Zmirak Debates in the New York Times on Trump and Christian Voters

In this Oct. 5, 2016 file photo, pastors from the Las Vegas area pray with Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump during a visit to the International Church of Las Vegas, and International Christian Academy, in Las Vegas.

By John Zmirak Published on December 19, 2017

Ross Douthat of the New York Times was kind enough to invite me to take part in something interesting. It was an online dialogue involving him and another NeverTrump conservative, David French of National Review. The subject? The impact of Christian conservatives’ alliance with President Trump. The back and forth proved interesting, and attracted some high-powered comments:


And:

Christians Don’t Vote Like Sheep Anymore

Douthat posed the questions, though he candidly admitted that his views are closer to French’s. Douthat began: “Can you each give me your view of what the Trump presidency has meant for religious conservatism?”

I answered: “I’m genuinely pleased and impressed by Trump’s performance on most of the issues of concern to socially conservative voters and Christians.” I noted that in 1996 and other elections, “a small group of ‘respectable’ ministers or lobbyists” could “deliver” the evangelical Christian vote to candidates like Bob Dole or George W. Bush. That didn’t mean those politicians would look out for Christians’ interests. By contrast, in 2016, Christian voters made up their own minds, with pastors mostly following them. Because Trump relied so heavily on Christian votes to win, believers have more leverage over Trump than they ever did over Dole or Bush. I also noted:

I have this from pastors who met with Trump for many hours: He genuinely listens to them. They’re the kind of people most playboys from Queens never encounter. He connected with some of them personally. He saw their concern for his soul. And he took and takes their concerns seriously.

David French bristled at this, writing: “When we’re the living representatives of Christ’s church, we don’t get to proudly support politicians who lie and commit dishonorable acts for the sake of a few policy wins.”

I answered:

I think it trivializes every issue of justice and life that we both care about to call them public policy “wins.” These are the fates and freedoms of millions of people we’re talking about. Unborn children. Nuns who serve the dying poor. Christians endangered by the Islamic State.

Are Christian Voters Coming of Age?

Next Douthat asked if there’s “anything dangerous in the close association between a Christian politics and a president who is so proudly un-Christian in word and often deed?”

To that I said much what I’ve written before here at the Stream. I noted: “We supported Constantine, and Harry Truman, and many other imperfect men who were better than the alternatives. I don’t even expect saintly behavior of popes, much less of presidents.”

Douthat noted “polls showing a wild swing … in the share of evangelicals who think character matters in a politician,” and asked me what I thought it meant.

I suggested that

evangelicals are coming around to using Natural Law (philosophical) arguments — rather than biblical proof-texts for their political positions. … I think they are moving closer to the skeptical prudence that always marked Catholic, Lutheran and Anglican political thinking.

That seemed to make French angry. He said that prominent evangelical leaders who backed Trump display “pure, primitive partisanship, not high theological principle.”

Protecting Middle Eastern Christians

After some more back and forth, I finally vented. I wrote:

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. … 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.

In Syria, Trump aided the Kurdish militias allied with Syrian Christians. Now instead of a massive catastrophe for an ancient Christian community, there are Christmas trees going up in Damascus again.

Will Trump Make Us Less Winsome?

The next important question from Douthat provoked more thought. He asked if I “worry at all about the possibility that 60 percent of the country will exit the Trump era convinced that conservative Christianity is just white identity politics?”

We supported Constantine, and Harry Truman, and many other imperfect men.

My answer was simple: “Black Christians know that their own politics has a certain amount of ethnic self-advocacy in it. Likewise Latino Christians. They aren’t really scandalized that it’s also in the mix with white voters. But they want to see it subordinated to moral norms, for the sake of the common good. And I think Trump is doing that.”

In answer to Douthat’s last question about the hopes and dangers we face in the next few years, I concluded:

In an age when Pope Francis compares critics of the Islamic colonization of Europe to King Herod murdering the infants of Bethlehem (see his 2013 Lampedusa speech), it’s falling to secular leaders to pass on the authentic Christian political tradition. That’s not utopianism or Machiavellianism. It’s realism grounded in Prudence, the governing natural virtue.

Go read the whole thing. Forward it to your friends. And let me know (in the comments box) what you think.

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  • Paul

    From the linked article: French: I am very willing to be persuaded that he will ultimately be a better president than Hillary Clinton.”

    That was painfully obvious even before the election. If he didn’t see it then, what will it take to remove the blinders now?

    • mbabbitt

      Yes, that statement really stunned me. I wanted to say, “Really?!”

  • Char B

    As an “evangelical”, I thank you Catholic John Zmirak, for representing my values

    • Zmirak

      Thanks! Proud to stand alongside you!

  • Patmos

    Those looking to political leaders to be paragons of virtue really need to look elsewhere. Yeah you’d hope they would be upright and dignified and not having fun with interns in the oval office for example, but the only real standards should be law and the far more subjective standard of capability, with the latter held only in extreme circumstances.

    Funny how so many secular ingrates call for separation of church and state, then get mad when the candidate they oppose doesn’t turn out to be Thomas Aquinas.

  • Ineverleavecomments

    Thanks for this Christmas gift. Looking forward to talking about this with the family next week!

    Someday my baby will have to write an essay on this election for history class and this article neatly breaks down the situation and will be a big help to her. I do hope her essay isn’t titled, “the trump year’s 2016-2019: another Republican president welches on American Christian voters.”

    Some of your comments in the NYT article bring to mind what then Fr Ratzinger said in 1969 about the Church in the future being smaller and a more spiritual Church etc. I think his predictions basically have all come true. The next part is the hard part: this new, smaller Church prevents the US from turning into Europe. I had thought (but now can not locate in the writings of Ratzinger) that the “smaller Church” had to find their new allies in natural-law minded secular folks ( not mainline Protestants or their fellow small “c” catholics). I forget the term Ratzinger uses for these people, but I thought he definitely said that the Church had to look outside of the Church for help. (I had always taken this to mean religious, pro constitution libertarians in the US -all 3 of them).

    anyway, can you give an example of a natural law minded evangelical? You mention a few organizations I don’t normally read but should. This is not a snarky question-I’m gonna have time to sit around reading next week and want to make a point of getting out of my Catholic internet anger bubble; I think this would be good for me.

    I disagree with a few things; 60% of average Democrats, not east coast elites, but normal, non-churchgoing midwestern Democrats, already equate Christians with white supremecists. This is not good. I say this bc I have read Christmas letters and FB posts from friends and relatives saying as much. I’m not sure how one goes about changing this perception.

    Finally, MERRY CHRISTMAS AND HAPPY NEW YEAR. Give the beagle puppies a hug!

    • Zmirak

      Thanks, you too! Just go to FRC and NOM’s websites. You’ll see what I mean.

  • Charles Burge

    Thank you for pointing me to this very interesting exchange! It would be cool to see more of this in the future. I read David French’s columns regularly at NRO, and I always enjoy your columns as well. I think my own views are closer to Mr. French’s than yours, but I genuinely appreciate your insight and perspective. I won’t try and make any arguments of my own here, but I would like to say that getting contrasting viewpoints from two great thinkers is very stimulating. At the Bible says, iron sharpens iron. Keep up the good work!

  • john

    I want to personally thank the Evangelical Christians and Conservative Catholics for finally coming around to not just accepting moral relativism, but flaunting it as a virtue. Never again will they have the moral authority to inject a person’s morality as having any bearing, what-so-ever, on their ability to hold public office.

    • Patmos

      When using the term “moral relativism” it helps to know what it means first. Just because conservatives may downplay one thing doesn’t mean they excuse it, it just means they are willing to take the bad with the good.

      Unless maybe, you have the perfect candidate lined up? I mean, surely you can exercise greater discernment that the rest of us so far up there on your high horse, even if the lack of oxygen appears to have hindered your ability to distinguish policy from personality.

  • Ken Abbott

    That final swipe at a “Mike Pence-governed Gilead” must have been tongue-in-cheek. I can’t imagine Douthat being that dense for real.

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