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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