Zmirak Debates in the New York Times on Trump and Christian Voters
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:
This @DavidAFrench and @JZmirak conversation with @DouthatNYT on Christians and Trump will be mined by historians 50 years from now. It’s the perfect distillation of a complex political moment. https://t.co/6kaO4KzDGa
— John Podhoretz (@jpodhoretz) December 18, 2017
— Sohrab Ahmari (@SohrabAhmari) December 18, 2017
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 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.