My Email Exchange with Yahoo News!
March 7, 2018
I was recently contacted by Jon Ward of Yahoo News, who wanted to do a profile of me and specifically to focus on why I felt the need to support Trump in the general election. My emails with him were amicable, and I think Jon genuinely meant well in all he wrote, but in the end I was disappointed in the piece, as were many friends who read it. You may read it for yourself here.
In any event, I thought it would be best to post my actual Q&A with Jon for clarity, and it is below for you to read. I think there are some parts you will find especially interesting and it’s obvious from my responses that I found the substance and tone of some of his questions off-putting. Before I answered the questions, I wrote the following preamble, in response to his email to me. You can read our email back and forth here. And then I went in and answered the questions one by one, as you can see. After a few days Jon had some follow ups, which I have also posted at the bottom. Enjoy!
My Opening Remarks
I think one of the saddest things about the period in history through which are living is that we’ve come to a place where graciousness and empathy and trying to see the other side’s point of view has fallen by the wayside, and in many cases has been forcibly hurled away, most grievously by self-described Christians. It seems that some people have come to the view that Trump is simply so irredeemably bad that all the previous rules must be flung from the window, that anyone who would support him — whether in a more full-throated way like Robert Jeffress or Jerry Falwell, Jr., both of whom I respect greatly, or in a more measured and let us say “tepid” way, in which group I would put myself — must be demonized in no uncertain terms, must be scorned as someone who has no principles and who can only be doing what he is doing because he has made a naked calculation for his own self-interest. This is not only not true in most cases of those I know who support Trump, but is also simply a dramatically uncharitable interpretation. It represents an unprecedented scorched-earth policy toward anyone who hasn’t expressed utter contempt for the current president, as though contempt can be the only reasonable and acceptable response in civilized circles.
Where have we seen such no-holds-barred behavior in the past, on the part of Christians for whom the idea of grace had previously been central? Ironically it has been when Christians have felt that the End of All Things was nigh, that we were in a bare-knuckled brawl with the scaly soldiers of hell, so that our opponents can be given no more charity than we would give a vampire about to rise from his coffin. Strike hard with your hammer at the stake pointed at his heart now or become like him yourself. So yes, at such times we have been willing to throw all caution and charity to the wind because we have persuaded ourselves that we were truly dealing with the forces of anti-Christ, and to do less than to wage all out war without regard for any niceties would be like appeasing Hitler, or indeed, the devil himself.
Martin Luther, the subject of my last biography, fell into this trap most infamously, genuinely believing the world’s end to be imminent because the Catholic Church had become anti-Christ and the Muslim Turks were marching toward the heart of Christian Europe and Armageddon was imminent. And so the very worst things he ever said — such as his horrific condemnation of the Jews at the end of his life — came out of this mindset, that the time for patience and love were over. This is a very human temptation, but it is among the ugliest of all temptations. Can Jesus’ injunction to love our enemies ever become passe? To those who seem to think so, anyone unwilling to join their side and street fight with them against whatever bogeyman they’ve imagined must have been bought and paid for by that bogeyman, and is therefore fair game.
Q) Do you still think of your support for Trump as something that is “painful” because he is “odious” as you wrote in your now famous WSJ op-ed?
A) It is now only painful because I know that the gleeful demonization of anyone not sufficiently Trump-hating has become the de riguer cliche of our time, the bullying billy club with which the self-elected elect cudgel their foes. It is like shooting someone to advance pacifism, only less effective.
Q) Do think of yourself as a culture warrior?
A) I don’t know what that terms means, and never have. I am a servant of Jesus Christ, a sinner saved by grace, doing my best to humbly serve Him and His purposes with the time and energy and resources I am given, and with the humbling knowledge that I am a sinner who may err and sin in my efforts. I am also resigned to being misunderstood in my efforts, but take comfort in knowing that such misunderstanding is a sizable part of the terms of my service. Labeling someone with whom we disagree as a “culture-warrior” is too much like silencing someone’s arguments by demonizing him as a racist or sexist bigot. When someone’s behavior disturbs us, rather than try to get at his reasons for that behavior, we assume there can be none and demonize him with a label
Q) What do you think of this passage from an essay by Makoto Fujimara? Do you agree with his statement that “culture is not a territory to be won”? — In John 12, it is written that “Lazarus was one of those reclining with him at table.” A post-resurrection reality is one of relaxed confidence. The religious authorities wanted to arrest Lazarus; Lazarus could care less about that threat – remember he was dead, and now is alive. We, too, can be just as confident; spiritually, we have today everything that Lazarus had after his temporary resurrection – the knowledge of the power of our Savior and friend. We have even a deeper knowledge, of the true and lasting resurrection of Christ to push beyond our fears. We need to let the active, analytical Martha lead the way for the contemplative Mary, toward a deeper unfolding of the Gospel for all of us, toward the confidence of Lazarus. In order to do that, we need to lay down our weapons based on fear. Weapons of culture war will only lead to a Darwinian victory, if that. Instead, let us become nurturers of lasting beauty, tending to our culture with care, and with tears. Culture is not a territory to be won; it is instead a resource we are called to steward. Culture that produced da Vinci’s The Last Supper, or Bach’s Goldberg variations, all float about in the aroma of Mary’s nard, in that closed room in Bethany. That aroma woos us to turn back to care for fragile emanations in the world.
A) I agree with every jot and tittle of what my wonderful friend Mako has written, save for the startling grammatical boner of writing “could care less” when “couldn’t care less” was obviously meant! And my wholehearted agreement with what Mako writes therefore constitutes the suppurating irony of it all, that laying down one’s weapons often only means laying down one’s weapons unless you are on the “right” side of the issue. Your using the quotation surely means that you think I have in any “support” for this administration been unable to lay down my weapons of cultural warfare, while it seems clear enough to me that those on your side of these issues who have endeavored to flay me — and anyone of my beyond-the-pale political ilk — are in fact wielding the weapons of cultural warfare, who cannot fathom that acting charitably toward one’s opponents, or giving them the benefit of the doubt, and thereby doing to them as you would have them do unto you, would be the wise and godly choice. It is as though such opponents as myself must now be beneath such charity, and deserve only to be mocked and attacked until they relent and see their unforgivable folly in supporting Der Fuhrer 2.0.
Q) In your 2012 prayer breakfast speech, you said: “Martin Luther King told the people on the buses that you must not fight back, you must be willing to turn the other cheek, or get off the bus. Branch Rickey told Jackie Robinson if you want to win the battle you need to do as Jesus did and be strong enough to not fight back so your enemies will know that there is someone, capital S, standing behind you, that it’s not just you.”
A) I wish Trump’s detractors who claim to be Christians would fight him in precisely this way. The excrescences of rage we are seeing on the left — and the evangelical left’s countenancing of that bitter rage and often their own participation in it — is not calculated to speak with the love of Jesus to those with whom they disagree, but to demonize them and to rage against them until they shut up and go away or can be driven away and out of “polite society”. The foul language they regularly employ and their superlatively puerile genital-hatted fashion statements say something about the real source of their activism. Dr. King would be disgusted by the vileness and impotent fury of those daring to claim his mantle. Any student of history knows that he and Jackie Robinson and Rosa Parks were people of tremendous and unimpeachable Christian dignity. They were so extraordinarily self-possessed that this alone regularly gave their opponents pause. They did not then and would not now identify with the obscene and often extremely childish rantings of the mobs who flatter themselves by daring to imagine they follow in that hallowed tradition. Those who rage today in the name of what they call “justice” are wittingly or unwittingly the enemies of that tradition.
Q) You have said that a vote for Trump was a vote on behalf of “the least of these.” When you say that, I believe you are thinking of abortion, and that’s an intellectually coherent argument. But gay rights vs religious liberty loomed as large for you and many other evangelicals, and on that issue, it’s pretty clearly a vote for Trump is a vote for self-interest, which ignored all the innumerable ways he has demeaned, threatened and bullied so many vulnerable people and groups, from women, to the disabled, to African-Americans, to Hispanics, to undocumented immigrants, to Muslims, to gays, to journalists, to refugees, and the list could go on.
- Demeaning black lives matter, and continuing as president by calling black NFL players protesting police brutality “sons of bitches”.
- The rise of Trump has emboldened white supremacy, and even rank and file Republicans are as hostile as they’ve been in many years to the concerns of the African-american community’s concerns about systemic injustice.
- His long record of ugly comments about Latinos, from rapists to the Curiel comments, to his playing on nativism and xenophobia by making a wall a centerpiece of his candidacy
- His assaults on the free press are as significant a threat to the least of these as anything, since the only thing standing between an abusive government and the most vulnerable, and the freedom of all people really, is a free press.
A) To say the concern for religious liberty expressed in voting for Trump was “pretty clearly…. a vote for self-interest” is breathtaking. Can you really be unwilling to countenance even the possibility of your own self-interest or the self-interest of those on your political side? For any introspective Christian the temptation toward self-interest ought to be something that can always be seen as possible and to be guarded against. Are many how vocally denounce Trump not reaping the benefits of appearing progressive to people they wish to impress or whose favor they wish to curry? Does their political stance make them feel morally superior to those they are denouncing? Of course that has more in common with Pharisaism than actual faith in Jesus.
Furthermore you are actually mistaken in denouncing my concern and the concern of so many others on this score as self-interest. The religious liberty that was so important to the founders and to every American who understands it is something that benefits every single American, including atheists, agnostics, Buddhists, Universalists, and Episcopalians. How can it be about Christians and self-interest? This is not about returning to a predominant ty white white-picket fence America of previous decades but about returning to the very principles that enable us to embrace diversity! Religious Liberty is a principle of our Founding and at the heart of our freedoms, so to scorn it as the battle-cry of some backward political group is a monstrous misreading of history, one that is helping to unravel the very core of all our freedoms.
On the subject of how Trump has demeaned his own enemies I must say three things. First, I disagree with the idea you and so many others hold that Trump has in all these cases you mention demeaned these groups. In some cases he simply has not done that. So you are not only mistaken in this observation but seem unwilling to see how you might be mistaken, as though this is a crucial and central narrative that cannot be questioned or even reconsidered. Yes, some of the things he has said indeed have been wrong, plain and simple, but others have been taken out of context and misquoted and misunderstood so often that no one anymore bothers to question whether these incidents or statements have become anything more than a club with which to beat his supporters. In those rare cases where he has apologized, his apologies have not been accepted, which is another subject, and says more about his detractors than about him.
Second, any time Trump has actually demeaned anyone or hit back in unseemly ways, I certainly do denounce it, usually privately and sometimes publicly, but always. This is a view I and any follower of Jesus can hardy help but take, and the idea that any American could vote for someone without finding some of that candidate’s actions wrong is simplistic to the point of incredible. Identifying all Trump supporters as supporting every one of his views or mistakes or sins is simply another way to demonize these people, hoping they will grow so disheartened with this unfair characterization that they will cease to support him. But it has only had the opposite effect of angering them and increasing their support of him, despite his failings. The injustice of this and other political tactics like it has only further driven them into his arms.
Third, you seem not to imagine how someone could disagree with Trump’s behavior on any score unless one volubly and often voices that disagreement. The insistence that Christ-followers harrumph their every disapproval of Trump on twitter — and even within a certain time-frame — strikes me as not very different from Germans being expected to say “Heil Hitler!” sufficiently loudly and often, so as to keep at bay the baleful idea that they might not be on board with the National Socialist project after all. A free society does not demand such constant expressions of fealty and when anti-Trump Christians demand them from other Christians it is no less ugly than when Joseph McCarthy’s apologists demanded them. To say it again, free societies do not demand such things of a free people, and to the extent that anyone demands them or even expects them, they are contributing to the movement away from freedom and toward ideological slavery.
I believe that most of the above “evidence” or “examples” are fatally strained and tainted with subjectivity and bias. I could take issue with every single example, but both of us would grow fatigued, and others have tried to clarify these things before, to no avail. Nor do I think those who hold your views on this subject are terribly open to being persuaded that Trump is anything other than a monster who is so monstrous that he frees you from worrying about niceties and nuance. I think this is at the heart of the misunderstandings about him, that he fits too well into the narrative and role set out for him, so getting into the proverbial weeds of things is never worth the trouble.
But let me at least touch on one of these issues you raise. The idea that it is this president who is the enemy of a free American press strikes as very odd — if not risible — all those who have observed the press lurch ever farther away from objective journalism. They have lately embraced what looks like a damn-the-torpedoes effort to rescue the American people from “All the news that’s fit to print” because they feel that many Americans are too uneducated or too gullible to properly understand all that confusing news in its raw form. This is patronizing and fundamentally un-American, so no one should wonder that this president and those who have supported him are amazed at the irony of the claim that he is the problem with regard to a free press and not the journalists who have abrogated their journalistic duties to report the facts as objectively as possible. The wild advocacy adopted by such previously mostly objective sources of news as CNN and NBC is among the most dramatic of our departures from a healthy cultural norm and the fact that most of these former news sources are benefiting financially in subscriptions and clicks is the strongest proof that the price they are paying for these brave and principled stands is in fact non-existent. It is they who have sold their souls for self-interest, for the approval of their peers and for increased profits both. That some of them think they are doing good and noble things is besides the point. Even totalitarian dictators and career criminals rarely think they are doing actual harm.
- His constant insults against Muslims, and demonization of them. By contrast, John Inazu told me that “the only way for ‘white evangelicals’ to pursue meaningful, long-term cultural and legal support for religious liberty is by partnering effectively and authentically with non-white Christians and non-Christians (including Muslims). In ordinary times, that would be a tremendous challenge. Trump’s rhetoric makes it almost impossible, especially when celebrity evangelicals like Metaxas back him so enthusiastically and ignore the real harm and damage of the President’s words.”
A) First of all the notion that I have backed Trump “so enthusiastically” is really absurd. I have been extremely measured in my support of him, but in the cacophony of our current cultural maelstrom, no one has time for anything other than “love him” or “hate him.” This is a big part of our problem in America today. He is the president of the United States. We used to respect that office sufficiently that even serial adulterers who continued their sins inside the Oval Office were accorded some respect. I remember when President Clinton walked into the National Prayer Breakfast just days after the superlative foulness of his sexually using an intern had exploded all over the news. The conservative evangelicals in that room, myself included, applauded the office of the presidency when he entered because it was the right and the American thing to do, not because we thought the man occupying that office was anything but vile. Fathers of 22-year-old young women even somehow managed to refrain from hurling glassware at the swollen target that was his head. Such measures of restraint and general decorum can go a long way toward keeping things moving in the right direction in a divided culture; but today if you don’t boo and hiss and throw things, you are accused of being an unthinking zealot who heartily approves of the worst behavior of the man you are not physically attacking. I reject this utterly and wish people like John Inazu would do the same and match his descriptions to the facts.
But to the issue of Islam. Most Americans in what the Beltway and Manhattan elites think of as fly-over country are in fact reasonably educated and informed, despite the unAmerican caricatures of them by those elites. So they see what has happened throughout Europe, that craven political leaders have sold out their proper constituencies for the approval of other cultural elites, most of whom do not care a fig for the working class men and women they were elected to represent, and who usually have disdain for them, especially if those men and women are of the white European “Christian” varieties whom they see as being part of the problem. This, of course, is the new and accepted tribalism and xenophobia, masquerading as the enemy of tribalism and xenophobia. Christians know that Satan always come as an angel of light, and need never be caught unawares, but neither must we be caught sitting our hands and allowing such “angels”to have their way. Standing against the Islamization of Europe or America is an example of Christians caring for “the least of these,” as caring for those enslaved in the false ideologues of Islam, and most notably the women in that culture, who are doubly enslaved. That the cultural elites and progressives scorn these vital efforts as “demonizing Muslims” is painful, but not as painful as standing by and allowing real people to suffer. One does what one must.
- On foreign policy, one of the biggest trends of the Trump presidency has been a reduction of American influence abroad — both intentionally by withdrawing in certain ways and unintentionally because world leaders now feel they can’t rely on U.S. leadership — which certainly leaves far more people vulnerable than before.
A) This is a partisan and short-viewed take on the situation. I believe you are inserting your own views and fears into the equation more than you are accurately perceiving how other world leaders feel about this president. Time will tell how trustworthy this administration is with regard to what it says and how it leads on the world stage. Have we forgotten how presidents Carter and Bush Sr. and Clinton unconscionably betrayed those who looked to us as allies? A short memory cannot serve the causes of history. Bush Sr’s allowing Saddam Hussein to crush the Kurds and Clinton’s failure of leadership in the Rwandan genocide are two of the blackest marks in American presidential history. Your focus only on the sins of this administration seems like a bias that cannot be overcome by my arguments.
- As Franklin Graham said: “He offended gays. He offended women. He offended the military. He offended black people. He offended the Hispanic people. He offended everybody!”
A) To offend someone is not the same as doing an injustice to them. It is possible that someone could be trying to help and in so doing could speak in a way that we find wrong or at least uncharitable or out of step with how one is supposed to speak. What Rev. Graham is saying is not that Trump is wrong in what he said but that he has been perceived as wrong by certain groups, by many groups. We need to take that perception seriously, but just how seriously is the larger question. Are we not living in a time when everyone is far too easily offended, so much so that we are taking our eyes off what actually matters, off actually solving the real problems of people rather than giving politically correct lip service to those problems?
Q) Justin Giboney is the head of the AND campaign. His background is in Democratic politics and the African-American church, but he is conservative on abortion and gay marriage. He told me the following: “It’s hard for me to believe that God wants us to get this christian centered agenda through that space by any means necessary. It’s hard for me to believe is that it’s all about just getting it done and not to worry about the details and how we got there. It’s better to think about — in who I promote and what I endorse — am I reflecting what god would want? Of course there’s strategy involve and you want to get wins. But I don’t think wins are the priority. It’s witness. Where Metaxas and them went wrong is that wins and power became the priority. If the objective is achieved and everything is just details that’s completely the wrong way. If the spirit in which you do something is not right then it’s not right.” Do you disagree?
A) Yes, I think Mr. Giboney misses the larger and main point. The witness of the American church has effectively been non-existent for decades. The idea that we had a golden reputation that is suddenly somehow being tarnished by support for the beyond-the-pale president strikes me as naive, or at least very idealistic, and certainly historically myopic. Serious Christians have been demonized by the secular culture throughout the five decades of my lifetime. Nearly everything serious Christians have said or done has been the object of scorn. Not to see this is to be culturally and historically deeply out of touch. Have we forgotten how the extremely kind and upstanding and generous Tim Tebow was treated the by press and the cultural elites? We shouldn’t. It says volumes on this subject.
So yes, perhaps our cultural cache is not what we would like, and perhaps some people ought to worry more about their witness. But we can also worry about it far too much. We must not forget that Jesus said his critics were like the children in the marketplace who said: “We played the pipe and you did not dance. You played a dirge and you did not mourn.” In other words, we are likely damned if we do and damned if we don’t. In our efforts to attract cultural bona fides, we can sometimes be casting pearls before swine. So in the end we need to be about doing our Father’s business and worrying mostly our audience of One. He is the judge of what we do and what we say and how we do it and how we say it. If we worried more about that, we would be glorifying our Father who is in heaven in a way we cannot glorify him by worrying about how certain progressive elites judge us, which will nearly always be poorly.
In the piece I wrote for the WSJ just before the 2016 election I was simply trying to say the same thing, that we cannot opt out of voting and pretend that we were not sullied when one of the candidates was elected because we refused to vote. We will be complicit in the election of whoever is elected unless we vote for the only person who can defeat them. And whatever that person’s good and bad points, we ought more than anything to be concerned with the real effects that person’s presidency will have on all Americans. For example, African American families will be effected by certain policies, and if you care about those families you need to vote for the person who you think will do the best by those constituencies. Some people may denounce you for your vote, but it is a vote between you and God. Only He can judge you, but of course He will judge you, and let that be your only consideration when you do vote. What Trump said twelve years ago in a private conversation that was caught on a hot mic may and should be taken into consideration, but if bridling at that sort of thing is principally how one makes such extremely important decisions as voting for the presidency, one is hardly taking the long view or seriously considering the needs of those who are suffering among us, whose suffering demands a more aggressive untangling of the many issues that go into such decisions, not least from those who think of themselves as Christians.
Further, the idea that we might allow someone who is perhaps the most strident advocate in our generation of abortion on demand — not to say among the most cynical and corrupt politicians in recent history — occupy the Oval Office because we did not like the cut of the other candidate’s cultural jib is itself a scandal. Wilberforce overlooked the tremendously dissolute behavior of such as Charles Fox only because he knew that the hundreds of thousands of Africans who were suffering in the British Slave Trade mattered more than the well-known immorality of Mr. Fox.
Q) You wrote in your book “If You Can Keep It” about the need for virtuous citizens, and you defined virtue as the willingness to sacrifice personal interests for the common good. This seems central to how different people interpret Trump, and to why many white evangelical Trump voters feel the need to defend him as president, because criticizing him feels like acknowledging that voting for him was actually an act of self-preservation that hurt the rest of the country. What do you think of that? Have you engaged much with John Fea’s critique of your book? He makes a persuasive argument that you have airbrushed the American founding into an airbrushed version that exaggerates the role of Christianity as the sole source of virtue (not one of several), that exaggerates the extent to which there was religious liberty at the founding (Seamus Hasson’s “Right to Be Wrong” is best I’ve read on this topic), and treats the American experiment as more of a miracle detached from anything before it than it was. Fea writes that America built on the democratic principles at play in British life, which is something of a subtle point, but an interesting one which tempers exuberance over American exceptionalism as some kind of divinely ordered miracle. He also believes you give the Great Awakening too much credit for how it influenced American politics. The greater point is that Fea thinks you make a common mistake of many evangelicals, that of confusing America with the kingdom of God. This is a complex and nuanced point. A firm rootedness in one’s citizenship in heaven should not produce passivity or fatalism about one’s community or nation here on earth. But the critique of culture warriors often is that they cling too tightly to worldly outcomes because the two categories (kingdom of God and America) have become almost unintelligibly mixed or combined. Do you think you have done this in any way?
A) Mr. Fea’s critiques have not only not persuaded me, they have helped me see more clearly why what I said in my book If You Can Keep It is necessary to communicate to as many Americans as possible at this time in history. If I could give a copy of that book to every American — or at least to every young American — I would do so. Mr. Fea’s misunderstanding on this central issue — one that particularly seems to plague academics — is at the heart of our problems as a culture and as a church.
To mix these very separate categories is a great sin indeed, but such sins must be in the eyes of the beholder. I am afraid Mr. Fea has committed the opposite sin in being so enamored of a certain anti-populist and anti-American narrative — which view is so trendy in the Academy that he should be concerned about having accepted it himself — that he falls into the category of those who find any healthy celebration of patriotism as like unto worshipping the Beast of Revelation.
Q. Charles Marsh has also argued that your work on Bonhoeffer mischaracterized him. What’s your opinion of his critique?
A) The handful of early negative reviews of my book on Bonhoeffer have not struck me as substantive, or as anything more than ideological griping, so I have labored to ignore them. The typos and nits to which some of them affixed themselves like lampreys were happily corrected in subsequent editions, so their authors should long ago have swum away content with what blood they have managed to suck. I am unaware of Mr. Marsh’s critique of my book and was under the impression he had not read it. In his own work on the great Bonhoeffer, he veers from some wonderfully scholarly work and good writing to quite shockingly — and unintentionally hilariously — portraying Bonhoeffer as a lavender swell mincing and vogue-ing his way through the corridors of the Third Reich; and even at one point swanning down the Champs Ellysses in shimmering golden underwear (sic). By painting Bonhoeffer as gayer-by-a-yard-of-tulle than Charles Nelson Reilly and Charles Busch combined is intellectually hideous, yet cannot help but tickle most careful readers toward an ear-shattering horselaugh. The impressive length and breadth of this lode of queering fatally mars what might otherwise have been a book I could have recommended. This lamentable distortion of Bonhoeffer is such an injustice to the memory of one of the bravest — and genuinely manliest — Christians of the last century that charity compels me to screech to a halt here, rather early on this ugly road. Quel dommage. That Dr. Marsh might take issue with some aspects of my own book cannot be surprising.
Q) In April 2016, you said the following: “The church is meant to be the conscience of the state, not to be in bed with the state, cozy with the state, but to be the conscience of the state.” Do you think evangelicals like Robert Jeffress and Jerry Falwell Jr. have lived up to this? Have you?
A) Obviously one must define “the state” before one can answer this. You seem for some reason to want to define the state more as “the Trump administration” than as “the Obama administration” or as “that-administration-which-cannot-be-named from which the Trump victory saved America.” This makes any conversation on this subject inescapably preposterous. If we cannot agree on a definition of the state, how can we agree on what the church should do in response to that ill-defined state.
But let me say what I think the state is today — to which the American church must not bow. I think it is principally the same state that has for the last five decades supported an activist judiciary bent on forcing all Christians to bow before the idol of the murder of the unborn — as the price we must pay for such unbridled sexual license as used to make the pagans blush. The Founders in warning against — and in forcefully and clearly prohibiting — the establishment of a religion could not foresee the day when a secular religion took hold in America to the extent that it was being established by the American government in a way that is as forceful and puritanical and unforgiving as anything ever established by the Puritans of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, whose cruel branding of apostates only differed from our own in also being literal.
To use American’s taxes to pay for the murder of those yet unborn, or the teaching of unbiblical views of gender and sex to innocent children in our public schools is effectively to have allowed a secular religion (religion being defined by a certain set of views toward the ultimate questions, such as the definitions of what constitutes a human being and what constitutes marriage) become established. This is itself a kind of tyranny or fascism imposed by cultural elites. It is unconstitutional and unAmerican and our forebears took up arms and risked their lives to fight against such things. Can the American church not at least identify these sins and speak out against them, even if all they are risking is their social standing among the unforgiving secular elites of our time? If we think doing that might harm our “witness”, we are of course correct, but what are we to do? What witness have we got if we don’t speak out for the unborn and for those trying to practice their faith in a culture that demonizes them and with a government that increasingly harasses them and persecutes them and destroys their livelihoods?
What must the average non-evangelical American make of a church unwilling to risk any cultural capital in standing up for good people trying to live out their simple faith? Can we imagine that these non-evangelicals view such holier-than-thou inaction with admiration? If we define fighting at all as mere “culture warring” or as something only worldly bullies do, then only bullies will win. There is a time to fight for justice. We cannot forget how important a part of our witness that has been throughout history. Wilberforce and Bonhoeffer and Dr. King were all angrily accused of importing their faith into the dirty business of this world, of being too “political” and of being unseemly and vulgar in crawling down into the filthy fray of fighting for those for whom many of their religious confreres refused to fight. Jesus, too, might have stayed where he was, unsullied and unridiculed and uncrucified. But how happy we are that he didn’t.
Self-proclaimed Christians who turn the other cheek to some State-sponsored slaps but who stand by or even applaud when Roman soldiers crucify those guilty of other slaps are the bane of our great democracy. This cherry-picking of which laws or principles to enforce is the end of freedom and the beginning of a genuine fascism. If we cannot all agree on the same rules for all, but have come to the point where some of us are “more equal” than others — with the excuse that “true justice” demands we put our thumbs on the scales to impose an important “historical” corrective — then we have already fallen far indeed.
The signal accomplishment of many who have bitterly and sourly opposed Trump is to illustrate that puritanism is not dead in America, but has only shed its 17th century weeds for more contemporary ones. Those who disagree with the new political orthodoxy are so viciously denounced that the denunciatory epithets of racism and bigotry have been bled white of all meaning. Anyone who has seen real racism must howl at the idea that a vote for this president constitutes some kind of racism, and yet the smearing with that and other epithets — whether xenophobic or jingoistic or “deplorable” — of all who voted for this president should not go unanswered. When I think of all the good and great people I know who have voted for this president and who therefore have been unconscionably spat upon as racists I am deeply grieved.
I think first of all of those men and women of color who have been insulted as unworthy of their race in supporting this president, as though they must all vote alike because of their skin color. This is of course a supremely and genuinely racist idea. One of the greatest brain-surgeons of our time, Dr. Ben Carson, who pulled himself up out of direst poverty, has supported this president, and even helped him get elected and then joined his administration. African-American sports legends such as Jim Brown and George Foreman have supported him too. The list is nearly endless. Are we to denounce even these as unwitting racists? Or shall we simply patronize them as ignorant?
I think of all the other men and women I admire who have expressed their support for this president, and who have all been insulted daily by those cultural mandarins who treat them as beneath contempt, as though their votes are dirtied with “self-interest” and tribalist nationalistic impulses. If the opinions of these good people who have supported this president cannot be afforded a decent modicum of respect by other Americans, how can I or anyone else take their critics seriously? I think more than anything of my extraordinary ninety-year-old father who suffered tremendously in his life and who saw the demonic face of communism up close. He legally immigrated to this country and dealt with genuine xenophobia as he struggled mightily to support a family, with an accent he could never shed, but he nonetheless loved this country and still loves it, and taught his children to love her, too; and he voted for this president and supports him more strongly than ever. Such as would dare even slightly to imply that this man I so admire and cherish has an iota of racism in him necessarily place themselves in the ugliest ranks of those to be pitied. But their implicit or explicit thoughts along these lines I denounce as not less than despicable.
As a Christian I have no choice but to forgive those guilty of these things, to know that they are themselves coming from places of pain and misunderstanding. But what I cannot do is give the slimmest quarter to their grotesque and harmful views. And by God’s grace I never shall. In this way — by speaking the truth as I see it and living out that truth to the best of my ability — I hope to love my own ideological enemies.
Jon’s Follow Up Questions
Q) When you describe the benefits of religious liberty, you mention that it helps “atheists, agnostics, Buddhist, Universalists, and Episcopalians.” Given the way you wrote about Islam, it made me wonder if you left Islam out of that list on purpose or by accident. Do you believe Muslims should also be beneficiaries of religious liberty in America, or are they an exception to the rule?
A) Without question I do. Absolutely. Nor did I mean to sweep away Rastafarians or Rosicrucians, but the list of religions practiced in America is so vast that one cannot be complete. I meant by that list to include all religions by implication. What have I ever written to lead you to believe that I might be a secret Islamophobe, or do all those who voted against Mrs. Clinton need to make that explicit? Can you see how your implication might strike me as ungenerous?
Q) You describe your own support of Trump as “tepid.” I think with good reason many people viewed your WSJ oped and your comment that Christians “must” vote for Trump as anything but tepid support. But why do you yourself view it as tepid?
A) I felt that once the nomination went to him — and the Democratic nomination to Hillary Clinton — there was a very clear choice, and a dramatic one. And yes, I felt that if people understood the tremendous danger Hillary Clinton posed, the choice for Trump was clear, despite the many important concerns people had about him.
Q) There were a few things which struck me in your email as dissonant and contradictory. It was surprising to me that you castigated others for having an “End of All Things” mentality and for viewing their opponents as akin to Hitler. You wrote during the election that Christians “must vote for Trump” because he was “the last best hope of keeping America from sliding into oblivion, the tank, the abyss, the dustbin of history.” That seems like the mentality of someone who is “believing the world’s end to be imminent.”
A) These things are not only not close to parallels, they are virtually unrelated. It is one thing to advocate dramatically wrong-headed scorched earth measures because one believes history is folding up its tents and another to advocate that people legally and appropriately cast a vote for a candidate in a free election because one believes that candidate’s opponent is the practical enemy of American self-government.
Q) And your e-mail you criticize those who compare their opponents as Nazis. Of course, you referred to Hillary Clinton as “Hitlery” during the election. If you apologized for that remark, I am not aware of it. In addition, later in the same email you compare your own critics to Nazis when you say that those who expect you to “harrumph their every disapproval of Trump on twitter” are like when Germans were “expected to say ‘Heil Hitler!’ sufficiently loudly and often.” You even compare those you disagree with to demons when you sketch a world in which “elites” have “xenophobia” against “white European ‘Christian’ varieties,” and you then state that “Satan always come [sic] as an angel of light.”
A) I wince to think that anyone could be in such straits as actually to believe my tweet about “Hitlery” anything but a wild goofball joke.The agonizing and deeply fatiguing seriousness of many progressives in America as evidenced by this misunderstanding may indeed be a sign that the End is Nigh after all. Perhaps I should make clear that I am joking about that, too, eh? But seriously, since I wrote a long book on the Third Reich, I would have liked to think people might have given me more credit.
Q) And I also think you avoided engaging with many of the questions I asked by dismissing all of your critics as extreme and unreasonable, or liberal, or both. But in fact many people who disagree with you or have criticized your public comments are conservative Christians, people like John Mark Reynolds, Andy Crouch, John Wilson, David French, Beth Moore, Ann Voskamp, Justin Giboney, etc. As far as I know all these people hold similar if not identical views as you on abortion and sexuality and marriage. So much of your email was taken up with dismissing your critics, and decrying them as “vile” and “obscene” and “childish” and “impotent” when many of your critics and those who disagree with you are devout brothers and sisters of yours in the faith.
A) I am afraid you have dramatically mischaracterized my responses to my critics and in saying these things you are stooping to the level of attempting to egg me into a response that is more emotional than substantive. Jimmy Carter is my devout brother in Christ, but that doesn’t make his ill-run term in the White House any less horrific from an historical perspective. Nor can the advocacy of my brothers and sisters in Christ for anti-Christian policies anything less than depressing. People can be wonderful and full of faith and still be terribly mistaken politically. People can vote or not vote for many good and pious reasons, but in the end, real people are affected, and I simply believe we need to think hard about those real people, both here and abroad.
Q) The heart of the critique many have leveled against you is I guess two-pronged. The first prong is that many think it it makes little sense for you to write a book about the need to bring virtue back in America, and then endorse a leader who enthusiastically scorns many of the things that Christians consider virtuous. The second prong relates to the “politics of self-interest” and to religious liberty.
A bit of clarification. Self-interest is obviously an integral part of politics. But the politics of self-interest becomes a negative term when it means, as you put it yourself, that one is not “concerned with the real effects” of a presidency “on all Americans.” You spent a few words dismissing the concerns of those Trump has denigrated or who feel threatened by this president, but for the most you also avoided engaging on that topic.
A) I suppose I avoid engaging in that topic because I find it unhelpful and dramatically besides the real point. If I thought Trump corrupt or self-serving in a way that was dangerous to the country then yes, that would be important and dispositive, but from my perspective the high crime of buffoonish tweeting neither rises to the level of an impeachable offense nor a Constitutional crisis. Also, if his sexual misbehavior had extended into the recent past of his campaign and into the present of his presidency, as JFK’s and Lyndon Johnson’s and Bill Clinton’s very certainly did, I would see things very differently. That his critics never bring up this troika of swinish sexual abusers tells me that their criticisms of the current president’s behavior are merely political sour grapes. Not to say shameful in its hypocrisy.
Q) On the point of foreign policy in particular, I agree time will tell and it is too soon to know for sure what the outcome will be of the Trump presidency. But of what we know so far, it’s not my own views that I was relying on. It was authoritative reporting on the concerns and views of foreign leaders from people like Susan Glass and Evan Osnos, and it was remarks like the one Angela Merkel made last summer about a less dependable America.
I also think your definitions of “the state” and “witness” are not in line with how most people understand those terms. I don’t think most Christians think of “witness” as attracting “cultural bona fides.” I think they view it as showing an allegiance to and faith in Christ that gives you the ability to be a strong advocate for what you believe, but to stop short of pursuing victory by any means, and to say no to a win for self-interest if it means violating certain principles. Or something like that anyway.
At the end of the day, I think the heart of the critique from other Christians who hold similar views to you is that they agree with you in general about the hostility of the modern left to conservative views on sexuality, gay marriage, and religious liberty. They might not call it “fascism” but they would certainly have deep concerns. And yet they would believe that the Christian’s calling is to work and advocate for rights of conscience in the public square, to find accommodation and compromise where possible, and to try to live at peace with all men. But for them, supporting Trump — even though he promised protection for conservative Christians from their opponents on these issues — was a violation of their faith and its precepts, and to throw in with Trump would have been to panic, to abandon faith in the promise that God holds their life in his hands, and to put their hope in retaining cultural and political power rather than in allowing God’s power and goodness to show itself through them as they endured hardship and challenge.
A) I certainly understand this view and of course many dear friends of mine hold to this interpretation of things, but I am afraid I simply consider this interpretation to be mistaken, and not only mistaken, but deeply destructive all around, to Christians and non-Christians alike. Christians who think the Church in America might have survived a Hillary Clinton presidency are something like the devout Christian Germans who seriously and prayerfully thought it unChristian to be involved in opposing Hitler because to do so would have dirtied their hands with politics. I really do understand how they thought that, but I also think they were very horribly mistaken and cannot now pretend my friends making this mistake are not doing great harm, just as many of them think that I am doing great harm. This is one case where I sincerely wish I were on the wrong side of the issue. Nor do I mean to compare Hillary to Hitler, but the principle at issue is the same nonetheless.
Q) It seems you might say in response that Bonhoeffer did not simply stand by as an evil regime moved forward. He resisted violently, and unto death. But that is where your comparison of what you describe as the secular “state” — to something similar to Nazi Germany — breaks down. The Nazi’s murdered millions. And there is nothing even remotely similar happening today.
A) This is another confusing non-parallel. The Nazis were not murdering millions until the Forties, but they might have been stopped in the early Thirties if the church in Germany had properly understood its role with regard to the state. Bonhoeffer dramatically tried to wake the church up to its role many years before the Nazis were murdering millions, precisely because he saw where their ideology was leading. And of course he failed. Shall we too stand by because things aren’t “bad enough” yet?