I continue to feel ill at ease when I speak forthrightly in this space about contemporary politics. I began this blog some four years ago because I wanted to be in conversation with other Christians about the intersection of the love of God, the life of the mind, and the study of the past. Put differently, I felt a growing burden to speak to the Church about how to remember the past faithfully. Many of you have been drawn to Faith and American History because of a similar concern. I value your time and your trust, and I do not want to abuse either.
And yet I feel compelled to take a public stand. Every year in my senior seminar for graduating history majors, I require the class to read a 1940 essay by Archibald MacLeish, American poet, playwright, and Librarian of Congress. Written at the outbreak of WWII, MacLeish’s essay, “The Irresponsibles,” was a passionate jeremiad directed at the American Academy. Germany, France, and Japan had succumbed to totalitarian dictatorship and the world was erupting in flames, but western scholars, MacLeish lamented, were doing nothing to impede the progress of trends that were systematically, inexorably destroying freedom of thought and expression in far-flung reaches of the globe. Condemning “the organization of the intellectual life of our time,” MacLeish condemned the “scholar” who “digs in his ivory cellar in the ruins of the past and lets the present sicken as it will.”
The crisis confronting the American people in 2016 is not equivalent to the threat posed by European fascism in 1940, but it is ominous in its own way. Through his repeated claims that the electoral process is “rigged” or “fixed,” Donald Trump is doing his best to undermine the very foundation of American democracy, namely popular confidence in the democratic process. This is cynical nihilism incarnate, an utterly reckless willingness to destroy if he cannot rule.
But as dire as this threat to our political system may be, as a Christian scholar I am far more concerned by the threat posed to Christ’s Church. It is a threat inseparable from the Trump campaign, but ultimately posed not by Trump himself but by evangelicals who continue to defend him. Evangelical support continues to be robust, even after the release of the 2005 “Access Hollywood” video so damaging that even Trump himself was temporarily—very temporarily—contrite. A poll of the nonprofit Public Religion Research Institute completed after the release of the video still found that two-thirds of likely evangelical voters intended to support the Republican nominee. And apart from the Sean Hannitys and Rush Limbaughs of the more “fair and balanced” media, Trump’s most outspoken defenders in recent days have been evangelical leaders such as James Dobson, Tony Perkins, and Jerry Falwell Jr.
If there is a silver lining to be found, it is the indication that large numbers of evangelicals are still undecided. A poll released by the Barna Group last week suggests that nearly three out of ten aren’t sure how they will vote. If you fall into that category, won’t you please take note of the arguments below?
Rather than make the case myself, I can happily refer you to a growing number of prominent, theologically conservative evangelical voices who make the case against Trump better than I can. In the last ten days, these were some of the most eloquent evangelical arguments against the Republican nominee to appear:
* Andy Crouch, executive editor of Christianity Today, “Speak Truth to Trump”
* Russell Moore, president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, “If Donald Trump Has Done Anything Right, He Has Snuffed Out the Religious Right”
* Julie Roys, journalist, blogger, and radio host on Moody Radio Network, “Evangelical Trump Defenders are Destroying the Church’s Witness”
* Collin Hansen, editorial director for the Gospel Coalition, “This is the Last Spastic Breath from the Religious Right before its Overdue Death”
* R. Albert Mohler Jr., president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, “Donald Trump has Created an Excruciating Moment for Evangelicals”
I encourage you to read each of these carefully and prayerfully and decide for yourself, but here is my executive summary of the five pieces linked above, taken as a group:
First, all agree that Trump is morally disqualified to hold our nation’s highest office. For example, Andy Crouch writes of Trump,
He has given no evidence of humility or dependence on others, let alone on God his Maker and Judge. He wantonly celebrates strongmen and takes every opportunity to humiliate and demean the vulnerable. He shows no curiosity or capacity to learn. He is, in short, the very embodiment of what the Bible calls a fool.
Al Mohler agrees, observing that “the Republican nominee is, in terms of character, the personification of what evangelicals have preached (and voted) against.”
Married three times, flaunting Christian sexual mores, building his fortune and his persona on the Playboy lifestyle, under any normal circumstances Trump would be the realization of evangelical nightmares, not the carrier of evangelical hopes.
In sum, Mohler concludes, “Donald Trump is not just disqualified from being a Sunday school teacher. Honest evangelicals would not want him as a next-door neighbor.”
Second, these writers make clear that the most important thing at stake in the current campaign is not a Democratic or Republican victory but the testimony of a Church that claims to believe that Jesus Christ is Lord. Crouch describes the danger this way:
Enthusiasm for a candidate like Trump gives our neighbors ample reason to doubt that we believe Jesus is Lord. They see that some of us are so self-interested, and so self-protective, that we will ally ourselves with someone who violates all that is sacred to us—in hope, almost certainly a vain hope given his mendacity and record of betrayal, that his rule will save us.
Russell Moore offers a similar warning:
What’s at stake here is far more than an election. In the 1980s, many evangelicals quietly cringed when they saw the endless stream of hucksters called “television evangelists” on the airwaves around them. . . . When one after another fell into open scandal, it wasn’t just their prosperity gospel voodoo that was disgraced before the world, but the reputation of the entire church. And yet the damage done to gospel witness this year will take longer to recover from than those 1980s televangelist scandals.
Julie Roys perhaps puts it best. “How on earth can evangelicals maintain any moral platform from which to speak out against abortion and gay marriage if we’re going to dismiss and normalize adultery and sexual assault?” she asks.
Donald Trump may do less damage to the country than Hillary, but he’s done far worse damage to the evangelical church than anyone in recent history. And let’s remember, the church — not politics — is the only real hope of reforming the character of this nation and saving it from destruction. That’s why the witness of the church is simply not worth trading for a political victory.
Al Mohler sums it up this way: “The stakes could not be higher. Jesus famously asked, ‘What will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul? Or what shall a man give in return for his soul?’ (Matthew 16:26) Those are the questions now faced by America’s evangelicals.”