Posts tagged: Trump

Put Not Your Trust in Princes: On Trump, Impeachment, and Evangelical Christianity

On Thursday, Christianity Today, the flagship newspaper of reflective evangelical Christianity, endorsed the removal of Donald Trump. Today Trump fired back, and his power-worshipping servant, Franklin Graham, put great distance between his family (who helped found CT) and CT’s current leadership. Here is the most powerful passage:

To the many evangelicals who continue to support Mr. Trump in spite of his blackened moral record, we might say this: Remember who you are and whom you serve. Consider how your justification of Mr. Trump influences your witness to your Lord and Savior. Consider what an unbelieving world will say if you continue to brush off Mr. Trump’s immoral words and behavior in the cause of political expediency. If we don’t reverse course now, will anyone take anything we say about justice and righteousness with any seriousness for decades to come? Can we say with a straight face that abortion is a great evil that cannot be tolerated and, with the same straight face, say that the bent and broken character of our nation’s leader doesn’t really matter in the end?

It is extremely important for theologically conservative Christians to avoid identifying their faith with right-wing political causes, even important ones. Franklin Graham seems incapable of criticizing anything the president does. He clearly treats Trump and his regime as a kind of idol. As have a number of other leading evangelicals.

Most of my readers are non-Christians who identify as either progressive or libertarian, so it may be obvious to you that CT has taken a morally respectable stance and that Graham and most evangelicals do not. But I think things are a bit more complicated than this. Many evangelicals think, with good reason, that the progressive left hates them and wants to stigmatize them for their traditional views on sexual morality. Many feel that, however bad Trump is, the Democrats are worse. Trump is a terrible person and a bad president, but he doesn’t hate evangelicals, and he is providing them with the judicial appointments of their dreams. So rejecting Trump might seem unsafe and unwise.

To these people, the CT article is not going to be very convincing. CT focuses on problems with Trump, and judging the wisdom of removal requires comparing Trump’s policies with those of the alternatives (though more on this below). But while the article may not have made the best comparative case for removal, it does something more important.

Much evangelical support for Trump is not based on careful political calculus, but has instead led evangelical Christians to effectively convert from traditional Christianity to the worship of the American red tribe’s false god of political power. If you spend more time watching Fox News defend Trump than attending church, you might be worshipping someone other than Jesus. Here’s a sad example from a CT reader that Ted Olsen, the Editorial Director at CT, received by email:

This is the real danger of supporting Trump no matter what he does. By refusing to criticize Trump, and by refusing to consider removing him, Christians can be tempted to treat Trump as an idol. Careful political calculus might lead Christians to oppose removal, but outright and unwavering support is spiritually dangerous. Christians are taught to believe that we are not to put our trust in princes, in sons of men in whom there is no salvation (Psalm 146:3). And that’s because human beings have a natural tendency to worship things other than God. This is why all Trump-supporting Christians should seriously consider supporting removal: to ensure that their support for Trump does not compete with their devotion to God.

And the consequences of removal aren’t exactly disastrous! Pence will be president, and would arguably stand a good chance against whomever the Democrats put forward. Indeed, Pence would have less support from Trump’s base. But he’d have less opposition from independents and Democrats. So removing Trump is not tantamount to electing a Democratic president. And the long-term effects of removal would discourage future presidents from acting this badly, such that a future conservative president might be better behaved.

So here’s the general lesson. American Christians in particular must struggle to formulate complex and reflective political attitudes in a polarized culture that tells us that political tribe affiliation is what matters most. It is, in my view, an implication of our duty to avoid worshipping false gods.

 

Trump, Trust, and Impeachment

The greatest danger Trump poses to the country is norm erosion. All free and democratic societies depend on norms beyond the law itself in order to function well. In particular, they rely on social norms, patterns of behavior that are not only backed by empirical expectations (people think most others will follow the norm) but by normative expectations (people share a belief that we think others think we ought to follow it). So social norms are publicly recognized rules that are seen to be in effect and normatively binding. Social norms are one of the key sources of social order. In many cases, if laws contradict social norms, they will simply be ineffective.

Democracy depends on political officials following social norms like, well, don’t use your office for personal gain. These are acts that researchers call “grand corruption,” and they are probably the greatest threat to trust in government. What’s worse, corruption is one of the few factors that clearly negatively impact social trust, a precious resources that makes just about every institution work well. When an elected official, usually a very high status person, violates an anti-corruption social norm, they therefore not only facilitate the harm the social norm discourages, they undermine the basis for social cooperation itself.

Ordinarily, social norms are enforced through sanctions – blame and punishment – where violators are held accountable by members of their community, and most importantly by high status members. The hope is that the sanction, or the prospect of sanction, motivates compliance with the norm, and some kind of repentance by the norm violator. The primary aim is to impose costs on the violator, which will include the moral emotions of guilt and shame, and drive compliance. If the violator can’t be successfully punished, the aim is to discourage others from violating the norm in the future.

Impeachment might not cost Trump, who I think welcomes it, but it can impose costs on future violators, since most officials have a capacity for guilt and shame and don’t want to be remembered for being impeached. So I think it makes sense to move forward. However, I also worry that Trump may benefit from the impeachment process, especially because failing to remove him can be spun as exoneration, and Trump can easily control the media narrative throughout the trial. If he benefits from this sanction by creating a counter-sanction, that may embolden not only him, but future officials.

For this reason, it is essential that Trump be successfully sanctioned. But successfully sanctioning someone who feels no guilt or shame, and who is a master media manipulator, is hard. It will require skillful political maneuvering. If it succeeds, we may preserve the precious resources of social and political trust. If it fails, God help us all.