'Filtered Sociopaths' and the Misuse of Religion in Politics
Earlier this week, I wrote here about a prominent Christian policy analyst's critique of Donald Trump. In an excellent column for The Atlantic, and then in a TV interview, former George W. Bush speechwriter Peter Wehner called out his fellow believers for throwing away all of their supposed principles as they continue to fervently support the morally depraved former president -- fervor being the coin of their peculiar realm.
I had already planned to write a followup to that column today when two bits of low-hanging fruit presented themselves. A Republican House member was quoted describing Trump as "the Orange Jesus," while a text written by one of his colleagues on December 30, 2020, made the news with this description of now-indicted Trump coup plotter Jeffrey Clark: "You are the man. I have confirmed it. God does what he does for a reason."
Normally, there would be a good argument to skip over these examples of the heretical, profane, blasphemous ravings of the American religious right. It is all simply tiresome. Even though I grew up with a father who was a Presbyterian minister, I left the church for many reasons, among them the obvious irreligiosity of the people who claimed to be doing the work of God. Although my father stayed true to his beliefs until his untimely death at the age of 50, he was privately disgusted by the ostentatious, vulgar professions of holy virtue from what would soon become known as the Christian Right. They have never acted at all like Christians, and that was obvious not only to lapsed ones like me.
Moreover, the ridiculousness of the self-described "saved" people is all too easy to mock. To take but one example, "Monty Python and the Holy Grail" included a scene in which King Arthur hurls The Holy Hand Grenade, with the narrator explaining: "And St. Attila raised the hand grenade up on high, saying, 'Oh Lord, bless this thy hand grenade, that with it thou mayest blow thine enemies into tiny bits, in thy mercy. And the Lord did grin."
All of that is amusing enough, and the people who are the loudest about their religious beliefs provide an endless supply of head-scratchers. One incident that I discussed earlier this year was especially notable, involving a former head of the Southern Baptist Convention who said in amazement that some evangelical churchgoers have described Jesus’s teaching to "turn the other cheek" as a "liberal talking point." That is to religious idiocy as the infamous call to "keep your government hands off my Medicare" is to civic illiteracy.
That such examples are so numerous and so absurd (and, again, tiresome) does not make them unimportant, but my purpose here is only to acknowledge that they exist before returning to what I view as a more interesting question: What about the self-identified Christians who are not buffoons? After all, there are people on the political left who say things that I view as obviously wrong, but that does not mean that there are not good arguments to support what progressives like me believe.
In short, is Wehner right that even though there are wayward Christians who support "this man who's a sociopath -- an unfiltered sociopath" (as he put it when speaking on MSNBC), he and his more thoughtful Christian public intellectuals should not be so easily dismissed? On one level, the answer to that question is obviously yes. Wehner and his crowd could be right or wrong, but if wrong, it must be for a different reason than the jawdroppingly crazy things said by others (who claim to be in God's grace) that Wehner justifiably rejects.
In my column two days ago, I went out of my way to emphasize that Wehner's anti-Trump message is well stated and quite important. Given that Trump's base is so overwhelmingly populated by White evangelicals, having a religious writer like Wehner call them out for their hypocrisy is an essential public service. Even so, the argument that he makes might be boiled down to something like the following non sequitur: "There are people who support Donald Trump and call themselves good Christians, but they are not good Christians. People like me oppose Donald Trump and call ourselves good Christians, so we obviously are good Christians." Again, that is a non sequitur, because it is possible to oppose Trump yet still not be good Christians.
The larger point that I tried to make in Wednesday's column is that the pre-Trump (and now NeverTrump) Republicans who claim to be good Christians have defied their own professed beliefs by supporting the pitiless policies of the conservative movement, especially policies that harm innocents, and especially especially those that visit cruelty upon innocent children. Moreover, they do so not only incidentally but deliberately. My decision in 2012 to call out Republicans for being sociopaths (here and here) was, in fact, largely driven by my disgust when I learned that the Republicans' then-House Majority Leader insisted on stripping nutrition programs for poor children out of a spending bill, supposedly to reduce the federal budget deficit.
Maybe, however, there is a reason to be cruel. "You gotta be cruel to be kind" is not just a line from a great pop song, after all, but an ethical claim. Does the Wehner wing of conservative believers have a faith-based defense to the claim that they are defying Jesus's teachings?
I emphasize that the defense must be based on their professed beliefs, because of course one could purport to favor something for its own sake, not based on religion. For example, when I teach about the estate tax, I run through the claims that economic conservatives use to argue for repeal of what they insist upon calling "the death tax." Some of those claims are illogical or at least a dodge (the "death" part of it, for example, because they clearly would oppose a wealth tax even if it were imposed before death, maybe even more so), while others might be true as a matter of logic but have been proven empirically false over and over again (especially the assertion that "it breaks up family farms and small businesses"). I then note that, notwithstanding all of that, a person can simply say that she opposes the estate tax because she thinks is it fundamentally wrong to tax wealth -- not as a consequentialist argument but as a matter of first principles.
So, yes, it is certainly possible for a person to say that they think that any specific policy is wrong as a matter of baseline belief. In Wednesday's column, I quoted from a piece that Wehner wrote in 2016, in which he wrote that "[m]odern conservatism has three elements: a commitment to limited government and economic liberty that enables prosperity; moral traditionalism that conserves our capacity for liberty by producing responsible citizens; and a belief that America, confidently and carefully engaged in international affairs, can be a force for good in the world."
To be clear, opposing budget deficits is not self-evidently an element of "limited government and economic liberty that enables prosperity," especially given that budget deficits can be used to expand economic liberty and increase prosperity. Even if his list had explicitly said that conservatism requires balanced budgets, however, the question is not whether a person could believe that to be true (and continue to believe so no matter which party is in the White House, but I digress). The question is whether a Christian belief-based argument exists to support that conclusion.
Similarly, one could repeat the conservative talking point that helping the poor creates a "culture of dependency," so the cruelly kind thing to do is to force all those poors to get out of the hammock and fend for themselves. Again, the overwhelming evidence denies that conclusion, but a person could adopt a moral worldview that says that everyone is on their own, and neither I nor anyone could say that they are not permitted to believe as much.
The scripture that I quoted in Wednesday's column from the book of Matthew, however, is wholly inconsistent with such beliefs. Jesus is quoted saying this: "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. ... Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me." In the Sermon on the Mount, we learn that the meek are blessed and that the merciful will be blessed by being shown mercy.
Where is the asterisk that says, "Except when doing so would create incentives toward dependency, or when spending to do those things might require borrowing money?" Where did Jesus say that work requirements are a precondition for Christian mercy? One could, I suppose, argue that deficits harm future innocents, except that (a) there is no evidence that they do (at least as the US has seen over its history), and (b) it is possible -- indeed morally required -- for future non-starving people to prevent people (including children) from starving today. That is, even if the conservative economic argument were true that deficits reduce average future standards of living, the words in Matthew would say that it still must be done. A future society with, say, per capita GDP of $95,000 rather than $97,000 would be worth it to help "the least of these my brothers" who need help today.
In the 2008 presidential election campaign, a guy from Toledo, Ohio, who came to be known as Joe the Plumber (but whose story turned out to have almost as many holes as that of now-former Congressman George Anthony Santos Devolder) found his fifteen minutes of fame when he asked Barack Obama a question about taxes destroying the American Dream. When Obama responded by saying that "I think when you spread the wealth around, it's good for everybody," the pre-Trump Republican Party that Wehner holds up as righteous went nuts. He wants to spread wealth around? That's communism!!
It is not communism. It is another word that begins with a "C."
When Wehner described Trump as "a sociopath -- an unfiltered sociopath," he added the adjective apparently to make the point that these unworthy Christians could not even defend themselves by saying that Trump's sociopathy is filtered through dog whistles or other evasions. Properly understood, however, it is the pre-Trump Republicans who are the filtered sociopaths. And based on what we know of Christian doctrine -- even for those of us who no longer believe (or never did) -- it is the sociopathy that is the sin, filter or no filter.