The Lord Helps Evangelicals Who Help Themselves

Michael Gerson, former chief speechwriter for George W. Bush, writes ruefully in the pages of The Atlantic about “The Last Temptation” of evangelical Christians. Over the course of an excruciating 7,000 words, Gerson laments “how so many evangelicals lost their interest in decency, and how a religious tradition called by grace became defined by resentment.” The essay is essentially an extended whine about what a darn shame it is that more Christians are not content to be pliant door mats under a militant progressivism’s boot. It’s also an entreaty for those same Christians to be more down with “social justice.”

The evangelicalism of yesteryear, Gerson tells us, was a combination of faith and “the Social Gospel—a postmillennialism drained of the miraculous, with social reform taking the place of the Second Coming.” Believing rube: Gerson, graduate of Wheaton College (“the Harvard of evangelical Protestantism”!), wants you to know and never forget that a UNICEF-cum-therapy-group-with-some-hymns Christianity, a Christianity with neither Christ nor His Cross, is the key to converting an existentially exhausted culture enthralled with secularism to Christ.

Beyond its cringe-inducing sanctimony, the piece has at least three problems. First, Gerson misunderstands the moment in which we find ourselves. As Michael Anton argued in the “The Flight 93 Election,” the 2016 election was a defining moment for the country, at least according to many conservatives who made a living out of railing impotently against progressivism in the pages of increasingly insular publications—when they were not fulminating, just as impotently, in the pages of the “respectable” press, or eventually capitulating entirely. (Hi, Bret Stephens!)

Gerson alleges that evangelicals now conceive of themselves as a “besieged and disrespected minority” and as “an interest group in need of protection and preferences.” The Obama Administration brought forth into the country various incarnations of social justice, developments nobody in their wildest dreams considered to be possible or, alternatively, swore were not desired … until they suddenly became the next civil rights cause célèbre: forcing Christian businesses to be complicit in same-sex wedding ceremonies, suing nuns into oblivion when they refused to violate a core tenet of their Catholic faith by providing birth control under ObamaCare, and reinterpreting “sex” in the 1964 Civil Rights Act to mean “gender” for the purpose of yet more extreme social engineering.

Are we to believe Hillary Clinton would have let off the gas? That she would have let up on the Democrats’ hard, leftward charge? It is impossible to imagine. Was it not then entirely rational for evangelicals—given the horrors, both known and unknown, that awaited them under another Democratic president—to latch, as a voting bloc (much as minorities do for the Democrats with little fanfare), onto the one person who could stop a Clinton Administration from all but destroying them?

Second, Gerson places too much value in a president’s personal rectitude. The reality is, we live in a system that has become comfortable with rule by imperial executives. Were we to live in the fever dream of Twitter “trad Caths”—an integralist dyarchy, where the Catholic Church and the State would both wield one sword, but the State would be subordinate to the Church—it probably would be very important to have “secular” leaders with unquestioned and impeccable morality. But in our own liberal constitutional republic, where religion so often has been undermined as a coordinating force and source of shared moral imagination? Not so much.

What matters here and now is securing a president who will achieve positive results, regardless of his personal foibles. If President Trump is achieving goals evangelicals find desirable (and that conservatives should find desirable), why ought they to care overmuch about his personal failings, whatever they be? Trump was elected president of the United States—not pope or saint-in-chief.

In any case, Trump has done what is probably the most important thing a president can do in the immediate term given the importance federal courts have come to play in our system of governance: appoint solid federal judges and one Supreme Court justice, Neil Gorsuch, who will interpret the Constitution as originalists, who will exercise “neither force nor will, but merely judgment.” Because of the outsized, though regrettable, power the judiciary now wields (in large part because of the vacuum left by an atrophied Congress), these excellent lifetime appointment are huge wins for constitutional government.

In addition, Trump has gone to work dismantling Leviathan: the administrative state. And his administration has achieved much else besides. What more could a conservative—or evangelical, for that matter—ask for?

Gerson’s appeal to “norms” is his essay’s third (and probably largest) problem. “Whatever Trump’s policy legacy ends up being,” he writes, “his presidency has been a disaster in the realm of norms.” Why? Because it has and will have by its end “coarsened our culture, given permission for bullying, complicated the moral formation of children, undermined standards of public integrity, and encouraged cynicism about the political enterprise.”

I would ask Gerson, What sort of norms is Trump destroying that evangelicals should want to protect? The norm that a sitting senator, Harry Reid, can call a presidential candidate, Mitt Romney, a criminal from the Senate floor and not even pretend to express regret? The norm of siccing the IRS on Tea Party groups to aid a president in his reelection bid, as Barack Obama did in 2012? The norm of everyone’s pretending that leftist “intersectionality” is anything but an excuse to be a vile racist? The norm of jailing a filmmaker when Islamic jihadists kill four Americans in a consulate in Benghazi because an administration needed a convenient scapegoat? The norm of the secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, then asking, without a shred of self-awareness or shame, “At this point, what difference does it make?” The norm of obliterating in an unprecedented and heretofore unmatched-in-viciousness manner an eminently qualified scholar and candidate for the Supreme Court, Robert Bork?

Such norms (and there are others) serve no purpose except systematically to disadvantage Republicans and the Right, to the detriment of the entire country. What Trump has done is show the Right how to take the fight to the media, to Hollywood, to the progressive centers of power. He has shown us how to be louder than what Anton aptly called “The Megaphone.” He has turned the weapons of the Left on itself. He has restored a bit of nerve to the GOP. What the party chooses to do with that gift is up to the party. I for one hope it does not squander it because its members are afraid of being called racist or sexist or xenophobic or whatever other mindless slur will eventually be conjured up by the Left—because the GOP will be so smeared no matter what it does, no matter how housebroken it becomes, no matter to what extent it deforms into a “conservative-lite” party in a hopeless effort to appease the Left.

Gerson pines for a civil, dignified evangelicalism. He might reflect on precisely what forced evangelicals—“like sheep among wolves” as they are in many ways today in modern America—to decide that their very survival depended and continues to depend on President Trump. To act as though there is no basis for such an initial decision and its continued ratification is lazy thinking in the extreme. Evangelicals have latched onto Christ’s command to be “as shrewd”—and one might add “as tough” or “as ruthless”—“as snakes” with good reason. Whether such a move ultimately cashes out in their favor remains to be seen.

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About Deion A. Kathawa

Deion A. Kathawa is an attorney who hails from America’s heartland. He holds a J.D. from the University of Notre Dame and a B.A. from the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor. He is a 2021 alumnus of the Claremont Institute’s John Marshall Fellowship. Subscribe to his “Sed Kontra” newsletter.

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29 responses to “The Lord Helps Evangelicals Who Help Themselves”

  1. “Gerson places too much value in a president’s personal rectitude. ”

    Until recently, so did evangelical conservatives.

    Remember this?

    ”Character matters, and the American people are hungry for that message,” said Mr. Reed, the coalition’s former executive director and now a private political consultant. ”We care about the conduct of our leaders, and we will not rest until we have leaders of good moral character.”

    James Dobson, founder of Focus on the Family, a multimedia ministry in Colorado, wrote, ”What has alarmed me throughout this episode has been the willingness of my fellow citizens to rationalize the President’s behavior even as they suspected, and later knew, he was lying.”

    ”I am left to conclude that our greatest problem is not in the Oval Office,” Mr. Dobson wrote. ”It is with the people of this land.”

    “In 2011, 30 percent of white evangelicals said that “an elected official who commits an immoral act in their personal life can still behave ethically and fulfill their duties in their public and professional life.” Now, 72 percent say so — a far bigger swing than other religious groups the poll studied.”

    It’s as though evangelical values are situation dependent, the situation being whether or not the president will pander to them between illicit sex acts.

    The truth is: If you abandon your values in order to get a win, your values aren’t your values at all. Winning’s your value. There’s an argument to be made for that, I suppose, but last I checked, the purpose of evangelical Christianity wasn’t to win elections, but to win souls for God. It’s harder to do the latter when you compromise yourself so gleefully in pursuit of the former.

    • If you abstain from one choice for ethical purposes and the result is a far greater evil empowered, what ethics have you in fact endorsed?
      In the political realm it is of course the purpose of evangelicals to win elections. It’s great if we can win one with a person of impeccable character. If we cannot then it is not some inevitable moral calculus that we withdraw from the field entirely.
      Your argument is specious sophistry.

      • Evangelical Christians are supposed to have a sense of the eternal. They have already, through God, won the final victory. Which means they can afford to stand apart in the political realm — working for what they see as the greatest good, of course, but realizing they don’t have to resort to profane or evil means to win a victory for good here on Earth. The important thing is to be true to your Christian Witness. More than laws are at stake; souls are.

        Christianity recognizes realms beyond politics. This piece does not. It’s not sophistry. It’s theology.

      • You ignore the fundamental question that is everpresent; do we stand so purely apart that we allow a greater evil to occur than if we engaged? Especially if that evil is at its essence opposed to everything about the Judeo-Christian cannon.
        There is a long tradition of The Defender of the Faith that involved not particularly nice people to protect Christendom from much greater evils. Absent those defenders Western civilization would have ceased to exist and Europe and presumably North America would be in Allah’s camp.
        How many souls are won, or more likely lost, under those circumstances?

      • If you think Christ has won the final victory, how much do you need to resort to evil means to “protect the faith?”

        If your outlook is eternal – if Christianity is a faith and not merely a tribe – then thinking you *need* a Trump signals a lack of confidence in your professed beliefs.

        Besides which, the “we’d have principles, but those liberals” is a tiresome argument. Principles are what you adhere to when it’s tough, not when it’s easy, because you’ll always encounter challenges of some sort. The easy abandonment of principles — not just accepting Trump as an avatar, but reversing course on whether morality is needed in our leaders, as the polls demonstrate above — suggests they weren’t really principles in the first place. How many souls do you think Evangelicals are winning by corrupting their witness for Trump’s sake?

      • Your assumptions remain steadfastly unexamined and consequently still largely specious sophistry in the form of banal platitudes.

        You refuse to engage the question, what great Christian principle is involved in standing by out of purity’s sake when doing so allows an anti Christian evil to take power?
        I suspect you have some measure of political affinity to that power but it’s impossible to tell because, platitudes.

        Your purity test brings to mind the old saw about whether a Christian should break the Christian entreaty about bearing false witness when a Nazi asks about the Jews you’re hiding in your attic.
        Assuming you would not give them up it seems to indicate Christians living in a fallen world are faced with less than perfect choices.
        Your purity test seems likely to neither win souls eternally nor preserve a polity receptive to Christ’s message.

      • “Your assumptions remain steadfastly unexamined and consequently still largely specious sophistry in the form of banal platitudes.”

        (Rolls eyes.)

        Your untested assumption is that supporting Trump allows you to keep some Nazi-like level of evil at bay, and thus anything is justified in that pursuit. If it were merely the case that the world would be slightly less governed to your desires, the justification gets wobbly.

        The alternative isn’t always the Nazis. Sometimes it’s just … larger government. There’s a difference.

        And we probably weigh it differently. But the fact that life on earth contains moral challenges isn’t a “get out of jail free” card for evangelicals. When they do their public balancing in a way – as this piece does – that betrays no awareness of a longer horizon or deeper commitment than politics, it should be pointed out. Donald Trump will not save your soul. Nothing in today’s politics will.

      • Your introduction of the Nazi theme on my behalf is particularly ironic were you to more closely inspect my avatar.
        It also indicates you haven’t much of an argument, which you have demonstrated repeatedly.

      • You’re cute. “You don’t have an argument” is your substitute for an argument.

      • Christ has won the final victory, and I eagerly await His coming. But in the meantime, he has left us here with responsibilities in this life. Consider, for example, a gang of thugs breaks down your front door, threatens to rape the women, kill the children, etc. Ought the Christian father and husband to say “well, Christ has one the final battle, so I’ll just be as gentle as a dove in this situation. No need for me to get involved. I’ll just stand aside, like I do from the political sphere.” Is that how things should work?

      • Incidentally, we don’t have to agree on this. But I think the author of this piece made a profound error in treating American Evagelicals as though they’re just another political tribe. They have a faith. Their concerns should range beyond the politics of this time and place. There’s no evidence in this piece of that understanding.

      • I attended Wheaton a few years before Michael Gerson. Every freshman has to take a “Christ and Culture” class. It raises exactly the questions you point out, and considers how to live between two kingdoms (“Now my kingdom is from another place”).
        Oddly enough, considering those questions caused me to become a pacifist from late freshman year until early senior year. Then as I graduated I put a foot in both kingdoms, went into the military and flew jets.
        Gerson’s been working with words his whole life. He’s turned a few good phrases, but I wouldn’t trust him with real work.

      • “Your argument is specious sophistry.”

        Brian, meet Joel Mathis.

    • But in this life we are often forced to rank our values in order of precedence. That’s all we’ve done.

  2. The quotation of scripture in the last paragraph, by the way, is a terrible truncation:

    “Evangelicals have latched onto Christ’s command to be “as shrewd”—and one might add “as tough” or “as ruthless”—“as snakes” with good reason.”

    This is what Matthew 10:16 actually says:

    “Behold, I send you forth as sheep in the midst of wolves: be ye therefore wise as serpents, and harmless as doves.”

    Feels different, eh?

    Shakespeare once said: ““The devil can cite Scripture for his purpose.” So, apparently, can American Greatness.

  3. Gerson is yet another “Christian” in the political realm who thinks Christianity should conform to his political preferences and not the other way around.

  4. Thank you for an excellent rebuttal. Appreciate you calling Gerson out on his cliches and false premises. I hope we no longer fall for New Pharisees like Gerson. Our Lord pegged them accurately in Matthew 23: whitewashed tombs, bleached sepulchers…. they echo the lies of the enemy, they emit foul air, and are no good to anyone, but in fact are full of rot . They put heavy burdens on others – burdens they manufacture from gossip and false witness – and don’t raise a hand to help anyone.

    These false “Christian thought leaders” are another group that President Trump’s presence has exposed. They pull off their own masks and show their true selves: haughty, self-righteous, performance artists who do everything for show and nothing for reality.

  5. God Bless US Bitter Clingers. Sola Fide. Sola Gratia. Sola Scriptura.

    Cuckservatives look left for approval.

  6. Francis Poretto has something to say on this:

    I’ve argued before that there can be no compromise with the Left, because any compromise would undermine a critical principle. The principle, of course, is the existence of natural individual rights. the Left presupposes that no such rights exist. Their polemicists routinely cloak that presumption in the language of the Utilitarian: “This is for the common good.” In effect, this is a bid to nullify any moral test of the means they choose. Their chosen means are always increased government power: the power of the sword.

    If the Left is allowed that power, they will use it. Have no doubt of that – and indulge no further impulse to look like a “nice guy” in confrontation with those to whom power is all.

    Of course, Gerson is part of the problem, because he has absolutely no problem using the coercive power of government to further his notion of “the common good”, as all adherents to the Social Gospel heresy do.

  7. Does the Lord help Muslims who help themselves, or Jews or even Catholics?

    Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or
    prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or
    of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition
    the Government for a redress of grievances.

    What does the Lord think or that?

  8. Arguably Trump’s greatest accomplishment is making the NeverTrumpers expose themselves as the enemies of America and Americans they really are and Anton’s accomplishment was describing the fraud Conservatism, Inc. had become.