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Culture Q&A

David French

The case against Donald Trump

A negative assessment of Trump’s tenure and future outlook

John Jay Cabuay

In this issue, we offer contrary views of President Donald Trump from two people I greatly respect. David French is senior editor of The Dispatch, a conservative website, and a member of Christ Community Church in Franklin, Tenn. He served in the Iraq War, was a senior counsel at the Alliance Defending Freedom, and was a staff writer for National Review from 2015 to 2019. (Click here to read Wayne Grudem’s perspective on Trump.)

Theologian Wayne Grudem acknowledges problems with President Trump’s character, but he likes the policies. The Christian community spent decades saying character mattered. It was right. The separation of character from policies is impossible. Look at the terrible course of the pandemic through the USA. The ability of a president to respond to a pandemic was not a policy issue in the 2016 election, but almost every president deals with unexpected crises, in a way often determined by their character. 

How has President Trump dealt with the pandemic? Early on he was extremely focused on minimizing the impact of this virus in large part because he wanted to inflate artificially the American economy to aid in his reelection. That is a sign of very low character that deeply influenced the course of the way the United States reacted to this virus. 

Has he helped or hurt regarding our racial division? The extraordinary racial division in the United States is not just dealt with by policy. That is dealt with through character, personality, leadership, and charisma. The core of former Secretary of Defense James Mattis’ critique is that Trump by pattern and practice intentionally tries to divide the United States of America. I think that critique is right. A president of good character doesn’t try intentionally to divide the United States of America. All of this stuff is super basic. You ask Christians about this in 2015, and they say, “Of course.” But Christians have joined with Trump and look for a rationalization.

What success has Trump had on policy matters? He has had essentially one significant legislative achievement, a temporary tax cut. He has had marginal effects on American foreign policy, some good, some bad, but no fundamental transformation. He has appointed good judges—but if you look back at the last Supreme Court term, would you say conservatives are ascendant and triumphant in the American judiciary? These things are very, very complicated. Does this president’s control over policy trump his own incompetence and poor character? The plight of the country now says that’s not just wrong, but laughably and tragically wrong. There is nothing MAGA about where we are now. There is an enormous amount of heartbreak, misery, death, division. That Donald Trump had a better platform than Hillary Clinton did not spare us from any of that. His character made it all worse.

In 2024, will America be in better or worse shape if Biden is elected or if Trump is reelected? America will be in much worse shape if Donald Trump is reelected. A second consecutive victory by an intentionally divisive president with a popular vote minority, especially when he is on the record saying he didn’t want to enhance the ability of the post office to deal with mail-in balloting in a pandemic, would make things worse quickly. Regarding Joe Biden, a lot remains to be seen based on the ambition of his administration and the way his administration would treat disagreement and dissent. 

Trump is a symptom of a disease that makes the disease worse.

So, you are cheering for Joe Biden? I do not want Donald Trump to win reelection. Absolutely not. I want Trump to lose to Biden and the Republican Party to retain the Senate. That would prevent a triumphalist sweeping away of institutions like the filibuster. It would check any temptation to pack the courts, for example. It would remove from the field the worst-case scenarios at the same time that you remove from the field a president who has done more than any single human being in my lifetime to divide this country—and governed incompetently while he did it.

You’d want affluent conservatives to help Republican senatorial candidates? If they’re conservative like me and typically donate to a Republican president, I would say do not donate to this Republican president. Spend your money to save good Republicans on down-ballot races who now face long odds for reelection.

So you want a narrow Democratic win? No, I want a decisive loss for Trump, because if the loss is very narrow you’re going to have extraordinarily divisive forces in the U.S. calling into question the legitimacy of the election. A decisive win is the only way Americans are going to have confidence in the legitimacy of the election, sad to say. The margin will matter a lot. My hope is that a resounding rejection of Donald Trump doesn’t carry with it a resounding rejection of Republicans who are not like Trump. That’s what I’m pessimistic about. I suspect the resounding rejection of Trump will also lead to resounding rejection of Republicans who are not like Trump. That outcome is not best for the country.

A decisive win would lead to triumphalism? It always does. Even relatively narrow wins lead to triumphalism. There was a lot of GOP triumphalism when Trump won on the strength of about a 75,000-vote margin in three states.

We’re hanged either way? We’re not in a good position. The Trump nomination was the product of forces building for some time, including negative partisanship. Trump is a symptom of a disease that makes the disease worse, like a hacking cough can break a rib. 

How do you answer the charge that a vote for Biden is a vote for abortion? The power of the president over abortion is profoundly limited. American abortion peaked in the 1980s and has gone down since then regardless of whether the president is pro-life or pro-choice. The federal judiciary has time and time again been a source of pain, anguish, and frustration.

We’ve had repeated disappointments. It’s like Lucy with the football. People have said for 40 years, Vote on this one issue. It hasn’t worked. 

—Read an opposing viewpoint from Wayne Grudem: “The case for Donald Trump”

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Wayne Grudem

The case for Donald Trump

A positive assessment of Trump’s tenure and future outlook

Illustration by John Jay Cabuay

In this issue, we offer contrary views of President Donald Trump from two people I greatly respect. First, Wayne Grudem, professor of Theology and Biblical Studies at Phoenix Seminary, offers a positive perspective. Grudem is the author of Christian Ethics, Politics—According to the Bible, and 20 more books and was general editor for the ESV Study Bible. Here are edited excerpts from our Sept. 1 interview. (Click here to see David French’s perspective on Trump.)

Christian journalist and lawyer David French says Christians spent decades saying “character matters.” Now we rarely say that. What kind of testimony is that before the watching world? I recognize, and evangelicals in general who support Donald Trump recognize, that he has character flaws. But they do not seem to us to be disqualifying. Character matters, but policy also matters.

Can we separate character from policy, especially during a crisis? You partly judge a person’s character by the actions he takes. President Trump has made wise decisions regarding the coronavirus pandemic in the midst of misleading, lying information from China and conflicting advice from scientific and economic experts. On racial issues, his leadership led to an economy with the lowest black unemployment since we’ve been keeping records, with great gains among lower-income workers. He pushed for greater school choices in minority neighborhoods and stronger law enforcement to bring more safety to inner cities.

Former Secretary of Defense James Mattis said, “Donald Trump is the first person in my lifetime who does not try to unite the American people. … He tries to divide us.” Mistaken evaluation? It’s bearing false witness against President Trump to say he seeks to divide us. He isn’t responsible for the rioting, the burning of cars, the blocking of public roads and sidewalks that began on day one of his presidency. No Americans legitimately have a fear of physical violence … for putting a Biden sticker on their car or wearing a Joe Biden campaign shirt or hat. But I know many evangelicals, including myself, who fear being physically attacked or shouted at if I were to put a Trump bumper sticker on my car or wear a MAGA or Trump-supporter hat in public.

The political left certainly has a lot to answer for, but what about the responsibility of Christian leaders? When Barack Obama made untruthful claims, he received a lot of criticism; but have we seen similar criticism regarding President Trump? I’ve publicly criticized his previous marital infidelity and his vindictiveness at times, and his brash, confrontational behavior at times. I looked at The Washington Post’s list of what it calls 16,000-some “lies” Trump has spoken and examined 20 or 30 of them. They’re what I’d call conclusions drawn by a hostile interpreter of words that a sympathetic listener would understand in a positive way. President Trump is often not careful in some of the things he says. He is given to exaggeration. Sometimes he’s made a statement after being given inaccurate information. I’m not sure he’s ever intentionally affirmed something he knows to be false, which is how I define a lie. As you know, I have written an ethics textbook. I believe it’s never right to affirm X when you believe X is false. If someone wants to point out to me some actual Trump lies that fit that definition, I’d be happy to look at them. 

Will America in 2024 be in better or worse shape if Biden is elected, or if Trump is reelected? The Trump presidency has resulted in a stronger economy, stronger national defense, positive steps toward achieving border security, standing up to China and Russia, negotiating new trade agreements, advocating educational freedom, standing with Israel, strengthening our military, and reforming our judicial system. Those are all what seem to me to be evidence of God’s blessing on the nation with President Trump. If he wins again, I expect there will be more blessing on our nation. If Biden is elected, he’ll support abortion, cripple the economy, weaken our military, largely abandon Israel, select more judges who legislate from the bench, weaken religious freedom. We’ll have more crime, a complete federal takeover of our healthcare system, and much more that looks like the withdrawal of God’s blessing.

Character matters, but policy also matters.

How much power does the president have over abortion? The influence the president has on abortion, right now, is through the appointment of judges who will undo the protection that Roe v. Wade in 1973 gave to abortion. President Trump has appointed two Supreme Court justices who indicate they are willing to overturn Roe, which would allow the American people through state legislatures and through Congress to make laws restricting the practice of abortion that the American public in general would support.

What do you think about the Trump administration dropping the number of refugees allowed in the United States to an all-time low? We should allow more legal refugees to come into the United States, but we don’t have the national will to do that until we have a sense that there’s a secure border. Once that border wall is completed in all the major areas where it needs to be to have a secure border, it will be a calmer, more thoughtful atmosphere on the part of the American people to provide a just and humane solution.

We’re probably agreed that President Trump has faced a hostile media. The Media Research Center evaluated the evening news broadcasts of NBC, CBS, and ABC for all of June and July. It found for every negative comment about Joe Biden there were 158 negative evaluations or statements about President Trump. That’s led to popular misimpressions. 

I’m not critical at all of people who look at the Trump-Biden race and vote for Trump as the lesser evil. I do wonder about those who call Trump the “Greatest Christian President” ever. I have not done that. He’s a good president with some flaws. It’s a choice between two flawed candidates, and it boils down to an issue of what policies he will enact. 

—Read an opposing viewpoint from David French: “The case against Donald Trump”

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Marriage’s fragile future

Changing attitudes, even among young Christians, propel disturbing trends

Illustration by Jeffrey J. Smith

Mark Regnerus graduated from Trinity Christian College in 1993 and gained his Ph.D. at the University of North Carolina in 2000. He is now a courageous sociology professor at the University of Texas at Austin and the author of Oxford University Press books on sex and marriage with a Biblical base and lively titles like Forbidden Fruit and Cheap Sex

You married at 22. You write in your new book, The Future of Christian Marriage, “After a couple of years, I gave some thoughts to leaving. I’m grateful I didn’t hit the eject button on my marriage, in no small part because I didn’t know how.” What does that mean? I was a smart fellow and could look things up, but I didn’t have family examples to follow: No divorces in our immediate families. That, combined with the idea that this would be a heartbreak for my parents and her parents, led me to hang in there. We worked at things, got help, and eventually it improved. I have zero thoughts of ever escaping. It’s been very good for me and I think for her.

Three children now? A college senior, a college junior, and an 11-year-old. 

You became an assistant professor in 2002 and an associate professor in 2007, on schedule to gain a full professor appointment in fall 2012—but in the summer an academic journal published your article on negative effects among children when their parents had been in same-sex relationships. The result: an academic lynching. That’s an accurate description.

What in your research drove opponents bananas? My article in Social Science Research drew upon a random sample, the largest of its kind at the time, of 18- to 39-year-olds with a mother or father who had been in a same-sex relationship at some point while they were growing up. I asked about their childhoods and their current situations. We found statistically that those kids fared significantly worse on average than kids who grew up with parents still married. My life changed when the article was published: for three solid years, online harassment. Never in person. I’m grateful for that. 

More than 200 scholars and researchers signed a letter protesting that you did this terrible thing—finding the kids weren’t all right. The only criticism that made sense to me was that you didn’t control for household instability. That’s true, and I talked about why I didn’t—partly because there was no way to be in a same-sex household without experiencing some turmoil. You either were taken from your mother or father, or you were apt to experience upheaval in that household. 

The acceptability of Christian cohabitation prior to marriage is perhaps a greater threat than the long-standing attraction to premarital sex.

Jim Wright, the editor of the journal that published your study, took a lot of heat. He died last year. He was a very good man, respected by people who liked me and people who loathed me. He didn’t deserve the kind of vitriol he got. If I could have taken that off of him, I would have.

Did journal editors become gun-shy? Several years ago I asked an editor who was semi-conservative to moderate about revisiting the subject. He hemmed and hawed and said, “We’d have to do it a little bit differently.” You start thinking, “Do I want the grief? I’m just gonna say, No, I’ll pass.” 

When did your online harassment stop? When the Supreme Court announced its Obergefell decision.

For same-sex marriage advocates was it “Mission accomplished. Stand down”? It seemed that way. 

You didn’t become a full professor until 2018. That was a battle. I was up for full in the fall of 2012. Then the article, and it turned into “or next year, or the year after that, or the year after that.” Once stigmatized, always stigmatized in this domain. I wasn’t willing to say things more palatable to particular interests. But I didn’t leave the University of Texas because when I separated all that pressure and antagonism from the rest of what I was doing, I could say, “I like it here. I can do what I want to do here.” 

The Department of Sociology said no to promotion. Then the College of Liberal Arts dean said no, but the central administration overrode those negative recommendations. The president of the university discerned that the opposition was political. In Texas it never hurts to have a conservative around institutionally.

The Texas Legislature likes to see several. It’s great you’re a full professor, but there are other ways of harassing you: assignment for courses, salary, and so on. How is that working out? It’s funny because people say, “Oh, you’ve got tenure,” as if that’s the only thing and is necessary and sufficient. As you know, there are dozens of ways of bleeding a person. So, I’m not at the high end of the pay scale, but I have no complaints about that. I like to think my colleagues are overpaid and I’m not underpaid.

Colleagues are glad if you skip a committee meeting and aren’t there to raise uncomfortable questions. I stick to my research and my teaching. 

One writer said the goal of your harassment was to stop the next researcher who might attempt to study gay parenting. The Mafia-style comment would be, “That’s a nice little tenure track job you got there, a shame for something to happen to it.” What’s the level of intimidation in sociology around the U.S.? You don’t get a Ph.D. in sociology unless you are on board with some of the grander projects. NIH spends a quarter billion dollars a year on SOGI, sexual orientation/gender identity research. A quarter billion a year! I’m awestruck that we, the taxpayers, are paying for messaging that is thwarting more sensible conclusions.

Still, you’re still going, and your new book, The Future of Christian Marriage, is based on research in seven countries. Mexico, United States, Spain, Poland, Russia, Lebanon, Nigeria: I wanted to capture some of the span of Christian tradition. I sought out in each of those places a social scientist to oversee the data collection among 25- to 35-year-olds. Then I could visit and reinterview some of them to get a rich perspective on how they think about marriage. 

You write that not only in the United States but all over marriage is becoming an elite, voluntary, consumption-oriented institution: You own a car, maybe a house, you have some savings, then you qualify for marriage? It’s staggering. We didn’t just sell this vision to the American working class. It’s as if Americans sold it to the world, and to Christians around the world as well. 

In some other countries it’s even more commercialized? In some countries a wedding is socially such a big deal that people wind up having to save money and take out loans. Driving down the main highway that goes north out of Beirut into northern Lebanon, I constantly saw billboards about wedding loans, like we get loans to go to college. 

You mention marriage’s key traits historically, including permanence and fidelity. No-fault divorce ends permanence; the sexual revolution undermines fidelity. How do you combat the decline? Some people want governmental investment in marriage, but that’s a dicey suggestion because it’s far easier to bust stuff up than to make marriages happen. My colleagues tend to hold that we’re seeing a decline in marriage because people want financial security first, or they don’t think somebody is a particularly good bet because of their job prospects. But many men lack interest in marrying, or think they don’t have to marry because sex is cheap.

Some conservatives propose that we end no-fault divorce. I’m a fan of getting rid of it, but that’s not going to happen. More women than men support no-fault divorce because their expectations are higher, and exiting a bad marriage tends to be a higher priority for women than for men.

Cohabitation is growing not only generally but among Christians? It’s a minority of Christians, but higher than I would’ve expected because it’s thumbing the nose at the Christian church’s vision for what marriage is. They’re mimicking husband and wife with a sexual union, but they’re not giving all, they’re holding back. Fidelity may be there temporarily, but they haven’t promised the future to each other. The acceptability of Christian cohabitation prior to marriage is perhaps a greater threat than the long-standing attraction to premarital sex. Cohabitation signals anxiety and uncertainty—which is why I think if you have uncertainty, marry and you solve that uncertainty. But, that’s not how people think about this process anymore.

If a Christian student comes to you and says, “I’m in a relationship and thinking of cohabiting. I know what my pastor says about it, but I want to know from you, a professional sociologist, what you say about the data,” what do you say? I would ask, What are you signaling with cohabitation, who’s doing the inviting, why not get married? It’s sliding versus deciding: You find yourself at that person’s apartment overnight long enough and think, So far it’s worked out OK, I guess I’ll just leave an extra set of clothes here. You’re increasing strings and attachments, even though you don’t think you are. You’ve bought things together, you have a pet, and you think breaking this off is not painful—but it’s profoundly painful. You’ve made commitments and attachments without the proper level of future orientation. You shouldn’t be surprised when it collapses and it hurts profoundly. 

So you would ask … Why do you want to fake like you’re married instead of actually getting married? If there are a variety of plausible reasons for faking it, I’d say, Why don’t you work on those plausible reasons and find some clarity on them rather than pretending that you’re married, in which case you probably will feel married in some ways but with a much more fragile structure.

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