A Christian’s Questions for Trump’s Evangelical Voters
Should we as Christians support an egocentric president who seeks to rally support by dividing Americans into enemy camps?
- The toxic divisions afflicting the US will not heal themselves. Resolving the country’s many internal divisions will require sensitive engagement by Americans of all faiths.
- There’s a tendency among Trump’s religiously motivated supporters to excuse his flaws as a leader by saying that God works through imperfect human beings. But that would justify all manner of evil inflicted by an incompetent or despotic leader.
- Question to my fellow believers: How can it be the correct moral choice for righteous people to condone a president’s conduct in office which they would never accept for themselves or their personal acquaintances?
- Should we really be prepared to pay tribute to vice -- and not demand virtue from our leaders? What world do we live in when basically good people unquestioningly lend their support to a morally deficient leader?
- In Christian doctrine, we are all sinners. However, those Americans rewarded by the opportunity to serve as our nation’s leader have special obligations.
As an aspiring Christian (and sinners only aspire to meet the standards Christ set for us), I address you in the spirit of Isaiah: Let us reason together.
The intelligence with which we are blessed does not compel agreement, but it does command us to consider how our values relate to evidence, how our ends relate to means — and how our elected leaders reflect the moral goals we espouse.
Let me stipulate at the beginning that I believe you are good people and patriots who care about our country.
I am not smart enough, however, to understand how people of conscience have come to support such a dubious character as Mr. Trump. His outrageous performance at the national prayer breakfast — including his explicit repudiation of Christ’s command to love one’s enemies — prompts me to write this open letter.
My ten questions for you
Perhaps we can best proceed by reviewing critical and often very practical issues on which we should all have views. Here then are my questions:
1. Modern society has grown more tolerant of divorce than was the Methodist Church in which I grew up. But should we take a lenient attitude toward the repeated public adultery Trump has practiced?
Given his payment of large sums to buy the silence of at least two women who report relations with him — including one during his third wife’s pregnancy — can we doubt that he continued such adultery into recent years?
2. When we heard him saying that a “star” can grab a woman by her private parts, are we prepared to dismiss that as innocent locker room braggadocio? Or does it reveal his true impulse toward sexual assault? Does it seem more likely than not that at least some women reporting his assaults are telling the truth?
3. Do Mr. Trump’s habitual lies and exaggerations — largest inaugural turnout ever, more admired abroad than ever, fastest economic growth in history and so on — not call into doubt his integrity?
4. Is a person right to be disturbed that Mr. Trump’s campaign promise to work harder and golf less than his predecessor has given way to hundreds of visits to golf courses during his time in office?
Not only has this incurred millions of dollars in taxpayer costs for presidential travel, security and accommodations — including large payments to hotels and resorts that he owns — it also stands in direct contradiction to his earlier charges about Barack Obama golfing excessively while in office.
5. Apart from the fact that many of his close and previously loyal associates (Michael Cohen, Anthony Scaramucci, Stephen Bannon, Omarosa Manigault and others) now testify to his character flaws, shouldn’t we take notice that people of independent and honorable reputations have left the Trump administration with profound anxieties about the president’s personal qualities?
Remember James Mattis, John Kelly, H.R. McMaster, Rex Tillerson, John Bolton, David Shulkin and others.
And do we condone his dismissal of inspector generals, the officials responsible for independent monitoring of the operations of departments and agencies?
6. While the U.S. Senate declined to impose on Trump the mandatory punishment of removal from office, do you share Senator Lamar Alexander’s conclusion — and, if Senator Ben Sasse is accurate, the judgement of many others who opposed Trump’s conviction — that the president was in fact guilty of improperly pressuring Ukraine by withholding military assistance?
Does it matter to you that the Government Accountability Office (GAO) found that the administration’s action violated the law?
7. What is one to make of an individual who describes himself as a “very stable genius”? Who asserts that he knows more about military and national security issues than the generals and other professionals who have devoted their entire careers to them?
8. And an individual whose disregard for truth regularly arouses both worried dismay and nervous laughter among other world leaders?
9. Never mind a man who volunteers reckless medical advice during a national pandemic? And one who asserts that the constitution empowers him to do whatever he wants as president? Are these signs of a healthy personality or a deeply troubled one?
10. Following his overt repudiation of Christian doctrine at the prayer breakfast, President Trump is openly flouting St. Paul’s admonition to “avenge not yourselves.” He thus shows utter contempt for the ancient cautions of Leviticus and Deuteronomy that vengeance belongs to the Lord.
Do we as Christians approve that, for Trump and his clan, it is explicitly payback time for those who oppose him, irrespective of their merits and reputations?
When pointed to these demonstrable character defects of our sitting president, Mr. Trump’s supporters often invoke — as a quasi-pardon — what they consider his desirable policy efforts.
Yet, for any Christian, it is difficult to justify a balance that consistently gives priority to secular political goals over the claims of ethical conduct.
Christians who have taken the scripture to heart realize full well that Mr. Trump’s corrosive example erodes the civility on which any community — and especially the Christian one — rests.
Given all that, how can one support his behavior as an appropriate model for children raised in the Christian faith?
America will not heal itself
Surely, we can agree that the toxic divisions afflicting America will not heal themselves. Resolving our many internal divisions will require sensitive engagement by people of all faiths.
But no one is more critical in this exercise at national healing than those mostly evangelical Christians who have stood steadfastly with Mr. Trump, despite their distress at his immoral propensities.
Mission: Reconciliation, not provocation
I address these questions to you not to provoke, but to explore how to reconcile Christian concerns with public objectives.
The tension between what belongs to Caesar and what belongs to God is a perpetual challenge to people of faith. Seldom has it been so tortuous as in the current situation.
To me, an uncritical embrace of political power or of those who hold it is both unseemly and unwise.
It seems a weak, indeed naïve, argument to excuse the flaws of leaders on the ground that God often works through imperfect human beings. If that were the only truth religion offers, it would justify all manner of evil inflicted by either the incompetent or the despotic.
Standards of civility matter more than political utility
I believe — and would like to think that you believe — that political leaders must be held to higher standards of civility, as well as competence.
There are, of course, important distinctions between the spheres of private life and public conduct, but they dissolve when private traits come to govern the conduct of public officials.
At the core for any Christian looking at Mr. Trump must be this question: How do you feel about the stresses between Christian teaching and the president’s performance? Is it enough that he has advanced some of your political goals, even if his moral turpitude is on full display?
Do you not harbor worries about enabling an egocentric presidency that seeks to rally support by dividing Americans into enemy camps?
And what should evangelicals make of a politician who demands that, whatever the COVID 19 risks, churches should reopen — but who plays golf instead of attending services?
Are you having second thoughts like the president’s former supporter in Virginia who says we have now learned “that Trump is a terrible president but a wonderful tyrant”.
Let’s recall Lincoln and Jesus
Let us all remember that in 1861 Abraham Lincoln called troubled Americans to unity, proclaiming that “we are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies.” That is guidance for our times, no less than his.
And Jesus spoke to all of us when he asked, “For what is a man profited, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul”?
Or, translated into our contemporary context: In the contest for political power, how far can one go in sacrificing the prescriptions of Christ for the advancement of secular authority?
Our leader as a serial mega-sinner
These and similar questions are all part of the complex verdict every citizen must reach in assessing Donald Trump as president. Certainly, all sinners need the generous grace offered by the Christian gospel, but not all sinners are rewarded by the opportunity to serve as our nation’s leader.
Entrusting the grave responsibilities of that office to a single person imposes on all Americans an obligation to judge carefully the moral dimensions of those seeking or sitting in the White House.
Because of the vast powers residing in the U.S. Presidency — powers that Mr. Trump has stretched to the utmost — there is no escaping the necessity to look beyond our political hopes and ambitions to evaluate both moral and psychological aspects of those holding high office.
For those who share so many values, I pray that you will welcome an opportunity to clarify these anguishing issues.
Hypocrisy, the aphorism says, is the tribute vice pays to virtue, the pretense of respecting moral values while flouting them behind a façade.
But what does one call it when the tribute is paid by virtue to vice? When basically good people lend support to a morally deficient leader?
It cannot be the correct moral choice for righteous individuals to condone presidential conduct which they would never accept for themselves or their personal acquaintances.
A personal note as an afterword
Gerald Ford, a decent and devoted public servant whom I knew and admired, had been president only a few months when my then six-year-old daughter came to me while I was shaving one morning. “Daddy,” she asked, “has President Ford told any lies yet”?
That troubling question, voicing an expectation of deceit emerging from the Watergate and Vietnam years, offers proof of how early in life children pick up political cues.
Given how many truly pernicious cues — and lies — have radiated from Mr. Trump, will a child someday ask their father, “Daddy, has the president told any truths yet?”