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:
In 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.
Almost 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.