What Should We Make of Ralph Reed’s “Christian Case” for Trump?

GOP political operative Ralph Reed recently appeared on the Eric Metaxas Show. Watch:

Thoughts:

2:45ff:  The interview begins with a discussion of the quarantine. Reed seems to be making a case that coronavirus deaths and the shut-down of the economy are both “life” issues. This is certainly true. I am glad to see Reed is extending his understanding of pro-life politics beyond abortion. If Reed is willing to think about what it means to be pro-life in a way that takes him beyond abortion (or disease-based deaths), perhaps he is open to going a step further by starting to think about pro-life policy in terms of poverty, immigration, and the environment.

5:00ff: Reed says that Hillary Clinton was an “unspeakable alternative” in 2016. I understand why he said this. I have argued that Hillary Clinton’s decision to ignore evangelicals in 2020 was a huge political mistake. But I also think Reed’s views on Clinton are based more on recent history than theologically-informed politics.

The history of anti-Hillary sentiment among conservative evangelicals reaches back at least to Bill Clinton’s first campaign, when Hillary defended working in her law practice during her husband’s governorship by saying, “You know, I suppose I could have stayed home and baked cookies and had teas, but what I decided to do was fulfill my profession, which I entered before my husband was in public life.” To many who embraced the importance of traditional family roles, this seemed like a disparaging attack on their values. Then, when revelations of her husband’s marital infidelities surfaced, conservatives who challenged his character saw only defensiveness–and maybe something of a double standard–in Hillary’s response. She seemed willing to overlook her husband’s shortcomings, but she was ready to attack her husband’s accusers to advance a political agenda. In a Today interview in 1998, following the Monica Lewinksy affair, Clinton said that the impeachment allegations against her husband were little more than a “vast-right-wing conspiracy.

Many of these values voters have been so deeply influenced by the political playbook of the Christian Right that they were incapable of seeing Hillary Clinton, a devout mainline Methodist, as anything but an enemy. Fear of a Clinton victory blinded them to the fact that, not only did she have far more experience than Trump did, she also championed a position on paid leave that would have strengthened families, had a humane immigration policy, and defended the rights of women, children, the poor, and people of color. Many Christians see plenty of biblical themes at work in her positions, but these are not the themes long championed by the Christian Right. It is worth noting that there were evangelical leaders, including Ronald Sider and Thabiti Anyabwile, who said she was the best evangelical choice in 2016.

Notice how Reed does not use the words “unspeakable alternative” to describe Trump.

13:45: Reed says: “As Christians we hold a dual passport. We are citizens of a Kingdom that is here and yet to come, but we are also citizens of the United States. And we have to be good stewards of that citizenship.” This statement speaks volumes. Reed seems to imply that these dual identities are somehow equal. (I don’t think he really believes this, but political captivity makes people say strange things). If the Kingdom of God has a “here” dimension (in addition to a “yet to come” dimension), as Reed acknowledges, then the Kingdom of God is an alternative political community. What else could it be? It’s a Kingdom, right? And if Jesus reigns over this Kingdom, then its citizens–Christians guided by the Holy Spirit– must say something by way of moral critique to the earthly powers and kingdoms that rival it.

What does it mean, as Scot McKnight, N.T. Wright, and Matthew Bates, among others, have argued, that Jesus is King? What role do Christians play as a royal priesthood, proclaiming the truth of God to the darkness and, as Wright puts it, “reflecting God’s wisdom and justice into the world.”And there’s the rub. Reed’s Kingdom of God, and the Kingdom of God as understood by many conservative evangelicals, looks the other way when a ruler from another kingdom (so to speak) practices immorality. They do not seem to take their citizenship in this Kingdom as seriously as they take their American citizenship or, at the very least, they seem unwilling to say more about the tensions between the two. (There is, of course, a deep history behind the conflation of these two kingdoms).

14:05: At this point, Metaxas starts to sing the praises of the Christian Right political playbook designed in the late 1970s to win the burgeoning culture war. As I have argued multiple times, including in Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump, this political playbook teaches Christians that fear, power, and nostalgia are the predominant ways of engaging political life. This playbook is barely Christian. Yes, as Metaxas goes on to say here, Christians must speak to the culture as representatives of the Kingdom of God. He is right to criticize the rapture culture of modern evangelicalism that tells us not to worry about this world because we will be leaving soon to meet God in the air. But Metaxas’s public theology (if you can call it that) is severely limited. Kingdom ethics teaches Christians not to put their trust in political strongmen and grasp at worldly power. He is correct in his desire to engage the culture, but wrong in his approach. Sadly, he has the majority of American evangelicals on his side and this enables him to sustain his brand.

14:48:  Metaxas references his recent debate with David French. (See the transcript here and see my commentary here). Metaxas argues that Trump is a man of character because he has “fulfilled his promises” to evangelicals. Does Metaxas really believe that Trump is somehow different from any other first-term politician who wants to fulfill campaign promises to get re-elected? Metaxas is scraping the bottom of the barrel. His Trump cheerleading seems to have blinded him from the possibility that evangelicals are being played. Is this what evangelical political engagement has come to? Are we now defining presidential character–something that our founding fathers said a lot about–on whether or not a president keeps his election promises? Is “Make America Great Again?” all we’ve got?

16:25: Reed mentions Joe Biden’s ethical challenges. Here, in my view, Reed misses the point. Trump is not a man of character. His tweets and public statements are not only disgusting, but they mobilize the ugly populism that make-up a significant part of his base. They should not dismissed, as Reed does in this interview. Trump’s racist remarks at Charlottesville empowered white supremacists. His immigration policies, including keeping humans in cages, is unChristian. His narcissism got in the way of his ability to handle the coronavirus effectively and lives have been lost as a result. He worked with a foreign country to influence the 2020 election.

I don’t know all the details about this Tara Reade-Joe Biden controversy. If it turns out that Biden harassed Reade, I will condemn it. Granted, it looks like we will have an imperfect choice to make in November, as we often do. But Joe Biden’s character as a man far exceeds Donald Trump. Moreover, his policies are more just, humane, and in some ways more Christian than Trump. (See my comments on Hillary Clinton above).

20:00: Reed addresses the charge that pro-Trump evangelicals who condemned Bill Clinton for his moral indiscretions in 1998 are hypocritical. (I and others have made this charge on multiple occasions and have documented this here at the blog and in Believe Me). Reed argues that with Clinton it was more than just sexual because he also lied and obstructed justice. But if you read the 1998 remarks of James Dobson, Franklin Graham, Gary Bauer, and Wayne Grudem, it is clear that they all thought Clinton was ill-equipped to serve as president almost entirely because of the sexual affair and his willingness to lie about it. Of course, Trump has been accused of sexual harassment by multiple women (granted, not in the Oval Office, as far we know) and he denies every charge. He has also told thousands and thousands of lies to the American people unrelated to his sexual escapades. And, if I remember correctly, Trump was also impeached for obstructing justice and trying to cover-it-up. I can’t get my head around Reed’s logic here. What am I missing?

20:30: Reed claims that he did not disqualify Clinton because of his immoral past, but instead disqualified him on the issues. Fair enough. It sounds like Reed does not belong in the Dobson, Graham, Bauer, Grudem camp here. (Does someone want to check him on this one?). But then he says this:

My argument in the book is: if you’re going to exclude someone from serving in society because they’ve made mistakes in the past and because they’ve come up short, then I think that is not only contrary to good citizenship, I think it’s contrary to the Gospel. Throughout scripture, God takes people who are the dismissed, the demeaned, the failures, the outcasts, the people who came up short, the prostitute, the women who had five husbands and was then living with the Samaritan women at the well–these are the people who Jesus reached out to. And I personally think that what Christians did with Donald Trump was they extended grace to him, they hoped for the best out of him, and they accepted him for who he was and where he was and they  hoped to move him along by loving on him instead of throwing rocks and judging him.

It is hard to argue with grace and love. Indeed, Christians are called to pray for those in authority. I hope Reed will apply the same test to the next Democratic president, whether it is Joe Biden or someone else. But at what point does the grace period end? In the Old Testament, God decided Saul was not His guy. And we can think of other similar examples in scripture. Granted, God’s grace to human beings is endless. He will never stop pursuing Donald Trump. But isn’t there a difference between God extending grace to Donald Trump in his personal spiritual life and evangelicals looking the other way on Trump’s indiscretions and then justifying their behavior by invoking Christian grace? Please stop using the doctrine of grace as a political tool.

What about love? If Reed and evangelicals truly love Donald Trump they should take him aside and tell him that his character, rhetoric, narcissism, and many of his policies make him ill-equipped to serve in this role. They will tell him that God is not happy with his behavior. They should give him some hard-love, like the prophet Nathan did to David in 2 Samuel 12. They should lovingly speak truth to power and tell him it is time to go. Why don’t the court evangelicals use their “unprecedented access” to the White House to channel the voice of God to the 45th President of the United States?

22:10: Eric Metaxas wonders why non-evangelicals have such a “cartoonish” view of evangelicals. He fails to realize that evangelicals are mostly to blame for how “secular” people view them. They have damaged their witness, but instead of reminding his listeners of this, Metaxas chooses to play the victim.

I’ll stop there.  Watch the video and draw your own conclusions.