There is a difference between an argument with premises and a conclusion, on the one hand, and an argument with loud voices and no prospect of resolution on the other. Whenever someone is simply committed to their position, facts be damned, it is probably the wisest course of action to save your breath for cooling your porridge.
But unfortunately, the state of public discourse in America today is such that people are doing a number of other things with their porridge, like throwing bowls of it at town hall meetings.
As a consequence of this, there is an oft-repeated bit of “received wisdom” that really needs to be answered, and it needs to be answered before it morphs from received wisdom into an unquestioned presupposition, the sort of thing that everybody knows but which ain’t so. And that is the idea that evangelicals have somehow discredited their witness (and themselves) by helping to elect “that man” Trump. I have seen this repeated any number of times now, and I want to flag it before they start saying the next thing they are going to say about it. And the next thing is where the whole ball game is.
But for more on that, you shall have to read on.
Come on. I’ll make it interesting. I will put in vivid adjectives and everything.
Q & A, and Sometimes Q & Not A
Sometimes arguments are arguments in fact, and other times they are not. Sometimes questions are genuine questions, and other times they are not. And when they are not, one of the things to consider is that they are the opening gambit in a different play entirely.
Sometimes someone with a question really wants an answer. Other times a person with a question just wants to occupy you with that one while he cues up another one. He is not interested in questions for the sake of answers, but is rather using questions the same way riot police use those transparent shields. The questions are being used to ward off answers, and not to get at the answers. The questions are just for keeping you on your heels while they run down the clock.
In the realm of apologetics, questions like this can be launched at an evangelist in a rapid fire way. “Where did Cain get his wife? Wasn’t the Bible written down by men? What about the theory of evolution?” And while you are explaining that it was actually not a problem for Cain to marry his sister, you notice that your questioner is not really listening to anything you say because he is busy lining up his fourth and fifth questions.
One time I had a dramatic illustration of how pervasive this style of argumentation is when I ran into a situation where the exact opposite happened. The contrast was striking. Many years ago, our neighbors (and landlords) were a gracious Korean couple, nominally Buddhist. As a result of a number of interesting circumstances, I was invited over to their apartment to “tell them about Christianity.” When I got there I was astonished to find their living room packed with Koreans, which our neighbors had rounded up for me. I presented the gospel, and we moved into the Q & A, which is where the weirdness started. The questions were not at all unusual. They were standard-issue. What was unusual was the response to the answers. A standard question would come. I would then answer it. The Korean response was then to say something like, “Oh,” and then write the answer down in a notebook. In other words, I was a whole lot more accustomed to their questions than I was to their responsiveness.
But that is not how it usually goes.
Some Closed Minds Are Rusted Shut
So what could this possibly have to do with the 2020 election? It is actually more about the 2024 election, and I can see by that look on your face that I shall have to explain myself a bit further.
The Left has been very noisy indeed about how conservative evangelicalism has discredited itself, and they mean thoroughly, through its unspeakable support of that unspeakable Trump. According to them, our “character matters” argument is now in tatters, our testimony is shot, our willingness to cut a deal with the devil is now apparent to all, and so on. Or so it is pretended–and it is a pretense.
The standard response to this accusation has been something like the following. Our two-party system forced our hand. There was only one viable alternative to Hillary, and Hillary was obviously unthinkable. Most politically-engaged evangelicals supported someone else during the Republican primary, and clearly would have preferred someone else to represent their concerns in Washington. When Trump won the nomination, those who went on to vote for Trump in the general election, as I did not, did so acknowledging that there were a number of things about him that could, um, stand some improvement.
But at the same time, because the gods of bizarre election choices had gone on a bender and still had a bad hangover, the final choice came down to that queen of corruption, Hillary R. Clinton, or Donald J. Trump, that king of reality television. Well, okay, many evangelicals thought. We can vote for him just this once, or maybe the next time also, and then back to normal. Then we can organize better and get back to our actual preferences.
But to this explanation, a reply is not slow in coming. “Well, I have been to Trump country, and I have gone to church in Trump country. Not only that, but I have been to one of his rallies, and I have seen a sea of red MAGA hats. I have heard the roar of approval when that man comes in the stadium. I can tell you that there is a lot more going on here than simply a quietly reluctant support for a flawed candidate because of the pro-abortion alternative.”
When you go to rallies, you will meet the kind of people who go to rallies. 61 million people voted for Trump, the vast majority of whom never saw him in a coliseum or stadium. Trump’s level of support among evangelicals was certainly robust, if you are counting the way people actually voted. According to Pew Research Center, 81% of white evangelicals went for Trump, while 16% went for Clinton. Now if you are anything like me, the stupefying datum here is that 16% voted for Clinton. But if you are among the elite cognoscenti, this whole thing is a damning verdict on evangelicals. They say they view that election as the day when evangelicals disgraced themselves, when it was actually the day that evangelicals saved the American judicial system. As I write this, Trump has appointed around 160 originalist judges to the federal courts. Just imagine the mayhem we would have to deal with if we had that number of Hillary judges.
But let me grant, for the moment, that some evangelicals have been rah rah participants in the Trump fever. They did clamber onto the Trump train. They love the rallies and everybody in the household has a MAGA hat, sized to fit. In examining this, I would urge analysts to consider all the variables. This last election certainly was the revolt of fly-over country, and so we have to look at that more closely.
There are two kinds of fly-over country. There is the small business owner in Topeka, with fifteen employees, who goes to an evangelical mega-church, and who reluctantly voted for Trump, and then there is Hillbilly Elegy fly-over country—laid-off Rust Belt factory workers, coal miners, pipeline workers, et al. As I read it, the enthusiasm for Trump is coming from a particular economic downtrodden class—the kind of poor people that Jesus “commanded” red letter Christians to ignore. Trump is not a very good red letter Christian and that is why he didn’t ignore them. The fact that these people attend a conservative church of the kind that George Gallup would call evangelical was not in the forefront of their motivation. Their primary motivations are bread and butter issues, and it is all mixed in together with other loyalties as well, which would include piety and patriotism. Is there a populist hazard here? You bet, and we must needs be careful.
But for those evangelicals who came to their political convictions as a result of studying the Bible, and who have been thoughtful and conscientious about it, the fact that they voted for Trump the first time, or did not but changed their minds on the basis of what has happened since, and will vote for him the next time, is not a discreditable thing at all. It is to be praised and honored. We have a lot to thank them for.
Now given this, why is the argument (that evangelicals have disgraced themselves) being circulated so assiduously? Let me tell you.
When the Impact of This Argument Will Kick In
When an attorney is trying to discredit a witness, he is not engaging in character assassination just for grins. He is doing it because he wants to head off what that witness might say next. He is trying to neutralize a danger to his case.
Fast forward to 2024. Trump is heading off into the sunset to buy some more golf courses, and to build a presidential library that will put all the others in the shade. All those other presidential places are what he calls “loser libraries.”
Politically engaged conservative evangelical voters, grateful for what has happened to the courts, and yet relieved to be getting back to a more ordinary form of politics, will want to rally around a politically conservative family man. Let us call him Galahad, and no, not Galahad Threepwood. This guy is the unTrumpiest candidate ever. He was a virgin when he got married to his virginal bride, and he never taunted any classmates on the elementary playground, at least not any that were willing to talk to The New York Times or The Washington Post. He never hogged the teeter totter. All of his kids were straight arrows as well, with all of them being 4 point students, athletic and with winsome smiles. He never did drugs, and his browser history, the one that was accidentally on purpose leaked by Google came up squeaky clean. He never sent a mean tweet in his life. He was gregarious and friendly, had a razor sharp mind, and was telegenic. He had the economic policies of Thomas Sowell, the social policies of C.S. Lewis, the foreign policy outlook of Rand Paul, and the affable smile of Ronald Reagan.
Naturally, evangelical support came after him like white on rice. At last, we all say.
And just as naturally, these evangelicals will be fiercely denounced. They were being hypocrites. They had supported Trump during the Dark Times When Democracy Almost Died, and so they should be banished from public life. They should be cancelled, and never allowed to speak into the public square again. And for why? Because they had discredited themselves, as everyone knows. People have been writing about that for years now.
Now it is not quite fair to describe the Trump years as a time when Democracy Almost Died. It was actually the time when Democracy Told the Elites That She Has Had It With You People, which is actually quite a different thing.
If evangelicals were to rally to a hard right politically conservative family man who had none of the personal failings of Trump, would the Left applaud this? Would they applaud the fact that evangelicals were returning to their core values? Not if that political conservative were somehow winsome and electable. And would our soft left evangelical leadership applaud it? Not on your life. If our political involvement stands any chance of success whatever, there will always be something. And whether it is outrageous or not, it will always be treated as outrageous.
So this, their next objection, is being cued up, even while you speak. Your voice is discredited, not because it is discreditable, but because you are saying things that they are most unwilling to hear. The reason they do not listen to your most reasonable explanations is because they are unwilling to hear you. And because of this, you are not discrediting democracy, they are.
If they were really concerned about the state of your soul because you voted for Trump, then what should they do when they see you the next time around supporting the cleanest conservative you can find? They should say, “Ah, I see it all now. This person only voted for Trump because they felt forced into it. Left to their own preferences, they would naturally seek out the most upright candidate. I understand that now.”
And will that happen? Why, of course not. The reason this argument is being put into circulation now is because the long term plan is to discredit the evangelical voice. They want to spike the evangelical guns, not because those guns are hypocritical, but because they are not. They want to discredit that voice, for the present, but the long term plan is to outlaw that voice. Given their premises, why would they not? Why should they let hatred vote?
A Personal Note
As mentioned above, I did not vote for the president in 2016. I did not vote for him because character matters, and because I did not trust him to do what he was promising to do. I have spent my adult life listening to Republican candidates say that they were going to do things that mysteriously wound up not happening. And I thought Trump would be a particularly egregious example of this. I thought he was a New York liberal who would act like a New York liberal if elected. I thought Hillary would be terrible, but I didn’t think Trump represented any kind of fundamental alternative to that. And with that said, I have to acknowledge I was wrong in my evaluation of what would happen if Trump were elected, particularly on the questions of dialing back the administrative state and the appointment of judges. Not only wrong, but flat wrong.
Saying that, a number of his positions still give me all kinds of heart burn—some of them for policy reasons, some because they were arrived at so erratically, and some because of how the president carries on about them. A few weeks ago, Nancy and I were on the road, and I turned on the news at the hotel and they were covering a Trump rally live. I watched ten or fifteen continuous minutes of it, which is the most I have seen of him in action. Three years into his presidency, and that is the most I have seen. And the reason is that I just can’t stand it. And so when the #NeverTrumpers point to this or that, I can see what they are talking about. I understand what gets to them. I get it. My complaint with them being so fastidious is not because of what they can see, but rather that they have allowed what they can see to overshadow everything else.
And one of the things it must not be allowed to overshadow is the obvious and most salient fact that evangelical voters have not been disqualified from anything. If anything, the great mass of evangelical voters have demonstrated that they actually have a better set of political instincts than their leaders, me included.