean,” against “abortion is murder,” the only difference being how different commentators weigh the relative evils. Piper twisted himself into knots to say that Trump’s character is as destructive to the body politic as murdering babies, while Mohler goes through the same convolution in reverse to say that the evils of abortion outweigh racism, separating families at the border, the destruction of the earth’s environment, and the out-of-control COVID-19 pandemic that has killed over a million people worldwide (which Mohler somehow does not even mention).
If you are dissatisfied with either or both analyses, you’re right. American politics is about more than abortion and more than Trump’s character. As we weigh our vote and our civic participation, we owe it to ourselves and our neighbors to take fuller accounting of the goods and evils of both sides. American politics is not the contest of abortion advocacy against one president’s twitter feed. It is the contest of nationalism against progressivism.
Let’s start with the right. The root problem is not that Trump is mean. The problem is that he is a nationalist, a problem that infects much of the right and thus will outlast Trump himself. Much of his meanness is not a character flaw so much as an ideological choice. Trump is mean because of what he believes about the world, about American identity, and about his fellow citizens.
Nationalism says that America should be defined a specific way: America is a “Christian Nation,” as the Christian Right claims. America is the cultural nation of Anglo-Protestantism, as Samuel Huntington argued in his 2004 book, Who Are We? and as Rich Lowry argued in his 2019 book The Case for Nationalism. In their view, America is defined most fundamentally not by our creed of liberty and equality, but by a specific cultural inheritance and a specific set of religious values.
The problem with nationalism is that lots of Americans do not conform to nationalists’ preferred cultural template, in which case they are accounted second-class citizens. Trump is mean to Mexicans, Muslims, African Americans, progressives, Black Lives Matter activists, and secular social justice warriors because he does not believe they are real Americans. Trump belittles, demeans, and excludes because, to him, such people do not really count.
Commentators routinely wonder why Trump has never tried to reach out, expand his coalition, or broaden his base. But seen from within Trump’s nationalist worldview, it would be much more surprising if Trump actually did any of those things because they would require him to betray his most fundamental beliefs about what it means to be an American.
The problem with the arguments about Trump’s character is that they are fundamentally shallow, ignorant of American history, and overly-focused on Trump’s individual personality. We have had many presidents who were unfaithful to their spouses, and essentially all of them were liars to some degree or another. Trump is worse than most, but if you rest your case against Trump on his libertinism or his penchant for exaggeration, you’ll end up with a standard that would condemn most presidents—most political leaders of any country—in history.
More to the point, you’ll end up with a standard irrelevant to policymaking, executive competence, and public service. While I do think that “character matters,” I don’t think it matters in the way that Piper or Mohler seem to think it does. So many Christian commentators seem to think that sexual faithfulness matters because it is a reliable proxy variable that indicates how trustworthy a man is in the rest of his life. I don’t know how else to put this: no, it isn’t. Franklin Roosevelt was an adulterer and Adolf Hitler was faithfully devoted to one woman throughout his life. Sexual promiscuity probably tells us nothing at all about how well someone would look after the common good.
Again, the problem is not Trump’s character: it is his nationalism. The political right has been prone to nationalism for decades; Trump only brought it out into the open. Trump’s bizarre and outsized personality make it seem like he is wholly unique and therefore that the nativism, xenophobia, and footsie-with-racism that has characterized his administration will go away when he leaves office. By such logic do Trump’s apologists and defenders avert their gaze from the destruction that nationalism does to the ideals of the American experiment, to a shared and broad understanding of who “we” are, and to the norms of equal justice under law.
Nothing in American history suggests that nationalism will simply go away. Racism, nativism, and xenophobia are persistent and strong tendencies in American political culture. They require active, sustained opposition. The right does not embody active, sustained opposition to them; instead, the right, at best, turns a blind eye, cultivates deliberate historical ignorance, and then, like Captain Renault, is shocked, shocked to find out there’s been racism going on in this place when one or another devotee is found in bed with the alt-right, with conspiracy theorists, or with neo-Confederate sympathizers. At its worst, the right is actively complicit with the worst strains in American political life.
When Trump called for the murder of terrorists’ wives and children in December 2015, when he initially declined to condemn the Ku Klux Klan in 2016, when he said there were “very fine people on both sides,” in Charlottesville in 2017, when he told four nonwhite Congresswomen to “go back and help fix the totally broken and crime infested places from which they came,” in 2019, when he told the Proud Boys to “stand back and stand by” in 2020, he was not just acting like a bully and the problem was not his “character.” He was giving voice to a belief system about who matters, about who counts, about what America means, the nature of American identity, and America’s role in the world—beliefs that are wrong, un-American, and unjust.
And if you cannot hear those overtones—if your first response is to defend, spin, and explain that that’s not what Trump really meant—then you are deliberately ignoring a repeated pattern of behavior over the course of decades of Trump’s public career, and you are choosing not to heed the voices of millions of your Christian brothers and sisters who have pled with you for years to hear with their ears, and you are well beyond persuasion.
But Trump is prolife and the left celebrates abortion, so no matter how bad nationalism is, is there really any debate?
I am pro-life, and I have talked at length with my progressive Christian friends about how they can, in good conscience, support the political party that has made abortion on demand central to its identity. I understand the counterarguments (some Democratic policies make abortion less likely; abortion policy is only indirectly affected by our votes; etc.). I understand how some Christians can find their way to voting for pro-abortion candidates.
But the problem with the left is not simply abortion. It is progressivism. Progressivism, like nationalism, is a totalistic political religion that is fundamentally inconsistent with the ideals of a free and open society.
Progressivism is best understood as a philosophy of history, a belief that history unfolds in the direction of progressive policy preferences. Today’s progressive elites act like a self-appointed vanguard commissioned by history to open up the next chapter in our story. Such a self-congratulatory, self-aggrandizing narrative has no moral horizon or framework and no way to justify what its policy preferences are, other than vague appeals to “the children,” “the future,” and “the right side of history,” which means whatever they want those empty phrases to mean on any given day.
Shorn of any fixed moral commitments, the goals of progressivism deteriorate into the lowest common denominator available within the rhetoric of freedom: individual autonomy, personal discovery, self-expression, fulfillment, and empowerment. Progressivism is an endless pursuit of ever-greater liberation, freedom, autonomy, and self-discovery.
But what is there to discover within the empty progressive self? What is there to express? The lonely progressive soul gravitates to the only commitments and attachments available in a world stripped of God, nature, reason, community, and tradition: commonalities of race, class, and gender, which are experienced both as inescapable, essential defining attributes and as constricting burdens that must be transcended, transgressed, redefined, and thrown off in a never-ending replay of personal liberation.
Progressivism is a demeaning view of human personhood, trapped between essentialism and rebellion, forever. We are fundamentally defined by the unchosen categories of our race, class, and gender, which means we must be empowered to explore, define, and express these identities even as we rebel against any external effort to tell us what they mean and rebel against the felt limitations they impose—and simultaneously we are encouraged to approach the world primarily as a never-ending fight against an irredeemable system of racial, sexual, or economic oppression.
In this light, the progressive commitments to extreme views on abortion, the sexual revolution, and identity politics are a feature, not a bug, of the movement: they express the fundamental core of what progressivism is, a religious devotion to rebellion against any and all constraints and limitations on personal independence and self-expression, including the limits of nature itself. As Justice Anthony Kennedy infamously wrote in Planned Parenthood vs. Casey, “At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning of the universe, and of the mystery of human life,” the best single-sentence definition of progressivism ever written. It is no accident that it was written in a case affirming the constitutionality of abortion.
Progressivism is also corrosive of cohesion, solidarity, and true tolerance in a pluralistic society. The hectoring, authoritarian temperament that gives rise to speech codes and cancel culture flows naturally from progressivism. Progressives’ belief that they are on the “right side of history,” (an empty phrase of rhetorical bullying) means that they cannot conceive of any rational basis on which someone might not be a progressive. Departure from progressivism is not rational disagreement; it is to run counter to the grain of history, to obstruct the vanguard of our new future. It is a form of insanity—or, worse, heresy.
That is why when progressives encounter disagreement, they rush to label it “hate speech” and routinely accuse their opponents of bigotry, racism, fascism, and various -phobias so often that critics have learned to dismiss them as so many Chicken Littles. Worse, progressives work to get opponents ostracized, de-platformed, fired, humiliated, and permanently branded with the scarlet letter of their apostasy. It is simply astonishing to me how many Americans think that the appropriate response to encountering someone who believes differently than they do is to think, “I must get this person fired from their job.”
These progressive activists are essentially economic terrorists, threatening to deprive people of their livelihood, their ability to raise children and pay bills, for the sake of enforcing progressive orthodoxy. The mere existence of the twitter mob and past examples of cancel culture—and yes, it is very real—hang like the unspoken threat of Damocles’ sword over everyone employed by a secular institution. The activists respond the way inquisitors respond to wrong belief. Progressivism is a religion, but one without grace. It is a return to Puritan roots in the worst sense of the word, an endless crusade of moral reform with no forgiveness, no atonement, and no savior.
That is why progressivism is increasingly at odds with free speech and the freedom of religion. Progressive activists are deliberately working to redefine what those freedoms mean, complaining that the right is “abusing” the First Amendment as a shield for its “bigotry” against the LGTBQ community (by continuing to affirm traditional Christian sexual morality). Their view logically would conclude in the proscription, censorship, or silencing of religious beliefs and the forcible closure of religious schools, hospitals, charities, adoption agencies, and advocacy groups (not just Christian ones, by the way).
Progressivism is intellectually authoritarian—and, if given the chance, almost certainly would become actually authoritarian in practice. There is some truth to Rod Dreher’s hyperbolic warning that the left represents a new form of soft totalitarianism. The hostility to free speech and freedom of religion, the insistence that words are violence, the cult of safetyism, the antipathy to American history and American ideals, and the extremes of identity politics are increasingly endemic within the left.
These views were extreme yesterday; today they are mainstream on the left; and tomorrow they will be affirmed by federal courts. The left is expert at patiently nudging the Overton Window decade by decade until what was unthinkable becomes inevitable. If it is true that the ridiculous extremes of the campus left do not yet represent the mainstream of the Democratic Party today, it is also true that they almost certainly represent its future.
This, more than the single policy of abortion, is what makes the progressive left wrong and unjust. And it is this that I would want my Christian progressive friends to grapple with. Progressivism in its ideal form is oppressive, un-American, and illiberal. Like nationalism, it is a belief system at odds with the American experiment, with the norms of a free and open society, and with the virtues of political order, justice, and liberty.
American politics is more than abortion policy versus Trump’s character. It is better understood as nationalism versus progressivism. Both are bad. So how should we vote?
I will add to my previous arguments that, in addition to nationalism, Trump is also guilty of criminality and administrative incompetence (which, unlike nationalism, are unique to him, not to the political right more generally), qualities that are right now directly and immediately exacerbating the untold economic and human catastrophe of the COVID-19 pandemic.
But the alternative is hardly better. The danger of progressivism is not simply its victory today and tomorrow; it is the path-dependency, the bureaucratic inertia, the institutional drift leftwards that has characterized American governance for a century. Progressivism has been the dominant ideology in American law, culture, and administration since Woodrow Wilson, with a minor speed bump in the form of Ronald Reagan and the Republican Congress. It is nearly impossible to conceive of how progressivism could be stopped, except that the Supreme Court, like a supertanker at sea, began an excruciatingly slow and almost imperceptible turn against some aspects of progressivism under Chief Justice Rehnquist, a turn that needs every encouragement to continue.
The best argument for Trump is to list the evils of the left; the best argument for Biden is to list the dangers of nationalism. Neither party has any virtue of its own; it is only tolerable insofar as it fights against the bad guy you fear most. If you think I haven’t answered the question about how we should vote, consider that when faced with an impossible game sometimes the best choice is not to play.
The most urgent and most moral necessity in American politics is to dismantle the two-party system that artificially forces us into an impossible choice between two immoral options, neither of which represents a majority of Americans, embodies the aspirations of the American experiment, or articulates a vision of ordered liberty and human dignity. The American experiment is a miracle of political order, a miracle that is increasingly fragile and has no champions, no defenders, and no partisans in our contemporary political landscape except for the large and growing number of voters who reject the two parties who claim to govern in their name.