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Culture Q&A

Eric Metaxas

Compassion and politics

Evangelical tensions in the age of Trump

Compassion and politics

Eric Metaxas (Handout)

Some people are talkers and some are writers: Eric Metaxas is unusual in being both. He has a daily talk show and receives both praise and criticism for his support of President Donald Trump, but has also written biographies of William Wilberforce, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and Martin Luther. I interviewed him in front of students at The King’s College, New York City. Here are edited excerpts.

What is compassion? It’s simply an expression of God’s love for people, if you’re a person of faith. The reason agnostics or atheists talk about compassion is because it is one of those things that at this point in Western civilization we take for granted. The West assumes that everyone ought to have compassion for his neighbor, for someone who is less well-off. That is an assumption.

Where does the assumption come from? It comes from the Christian faith. We live in the West today and everyone in the West says, “Of course you’ve got to help the poor.” We don’t argue whether—we argue about how to do it. Conservatives say, “It should be the private sector,” and liberals say, “It should be the public sector.”

You wrote about William Wilberforce, who made a big difference in England. It was a staggering thing for me to discover that, before Wilberforce, England had a view of the poor and suffering that we would today consider an Eastern religion kind of view. Karma, right? If you’re in the gutter suffering, it’s because you deserve to suffer. So if I help you, I’m messing with the way things need to be. If I am blessed and have a lot of money and health, it’s because the gods or god, or the universe, has blessed me because I deserve it.

‘Before, when a candidate was defeated, he went away and kept quiet for the good of the republic. That began to change when we had the hanging chads in 2000. We’ve seen a fraying of the republic.’

What effect has family breakdown had on compassion? Until very recently you took care of your family. I have to worry about my old father and my kids have to worry about me and they have to help out. There is something very healthy and exceedingly local about the family unit. Government and the social safety net have encouraged families to abdicate that role. That’s the downside of FDR’s programs. He wanted to help people—and I think the heart of big-government people is in the right place—but the legislation ends up being less compassionate.

Does delayed marriage make us less compassionate? I can say that living in New York City, where everyone tends to get married late if they get married at all, you start seeing the sadness. Many people say, “If I had to do it over, I wish I had got married. I bought the lie that the culture was selling in every magazine and every TV program: ‘No, I shouldn’t get married early and have kids. That’s just some kind of enslavement. I want to be free.’” It really rarely works out that way. As a culture we’re just beginning to see the downside of what’s been called freedom.

So how do we practice compassion? What about the common practice of giving a dollar to a person sitting on the sidewalk with a sign? I’m an advocate for fiscal conservatism. Whenever I pass some people on the street and they ask me for money, I know there are all kinds of ways for that person to get help. I don’t have to feel bad about not giving because by giving to them I am encouraging them to stand here on the corner.

In what sense is President Trump showing compassion? There are people in America who really did feel, “Nobody cares about me. I am miserable and suffering and the people running for president except for this loudmouth Donald Trump don’t even acknowledge me.” I honestly think this was an issue of compassion because you have to choose the object of your compassion. Just like it’s my responsibility first to worry about my family, it’s the responsibility of a president first to worry about the people within the borders. Once we are flourishing we can help others.

What about compassion for immigrants? If you don’t have strict control of who’s coming into your country, people come in who are responsible to no one. They are lone wolves. It’s a stretch to say Trump was saying all are rapists. I absolutely don’t believe that. We have a president right now who communicates in some ways sloppily, in some ways intentionally sloppily. He’s like an impressionistic painter.

Does evangelical support for Trump put evangelicals in a hard position? When have evangelicals not been in a hard position?

Does it put evangelicals in a harder position? Tim Tebow to me is the perfect evangelical. He is an amazing human being. He’s very bright and he cares about people who are suffering, but the culture spat on him every opportunity it had. Now we pretend, “If evangelicals didn’t have the millstone of Donald Trump around their necks, everyone would love them.” That’s a joke.

How has Tim Tebow responded to that disparagement? That’s a false comparison. We know that Donald Trump is not an evangelical Christian. He doesn’t have John 3:16 written on his eyelids. If you’re looking for me to say that one ought to behave differently than Donald Trump in public, I’ll be the first one to agree with you, but we’re painting with too broad of a brush.

David was blessed to have a Nathan who confronted him with his sin. Could you be a Nathan to him? If I were given the opportunity, and I wish I were given the opportunity, I would love to be able to do that. I haven’t been given anything close to that opportunity.

Is there a Nathan in Trump’s circle? I don’t know. The viciousness of the people who don’t like Trump has had a strange effect so that people who don’t love him almost feel sorry because the coverage is so unhinged that you think, “I’ll just shut up. I was going to criticize.” It’s like you’re in a war zone, a person is getting shot at, and you say, “You should comb your hair differently. You’d be more attractive that way.”

We’ve had vicious attacks on presidents before: Jefferson, Jackson, Lincoln, Cleveland. We are living in a new era. Before, when a candidate was defeated, he went away and kept quiet for the good of the republic. That began to change when we had the hanging chads in 2000. We’ve seen a fraying of the republic. Now when people act like, “Well, he’s not my president,” I want to say, “Listen, he’s your president whether you like it or not.” Barack Obama was my president.

With polarization growing, how do we avoid drifting toward civil war? The body politic has never been so fragile. To give an example and get back to marriage and family, I’m not worried that if I say the wrong thing, my wife will divorce me—because I know we both believe in marriage. The problem: Some of the things have frayed to the point where I’m very concerned about the republic on this very issue.


  •  JOHN B STONE DMIN's picture
    Posted: Fri, 07/20/2018 12:30 pm

    Thank you for this interview which I shared on FB.  I would add, the Pilgrims/Puritans in America came here because of political oppression in England.  I am not the first to observe, we've come full circle and I cannot see Mrs Clinton defending Evangelicals, would you?  Would she have picked Gorsuch for the Supremes?  Well, you get the point. We always elect sinners to office, there's no other kind of person we can elect. One must choose the candidate who most likely will represent "my" views. Sadly in the Public Square, "my views" are now  forbidden. Once again, we as Christians have to get involved politically to fight for religous freedom and freedom of expression as promoted by our founding documents.  There is not now nor will there ever be some kind of neutral ground for Christians in the USA. One must express oneself politically or the democratice republic fails. 

  •  Brendan Bossard's picture
    Brendan Bossard
    Posted: Wed, 07/25/2018 07:54 am

    "We have a president right now who communicates in some ways sloppily, in some ways intentionally sloppily. He’s like an impressionistic painter."

    This is where we part ways.  Pres. Trump does not speak "sloppily."  He is not "like an impressionistic painter."  He has an unbridled tongue.  God says a lot about this.  How important that is remains for each of us to judge individually.  But at least let us accurately diagnose the problem, and not minimize it.

  • E Cole
    Posted: Thu, 07/26/2018 09:42 pm

    Completely agree with Brendan on this one. 

  • John Kloosterman
    Posted: Thu, 07/26/2018 01:42 pm

    "Trump does show compassion.  You know, to people like me.  And Russian dictators.  And Korean dictators.  And Nazi protestors.  He's a very compassionate guy.  And yeah, he's not compassionate to illegal immigrants, but they don't really deserve compassion.  Along with disabled reporters. And parents of Purple Heart Veterans.  And Montenegro.  And Haitian immigrants.  And Muslim refugees.  And my own investigators.  And NFL players.  And fellow candidates. And the Republican Party. You need to be compassionate to friends first, that naturally excludes being compassionate to others."

  • AlanE
    Posted: Thu, 07/26/2018 02:18 pm

    Metaxas says:

    Tim Tebow to me is the perfect evangelical. He is an amazing human being. He’s very bright and he cares about people who are suffering, but the culture spat on him every opportunity it had. Now we pretend, “If evangelicals didn’t have the millstone of Donald Trump around their necks, everyone would love them.” That’s a joke.

    I have responses to this on several levels.

    One, I live in Colorado. Tim Tebow was substantially more popular (and less divisive) around here than Donald Trump. Not nearly everyone who liked Tebow was an evangelical, and--for the most part--those who weren't evangelical at least recognized him as a sincere and upright person. He was not busy driving wedges between people. People loved his passion for the game of football, his work ethic, and his positive leadership. There were a lot of mixed feelings around here when the Broncos traded for Peyton Manning and let Tebow go. Let me assure you he was not spat on here at every opportunity.

    On the other hand, I grant it's true that evangelicals wouldn't see a sudden surge in popularity if only we could extract ourselves from the Trump millstone around our necks. Nevertheless, it could still be the case that Trump is, indeed, a millstone around our necks.

    I'm pretty sure that I Peter 3:13-17 is worth visiting somewhere in this discussion as well. Sometimes we have problems because were have aligned ourselves with Christ. Sometimes we have problems more of our own making. I think Donald Trump falls into the latter category. How about you, Eric, what do you think?

    None of this is to suggest that Donald Trump isn't better than Hillary Clinton. None of this is to suggest Donald Trump hasn't done some good things. But neither of those statements should be taken to mean that Donald Trump doesn't bring baggage that is, on balance, detrimental to our faith and witness. 


  • SF
    Posted: Fri, 07/27/2018 11:22 am

    For those who dispise Trump (or anyone):

    Romans 13:1 Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. 

    1 Peter 2:17 Honor all people. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the king. (yes, he's not a "king" but he is the leader of our nation and I am sure he is just as pleasant and godly as Caesar.)

    1 Timothy 2:1-3 Therefore I exhort first of all that supplications, prayers, intercessionsand giving of thanks be made for all men, 2 for kings and all who are in authority, that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and reverence. 3 For this is good and acceptable in the sight of God our Savior,

    For M. Metaxas, mostly.

    Matthew 5:42-44 Give to him who asks you, and from him who wants to borrow from you do not turn away. (comment, Eric Metaxas?)

    Luke 6:4646 “But why do you call Me ‘Lord, Lord,’ and not do the things which I say?

    Would anyone like to attempt to explain away our attitudes in the face of these verses? Or will we explain away the verses if the face of our attitudes? Trump is not the problem "christians" have; "christians" are the problem Christians have. 

    Does anyone need verses on how to treat the lost? Or the backslidden? Or do we all need a break for some tweezers and eye wash right about now? 

  •  Brendan Bossard's picture
    Brendan Bossard
    Posted: Fri, 07/27/2018 12:14 pm

    Good post, Sara.

    I agree with your first point, as long as it is applied regardless of whoever wins elections.  I would apply it just as strongly if Hillary Clinton had won, for example.  But that is why I am very troubled by Christian behavior during this presidency.  I strongly suspect that Mr. Metaxas, for example, would not be as gracious to a hypothetical Pres. Clinton.

    I am unclear as to what you mean by your question to Mr. Metaxas.  Will you please clarify it?

    And I agree that "'christians' are the problem that Christians have."

    Thanks again for your thoughtful post!

  • Steve Shive
    Posted: Sun, 07/29/2018 06:46 am

    Thanks for this interview. Having read some of Metaxas's writings, including Bonhoeffer. And having heard him speak and meeting him, I can take his short responses at face value. And not read too mucinto them. All too often not being present to hear voice inflection, body movement, facial expressions we can misunderstand or misinterpret what was meant. After all these are not meant to be comprehensive and all inclusive. I'm sure he could have said more, but was just making one simple point. Too bad he is not available to respond to the Monday Morning Critics. Most of these comments that I see here would be best put to him in an interview. I'm sure he would put the critics either at ease or in their place. At least he would give us much more to think about, profitably. Thanks again for posting this interview.