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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.