Anti-Trump Christians' Criticisms of Pro-Trump Christians are Important but Self-Absolving
Donald Trump's recent efforts to extinguish all remaining doubt about whether he is a fascist have, of course, led to an outpouring of criticism and alarm. The Atlantic published one high-profile critique last week: "Have You Listened Lately to What Trump Is Saying?" That piece, by Peter Wehner, carries the sub-headline: "He is becoming frighteningly clear about what he wants." Wehner is a former George W. Bush speechwriter and a fellow at a right-wing political shop run by writers who link their policy views to their Christian beliefs. He emerged in 2016 as a forceful voice against Trump (for example, here), decrying the embrace by Wehner's fellow religious conservatives of that most ungodly of politicians.
I will return to Wehner's Atlantic piece in a moment, but I first want to focus on a comment that he made during an interview on Monday on MSNBC's "Morning Joe." The segment, titled "Some Christians are enthusiastically behind a person who embodies cruelty, says author" on YouTube, was quite thoughtful and a welcome contribution to the growing panic about Trump's depravity. What caught my attention, however, was when Wehner said this at the very end of the conversation:
Unfortunately, there's a long history of this dehumanization, these passions consuming people of faith. And that's why I think there has to be such push-back from others, to try and in a sense shake them and to say, "Do you know what you're doing? Do you know what you're a part of? That you've jettisoned almost everything you claim to most cherish in your life, to make inner peace with this man who's a sociopath -- an unfiltered sociopath?" ... It's just a sickening episode in the history of American politics and the history of American Christianity.
Wehner led into that quoted segment by pointing out examples of Christian churches in the Twentieth Century aligning themselves with the Nazis, with South African apartheid, and with the Rwandan attempted genocide. He could have added the most telling example from the Nineteenth Century: the schisms in US Protestant denominations over support for slavery. He was not being oblivious to that past but was instead calling on people not to repeat it.
As far as it goes, I see no reason to deny anything that Wehner says about Trump and his cultish (overwhelmingly White Christian) believers. Wehner has a relatively high public profile, and I am glad that he is using it in the way that he did there. This is important. Even so, what he wrote and said have more than a whiff of self-absolution, holding out his version of "real" Christianity as non-Trumpian and therefore morally upright. That move, in turn, implies that pre-Trumpian Republican policy views are a fine guide for public policy -- and more to the point, that they form the basis of an acceptable policy agenda from the standpoint of Christian morality. I beg to differ.
Wehner's use of the word sociopath was especially telling here, because although Trump clearly has earned such a negative description, he is hardly the only person in US political circles to advance sociopathic policies. Indeed, the modern conservative movement has become more and more openly sociopathic in recent decades. In October 2012, I wrote complementary Verdict and Dorf on Law columns in which I explained why the Republican Party by that time had clearly revealed its sociopathic foundations.
In particular, I pointed out in the Verdict column that Republicans of the day -- most definitely including that year's Republican presidential nominee, Mitt Romney -- had "openly advocated policies that harm innocent people—and they have adopted methods to achieve those ends that simply ignore the rules by which other people behave," all of which is consistent with the definition of sociopathy. Republicans were especially willing, even eager, to harm the innocent children of both immigrants and poor US citizens. (Side comment: Now-Senator Romney, who holds himself out as a devoutly religious man, did nothing to object or turn the tide when a federal policy that had cut the child poverty rate by a third was not renewed.)
When Wehner holds himself out as the avatar of true Christian morality, then, he is saying that Trump's willingness to bring harm to others is sociopathy, whereas Wehner's former bosses (including the second-worst president in our lifetimes, George W. Bush) are good Christians who merely starved innocent children and punished the poor for being poor. Romney's infamous comment about the supposed 47 percent of the American people "who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe the government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you-name-it" stands out here.
As I noted in a recent column, it is dangerously tempting to think that policies that indirectly kill people are more defensible than those that directly kill them. I wrote: "Warmongering is about killing people, often innocents. Debt scaremongering is about dollars and accounting. One is about life and death, the other is about economics and finance. Categorically different, right? Not so much." The difference is that some preventable deaths are dramatic while other preventable deaths can come to seem like background noise.
Does that mean that Wehner subscribes to a brand of Christianity that is simply not concerned about the deaths of innocents -- that would even lend political support to politicians whose policies predictably lead to those deaths? Possibly. In 2016, he wrote that conservatism of the sort that he supports from his sincerely held religious viewpoint was based on three things: "limited government and economic liberty," "moral traditionalism that conserves our capacity for liberty by producing responsible citizens," and having the US "be a force for good in the world." By his lights, maybe it does not matter that the pre-Trumpian Republican Party had already embraced policies of supposedly limited government and economic liberty that harmed the innocent and the defenseless, if limited government and economic liberty are ends in themselves.
But that is not how Wehner presents himself. In his Atlantic essay last week, Wehner really gets rolling when he writes about why genuine Christians should be devoted to supporting the poor and the meek:
Many of the same people who celebrate Christianity’s contributions to civilization—championing the belief that every human being has inherent rights and dignity, celebrating the teachings of the Sermon on the Mount and the parable of the Good Samaritan, and pointing to a “transcendent order of justice and hope that stands above politics,” in the words of my late friend Michael Gerson—continue to stand foursquare behind a man who uses words that echo Mein Kampf.
True, but even those like Wehner who reject Trump continue to stand foursquare behind a political movement that mocks the teachings of the Sermon on the Mount and the Good Samaritan. Earlier this Fall, I referred to those teachings and the Golden Rule as "the good stuff" in the Christian belief system. I will again reproduce this quote from the first book of the New Testament, Matthew 25:34-40:
Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’ And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.’
This obviously does not fit into the so-called Prosperity Gospel or any of the other puzzling fringe doctrines that try to create a capitalist/Christian merger. But more importantly, it is inconsistent with plain-vanilla non-Trumpian Republican conservative policy preferences. If "the righteous" are those who fed the hungry, clothed the naked, healed the sick, and visited the imprisoned, what can one say about the people whom Wehner holds up as morally admirable? If scripture has the Son of God saying that "as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me," where exactly does the non-Trumpian Republican Party stand in the eyes of their deity?
I would add that Wehner's segment on yesterday's "Morning Joe" included host Joe Scarborough saying that Republicans should reject Trump but then going on to say this: "If you don't like what the Democratic Party is doing, vote for Nikki Haley, or Ron DeSantis, or Chris Christie!" This is almost comically incomprehensible. DeSantis is Trump without the sick sense of humor (or any sense of humor), and he is running his state as a model of the kind of cruelty that Scarborough rightly criticizes. Haley readily volunteered that she would support Trump in 2024 even if he has by that time been convicted of a felony. Christie is a one-note candidate in opposing Trump -- which is obviously good -- but he is utterly unserious and shamefully dishonest about every other issue, and he is a bully to boot.
The bottom line, apparently, is that NeverTrump Christian conservatives have the capacity to see how Trump's unhinged views depend on dehumanizing our fellow humans and threatening to cause the deaths of innocent people, including children. What they are not capable of is confronting how their celebration of the most inspiring lessons from their own religious traditions -- lessons that I continue to believe in, decades after becoming an atheist -- contradicts their political commitments.
We can be pleased when anyone speaks out against Trump's fascist movement. Doing so on the grounds that he does not live up to the Gospels, the Sermon on the Mount, and all the rest, however, is more than a bit much. Again, I am no longer religious, but I believe in caring about "the least of these"; and I know that "I'm a good person, because the way I harm and kill innocents is more subtle" is deeply unchristian.