I asked our Executive Editor, Jay Richards, if I could respond to David French’s latest piece on Christians who back Donald Trump. He cautiously agreed. But only with a caveat. I must be “charitable” to French. I thought for a few long minutes before replying. Because I knew it would be teeth-grindingly difficult.
Why is that, I had to wonder? In a great piece on Jung, Star Wars, and politics, columnist Jim Geraghty gives the answer. What we hate most in others is often a flaw we subconsciously loathe in ourselves. I thought of that, in connection with French’s piece. First let me lay out what French says and why I think it’s wrong. Then I’ll confess to my own dalliance (in different forms) with the very same sin.
Are We Giving Scandal by Backing Trump?
A Christian’s primary purpose is not to defend his own religious liberty. It’s not even to fight abortion — as vital as that task is. His basic task on this Earth isn’t protecting Christian education or preserving the freedom of Christian artists. Each of those things is important. Each of those things is necessary. But their defense cannot and must not compromise our true purpose.
And what is that purpose? I’m reminded of the Westminster Shorter Catechism: “What is the chief end of man? Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy Him forever.”
He asserts that by backing a president with widely known moral flaws, Christians are failing to do that. By direct logical implication, the same would be true of all of the following:
- Recently persecuted Christians such as Lactantius, who backed Constantine. (That ruler killed his own wife and son.)
- Alcuin, who rebuilt education throughout Europe and saved thousands of classical books from disappearing forever. (His patron, Charlemagne, was apparently polygamous.)
- Martin Luther, who supported and relied on Philip of Hesse, despite Philip’s public bigamy.
- Thomas Cranmer, who used the murderous adulterer Henry VIII to create the Church of England.
- William Wilberforce, who allied with Parliamentary rakes with decadent lifestyles to outlaw slavery.
- Civil rights leaders who allied with the Kennedy brothers — a pack of hard-drinking adulterers.
I really could go on and on, through every Christian century. All the way to St. Paul, who honored Caesar for wielding the “sword” that enforces justice. Yet he was shockingly silent on Nero’s sex life.
Protecting the Vulnerable
Our “primary purpose” as Christians is indeed to glorify God. As citizens, it’s something different. Or rather more specific. We glorify God as citizens by protecting His image and likeness in the form of the human person. Especially the most vulnerable among us. And to do that we must protect our basic liberties. That, and not the president’s private life, is what should guide our votes as Christians.
Let me reiterate what I said in response to French in our NY Times symposium with Ross Douthat.
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.
Bush’s personal life is squeaky clean. So was Obama’s. And Jimmy Carter’s. I think my point is made.
Choose Your Avatar
But there’s a deeper one hiding which I’d rather not talk about. National Review’s publisher Jack Fowler suggested it in his own response to French. He wrote:
We (believers) seem to want more moral guidance, pronouncements, behavior — salvation! — from an American president than we do of the true shepherds of our souls, whether it be the parish priest, the rabbi, the bishop, the minister. …
I’m not sure Fowler put it exactly correctly. I don’t think we want leaders to guide us. We want leaders who express us. At least, the idealized version of ourselves. Since French is admittedly a fan of World of Warcraft, I’ll put this in role-playing game terms. We don’t want to do politics. We want to find avatars.
In online role-playing games, you pick an avatar that represents you. The qualities you like to think you have, maybe wish you had more abundantly. Male players might feel uncomfortable spending weeks or months represented by female avatars. (I think they should.) In my favorite strategy game, Medieval Total War II (Crusades), I’ve tried more than once to play a Muslim country. I just can’t do it. It feels like … voting for a Democrat.
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.
That’s how most of us choose political candidates. We find people who broadly agree with our views. But more importantly, they strut and preen our attitudes on the public stage. And that often matters more than what they actually accomplish. If our party chooses an avatar that we find too distasteful, we might become disaffected. If the issues at stake are important enough, we’ll hold our nose and vote for him. But we won’t be long-term supporters.
A Candidate as Vehicle of Mass Projection
This observation explains why Barack Obama became an almost messianic figure on the left. He embodied the kind of cool, cosmopolitan, post-racial person that swing voters wish they could be. When they slapped his bumper sticker on the back of their Kias, voters felt that that it almost became a Volvo. Hillary Clinton, on the other hand, was more not an avatar that most Americans, even liberals, badly wanted to play.
In online role-playing games, you pick an avatar that represents you.
This insight has helped me understand my own political choices. Back in the 90s, I didn’t know who my congressman was. But I knew that I liked Pat Buchanan as my avatar! Besides his solid social conservative views and many talents, there was more. He embodied the response I wanted to make to contemporary culture. He was the pitchfork I wanted to wave.
In the 2016 race, my avatar was Ted Cruz. His persona was the vast, projected, skyscraper-sized version of what I secretly wanted to be. Turns out, most voters don’t like the guy who constantly reminds you that he’s the smartest person in the room. (No wonder I never won any of those student council races.)
Most voters wanted something different. The put-upon, harassed, but basically good-hearted American who’s yelling at kids to stay off his lawn. Don’t knock it! Those “kids” are crossing the border by the millions and going on welfare. They’re waving foreign flags. They’re swarming on campus in the left-wing version of Klan hoods, menacing professors. Our avatar will stand up for us and condemn all that. (Unless our self-image won’t tolerate him, in which case we choose a much smaller but carefully scrubbed avatar like Jeb Bush or Evan McMullin.)
Real Politics Is Tedious and Crucial
In the same way, for many of Trump’s supporters, it almost doesn’t matter if he in fact builds the Wall. Just having him out there Tweeting our general outrage at the collapse of every sane thing left standing (the Boy Scouts, the borders, the fact of biological sex) is almost enough. Doesn’t it at least feel great?
Do we want to actually change things, to protect the vulnerable and secure our liberties? Then we have to get down to the grinding, often tedious work that Frank Cannon and Maggie Gallagher describe. We have to show up at boring city council meetings, and follow Congressional primary races.
But if all we want is our own version of the Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man at the end of Ghostbusters 2. … We can keep right on doing what we’re doing.