by Chris Buskirk
Can an adulterer be a great surgeon? If your child needed care and the best surgeon had cheated on his wife, maybe more than once, would you let him operate? What if you are a Christian and he is not? Does that matter? Should it?
In the secular realm of everyday life—the life that takes place outside the church in which believers and unbelievers interact, mostly happily, mostly without even noticing (or often having any way of knowing) the difference—those questions should answer themselves.
Of course, an adulterer can be a great surgeon. And a superbly ethical, thoroughly decent person may be a professional mediocrity—or worse. That’s life.
There are innumerable examples of people who are wonderful but unaccomplished just as there are many notable examples of people with serious personal failings who nonetheless have excelled in other parts of their lives: artists, scientists, parents, and even politicians.
And yes, I’m not so subtly making a point about President Trump. His private failings have been made very public prompting some Christian pundits to say that not only do those failings disqualify Trump from office, but they are so egregious as to make supporting him sinful for Christians.
That’s the essential position of people like David and Nancy French, who last month wrote companion columns on the subject that they published on the same day—one in National Review and the other in the Washington Post. Mrs. French’s column pulls double duty: it’s a hagiographic depiction of Mitt Romney in which she also devotes substantial effort to defaming the Huckabee clan—Governor Mike and his daughter, Sarah, the president’s unflappable press secretary—while Mr. French uses his column to accuse Franklin Graham of a “willingness to abandon Christian principles when it’s politically expedient” and who he claims “illustrates the collapsing evangelical public witness.”
Of course, the same accusation is being leveled, sotto voce, against all the other naughty Christians who support Trump, too.
It should be obvious that support for a political candidate does not mean a blanket endorsement of every aspect that candidate’s life. It is merely an endorsement of that person’s policies and an assessment of his ability to perform in office. What’s more, it’s often not even a blanket endorsement of that, it’s a practical decision that Candidate A, while imperfect, is preferable to Candidate B. And support for Candidate A, barring some major breach of public trust or endorsement of public evil, does not reflect one way or another on one’s public witness.
But this sort of confusion is what results when one conflates the mission of the church (primarily the public worship of God, the administration of the sacraments, and the fellowship of believers) with secular politics. They are simply not the same and Christians are permitted substantial liberty of conscience in these matters.
There is, for example, no clear “Christian position” on whether the marginal tax rate should be 15 percent or 50 percent. Arguments based on God-given reason and practical wisdom can be made for both tax rates. I know which I believe is better policy for reasons that are consistent with Christian ethics (hint: it’s the lower one) but I would certainly not argue that someone who believes in a higher tax rate is, per se, undermining their “public witness” for Christ.
Why, then, do the Frenches insist on attacking Christians who support Trump not on a rational, political basis, but on the basis that their support for Trump implicates their faith and undermines their witness?
Understand what they are saying: if a Christian acts in a way that undermines his witness for Christ, he is in sin. And in the case of the Huckabees and Franklin Graham, it would be very public sin given their high profiles. This is a serious charge that David French does not take the time to substantiate.
He claims that Graham abandoned “Christian principles,” but what principles does he claim were abandoned? He doesn’t say, so one can only infer. I suspect the Frenches don’t think Donald Trump is very nice. He’s loud, he’s aggressive, and he attacks his political enemies. They oppose his policies too—both are on the record as war hawks who believe in an aggressive American military posture abroad, both believe in mass immigration of the Paul Ryan variety, and both seem content to follow like a shadow behind liberalism’s relentless march—never objecting very much to the direction, just the pace.
But mostly it seems to be about taste: Trump is brash and politically heterodox politically, while the Frenches are defenders of the status quo. Fine—but why try and theologize it? Why try and wrap a legitimate (if wrongheaded) personal political preference in Christianity? Perhaps they think it makes them appear stronger—more moral, less self-interested? In fact, it does just the opposite. It belies an underlying weakness. Worse, it misuses the Gospel.
The question is, by what standard should a Christian judge a candidate or an officeholder? Part of the answer is that the Christian and non-Christian ought to judge in the same way: what can the candidate do to protect the peace and prosperity of the nation and its citizens? Christians would add that they require political leaders that will protect the right of the Church to worship freely and its members to practice their faith in peace.
So, are Christians prohibited from supporting Trump for president because of his multiple divorces, his apparent infidelity, or his trademark braggadocio? In a word, no. There is simply no biblical support for this. If personal sin were disqualifying, who could lead? Christians in particular, for whom recognition of indwelling sin is both a predicate and a sustainer of faith, should know this.
I suspect what the Frenches really want is a prophet, a priest, and a king to rule in this secular age, a political leader in which they can invest their highest hopes. But in doing so, they are placing upon liberal politics a weight it cannot hope to carry and are headed for disappointment.
The good news is, if they want a prophet, a priest, and a king, they already have one . . . in Christ.
This is a common problem in American evangelicalism. Too often it forsakes true religion for a moralistic therapeutic deism. The prigs and scolds replace the Gospel with idealistic rhetoric and aggressive social and political agendas. That’s why the spirituality of the church must be defended. Preaching a social gospel and a political agenda necessarily denigrates the gospel of Christ even though it is often sold as a consequence of and not a replacement for the true gospel.
It is, what J. Gresham Machen, a theologian at Princeton and then Westminster Theological Seminaries in the early 20th century called, “the type of religion which rejoices in the pious sound of traditional phrases.”
The Frenches and others wrap themselves in just such pious, Christianist rhetorical flourishes and scriptural references. But by conflating the role of the secular and the sacred, by attempting to immanentize the world which is to come, they misrepresent orthodox Christian teaching about the role of Church and the practice of secular politics to the detriment of both.
Instead of demonstrating that only those with the highest personal ethics can lead, the Bible is full of examples of craven, ruthless, merciless sinners successfully leading their nations. Yet God chose to use them.
Was David disqualified from leading Israel because he murdered Uriah in order to take Bathsheba as his wife? Certainly not. In the Psalms, he is called the apple of God’s eye.
Did Joseph undermine his public witness as a prophet of God by serving Pharaoh even as he held the Israelites in captivity? What about Daniel, who served the fantastically pagan Nebuchadnezzar? Or Esther, who married the murderous, libertine emperor Xerxes? Again, the answer is plainly no.
So why do Trump supporters come in for such scorn? Are Trump’s sins greater than any of these? Are they greater than those of many other presidents? Without resorting to Clinton references, shall we recall George H. W. Bush’s or Lyndon Johnson’s or FDR’s reported adultery? How about John F. Kennedy’s serial adulteries in the White House? Warren Harding’s love child?
Nor does Mr. French apply his apparent standard evenly or, frankly, to anyone other than Trump supporters. He long used a portrait of John Calvin, the great theologian of the Reformation, as his Twitter profile picture. But Calvin dedicated his largest and most influential theological work, The Institutes of the Christian Religion, to King Francis I of France whom he calls “His Most Christian Majesty” in accordance with the custom of the day.
Unsurprisingly, Francis, like many monarchs, had a casual relationship with the Seventh Commandment (or the Sixth, according to the Roman Catholic numbering) and kept a series of mistresses. (One was apparently Mary Boleyn, future mistress of Henry VIII and sister of Anne Boleyn.) Why would Calvin dedicate his masterwork to an adulterer? Did this cause Calvin’s public witness to collapse? Is his theological work now tainted? It would take a peculiarly scolding, fundamentalist theology to think so. But if Calvin, like David, Joseph, Daniel, Esther, and so on, are not tainted, then why is Franklin Graham, and not just Graham, but every other Trump supporter that French accuses by implication?
Perhaps Calvin knew something about Christianity that escapes the moralizers and fundamentalists. The work of the church is not politics. As Lane Tipton, professor of Biblical and Systematic Theology at Westminster Seminary says, the church is an eschatological intrusion of the world that is to come into the world that now is. Put a little more simply, the Christian church is the present instantiation of Christ’s kingdom in this passing world. And it is the job of the Church to preach the gospel, administer the sacraments, offer true worship to the Creator, and encourage the fellowship of God’s people.
Nancy French apparently shares her husband’s conviction that not only is Orange Man Bad, so are the Orange Man’s supporters—and especially the Christians.
In her column, she refers to Isaiah 5:20, declaring, “If evangelical leaders really demanded Christian values in their president, they’d stop calling evil good and good evil.” She uses an interesting phrase which gives an insight into her (and perhaps her husband’s) approach to politics. When she refers to evangelicals (Catholics, I guess, are off the hook) demanding Christian values in the president she says that she believes Christians should vote for the person they believe the candidate is, rather than for what he will do. Her piece also suggests that she tilts the scales heavily in favor of a particular standard of personal decorum and heavily against sexual sin.
But why sexual sin should be weighted more heavily than, say, failure to keep the Sabbath or idolatry, is left unexplained. And more important in the political context, voters have both a right and an affirmative obligation to prioritize public virtue. And that’s exactly the calculation that Christian Trump voters made in 2016 and are almost certain to make again in 2020.
What’s worse is that taking that single verse out of its redemptive-historical context and dragooning it into secular political service misses the depth, the beauty, and the unmerited grace about which Isaiah was writing. Instead, it points to the sort of religion that rejoices in pious-sounding phrases, regardless of their meaning, that Machen warned against. It’s dangerous because it leads the reader towards moralism and self-sufficiency and away from the redemption offered by the Gospel to which Isaiah was pointing. Using gratuitous, out-of-context quotes from the Bible to support one’s preferred political program is an abuse of scripture. Scripture, is a revelation of God’s eternal plan of redemption first and foremost, not a political platform.
Whether or not this is a willful mischaracterization of scripture, I don’t know. I hope not. But what evangelical leaders and many millions of other Americans have called good about Donald Trump are his public policies, not his private failings. Instead, the Frenches would insist on someone who appears personally gracious but whose public policies many people believe have failed and harmed the nation. Romney is the example Nancy French used and I’ll stick with it.
Senator Romney may have refined public manners, but in his political life he has supported all of the failed policies that have hollowed out the middle and working class and undermined the unity and trust that hold our nation together: mass immigration for cheap labor, forever war abroad in pursuit of “ideals” rather than interests, and deference to political, economic, and media/academic elites at the expense of American citizens. And let’s not forget that as governor of Massachusetts he was the author of that state’s healthcare system that became the model for Obamacare. As a presidential candidate in 2012, he was weak and ineffectual, letting Barack Obama walk all over him and run away with the race. But vote for him because he’s polite and he doesn’t curse! Voters, many of them Christians, decided that the time for beautiful losers is over.
But all of this raises the question: Is pursuing policies that protect and promote the interests of the American people good or evil? If it is good, then the question is should Christians—any voters, really—prioritize public goods or the private sins when choosing leaders? Most people probably would give the common sense answer that the private sin would have to be particularly egregious to disqualify someone from public life if they believed he would otherwise do good for them and the nation. To do otherwise reflects a particularly fussy immaturity about politics.
We should remember that Churchill was a profligate spender and profoundly immodest, but also a great statesman who saved the West. Henry VIII was impetuous, vengeful, and adulterous. He was also a great king who secured England’s finances and her role as a great European power.
Even great churchmen had their failings. Martin Luther was the brilliant expositor of the role of faith and grace in the Christian life, but he was sometimes intemperate in his polemics in ways that make Donald Trump look positively prim. Do these shortcomings undermine their work? Or do they just tell us that people are complicated and tarnished by indwelling sin?
For Christians, David Van Drunen, a professor at Westminster Theological Seminary offers this advice:
Speaking of Christian political activity can also be misleading since Scripture only speaks at a general level about civil government and political responsibilities . . . Scripture says nothing specifically about the concrete decisions that Christians must make about voting, party affiliation, details of public policy, or political strategy. These are decisions of moral gravity, but they are not decisions that one Christian can impose upon the conscience of another Christian. Where Scripture is silent, there is no single Christian position. Each believer must seek to apply, with wisdom, biblical teaching that is relevant to political decisions. Certain political actions are clearly inconsistent with faith, but many possible approaches to voting, supporting parties, forming public policy, and political strategizing are potentially consistent with the Christian faith. In these areas believers enjoy Christian liberty—and responsibility—to exercise their wisdom in “seek(ing) the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile . . .” (Jer: 29:7)
We would do well not to invest too much hope for secular, let alone spiritual, salvation in political leaders. Some, once in a great while, are truly great, but even those we esteem fall short. Both spiritual and political maturity recognizes this and adjusts expectations accordingly. It understands the failings and complexities of human life and then makes a decision and attempts to build a world that both accounts for them and maximizes their potential both for beauty and virtue. Expecting too much from political leaders who are themselves weak vessels will lead to bad decisions, disillusionment, and then disaster.
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