What Evangelicals’ Coziness with Trump Puts at Risk
However you think about Donald Trump’s core constituency—whether you think of it as made up of patrons in small-town diners or forgotten factory workers or aging Fox viewers or something less flattering—no one disputes that high turnout among evangelical Christians is a required element in Trump’s bid for re-election. Most of Trump’s association with evangelicals has been dubious; he has spent time with prosperity-gospel preachers who dabble in outright heresy, such as Paula White, while also courting megachurch pastors within established denominations, like Robert Jeffress of First Baptist Church of Dallas.
More recently, though, Trump has earned a backhanded endorsement from a far more intellectually and morally serious evangelical figure: Albert Mohler, author, radio host, and president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky.
It pains me to take public issue with Al Mohler. I am the son and grandson of Southern Baptist pastors, and I am grateful to leaders like Mohler who were part of a movement to prevent a liberal theological shift that would have turned Southern Baptists into just another mainline denomination. (By theological liberalism, I mean primarily a view of Nicene orthodoxy as antiquated, if not optional.) More personally, I am grateful to Mohler from a distance, because it was his writing, along with that of Chuck Colson, Father Richard John Neuhaus, and the recently deceased Ravi Zacharias that helped me remain a believer at a time when it would have been all too easy to walk away from the faith. All of which is to say that Al Mohler is no lightweight; he is a serious man who is not easily dismissed.
Mohler’s latest book is ominously titled The Gathering Storm. It’s an overwrought warning against encroaching secularism. Greg Forster’s recent respectful critique in Law & Liberty is well worth reading in full, but here are a couple of takeaways. First, Mohler’s solution to rising secularism never extends beyond standard right-wing politics. In a time when conservatism carries multiple meanings, this is hardly helpful. Next, Forster notes that Mohler approaches a more serious criticism of political liberalism. By now this is old hat for a certain type of religious conservatism—liberalism leads to secularism and waning of religious devotion, virtue, etc.—but it’s a new critique for Mohler. Forster wisely notes that Mohler would make a profound error in dismantling the thousand-year-old project of natural law that culminated in liberalism. Mohler’s best work would be his day job as seminary president, training young pastors to carry out their duties in local churches in such a way that virtue and institution-building would be most welcome secondary effects of their ministries.
Forster’s review is direct but kind. He clearly respects Mohler and his disagreements with him originate in good faith. I join Forster in believing that Mohler—and all Christians who would walk away from the liberal project—are playing with fire. You might argue that religious anti-liberalism has a certain nihilistic bent, but you’d hardly get that impression from Mohler, with his three-piece suits, rep ties, and cleanly polished Allen Edmonds shoes. Still Mohler’s position creates a framework that allows him to take public positions that leave him vulnerable to a variety of criticism.
One way that Mohler has opened himself up to critique is with his recent spate of comments declaring that he will be a de facto Republican for the indefinite future. It’s no surprise that Mohler has been a reliable Republican voter; that’s been true of evangelicals for perhaps thirty years. And on a purely philosophical level, there’s good reason for that. From Burke and Tocqueville to Buckley, Kirk, and the evangelical intellectual hero Carl F. H. Henry, the conservatism of local institutions and limited state power is more easily compatible with evangelical orthodoxy than the vision of Rousseau, Hegel, and their progressive descendants that became commonplace in older mainline churches a century ago. Yet that elective affinity between theology and political philosophy does not necessitate explicit partisan loyalty, and pledging such loyalty has the practical effect of reducing segments of the church into mere voting blocs that operate on the basis of political trade-offs as opposed to deeply held convictions.
Consciously or not, when Mohler recently pledged his support of the Republican party, he gave theological cover to the party, from Mitch McConnell’s cunning Senate moves all the way up to President Trump’s troubling rhetoric. The motivation for Mohler’s fealty was the usual one—federal judges who protect religious liberty and would curtail abortion. I would agree that the appointment of many qualified jurists has been one of the few highlights of the last three and a half years, but—the question rises once more—at what cost? Here Mohler is guilty of a serious political sin, what Jonah Goldberg has often called “one-thingism.” All of us have our issues that really matter to us, but when a large movement declares that one issue rises above all others, that movement is signaling that it will tolerate heterodoxy on any other issue in exchange for their own political prize. This is not just a foolish political calculation; it is damaging to evangelicalism’s integrity. (Mohler expounded on this position in an interview with Isaac Chotiner in the New Yorker last week.)
There is another problem for Mohler that rests on his strategic silence. Common among anti-anti-Trump conservatives, this method has plenty to say about the left, but is almost totally silent in the face of activism and commentary that transgresses the boundaries of civil society that the right traditionally valued. In 2016, though he never explicitly announced whom he voted for, Mohler leveled intense criticism at Trump in the pages of the Washington Post after the leak of the Access Hollywood tape. He has tempered his criticism as time has gone on, and his admission in April makes his vote in November all but official. This failure to articulate a nonpartisan voice for evangelical faithfulness has created a vacuum where any action in service to evangelical political goals becomes excused or even laudable. In this sense Mohler’s voice echoes not so much that of the president himself (that task falls to Paula White and Robert Jeffress) as the prospective inheritors of Trumpism like Senators Tom Cotton and Josh Hawley.
Whatever else can be said about the space Mohler occupies among evangelicals, his role is that of an elder statesman. He is not a populist rabble-rouser like, say, Eric Metaxas, the author and conservative radio host. Metaxas is a tragic example of populism gone wild among evangelicals. Although his biographies of William Wilberforce (2007) and Dietrich Bonhoffer (2009) faced academic criticism, his Socrates in the City program brought together a variety of religious and cultural voices for important conversations. His turn towards Trumpism in recent years has sometimes been silly—Metaxas penned a couple of children’s books wherein Trump (or rather a Flintstones-like “Donald the Caveman” cartoon character) accomplishes fictional tasks such as wall-building and swamp-draining. And it has sometimes been outrageous—as when Metaxas accused Trump’s critics of being demonic, and claimed that the reaction to the Access Hollywood tape radicalized him towards then-candidate Trump, instead of wondering whether perhaps such a man might not be suited to the nation’s highest office.
Metaxas follows the trajectory of so much anti-anti-conservatism wherein the enemy of my enemy is my friend. He has given a platform to Milo Yiannopoulos long after the provocateur merited one (assuming he ever did). He has called British white-nationalist Katie Hopkins “his hero,” and chose to have her on his radio program in the week following nationwide protests in response to the death of George Floyd. While Christians may arrive at divergent political positions on race, immigration, and other issues, both Yiannopoulos and Hopkins have repeatedly taken public stances that ought to place them outside the bounds of respectable civic discourse. It’s hard to fathom why Metaxas would consider either worth his time. Moreover, it’s hard to fathom why a supposedly thoughtful leader like Mohler would give Metaxas airtime on his own radio show without calling him to account for giving breathing room to such noxious opinions.
Finally we arrive at Kayleigh McEnany. McEnany’s rise has been meteoric, from production on Mike Huckabee’s TV show to White House press secretary by the age of 32. As impressive as her ascent has been, McEnany’s career has been marked by a penchant for controversy. Long before Donald Trump descended the escalator at Trump Tower, McEnany peddled Obama birther conspiracies on Twitter and CNN, and there has always been air of confrontation to her work, making her a natural fit for her present role. McEnany is also an evangelical Christian. Her recent tribute to the Christian apologist Ravi Zacharias drew thousands of views on the internet, including from some prominent evangelical intellectuals. Andrew Walker, a professor of theology at the seminary where Al Mohler serves as president, responded this way to McEnany’s tribute to Zacharias:
Put your politics aside for a second and let’s just be human: @PressSec’s tribute to @RaviZacharias is very sincere and moving. It is no small thing that the White House Press Secretary is offering these remarks: https://t.co/SwK3jQK7b5
— Andrew T. Walker (@andrewtwalk) May 20, 2020
This earned Walker a retweet from the president himself, as well as a considerable amount of criticism that Walker later brushed off as Trump Derangement Syndrome. That may be true in part, but it cannot be true in whole. McEnany’s remembrance of Razi Zacharias was moving—and I echo her gratitude for his life and work—but the only reason she has the forum for such a tribute is because she is the White House press secretary, a role she has exercised with cynical aplomb. At her post for less than three months, she’s already pushed the Joe Scarborough murder conspiracy, accused White House reporters of wanting to see churches closed, and described the president’s photo op at St. John’s Church after the Lafayette Square incident as Churchillian. Her statements on these subjects run the gamut from exaggerations to slanders. By her own admission in last week’s profile in the Atlantic, McEnany sees no discontinuity between her work as press secretary for a highly contentious White House and the profession of her Christian faith. It’s past time for credible evangelicals to state publicly that one cannot engage in brazenly deceitful political activity and then enjoy a forum for expressions of faith free of partisanship all at the same time.
But this is the evangelical malady. So consumed are they with the gathering storms of secularism and progressivism, and so committed are they to conservative politics, that anyone deemed to be on their side goes mostly free of criticism. Evangelical criticism of Donald Trump has largely subsided, and figures like Metaxas and McEnany get a pass either because of their own witness as Christians or their stance against secularism or simply because they’re in some sense seen as being on the “right team.” Dancing with slanderous conspiracies or even white nationalism gets swept under the rug in service to a higher goal, which is why supposed standard-bearers like Mohler direct their ire elsewhere.
This is the end result of a Manichean outlook that refuses to see the complexity of life—a tragedy indeed for those who claim to hold to an Augustinian faith. Part of the deep connection between orthodox Christianity and conservatism is the understanding that because people are sinful and broken, our societies are complex and cannot be managed from the top down. But that’s also true in other ways; changes in our world, with some obvious and grave exceptions, cannot be chalked up to encroaching secularism and then attacked like a 18th-century army lined up on a battlefield. You cannot excuse political and cultural malfeasance on the grounds that the enemy of your enemy is somehow your friend. Such an outlook reduces evangelicals to a mere interest group; people who should be united by a common religious creed in time become just another political tribe.