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Here’s one thing I know: Donald Trump’s presidency is one wild roller-coaster ride flashing with neon. By contrast, a Hillary Clinton presidency would have been stop-and-go traffic in a dingy shade of gray.
That’s the limit of my prescience, though. Three years ago I mocked the possibility of a Trump campaign in a column titled “Year-round silly season.” Not many expected he would run, few expected he’d be nominated, and almost no one expected him to win. Silly us!
Christians, especially the much-maligned, ill-defined “evangelicals,” still don’t know what to make of it, which is why David French’s National Review piece “An Open Letter to Trump’s Evangelical Defenders” raised a bit of a ruckus. French, a committed Christian and author, is always worth reading, and this was a thought-provoking read. While he understands why Christians voted for the president, and while he himself praises the president for good policy, it’s beyond the pale to make excuses for the president’s denigrating tweets and sordid past. Godly causes are secondary to godly behavior in word and deed, and if Christians hitch their hopes to a philandering, prevaricating, deliberately provocative figure, they will have earned the scorn of unbelievers. Not to mention a blow to their credibility that will take at least a generation to live down.
The left despises Christians no matter what. Far better to be despised for exalting Christ than for excusing Trump, but our opponents make no distinctions.
Those are valid concerns, and an interesting contrast to an “Open Letter to Young, ‘Post-Partisan’ Evangelicals” from 2012, also by David French. Back then, he called out those 20-something hipsters who refused to take up arms in the culture war. “I used to be you,” he wrote—committed to Christ, noncombative on social issues. But he had come to realize that being pro-life or pro–traditional marriage was an all-or-nothing commitment. He could not stand on the sidelines while advocates like James Dobson fought the good fight and got pilloried for it. So he jumped into the fray, inviting his fellow post-partisans to do the same: “Follow Jesus, yes, but don’t think for a moment that will improve your image.”
Now he shakes his head over what’s happened to the evangelical image. It’s a legitimate concern, and yet ... the left despises Christians no matter what. Far better to be despised for exalting Christ than for excusing Trump, but our opponents make no distinctions. To them, the main difference between evangelical support for Mitt Romney in 2012 and for Trump in 2018 is the difference between a damp fuse and a clear and present danger.
The two open letters don’t really contradict each other, but taken together they illustrate how difficult it is to thread the needle of public policy with private virtue. French accuses some of Trump’s evangelical cheerleaders of patronizing the president in order to get close to power. That may be true, for some. For others, how can they advise power without getting close to it? He needs advisers, and indicates that he listens to them. Conservative Christians are a demographic he hasn’t had much contact with, and who’s to say that some Christian leaders are suppressing valid criticism in order to exercise positive influence?
French rightly mocks comparisons of Trump to King David, another flawed ruler. A better comparison is to King Nebuchadnezzar, a pagan addicted to flattery and prone to recklessness, who came to respect godly counsel from Daniel and his friends—and to respect their God. Since the president of the United States is not an ancient Eastern potentate, no one is obliged to flatter him, and no one should. In public he should be called out for bad behavior. But those closer to him may believe they have to take a more subtle approach.
They may be wrong, but the worst thing we could do is let him divide us. Whether never-Trumpers or Trump-stumpers, “In humility consider others as better than yourselves,” or at least better than your first impression. The last 50 years of American politics should convince us that presidents do not make anyone great; Christ does, and on that we can all agree.