There are a lot of folks right now trying to figure out what Eric Metaxas really believes about the importance of character in contemporary politics.  Here’s why:

MetaxasIn the middle of last month, with great fanfare, Metaxas’ latest book was released to the world.  In If You Can Keep It: The Forgotten Promise of American Liberty, the prominent radio host and public intellectual makes an impassioned plea to Americans to rededicate ourselves to the perpetuation of liberty and to re-embrace our divinely ordained mission to be a beacon of liberty to the world.

Central to Metaxas’ argument is the Founders’ conviction that liberty could not long survive among any people in the absence of virtue.  Metaxas offers several recommendations as to how we might promote virtue in America today, including the absolutely critical importance of electing political leaders who model it.  In an chapter devoted to “The Importance of Moral Leaders,” Metaxas reasons:

If a virtuous people is vital to self-government, as we have established, their virtue cannot help but be affected, in one direction or the other, by the behavior of their leaders.  So it follows that leaders—whether political or cultural—may encourage or discourage a wider culture of virtue.

From this premise Metaxas goes on to complete the syllogism.  If self-government requires a virtuous people, and the extent of virtue among the people will be influenced, if not determined, by the prevalence of virtue among their leaders, it follows that “self-government cannot exist without virtuous leaders.”  Not much ambiguity here.

metaxas2Almost simultaneously, Metaxas met with conservative journalist Kathryn Jean Lopez of National Review Online to discuss the current presidential campaign.  Metaxas led by echoing themes from If You Can Keep It about the necessity of virtuous leadership, prompting Lopez to ask whether the necessity of virtue would disqualify Donald Trump.  Here is how Metaxas responded:

Not only can we vote for Trump, we must vote for Trump, because with all his foibles, peccadilloes, and metaphorical warts, he is nonetheless the last best hope of keeping America from sliding into oblivion, the tank, the abyss, the dustbin of history, if you will.

So how are we to reconcile these two positions?  For some Trump supporters there is nothing to reconcile.  They know that the presumptive Republican nominee is a man of unimpeachable character–for the very good reason that he has told them so.  But for the rest of us—the overwhelming majority of Americans, according to numerous polls—there is a seeming contradiction here.  When we think of public figures that Metaxas highlights as moral exemplars in If You Can Keep It—George Washington, Nathan Hale, William Wilberforce—we can’t bring ourselves to add the name of Donald Trump to the list.

So what’s going on?  It’s tempting to explain Metaxas’ apparent inconsistency as just so much hypocrisy, to dismiss his appeals to virtue as a cynical rhetorical device deployed for partisan purposes, or to rank him among the host of political and religious figures who have apparently abandoned their principles in the belief that no moral compromise is too great if it leads to the defeat of Hillary Clinton.

Are these conclusions our only options?  I’m not sure that they are.  To understand why not, we need to go back and understand what the Founders meant by virtue, a term Metaxas uses relentlessly but doesn’t define as precisely as he should.  The meaning of the word has changed a great deal in the past two-plus centuries.  To the Founders, virtue involved one’s behavior in the public sphere and had nothing to do with your behavior in private life—how you treated your children, whether you were faithful to your spouse, the degree to which you were honest in business.  Virtue was all about behavior that had implications for the welfare of the political community.  (Today we might use the term “civic virtue,” but in the 18th century the phrase would have been considered redundant.)  A virtuous citizen was someone (always assumed to be male, as virtue was thought of as masculine) who was willing to deny his own interests for the greater good of the republic.

It’s at least conceivable that Metaxas would argue that some of the aspects of Trump’s personal life that have given some evangelicals pause aren’t relevant to virtue as the Founders understood it.  In this category, we could include Trump’s multiple divorces, for example, his avowed sexual conquests, his previous support for abortion rights, his long-standing connection to the gambling industry, and the misnamed Trump University, among other things.  I suppose he might even try to argue that Trump’s support for the torture of combatants and murder of the families of terrorists as well as his advocacy of discrimination on the basis of religion are not really transgressions of virtue as the Founders conceived of it.  (It would be a stretch, but I’m trying to give him every benefit of the doubt.)

I say Metaxas might be able to make that argument historically, but it doesn’t appear that that’s the argument he made to Kathryn Lopez.  Instead of arguing that Trump’s moral flaws, however glaring, are irrelevant to his qualifications to be president, he instead implied that they’re just trivial.  Look up foible in the dictionary.  It means “a minor weakness or eccentricity.”  A peccadillo (the kind of word that shows up on the SAT) is a “small, relatively unimportant offense.”

That’s not how I would describe bigotry, misogyny, racism, and xenophobia.

Your thoughts?

Washington . . . Wilberforce . . . Trump??

Washington . . . Wilberforce . . . Trump?


  1. Pingback: Move Over David Barton, Make Room for Eric Mataxas – Old Life

  2. highlandsmangi

    It does seem like this is an example of not seeing things in their context, in this case the term virtue. I would certainly say that Mr. Trump seems to possess neither civic virtue or private virtue but I have been wondering lately what makes Mr. Trump’s lack of virtue (in its various definitions) better in the eyes of many than Mrs. Clinton’s. It seems like a double standard that he can say all manner of rude, offensive, unconstitutional, racist things and that evangelicals are still willing to defend him. Yes, Mrs. Clinton is a flawed candidate but I rarely seen evangelicals willing to meet with her and say anything positive in the way they do with Mr. Trump. I read the above comment by Mr. Roley but it seems unclear how Mrs. Clinton would be the death of America while Mr. Trump can be so easily forgiven or given a pass by evangelical leaders. Any thoughts on this Dr. McKenzie?

    • Because, unlike Trump, who does not have an office in politics and who leaves us to conjecture about what he would do, Mrs. Clinton has an actual record in office and being in power. There isn’t a whole lot she could say that would make me believe she would act as President differently than she acted as First Lady (Arkansas and United States), speaker, Senator, and Secretary of State. I think evangelicals are meeting with Trump because they want a better handle on what he would do as President. We know, from her record, what Clinton would do.

  3. Once when I was going out to lunch with my pastor, I noticed in his car a biography of Ted Kennedy. I inquired why he would take the time to read a book on him. I’ll never forget his answer, “Everything Ted Kennedy has done you have at least thought of.” It was a jarring rejoinder but very true. The gap, if there really is any, between the likes of Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton and me is scant. Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton is one of us.

    I think the answer Metaxas gave to Ms. Lopez is inconsistent with his premises, but I also think it is an error when he says, that Trump is the “last best hope of keeping America from sliding into oblivion.” No individual, no matter how virtuous he may appear, is truly the last best hope. That distinction belongs to those mediating structures and institutions—families, churches, civic organizations, charitable organizations, local governments —that serve as buffers between the individuals and the state but also contribute in the moral formation of it’s citizens.

    If there is a last, best hope, it is the Church!

  4. Jack Be Nimble

    Perhaps we Christians have placed too much emphasis on a candidate’s personal morality rather than his/her concept of public virtue as a basis for judging suitability for public office. The truth is that our sinful natures have left none of us with a viable claim to moral superiority. How are we to judge Donald Trump if we take an unvarnished look at our own hearts? On the other hand, we do need to ask just what a Trump presidency would bring in terms of public virtue. Like almost every candidate Trump throws out the cliches we wish to hear and the promises that he thinks will garner votes for his candidacy. I recently saw a PBS program on the life and work of Adam Smith and the Scottish Enlightenment. Smith’s economic and political ideas centered around his “invisible hand” and how these natural mechanisms would create the maximum benefit for the most people. He was especially interested that the poor and lower class people partake in the prosperity of the nation as they freely pursued their self interests. That got me to thinking – what kind of a society does Donald Trump envision under his leadership? Does his life-long pursuit of great wealth and economic (now, political) power bode ill or well for the bottom 90%?

  5. This election is a nightmare for me, and I hope for Eric Metaxas. Donald Trump stinks. There isn’t a whole lot to like about him and even the positions that he has taken that I somewhat like, such as his list for Supreme Court nominees, I don’t really trust him to be fully behind those positions. I believe what comes out of his mouth is what he believes that moment to be necessary to get him elected.

    However, as bad as Trump is, Hillary Clinton is worse. It truly scares me to think of Clinton as being President, particularly with a current Supreme Court vacancy and an aging Court. I’ve read the statements made by FBI director James Comey, and I still don’t understand his decision not to recommend charges given his findings about her lack of candor. If she knew she was circumventing federal law, she should be charged. But, if she did not know, as Comey alleges, she lacks the very basic common sense we should require of our President. Philosophically, she represents many views that I believe simply do not work. In my opinion, Clinton is such a poor choice that I might not be voting for Trump, but rather voting against her.

    But, you can vote for somebody else. Yes, you can waste your vote on someone else. However, under the winner-take-all — and only two states are not winner-take-all electoral states — electoral system we have, only two parties have a chance: the Republicans and Democrats. In 1992, Ross Perot won almost one-fifth of the popular vote and received exactly zero electoral votes, finishing second in Maine and Utah. Thanks to Perot, Bill Clinton won his first term, polling 43 percent of the popular vote but 370, or 68.8 percent, of the Electoral College. For a liberal to vote for, say, the Socialist Party nominee really is a vote for Trump, since the Socialist Party will not win any states. Likewise for a conservative, and I define myself politically as a Christian, libertarian conservative, to vote for, say, the Constitutional Party, would be vote for Clinton since the Constitution Party will not win any electoral votes.

    So, it may be that Metaxas is not saying that Trump is a virtuous candidate, but that he is the most virtuous choice of the two realistic candidates. He may feel, like me, that Clinton is so bad and there are so many key issues on the line, including a possible majority of the Supreme Court, that a vote for Trump is a vote for the most virtuous, viable candidate running. Trump, running among other virtuous candidates, clearly fails the test. Trump, though, running against Hillary Clinton, is very likely the most virtuous of the two candidates.

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