How are religious conservatives doing in the polarizing and often stumbling presidency of Donald Trump? Ross Douthat, a Times columnist, hosts a “round table” with David French, a senior writer at National Review, and John Zmirak, senior editor of The Stream and author, most recently, of “The Politically Incorrect Guide to Catholicism.”
Ross Douthat: John, David, thanks for joining me today. The aftermath of Roy Moore’s defeat in Alabama seems like a good time to take stock of the bargain that religious conservatives made when they decided to support Donald Trump for president.
A year in, Trump has delivered on many of his specific promises, particularly where judicial appointments are concerned. At the same time, there’s a great deal of angst within religious circles about what his personal moral defects and his administration’s deep unpopularity mean for Christian cultural witness, and (among evangelicals, especially) whether the Trump era is setting up a kind of generational schism that will contribute to institutional Christianity’s crisis going forward.
David, you’re a prominent anti-Trump evangelical. John, you’ve been a fairly consistently pro-Trump Catholic. Can you each give me your view of what the Trump presidency has meant for religious conservatism?
John Zmirak: Thanks, Ross. So far, I must say that I’m genuinely pleased and impressed by Trump’s performance on most of the issues of concern to socially conservative voters and Christians. It contrasts sharply with how mainstream Republican candidates and presidents treated such voters. Think back to 1996, when a handful of evangelical leaders were able to steer their flocks away from Pat Buchanan — who would have been their champion — to Bob Dole, who muttered reluctant compliance with a few of their interests, but clearly didn’t care a fig about abortion or other culture issues.
What we saw in 2016 is that a small group of “respectable” ministers or lobbyists no longer has the power to “deliver” Christian voters. And I think that’s a good, healthy thing. It gives us more leverage, as we seem to have with Trump.
Furthermore, and I have this from pastors who met with Trump for many hours: He genuinely listens to them. They’re the kind of people most playboys from Queens never encounter. He connected with some of them personally. He saw their concern for his soul. And he took and takes their concerns seriously.
Trump sees that the church is a big part of what made America great, and he sees that the state persecution that President Obama began hurts the country. I hope that he sees more, sees Christ as his savior. But in his role as Caesar, protecting our rights is quite enough.
David French: My problem with John’s analysis is quite simple. Christians don’t get to compartmentalize. When we’re the living representatives of Christ’s church, we don’t get to proudly support politicians who lie and commit dishonorable acts for the sake of a few policy wins. I know it’s fashionable to scorn “mainstream” or “respectable” politicians or ministers, but these individuals at least had the virtue — as imperfect as they were — of a degree of personal honor and integrity. The church always must be mindful of its witness, and it can’t sacrifice its moral credibility to a culture by declaring, “I did it for the judges.”
I belong to the camp of Christians who are grateful when Trump makes good decisions but also quite mindful that our political witness is inseparable from our Christian witness. Thus, we have no option but to condemn his worst impulses and work to counteract his toxic influence on our larger culture. While policy positions are important (though Trump’s real impact is often vastly overblown), a nation is ultimately shaped far more by its culture than its policies, and we can never forsake the greater power for the lesser win.
Zmirak: I think it trivializes every issue of justice and life that we both care about to call them public policy “wins.” These are the fates and freedoms of millions of people we’re talking about. Unborn children. Nuns who serve the dying poor. Christians endangered by the Islamic State.
Douthat: But John, do you think there’s anything dangerous in the close association between a Christian politics and a president who is so proudly un-Christian in word and often deed?
Zmirak: Trump’s personal behavior in the past is of no real concern to me — nor to most of the Christian voters I’m in touch with. The more we find out about the disgusting actions in office of not just Bill Clinton but also John F. Kennedy … it helps encourage an Augustinian shrug.
French: I find it curious when Christians declare that the personal conduct of a president is of no real concern — especially since that’s the exact opposite message that Christians have been preaching for a generation. During the latter part of the Bill Clinton presidency, the Southern Baptist Convention put out a powerful statement on the importance of virtuous conduct in leaders, regardless of the state of the economy or the quality of the policymaking. Part of the justification for that statement was the biblical truth that God has judged nations in part for their unrighteous rulers. In other words, Christians can’t and shouldn’t laser-focus on policy but always must be mindful of eternity. Do we believe the Bible? Or are we just another interest group that makes cold, purely political calculations?
Zmirak: We’re fallen creatures trying to render unto Caesar as well as unto God. The nexus between those two is how we as sovereign citizens direct our government to treat the vulnerable.
We supported Constantine, and Harry Truman, and many other imperfect men who were better than the alternatives. I don’t even expect saintly behavior of popes, much less of presidents. If the circumstances in which God saw fit to place us make us choose between the “squeaky clean” persecutor of the unborn and the Little Sisters of the Poor, or between Barack Obama and Donald Trump, the choice is obvious. If we pick the persecutor because he pleases us more aesthetically, better fits our internal self-image, then we will answer for that on the Day of Judgment.
The Hollywood that was howling for Trump’s head over the “Access Hollywood” tape, we now know, had been mopping up for Harvey Weinstein for decades. I don’t expect Christians to be naïve or prissy. We know more about sin than most people, since we believe it in fact exists. And can be repented.
Douthat: So when we see polls showing a wild swing between the 1990s and the present in the share of evangelicals who think character matters in a politician, John, you think evangelicals are actually coming around to a more sensible view than they held in the Clinton era?
Zmirak: Yes. Just as evangelicals are coming around to using Natural Law (philosophical) arguments — rather than biblical proof-texts for their political positions, I think they are moving closer to the skeptical prudence that always marked Catholic, Lutheran and Anglican political thinking. Read what the Family Research Council, or National Organization for Marriage, publish on social issues. They’re not thumping the Bible. They’re citing Cicero and Aristotle.
French: I’m sorry, but the transformation of the evangelical public from the American segment most willing to hold leaders to a high moral standard to the segment now least likely smacks of pure, primitive partisanship, not high theological principle. Evangelicals aren’t coming around to using Natural Law at all. It’s pure instrumentalism. They’ve made an alliance of convenience. They haven’t made some sort of thoughtful intellectual shift.
Douthat: My views align pretty closely with yours, David, so let me play devil’s advocate (if you will) against our shared perspective. Suppose that Trump appoints another Supreme Court justice, ensuring both the persistence of an expansive understanding of religious liberty and widening the possibilities for pro-life legislation. And further suppose that some of the dire consequences of a Trump presidency that some of us feared — stock market plunges, accidental nuclear wars — don’t materialize. Is there any scenario where you might come around to the view that the bargain was, in fact, worth making?
French: I am very willing to be persuaded that he will ultimately be a better president than Hillary Clinton. I was opposed to both Clinton and Trump in the general election on the grounds that both were unfit — though in different ways. So I’m genuinely happy when Trump accomplishes good things, relieved when he tempers his worst impulses, and more than willing to give him credit when credit is due. For example, the success of the campaign against the Islamic State is an underappreciated part of his presidency.
However, for the sake of encouraging or even achieving these policy wins, Christians cannot be seen to excuse lies, rationalize incompetence or impose double standards. A person can simultaneously say that Trump has accomplished good things while also seeking to hold him to a proper standard of conduct. My great disappointment during this first year of the Trump presidency is not with evangelicals who have rightly lauded, say, the Neil Gorsuch appointment, but rather with Christians who’ve defended, rationalized and excused conduct they’d never, ever condone in a Democrat. There are not two standards of morality depending on judicial appointments or regulatory reform.
Douthat: And then to you, John — I take your point about not underestimating the importance of policy wins, but the policy defeats of religious conservatism have been bound up in cultural defeats, particularly the secularization or spiritual-but-not-religious turn of younger generations in America. Trump is extremely unpopular, he’s enabling a G.O.P. whose agenda is widely hated, and his administration hasn’t even faced a real testing — war or terrorism or economic crisis. For groups outside the Republican coalition, especially — like millennials drifting from religion and the churchgoing African-Americans who just turned out in droves to defeat Roy Moore — isn’t there the potential for them to be scandalized by lock step religious conservative support for a presidency that most of America sees as failed from Year 1?
Zmirak: I think much of the drift is driven not by politics but by internal scandals, like the sex abuse crisis among Catholics, and financial scandals among evangelicals.
But to politics: Were Christians scandalized by the spectacle of George W. Bush leaving Iraqi Christians to face jihadi violence? They should have been. It was far worse than anything Trump has done. I must confess that I am deeply embittered by the callousness that George W. Bush displayed toward the lives and liberties of religious minorities in Iraq — when as U.S. commander in chief, he had essentially absolute power over that occupied country. Of about one million Christians, some 900,000 were ethnically cleansed, most of them while our troops still occupied the country. I can put up with Donald Trump’s old Howard Stern tapes all day long, compared with that.
In Syria, Trump aided the Kurdish militias allied with Syrian Christians. Now instead of a massive catastrophe for an ancient Christian community, there are Christmas trees going up in Damascus again. Christian pastors in America who helped Trump during the campaign have been keeping Trump apprised of the real-world, on the ground concerns of Syrian Christians. None of that happened under Bush.
I don’t think the savage hatred of Donald Trump is mostly driven by his genuine excesses. Trump is serving as a catalyst to expose just how unhinged, anti-Christian, anti-Western, and frankly anti-rational the dominant factions on the left have become.
Douthat: I do think the shadow of the Bush administration, which at first seemed to represent a coming-of-age for a Catholic-evangelical alliance and ended in military quagmire and political impotence, is important for understanding how religious conservatism ended up in its present situation. David, what’s your view on the effects of the Bush legacy?
French: I served in Iraq and find the Trumpist critiques of Bush to be rather tired. The Bush administration faced a difficult strategic situation, made a good-faith, high-stakes decision, and none of the armchair-quarterbacking of the more isolationist Republicans can change the fact that by the end of Bush’s second term the war in Iraq was largely won. Al Qaeda in Iraq was a spent force until the combination of American withdrawal, the Syrian civil war and the dark turn of the Arab Spring revived its fortunes. Now it’s defeated again. Moreover, to blame the plight of Middle East Christians on Bush is to magnify his influence far too much. They have faced worse in countries America didn’t invade.
Douthat: But don’t you think that the arc of the Bush era, the sense of political collapse at the end, helps explain why many of the people who were most bonded to Bush — religious conservatives — have been willing to turn since to more disreputable or extreme political leaders?
French: The hatred of Bush is more a feature of the small Buchanan wing of the G.O.P. than it is of the Republican mainstream. The Democratic nomination of Hillary Clinton was far more important to Trump’s success than anything that George W. Bush did. Don’t forget, older Republicans (which is most Republicans) had been fighting Clinton for the better part of a quarter-century. The rallying cry of the G.O.P. wasn’t to turn the page on the Bush era but rather to defeat Hillary. As of today, Bush has a higher approval rating than Trump.
Douthat: And John, since I’ve pressed David on scenarios where he might judge the Trump bargain a success, what would have to happen in the next few years to make you think that he’s right, and that the negative consequences of the Trumpist bargain will ultimately eclipse Neil Gorsuch’s influence on the legal and political order?
Zmirak: If Trump follows bad advice, and gets us mired in some foreign intervention where thousands of U.S. troops are bogged down in pursuit of ideological fantasies. Or if he betrays us on the courts. Or if he fails to get control of our borders. In other words, if he welches on any of the fundamental promises he made conservatives to gain our support, then I’ll feel cheated.
Douthat: But you really don’t worry at all about the possibility that 60 percent of the country will exit the Trump era convinced that conservative Christianity is just white identity politics?
Zmirak: No, I think that’s something that worries conservatives who mix in elite circles more than anyone else. Black Christians know that their own politics has a certain amount of ethnic self-advocacy in it. Likewise Latino Christians. They aren’t really scandalized that it’s also in the mix with white voters. But they want to see it subordinated to moral norms, for the sake of the common good. And I think Trump is doing that.
French: This is just false. I live in rural Tennessee, and the folks who go to my church don’t want conservative Christianity to be seen in this way. There’s nothing elitist about wanting the Christian church to be seen as a force for racial reconciliation. In fact, the most grass-roots churches in the U.S. — our Pentecostal churches — are often the most racially diverse. The white Christians I know are in fact scandalized at the idea that church identity is mixed with ethnic self-advocacy.
Douthat: Let me end with a provocation. It seems to me that the example of Western Europe, where secularization is more advanced than here and Islamic radicalism a more systemic social problem, has played an underestimated role in shaping conservative Christian instincts in the Trump era. That the pro-Trump voices, like you, John, see him as a bulwark against the trends that have marginalized traditional Christianity in France or England or Germany, while Trump critics (like myself and perhaps you, David) fear that by leading American Christians into defeat and disrepute, he will hasten us down the road to European secularism. What do you both think of this frame?
Zmirak: In an age when Pope Francis compares critics of the Islamic colonization of Europe to King Herod murdering the infants of Bethlehem (see his 2013 Lampedusa speech), it’s falling to secular leaders to pass on the authentic Christian political tradition. That’s not utopianism or Machiavellianism. It’s realism grounded in Prudence, the governing natural virtue. Instead of indulging ourselves in a fit of self-congratulation on our generosity and openness, we have to consider the legitimate claims of nations, the danger of future political violence, and the ugly lessons of nations like Lebanon where Christians once lived in freedom. Or Sweden, where big anti-Semitic rallies are now a regular reality. To do any less is reckless, which means it’s un-Christian.
French: There is no question that conservative Christians are very concerned about America’s secular drift, and they look to Europe’s thoroughly post-Christian culture with a degree of alarm, if not horror. This concern contributed to the “Flight 93 election” mind-set that cast the 2016 contest as the campaign that would decide our national fate. That election was the emergency that justified wholesale Christian shifts in political principle. Where Christians once demanded honesty, they rationalized lies. Where Christians once sought evidence of ideological consistency, they accepted incoherence.
Many of us, however, looked at these accommodations and asked a simple question. Where is your faith? Christians were acting as if not just the nation — but the church itself — was in peril based on the outcome of a single election. Yet is God not sovereign over all the nations, including our own? Doesn’t scripture repeatedly condemn the exact kinds of moral compromises that so many Christians made? Don’t we believe those scriptures?
There is nothing more dangerous to the church than a lack of faith. I don’t at all mind it when Christians cheer the good things that Donald Trump has done. I join them. I do mind when they rationalize and excuse bad acts out of a completely misguided and faithless sense of cultural and political necessity.
Douthat: Thank you both for a spirited conversation, gentlemen. When we reconvene in 20 years under secular socialism, Shariah law or a Mike Pence-governed Gilead, we can discuss how it all turned out.