The Many Problems With Eric Metaxas’s “Christian Case for Trump”

Metaxas

Eric Metaxas has once again turned to the op-ed page of The Wall Street Journal in defense of Donald Trump.  (Some of you may recall his October 12, 2016 op-ed in which he said “God will not hold us guiltless” if we vote for anyone but Trump).

Metaxas writes:

The [Christianity Today] article cleared its throat—and conscience—by declaring “unambiguous” the “facts” of the president’s guilt. Having thus defenestrated objectivity, the editorial cited his behavior in general as “profoundly immoral,” his character as “grossly” so.

But these subjective pronouncements promote a perversion of Christian doctrine, which holds that all are depraved and equally in need of God’s grace. For Christianity Today to advance this misunderstanding is shocking. It isn’t what one does that makes one a Christian, but faith in what Jesus has done.

Defenestrated?  Only elites use this word. 🙂

Let’s remember that Mark Galli’s piece in Christianity Today is an editorial.  Of course he “defenstrated objectivity.” That is the point.  Editorials are supposed to offer an informed opinion.

A couple of more thoughts here:

  1. How is the practice of calling out Trump’s immorality a “perversion of Christian doctrine?” The Bible is filled with prophets calling out sin. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Metaxas’s favorite historical character, called out sin. So did William Wilberforce, the subject of another Metaxas book.  What about John the Baptist? Or Jesus?  Metaxas’s remarks that the church is not responsible for calling out the sins of a leader is absolutely absurd.  I am surprised Metaxas did not cite Romans 13 like Jeff Sessions did in the summer of 2018 or the American loyalists did in 1776 or the Southern slaveowners did in the 1850s.  But I now understand that this is what court evangelicals do.  They claim that their political opposition has somehow perverted true Christian doctrine.  This is part of their strategy for defending God’s chosen one–Donald Trump.
  2. Metaxas believes that Christianity Today, in speaking prophetically against the corruption of the Trump presidency, is failing to acknowledge that Donald Trump is “depraved” and in need of “grace.” This, Metaxas argues, is a perversion of Christian doctrine.  But doesn’t “Christian doctrine” also require a person to repent of his sins as a prerequisite of receiving God’s grace?  Isn’t repentance an essential part of the Christian morphology of conversion?  I don’t know Trump’s heart, but I have yet to hear him ask for forgiveness for any of his sins.  In the end, I agree with Metaxas on this point: Trump is “depraved” and “in need of God’s grace.” So was almost every tyrant in world history.  What if Metaxas applied the same logic to Dietrich Bonhoeffer? He would have to argue that the great German theologian was wrong to criticize Hitler for his immorality because Hitler was “depraved” and in “need of God’s grace.” Was Bonhoeffer and his confessing church perverting Christian doctrine?

Metaxas continues:

The reason for the editorial is that evangelicals pronounced Bill Clinton unfit for office because of his moral failings. Thus, claim Mr. Trump’s detractors, evangelicals are hypocrites who’ve sold their souls for political power unless they issue a withering philippic against Mr. Trump. Christianity Today’s long-faced essay is meant to be that dressing-down, triggered by the “facts” of the impeachment.

But does the Clinton “character” comparison make sense? Aren’t the political realities different two decades later? The triangulating practicality and moderation of the Democrats under Mr. Clinton have been trampled beyond recognition by something untethered and wild, like horses racing to Venezuela.

In the 1990s some Democrats were antiabortion. Neither party could exclusively claim the high ground on this deepest of moral issues. Mr. Clinton spoke of making abortion “safe, legal, and rare.” No longer. Despite ultrasounds and 4-D imaging, Democrats endorse abortion with near unanimity, often beyond viability and until birth.  If slavery was rightly considered wicked—and both a moral and political issue—how can this macabre practice be anything else? How can Christians pretend this isn’t the principal moral issue of our time, as slavery was in 1860? Can’t these issues of historic significance outweigh whatever the president’s moral failings might be?

Thoughts:

  1. I want to make a historical point here. Indeed, Clinton wanted to make abortion “safe, legal, and rare” and pro-life Democrats were indeed easier to find in the 1990s.  But Clinton also refused to allow pro-life Democrats to speak at the 1992 Democratic convention. Most Pennsylvanians know that Governor Bob Casey, a pro-life Democrat, was denied a speaking slot. Again, times have changed on this front.  There are fewer people like Bill Clinton and Bob Casey today.  But let’s not pretend that “neither party could exclusively claim the high ground” on abortion in the 1990s. Democrats were largely pro-choice. Republicans were largely pro-life.  This distinction was not lost on any of the members of the Christian Right alive at the time.  If Metaxas were writing in 1992 he would have been screaming bloody murder upon learning that Casey was denied a speaking slot.  Now, in 2020, it is convenient for Metaxas to make the historical claim that there were no significant divisions over abortion in the 1990s.
  2. Another historical point. Metaxas says that we cannot compare the Trump and Clinton impeachments because “the political realities” are “different two decades later.” But if we buy Metaxas historical claim that “political realities” change over time, then what should we make of his comparison between abortion and slavery?  Aren’t “the political realities different” sixteen decades years later? Slavery was indeed a moral problem in the 19th century.  Abortion is indeed a moral problem today.  But the comparison also has its limits.
  3. Metaxas will be happy to hear that I believe abortion is a principal moral issue of our time. We must continue to find ways of reducing this practice.  But Donald Trump is not the answer.

More Metaxas:

The pejorative du jour is to call evangelicals “transactional,” as though buying a loaf of bread and not simply praying for one were somehow faithless. But what is sneeringly called “transactional” is representational government, in which patriotic citizens vote, deputizing others to act on their behalf for the good of the country. Isn’t it conceivable that faithful Christians think Mr. Trump is the best choice?

Two thoughts:

  1. Let’s again remember that “patriotic citizens” also voted in the 2018 election. They elected Democrats to the House of Representatives.  When the people voted in 2018 they were, to use Metaxas’s words, “deputizing others to act on their behalf for the good of the country.”  Isn’t it “conceivable” that the American people’s vote in 2018 suggested that they were not happy with Trump?
  2. Metaxas concludes that “faithful Christians” made the correct moral choice when they chose Trump.  But it is also possible that they did not. “Faithful” evangelical Christians in the past have supported all kinds of things, including slavery, nativism, and Jim Crow segregation.  I chronicled this history in Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump.  Were the majority of Christians in the South morally correct when they preserve slavery morally correct?  Were the “faithful Christians” who supported slavery or Jim Crow laws making “the best choice?”  My intention here is not to compare evangelical Trump voters to slaveholders, but to show that just because most Christians vote a certain way does not necessarily mean that their collective voice represents the highest ethical norms.  For example, if I said that the “majority of faithful Democrats in the House want Trump impeached,” I would imagine Metaxas would claim that just because the majority of the House wants Trump impeached does not necessarily mean that the majority of the House is correct in such a decision.

Metaxas continues:

Can those troubled by Mr. Trump not at least imagine that removing him could lead to something even worse? Can the Democratic metamorphosis into an openly antiborder, socialist movement responsibly be ignored?

Here Metaxas assumes that all Democrats support socialism and open borders.  This is not true.  Metaxas is engaged here in Fearmongering 101.  He implies that if you do not vote for Donald Trump the country is going to be overrun by socialists and immigrants. Metaxas knows that most white evangelicals do not make a distinction between democratic socialism and Soviet-style communism.  He also knows that many white evangelicals worry that immigrants represent a continued threat to a white Christian America that is already in rapid decline.

Metaxas goes on:

Christians especially blanch to see religious liberty—once thought settled under Mr. Clinton with the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993—suddenly under serious attack. Christians are staggered to see good souls who stand by millennia-old religious convictions portrayed as deplorable bigots. Democrats—and many Republicans, too—simply look away, seemingly resigned to a culturally Marxist future in which they too may at any minute be rent asunder by woke mobs.

Thoughts:

  1. I partially agree with Metaxas. There are a lot of serious concerns about religious liberty for Christian institutions. This is why I support Fairness for All and find myself in agreement with Washington University law professor John Inazu’s (and Tim Keller‘s) idea of “confident pluralism.” But let’s not pretend that Donald Trump has a perfect record on religious liberty.  See, for example, Steven Waldman’s recent piece at the conservative website The Bulwark or Melissa Rogers’s piece at Religion News Service.
  2. This paragraph is filled with dog-whistles and more fear-mongering.  Metaxas’s use of words like “bigots,” “Marxist,” and “woke mobs” are meant to scare evangelicals.  Metaxas, like many evangelicals, see Trump as a strongman. The Donald will protect him and all evangelicals from the Marxists and the woke mobs who will soon be arriving at their doorsteps.

Metaxas continues:

Given this new reality, is it any wonder Mr. Trump’s bellicosity often draws cheers?  Or that the appointment of originalist judges has become so urgent that some people are willing to countenance a chief executive who tweets like a WWE figure?

The cheers that Trump received last Friday during the recent Evangelicals for Trump rally (Metaxas was present) at an evangelical megachurch in Miami were deeply troubling. Here is my take on it.  As for the Christian Right’s false belief that the appointment of federal justices will end, or even reduce, abortions in America, see my argument in Believe Me.

Finally, the bio attached to the op-ed says, “Mr. Metaxas is the author of “If You Can Keep It: The Forgotten Promise of American Liberty.” I wrote a series of posts on this historically problematic book here and another review here.

You can read the entire Metaxas Wall Street Journal op-ed here, but you will need a subscription in order to do it.