Hitching Their Wagons: Evangelicals and the Politics of Respectability

Michael Gerson, a former speechwriter for President George W. Bush, published a takedown of Trump-supporting evangelicals in the latest issue of The Atlantic. Gerson attempts to answer the question of how a once confident and influential cultural movement became an anxious minority seeking protection from a very un-Christian president. He is at his best when he traces evangelicalism’s historical trajectory from pre-Civil War social action through the Fundamentalist-Modernist controversy of the early 20th century to the heyday of the Moral Majority. As the old guard Religious Right’s influence faded, we arrived at this vexing moment when a materialist, thrice-married, self-admitted adulterer has become the last great hope of the evangelical political effort to stop this handbasket we’re all riding in from careening off into hell. Gerson’s answer is sometimes insightful (e.g., the shift from postmillennialism to premillennialism) and sometimes baffling (e.g., his assertion that Christians were wrong to oppose evolution). At other times, the essay reads as prissiness masquerading as prudent statesmanship. In short, Gerson believes evangelicals have set aside decency and neighbor love by turning to the protection of an unchristian strongman in a game of special interest group power politics.

In slight contrast, noted Never-Trumper David French countered Gerson at National Review, arguing evangelical Trump supporters were justified in voting for Trump because of the serious opposition they face in our culture. Still, French asserts, they are not justified in joining his tribe. In this, he and Gerson agree: Trump-supporting evangelicals have become just another self-interested political tribe. For all Gerson and French get right about how evangelicals arrived at this moment, I believe they both omitted an important factor. For that answer, I pose an alternative question:

How bad must the establishment GOP be for rank-and-file evangelicals to flock to Donald J. Trump? In one corner we have all the suit-and-power-ties of the respectable class of the Republican Party. In the other corner we have a New York liberal who has supported partial-birth abortion, owned strip clubs and casinos, stolen property through eminent domain, paid hush money to a porn star to cover up an affair, and has bragged about other adultery. And when they sized everybody up, a good portion of evangelicals cast their lots with the sinner over the (re)publicans. I’ll never forget visiting with my grandfather during the 2016 primary season when he said, “I’m going to vote for ol’ Trump; I just think he’s more like us than the rest of ‘em.” I was surprised. President Trump could not be more unlike my pious grandfather who has been married to the same woman for almost seventy years, has been a member of the same church for just as long, and has attended the same 6:00 a.m. Tuesday morning prayer meeting for the last thirty consecutive years. He is a model of faithfulness. Yet, when he looked at the GOP field, Trump seemed closest to home. Gerson’s expansive catalogue of Trump’s sins and unsavory character serve as evidence in an a fortiori argument against the GOP: if Trump is that bad—and got elected—how bad must the rest of them be?

The answer is pretty bad. Of course, not everyone is rotten; God always keeps a remnant of stalwarts. But the GOP has specialized in backing down, turning coat, and selling out. Remember, Planned Parenthood is still funded. To use Gerson’s language, the GOP has “exploited” evangelicals, and Trump’s election proves they have about had enough of it. Gerson and the Respectable Class are happy to point the finger at prominent evangelical figures like Jerry Falwell, Jr. and Robert Jeffress, and, sure, they have abased and embarrassed themselves with their Trumpist apologetics. I offer no defense of them here. But the one thing Gerson will not do is point the finger back at his own tribe. He won’t admit that Trump is actually governing more conservatively than any of his predecessors in recent memory. He won’t compare Trump’s erratic Twitter account with his own administration’s body count in the Middle East. Gerson served as a senior policy advisor and chief speechwriter for George W. Bush. He was also a member of the White House Iraq Group, an outfit tasked with selling the Iraq invasion to the American public. Gerson’s war destabilized Iraq and created the vacuum that ISIS filled, leading to massive number of deaths in the Muslim, Christian, and Yezidi communities of the region. But Trump has “coarsened our culture” with his rhetoric. Bombing Muslims is sound foreign policy, but a temporary immigration restriction from certain countries is vile racism. Or so the party line goes.

The underlying issue is that President Trump is not respectable, and by hitching their wagons to him, evangelicals have shown themselves to be unclean. But according to Gerson, we were already cultural lepers. He laments the disreputable disputes evangelicals have been roped into, particularly fights over sexuality and evolution. Those fights make us look bad and present a negative public image, casting us as the anti-science reactionary contingent. But he lauds those evangelicals who are laboring for all the pre-approved causes: ending sex trafficking, racial reconciliation, diversity, fighting aids, and theistic evolution. It appears that fighting at precisely those points where secular progressives have marched out in battle array might look too much like a culture war. And culture wars are out of style these days. However, contra Gerson, faithful Christians must refuse to blush. We must resolve to get comfortable with being out of style and unrespectable, for God’s wisdom is folly to the world.

For all he misses, Gerson does land some punches. For example, he rightly points out that evangelicals do not have a coherent theory of social action. He writes,

“Fox News and talk radio are vastly greater influences on evangelicals’ political identity than formal statements by religious denominations or from the National Association of Evangelicals. In this Christian political movement, Christian theology is emphatically not the primary motivating factor.”

Sadly, this is largely true, and it is damning. Christians must recover a strategy for political engagement that is thoroughly and unashamedly biblical. Yet, for his part, Gerson mocks the idea that the Scriptures can provide this theory of social action. He proves himself embarrassed by the Bible when he says it is “a vexing document” that offers “approving accounts of genocide and recommends the stoning of insubordinate children.” He trivializes the Law of God as “Iron Age ethics.” But faithful Christians will stand by the whole book and let it shape the scope and tenor of our political engagement. God’s Word is sufficient, even for our politics.

I agree with Gerson and French that Christians should avoid joining ungodly political tribes and becoming just another special interest group. But that prohibition includes neoconservative globalist tribes as much as it does the Shock-n-Tweet bombast of Trumpism. We should work to recover a biblical theory of political engagement. But, in the meantime, if God uses an unfaithful man to deliver the broken promises of the respectable Republicans, we should be grateful. After all, he often uses folly to shame the wise.

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