Al Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, recently declared that he was going to vote for Donald Trump in the upcoming presidential election. Mohler is a very influential figure in the world of Southern Baptists and evangelicals more broadly. If you watched Mohler’s live stream where he announced his intentions to vote for Trump, he offered his explanation in a very thoughtful and qualified manner. He didn’t endorse Trump’s behavior. In fact, he did not vote for him in 2016. He expressed frustration with Trump and explained his calculus for why he supports Republicans, namely, the fundamental differences on issues of human dignity, marriage, and religious liberty among others.
Watch his “endorsement.” If that’s an endorsement, then I would probably pass. Though Mohler is much more reserved and even-keeled than Rod Dreher, he pretty much voiced something akin to Dreher’s support for Trump and the Republicans. Republicans are willing to protect religious liberty, not use state power to coerce conformity, and support pro-life positions and traditional marriage. More importantly, Mohler pointed out how the real question is not one of a checklist of various issues that a voter could look at and tally the score, but an issue of fundamental incongruity on worldview. This is not just a bunch of abstract post hoc justifications. He’s right.
I may have a lot of sympathy for issues that Democrats support or are more enthusiastic about, but when it comes to voting for a Democrat, I have a very hard time because the ideology that is ascendant in the base and working its way up to the state and national parties is radically antagonistic to Christianity in very fundamental ways. So it’s very hard to disambiguate the two. There are some Democrats I admire who are moderate and pro-life. If I could, I might vote for them.
David French recently wrote a criticism of Mohler on The Dispatch that was unfair, to say the least. He presents Mohler as some sort of Paula White-like figure toadying up to Trump instead of the much more nuanced position Mohler elaborated. But that’s what polarization does. It causes us to toss nuance to the side because it’s a zero-sum battle. For Never-Trumpers like French, the president is a catastrophe of epic proportions who must be defeated because his character is so fundamentally perverse and dangerous that we cannot trust him.
Many others responded with similar criticisms, basically saying Mohler was a hypocrite or that now he was a consequentialist, instead of a principled Christian. Even if Mohler does not offer a satisfactory account of his change of heart, I would argue he’s at least abandoned what I take to be a common Christian and evangelical over-moralizing of politics. Politics is more than ethics. We don’t just go into the voting booth and pick the person with the best character. Ethics and character are part of the equation, but only a part. To call him a consequentialist or a hypocrite is to assume consequences and track record don’t matter. But they do!! I want my politicians to be moral but also effective. I want them to have character but also competency, understanding, and skill in pulling the legislative levers, which takes a different set of skills. Trump’s excellent track record on judicial appointments and defense of religious liberty are real and tangible. I would expect some, like Mohler, who opposed Trump in 2016 to take that track record seriously.
Politics is not about consistency in one’s positions. It’s about compromise. Take the Tea Party. They refused to compromise, and thus remained pure but did not accomplish much by way of actual policy change or legislation. Compromise is a dirty word these days, but the best politicians, in my estimate, are those who are willing to horse trade. You get a little; I get a little. You scratch my back; I scratch yours. Our system of government is specifically designed to force compromise to keep tyrannies of the majority at bay.
We could call this transactional politics because it is really about trying to get some law, policy, funding, or some sort of support from government for your preferred policy. People have called Trump a transactional politician, willing to compromise on principle to gain support. And there is a big downside to transactional politics in that trust is also essential for society to work. If you only compromise, you can’t be trusted.
The problem with the “character” argument, though, is that a good many presidents would fail the character test that French and others seem to think is essential. Many nineteenth-century American presidents would, in the words of Mont Pythons, be “right out.” If we began to look at the lives of actual politicians, I’d say many (a majority?) of these people would have moral lapses and compromises that would easily disqualify them. In the good old days, which never really existed, the “character” supporters believed politics happened by means of virtuous people acting on principle. This is a fairytale. Abraham Lincoln, enjoying a recent resurgence of love and admiration, was not above political chicanery and tricks to get legislation passed. Passing out favors and filling coveted political appointments as a way to win votes was not above “The Great Emancipator.” But when Trump does this more brazenly and brashly, we are told this is unprecedented and a corruption of politics.
Historians of American politics will quickly disabuse us of the myth of the principled politicians. The wheels of American democracy are lubricated with compromise, often by seedy or less than principled political bosses. Lyndon Johnson, who was notoriously foul-mouthed and crude, passed some of the most far-reaching pieces of legislation in American history. The good ole days were good because we looked the other way. There were principled politicians, but the norm in a democracy like ours was to make deals and compromise on “principles.”
Many evangelicals have expressed their disillusion at both political parties because neither seems to line up with their beliefs. Democrats seem antagonistic to Christian convictions, and Republicans rally to defend and support a president whose character would not exactly line up with Christian standards, let alone those of used car salesman—my apologies to used car salesmen. To all this, I say good. The feeling of alienation and ambiguity is a good one, if only because it causes Christians to wake up from a dogmatic slumber and see that reality and politics are more complicated than good vs. bad, moral vs. immoral.
Though I vote Republican, it seems quite clear to me that in certain segments of the country and certain denominations there is an over-identification between Christianity and the Republican Party. Mohler’s calculation reflects some of this. While the pro-life issue continues to be a major one for Christians, we must be very wary of beginning to believe that supporting this issue somehow makes you a better person or your candidates more moral. More often than not, standard-bearers for moral crusades are flawed people, and we should not pretend otherwise.
In French’s article he bemoans the failure of evangelicals to apply the “character test” to Trump. Surely this is true of a great many evangelicals who really do think Trump is a “good Christian” or that he is without major flaws. He’s is obviously a very flawed candidate, and if you support him you ought to be honest that he is, at best, a very imperfect standard-bearer. But let’s say that supporting Trump would mean another justice or two on the Supreme Court who would decisively overturn Roe v. Wade or check government coercion and overreach in matters of religious liberty. French acts as though these are just a “checklist” that we should ignore, which is absurd. Overturning Roe v. Wade would mean, at a minimum, that many states could protect the life of the unborn and open up the possibility for legislation to protect the life of the unborn. That is not a checklist. It is saving the lives of hundreds of thousands of children. The fact French so easily dismisses this because of his character test shows how narrow-minded moral politics can make us.
Evangelicals need to move away from this sort of moralistic politics where we have to pretend that our presidents or politicians need to be scions of virtue and probity. It was this sort of view of politics that caused the younger Al Mohler, mistakenly, to weigh in on the Clinton impeachment hearings. Maybe Mohler should apologize to Clinton, as Jonathan Merritt suggested. However, the mistake was not that he should consistently apply the character test, but for thinking character is the primary reason for accepting or rejecting a candidate. There was no reason for evangelical pastors to weigh in on the matter, outside of a general denunciation of adultery. There may have been grounds for Clinton’s impeachment, but the moralizing impulse of the Christian right is not a healthy one. Now that Christians defend a flawed candidate, the identity politics on the left and some Trump critics on the right have taken up the mantle.
Our politicians do not need to be upright Bible-believing Christians, and in the future, they will not be. We should accept that fact. A similar moralizing impulse drives the current evangelical tortured predicament in presidential politics. We want a clear option that we can vote for with a good conscience. Mohler said exactly this in laying out his thought process. But the reality is that this has never been as easy nor as problem-free as Mohler and others have made it out to be. If abortion is murder, then voting for the Democrats, who now embrace abortion as a moral virtue, is always going to be fraught. But the belief that Republican politicians were the sole possessors of “virtue” or “character” is ridiculous and untrue. They are flawed human beings, like the rest of us, and Christians need to reject this sort of hyper-moralizing tendency.
Some will see this as embracing nihilism or power politics. Quite the opposite. Christians need to get a big fat dose of realism: Our side is not morally perfect and never was. The other side is not as bad as we have made them out to be. Politics is about advancing your cause and achieving outcomes that you believe are best. Principle plays a part in this. Character plays a part in this, but we should drop the “character test,” at least in the way that French et al. seem to imagine.
What we need is a principled pragmatism. Principles should not be compromised, but we need to realize that in order to step in the political ring, we are going to have to compromise. That’s a distinct difference. We can get some of what we want but not all. We can work with morally flawed people. On some issues, like abortion, we should be more emphatic, but not absolutist. Getting some of what we want is better than nothing. The perfect is the enemy of the good. If we are people who understand that we are fallen sinners, then this should be no problem.
Christians should hold onto character within our own communities and expect much more of our own leaders than of our political leaders. Political leaders should be held to account, but all the handwringing about Trump is tiresome. It betrays a view of politics that never existed in America, and the more quickly we leave that behind the better. The good ole days ever existed, so let’s not pretend like they should now.
Mohler alluded to moving in this position. He said we should support platforms over personalities. I think that’s right and healthy. There is no straight line from Christian conviction to political party and candidate, because politics is messy, complex, and fraught with so many other dynamics. Morality is only one part of politics, so we should reject both the right and left-wing versions of morality politics, under the guise of right-wing God-and-country rhetoric or social-justice identity politics.
During the Clinton impeachment hearings, I was staying with a family in Germany. They were befuddled by the American obsession with Clinton’s sexual liaisons. The German chancellor at the time was on his third marriage. No big deal, they said. While I am not enamored by European secularism nor many aspects of European politics, this is one distinct area I think the Europeans are correct. Let’s ease up on moralistic politics. Character matters, but it’s not all that matters.