Yesterday I posted “An Open Letter to Evangelical Leaders About to Meet with Donald Trump.” In advance of today’s closed meeting with the presumptive Republican nominee, I urged those who will be attending to be as honest with us as possible after they’ve had time to process what they see and hear. I especially had in mind those who have misgivings about Trump but are likely to conclude that it is still essential to support his nomination. My fear is that these individuals will face inordinate pressure to put the best possible face on a Trump candidacy by soft-pedaling his moral flaws and minimizing the potential dangers of a Trump presidency.
In recommending the utmost candor, I was (surprise) reminded of an historical episode that might be relevant. Because I was determined to make my “open letter” brief, however, I opted not to mention it. I still think it’s pertinent, though, so I’ll take the time to share it now.
The year was 1947, and the United States and the Soviet Union were engaged in a tense confrontation in post-war Europe that we remember as the beginning of the Cold War. Shocked by the speed with which our former ally had become our most dangerous enemy, Americans noticed with alarm how sympathetically the Soviets had been portrayed during the war and wondered if something was amiss. In response, the House Un-American Activities Committee began to investigate the possibility of communist influence within America’s borders, beginning with the motion picture industry.
Some of the most gripping testimony before HUAC came from Mrs. Alisa Rosenbaum O’Connor, a Russian-born writer who had immigrated to the United States in 1926. In time, O’Connor became a successful Hollywood scriptwriter, playwright, and novelist, and you may know her better by her professional penname, Ayn Rand. Best known for her 1957 novel Atlas Shrugged, Rand was a devout materialist and resolute atheist, and I generally abhor the worldview that informs her writings. And yet the God who causes rain to fall on the just as well as the unjust sometimes grants insight to those outside the Church that those within the Church need to hear. I think that Rand’s testimony to HUAC might be an example of this.
Rand appeared before HUAC specifically to testify about the 1944 film Song of Russia, a movie produced at a time when the United States and the USSR were allied in the struggle against Nazi Germany. The film portrayed a Russian peasant village in idyllic terms and strongly insinuated that the US and the USSR shared not only a common enemy but a common set of western, Christian, democratic ideals. Rand was livid and incredulous.
What could explain such a gross distortion, Rand asked? Was it to make the American people more comfortable with the Soviet alliance? “That sort of attitude is nothing but the theory of the Nazi elite,” she lectured the committee members, “that a choice group of intellectual or other leaders will tell the people lies for their own good.” At this, one of the ranking members of the committee, Democratic Congressman John Wood of Georgia, interrupted to ask Rand whether she was seriously suggesting that the United States shouldn’t have accepted the help of a dictatorship in the struggle against another dictatorship. Wood’s poorly disguised intention was to cast the witness as a naïve idealist.
“That is not what I said,” Rand shot back.
We are discussing the fact that our country was an ally of Russia, and the question is, what should we tell the American people about it—the truth or a lie? If we had good reason, if that is what you believe, all right, then why not tell the truth? Say it is a dictatorship, but we want to be associated with it. Say it is worthwhile being associated with the devil, as Churchill said, in order to defeat another evil, which is Hitler. There might be some good argument made for that. But why pretend that Russia was not what it was?
So let’s bring this back to our current political moment. Is there something in Rand’s testimony that the evangelical leaders gathering in New York City should take to heart? Don’t get me wrong: I’m not likening Donald Trump to Josef Stalin. (Although if Stalin were alive today, Trump would likely admire his Putin-like qualities). Nor am I suggesting that a conscientious decision to endorse Trump is tantamount to allying with a brutal dictatorship. Nor am I remotely hinting that there are evangelical leaders who would cynically exaggerate their confidence in Trump in order to make a more effective case for Trump to their constituencies. I pray that there aren’t.
But the temptation to fudge things will be strong. Alexis de Tocqueville nailed it when he conceded that “a false but simple idea will always have more power in the world than one which is true but complex.” If the goal is to deliver votes, it will be far more effective to market a Trump-Clinton contest as a struggle between good and evil than to depict it realistically–as a depressing choice between two monumentally flawed and uninspiring alternatives. And if the goal is to deliver evangelical votes, it will be further useful to portray Trump as reliably sympathetic with evangelical convictions in a way that Hillary Clinton is not.
But what would be the price of yielding to that temptation? More than in any other election in our lifetime, evangelicals who wish to take their religious principles into the voting booth seem to have no good options. But there is little reason to believe that this will be the last such time. Rather than falling for bellicose rhetoric about “taking back America,” we need evangelical leaders who will teach us how to live faithfully and responsibly as Christians in a post-Christian, ever more pluralistic nation. Candidly acknowledging our choices in November would be a step in the right direction.