Christian political engagement is about more than an issue checklist.
On April 15, the United States hit a horrifying milestone. It not only crossed 30,000 total COVID-19 deaths, but for the fourth consecutive day, the daily death toll was so high that COVID-19 was the single leading cause of death in the United States. This visualization of the rising death toll is simply horrifying:
At the same time, new reports have emerged demonstrating the president’s incredible reluctance to come to terms with the scale of a crisis that wasn’t just foreseeable, it was foreseen by members of his own administration. And while Trump deserves credit for limiting travel from China in late January, he not only squandered any advantage gained by that move, he actively spread misinformation about the virus throughout the month of February and into March.
Then, when he finally began to acknowledge the scale of the emergency, he went on national television and botched his own primetime address, misstating administration policies and triggering a panic from Americans in Europe who believed—based on the president’s own words—that they would be barred from coming home.
Since that time, his daily press conferences have featured a parade of presidential
- overstatements, misstatements, and outright falsehoods. He’s often fact-checked in real time by his own advisers. In the meantime, 22 million Americans have lost their jobs.
Something else happened on April 15—Albert Mohler, the president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, the presumptive next president of the Southern Baptist Convention, and a man I respect a great deal—spoke from the midst of a ruined economy, soaring death rates, and presidential blundering and said . . . four more years. He declared not only that he’d support Donald Trump in 2020, but that he’ll almost certainly support Republican presidential candidates the rest of his life. Mohler focused on the classic culture war issues—marriage, sexuality, constitutional interpretation, and abortion. He expressed the belief that the “partisan divide had become so great” and Democrats had “swerved so far to the left” on those key issues that he can’t imagine ever voting for a Democratic president. He also claimed that Trump has been “more consistent in pro-life decisions” and consistent in the quality of his judicial nominations than “any president of the United States of any party.”
As he made clear in the video, Mohler has not always supported Trump. In 2016, he was consistent with his denomination’s clear and unequivocal statement about the importance of moral character in public officials. He has now decisively changed course.
In 1998—during Bill Clinton’s second term—the Southern Baptist Convention declared that “tolerance of serious wrong by leaders sears the conscience of the culture, spawns unrestrained immorality and lawlessness in the society, and surely results in God’s judgment” and therefore urged “all Americans to embrace and act on the conviction that character does count in public office, and to elect those officials and candidates who, although imperfect, demonstrate consistent honesty, moral purity and the highest character.”
Mohler so clearly recognized the applicability of those words that he said, “If I were to support, much less endorse Donald Trump for president, I would actually have to go back and apologize to former President Bill Clinton.” I do wonder if Mohler will apologize. He absolutely should.
Look, I know that for now I’ve lost the character argument. It’s well-established that a great number of white Evangelicals didn’t truly believe the words they wrote, endorsed, and argued in 1998 and for 18 years until the 2016 election. Oh sure, they thought they believed those words. If someone challenged their convictions with a lie detector test, they would have passed with flying colors.
(By the way, I use the term “white Evangelicals” because that’s Trump’s core political constituency. That’s the base that gave him 81 percent support in 2016. The rest of the Evangelical community leans Democratic.)
When C.S. Lewis said “courage is not simply one of the virtues, but the form of very virtue at the testing point, which means at the point of highest reality,” he was speaking an important truth. We may think we possess an array of virtues and beliefs, but we don’t really know who we are or what we believe until those virtues and beliefs are put to the test. There is many a man who goes to war thinking himself brave, until the bullets fly. There is many a man who thinks himself faithful to his wife, until the flirtation starts.
There were many men who thought character counted, until a commitment to character contained a real political cost. But that’s the obvious point. I’ve made it countless times before today. White Evangelicals, however, have shrugged it off. “Binary choice,” they say. “Lesser of two evils,” they say—even though those concepts appeared nowhere in the grand moral announcements of the past.
Many millions of Trump-supporting white Evangelicals no longer care about character (though a surprising number are still remarkably unaware of his flaws). That much is clear. But the story now grows darker still. As they’ve abandoned political character tests, they’re also rejecting any meaningful concern for presidential competence.
Listen to Mohler’s announcement, and you’ll hear a narrow political philosophy—one that’s limited to evaluating a party platform on a few, discrete issues. It’s nothing more than a policy checklist. He speaks of religious freedom, LGBT issues, and abortion.
Yet as the pandemic vividly illustrates (and as 9/11 also highlighted in recent years past), the job of the president extends well beyond the culture war. Indeed, there are times when a president is so bad at other material aspects of his job that he becomes a malignant force in American life, regardless of his positions on white Evangelicals’ highest political priorities.
The role of the people of God in political life is so much more difficult and challenging than merely listing a discrete subset of issues (even when those issues are important!) and supporting anyone who agrees to your list. The prophet Jeremiah exhorted the people of Israel to “seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the LORD on its behalf; for in its welfare you will have welfare.”
This is a difficult, complicated task. We can’t reduce it to a list. In fact, this complexity is one reason why two key communities of churchgoing Americans are dramatically split in their political preferences. Black Christians go to church every bit as much (if not more) than white Evangelicals, yet they reject Trump every bit as much as white Evangelicals embrace him.
Are they less Christian? Or is their experience of the welfare of the national community shaped by history and experience that’s quite different from that of their white Evangelical brothers and sisters? And while that history is complex, it does clearly teach the deadly consequences of hate and the dangers of white populism.
When a president declares that there were “very fine people” in a collection of tiki-torch-toting white supremacists, shouldn’t Christians of all colors be gravely concerned? Shouldn’t they be alarmed when the CEO of the president’s campaign and his chief strategist declared just before his ascension to the president’s team that he wanted his publication (Breitbart) to be the “platform” for the racist alt-right? And when a president issues a stream of misinformation about a mortal threat to public health (with one eye on the stock market), is there not cause for accountability?
I could go on and on, but there are Christians in this country – mostly from communities who’ve suffered in the recent past at the hands of malignant government power—who look at Trump and do not see a man who’s concerned for their welfare. What is the white Evangelical obligation to listen to them? To hear their concerns?
The response can’t be the checklist. And when vulnerable Americans suffer mightily from the health and economic consequences of a global pandemic the president minimized, the response can’t be the checklist. White Evangelical leaders owe us a serious argument as to why that checklist trumps character and competence in the leader of the free world.
No one should minimize the difficulty of the job of president of the United States. It’s a fact that a number of democracies have struggled even worse than America to respond to the coronavirus (some have done much better), and economic damage will be felt worldwide. China bears immense blame for our national plight.
But President Trump was warned and warned and warned. For day after crucial day he chose to mislead Americans about one of the most significant threats to their well-being—to their “welfare”— in the modern history of the United States. He faced a key test, and he did not rise to the moment. And when he failed, he did real damage that even later course corrections could not entirely fix.
And please Christians, do not run back to arguments about “binary choice.” When I walk into the voting booth (or mail in my ballot), I will see more than two names. I’ll also have a choice to write in a name. I will not have to compromise my convictions to cast a vote for president.
If you do, however, want to revert to the language of “binary choice,” we need to examine the larger context. In January the nation faced a different kind of binary choice. It was, quite simply, “Trump or Pence.” When the president was impeached after he clearly attempted to condition vital military aid to an ally on a demand for a politically motivated investigation of a political opponent and on a demand to investigate a bizarre conspiracy theory, white Evangelicals had a decision to make.
They chose Trump.
They chose Trump when they would have certainly sought to impeach and convict a Democrat under similar facts.
In fact, for four long years, when the choice has been between Trump and even the most momentary break with the president for a single news cycle, the overwhelming majority of white Evangelicals—and their political leaders—have spoken loudly and clearly.
It’s Trump. It’s always Trump.
In the fourth year of Donald Trump’s first term, the deal white Evangelicals have struck is now increasingly clear. Their leaders will get unprecedented Oval Office access. They’ll get a few good religious liberty regulations. They’ll get good judges. Those judges will almost certainly issue rulings that protect religious liberty. They might issue rulings that marginally protect life (though the pro-life battle is fought far more in the culture and in the states than in the courts). Those will be important and good things. They are not the only things.
White Evangelicals will have also squandered any argument that character matters in politicians. That means we’ll have more politicians of low character.
White Evangelicals are squandering any argument that they seek to love their enemies. That means we’ll see more hate from America’s bully pulpit.
White Evangelicals are not only squandering any argument that competence matters, they are working hard to try to force more incompetence on their American community. Trump’s impact on the welfare of the American city is increasingly clear. It’s more division. It’s more hate. It’s more incompetence. And now that terrible combination has yielded a series of dreadful errors in the face of a deadly pandemic.
White Evangelicals, one of the most politically powerful religious movements in the entire world, should not use their power to maintain and ultimately renew the authority of one of the most malignant and incompetent politicians ever to hold national office. They shouldn’t, but they will.
One last thing …
This has been a rather grim newsletter, but authentic religious discourse requires discussing and debating hard questions, and the answers are not always easy or uplifting. I want to end not with a hymn or worship song, but rather something closer to a lament. It’s from one of my favorite artists, Sara Groves, and it speaks to the uncertainty and difficulty of life in a time of vulnerability and loss.
How the President’s son-in-law, despite his inexperience in diplomacy, became Beijing’s primary point of interest... Kushner was intent on bringing a businessman’s sensibility to matters of state. He believed that fresh, confidential relationships could overcome the frustrations of traditional diplomatic bureaucracy. Henry Kissinger, who, in his role as a high-priced international consultant, maintains close relationships in the Chinese hierarchy, had introduced Kushner to Cui during the campaign.. On at least one occasion, they met alone, which counterintelligence officials considered risky. “There’s nobody else there in the room to verify what was said and what wasn’t, so the Chinese can go back and claim anything,”.. you think your background is going to allow you to be able to outsmart the Chinese Ambassador?.. Americans are accustomed to reports of Russia’s efforts to influence American politics, but, in the intelligence community, China’s influence operations are a source of equal concern... “The Chinese influence operations are more long-term, broader in scope, and are generally designed to achieve a more diffuse goal than the Russians’ are,”.. Kushner often excluded the government’s top China specialists from his meetings with Cui, a slight that rankled and unnerved the bureaucracy. “He went in utterly unflanked by anyone who could find Beijing on a map,”.. Kushner was “their lucky charm,”.. “It was a dream come true. They couldn’t believe he was so compliant.”.. By the end of the Obama Administration, seven White House officials were authorized to receive the same version of the P.D.B. that appeared on the President’s iPad. The Trump Administration expanded the number to as many as fourteen people, including Kushner. A former senior official said, of the growing P.D.B. distribution list, “It got out of control. Everybody thought it was cool. They wanted to be cool.”.. Kushner’s difficulty obtaining a permanent security clearance has become a subject of fascination. Was it his early failure to disclose foreign contacts? Or did it have something to do with the investigations into Russian interference in the 2016 elections?.. Kushner had established links to China. A Kushner project in Jersey City, which opened in November, 2016, reportedly received about fifty million dollars, nearly a quarter of its financing, from Chinese investors who are not publicly named, through a U.S. immigration program known as EB-5, which allows wealthy foreigners to obtain visas by investing in American projects... Ivanka Trump has her own business endeavors in China, where some of her branded handbags, shoes, and clothes are manufactured... Trump would be “inundated with requests for thousands of calls from around the world,” they warned, through “campaign staff, outside advisers, and other third parties.” He must not accept them. Requests must be “methodically returned” in “a sequence of calls that will not create any diplomatic incidents or negative press stories.”.. The President-elect must have a classified intelligence briefing before conversations with foreign leaders, and then conduct the meetings only when a note-taker and a national-security aide are present.The aides suggested that Trump make five “waves” of calls over a number of days, starting with the United Kingdom and ending with Pakistan.
.. “Obviously, all that just got tossed aside,” a senior transition official recalled recently, because Trump was “excited that important people were calling him.”
.. In another break with protocol, Trump was accompanied to the meeting by his daughter and son-in-law, while they were still running their respective businesses.
.. he was urgently seeking an infusion of cash to repay a debt totalling hundreds of millions of dollars.
.. In 2007, the Kushner Companies had bought 666 Fifth Avenue, a forty-one-story office tower, for $1.8 billion, the highest price ever paid for a building in Manhattan at that time. The deal turned out to be a potential disaster for Kushner.
.. he was hunting for investors, in Asia and the Middle East, among other places, to shore up the building’s finances.
.. On November 16, 2016, Kushner had a private dinner with Wu Xiaohui, the chairman of China’s Anbang Insurance Group, to discuss Wu’s possible investment in 666 Fifth Avenue.
.. Months later, when the meeting was revealed, and Bloomberg News reported that the Kushner family stood to make as much as four hundred million dollars from the agreement with Anbang, Democratic lawmakers, including Senator Elizabeth Warren, of Massachusetts, criticized it as a possible conflict of interest. The companies abandoned the negotiations.
.. In some cases, it was unclear whether Kushner was representing the transition or his business. On December 13th, at the recommendation of Sergey Kislyak, the Russian Ambassador, Kushner met with Sergey Gorkov, the head of Vnesheconombank, or V.E.B., a Russian state bank... Schiff pointed to statements by V.E.B. and a spokesman for Russia’s President, Vladimir Putin, which suggest that Kushner held the meeting in his capacity as head of the Kushner Companies... On December 2nd, encouraged by the fiercest anti-China hawks among his advisers, including Steve Bannon, at that time his chief strategist, Trump took a telephone call from the President of Taiwan.. Chinese officials turned to the man that Kissinger had recommended to them: Jared Kushner. Kushner later told others that he took on the China portfolio reluctantly, after “clamoring” Chinese officials called Trump Tower and asked for him by name... “It was clear that heated arguments were taking place among the President’s advisers.” On one side, hard-liners, including Bannon, who has said he believes that China is “bent on world domination,” advocated a confrontational stance on trade and other issues. On the other, according to Russel, “Jared Kushner was described as adamant that Mar-a-Lago should be exclusively about bonding.” Russel continued, “We were told that the theory was to first establish a warm family friendship, using meals and Trump’s personal charisma.”.. China overwhelmingly achieved its objectives: a soft-focus summit with regal photo ops and little talk of trade and other touchy subjects. It was also an auspicious occasion for the Kushner family. While Xi met with Trump, Beijing regulators approved three trademark applications from Ivanka’s company, to sell bags, jewelry, and spa services... Somebody with more experience, tied to the old ways, may not have necessarily been able to pull off the Mar-a-Lago summit like we did.” He added that the officials who have criticized his approach to foreign affairs “usually get pretty uncomfortable when they’re not in control of something and it doesn’t go the way they want.”.. Chinese officials said that Cui and Kushner, in meetings to prepare for the summit at Mar-a-Lago, discussed Kushner’s business interests along with policy. Some intelligence officials became concerned that the Chinese government was seeking to use business inducements to influence Kushner’s views... But the intelligence reports triggered alarms that Chinese officials were attempting to exploit Kushner’s close relationship with the President, which could yield benefits over time... Wendi Deng Murdoch, the ex-wife of Rupert Murdoch. Kushner and Ivanka Trump had known her for about a decade, and she was a regular guest at their Washington home. U.S. diplomats and intelligence officials have long speculated about Wendi Murdoch’s ties to the Chinese government.. In November, the Chinese Society of Education issued a video quiz for primary-school students, which included the question “What number should you dial when you spot spying activities?”.. The President’s children resist the argument that their undivested assets, their behavior, and their willingness to mix government service and personal profit present a target to adversaries and allies alike... The senior transition official believes that’s a mistake. “They’re going to slowly, over time, get what they want out of him, and it’s not going to be obvious,”.. Still, by his own description, he is as confident as ever that his instincts, honed in the family business.. Porter read aloud from “The Inner Ring,” a 1944 oration by C. S. Lewis. It was Porter’s warning to his ambitious students about the temptations that haunt higher office, and the allure of favor-seekers... “You will be drawn in, if you are drawn in, not by desire for gain or ease, but simply because at that moment, when the cup was so near your lips, you cannot bear to be thrust back again into the cold outer world.”
Jacobs makes good use of C. S. Lewis’s concept of the Inner Ring. In every setting — a school, a company or a society — there is an official hierarchy. But there may also be a separate prestige hierarchy, where the cool kids are. They are the Inner Ring.
.. There are always going to be people who desperately want to get into the Inner Ring and will cut all sorts of intellectual corners to be accepted. As Lewis put it, “The passion for the Inner Ring is most skillful in making a man who is not yet a very bad man do very bad things.”
People will, for example, identify and attack what Jacobs calls the Repugnant Cultural Other — the group that is opposed to the Inner Ring, which must be assaulted to establish membership in it.
.. Other people will resent the Inner Ring, and they will cut all sorts of intellectual corners in order to show their resentment. These people are quick to use combat metaphors when they talk about thinking (he shot down my argument, your claims are indefensible). These people will adopt shared vague slurs like “cuckservative” or “whitesplaining” that signal to the others in the outsider groups that they are attacking the ring, even though these slurs are usually impediments to thought.
Born Clive Staples Lewis, he announced when he was three years old that his name was Jack, and Jack he was to family and friends for the rest of his life.
.. Wagner meant more to Jack than good music. The epic operas of the Ring cycle introduced him to Norse mythology, the beginning of his lifelong love of ‘Northernness’. The music and mythology caused momentary but intense feelings in Jack that he could not describe, and later called ‘Joy’. His description of Joy sounds like a desire for another world: “the stab, the pang, the inconsolable longing”.
Jack realised he had felt Joy a few times before; he experienced it again in the years before his conversion to Christianity. Jack threw himself into studying Norse mythology, hoping to experience Joy again.
.. Jack was upset, too, by rumours of homosexuality between pupils at Malvern, and wrote an exaggerated and disapproving chapter about the college in Surprised by Joy.
.. An examiner had remarked that Jack was the sort of boy who could gain a Classics degree at Oxford. But if Jack was to attend university, he needed a scholarship. Albert decided to send him to a tutor to prepare him for the scholarship examination
.. as an Irishman he would not have had to serve in the army, he wanted to do his part
.. Edward Moore was a fellow Irishman with whom Lewis served. The two young men seem to have made an agreement that if either of them did not come home, the other would support his family. Lewis was sent home with shrapnel wounds. Moore was killed and left behind his mother Janie and sister Maureen.
.. After four years of study Lewis ended up with three first-class degrees from Oxford: Greek and Latin literature, classical philosophy and English language and literature.
.. It was at Oxford that Lewis met Owen Barfield, who formed a literary discussion group called The Inklings. The members, who included Lewis himself, J.R.R. Tolkien
.. In Surprised by Joy he likens the following process to being hunted down by God, or even being defeated by him in a game of chess.
.. A chance remark by another acquaintance, T.D. Weldon, caused Lewis to rethink what he still was calling “the Christian myth”: Weldon, known for his cynicism, thought that the evidence for Jesus’s life and resurrection was remarkably good. Lewis read the Gospels and was struck by the thought that they did not sound like fiction: the writers seemed too unimaginative to have made the whole thing up; the Gospels read more like reports than stories.
.. On September 19, 1931, Lewis, Dyson and Tolkien took a night-time stroll and began a conversation about myth. They walked and talked until morning. Tolkien convinced Jack that myths were God’s way of preparing the ground for the Christian story. The stories of resurrection throughout history were precursors to Jesus’s true resurrection: Christianity was the completion of all the mythology before it. Dyson’s contribution was to impress upon Jack how Christianity worked for the believer, liberating them from their sins and helping them become better people. His remaining arguments were being demolished. Jack Lewis was about to be checkmated.
.. The seven Chronicles of Narnia were written and published between 1948 and 1956.
.. Allegory or shaggy lion story?
Some people seem to think that I began by asking myself how I could say something about Christianity to children; then fixed on the fairy tale as an instrument, then collected information about child psychology and decided what age group I’d write for; then drew up a list of basic Christian truths and hammered out ‘allegories’ to embody them. This is all pure moonshine. I couldn’t write in that way. It all began with images; a faun carrying an umbrella, a queen on a sledge, a magnificent lion. At first there wasn’t anything Christian about them; that element pushed itself in of its own accord.
.. Lewis was not aiming to teach children Christianity with the Narnia books. He wanted to introduce similar ideas that would make it easier for children to accept Christianity: what he called “a sort of pre-baptism of the child’s imagination.”
.. Other characters in the books reveal Lewis’s attitudes to different peoples and ideas. The Calormenes are a dark-skinned race living south of Narnia. They carry scimitars, keep slaves and worship barbaric false gods: they are, all told, rather reminiscent of the worst Western portrayals of the Middle East.