In his new book, For God and Country, Ralph Reed attempts to convince reluctant Christians to vote for Donald Trump. Reed notes that Christians voted for Trump in the 2016 election—the exit polls showed that “white evangelicals or white born-again Christians” went for Trump over Hillary Clinton by a wide margin, 80 to 16 percent—and he argues that they should vote for him again this year largely because he has shown himself to be a stalwart defender of the evangelical Christian agenda. Reed defines this agenda as consisting of several main issues: the pro-life movement, religious freedom, conservative justices, and support for Israel. Reed’s strongest point throughout his book is that Trump made conservative campaign promises and kept them. Indeed, Reed includes a 26-page appendix detailing all of the ways Trump has enacted conservative, evangelical policies.
Ultimately, however, Reed’s argument is a dangerously simplistic mischaracterization of evangelical Christians and their priorities. While most evangelicals do care about the pro-life cause, religious freedom, conservative justices, and Israel, Reed insults them by constraining them to these issues. Other factors matter, too—such as the competency of the president, especially in handling national crises like the coronavirus pandemic, and progress on racial justice.
So how does Reed go about making the Christian case for Trump? Reed’s book alternates between campaign history, defenses of the evangelical movement for supporting Trump, and attacks on Hillary Clinton and the left. The book opens with an account of an unexpected March 2011 phone call from Trump during which Reed praised some pro-life and pro-traditional-marriage remarks that Trump had made in a Fox News interview. Reed then discusses his growing support of and friendship with Trump in the years that followed, as Trump courted evangelicals and eventually won the Republican nomination.
Reed highlights three important points on the road to Trump’s securing evangelical support: His list of conservative jurists to fill Antonin Scalia’s seat on the Supreme Court, his selection of Mike Pence as his running mate, and his statement in the final presidential debate where he argued against abortion. Time and again Reed mentions that, while Trump may have been less than ideal in various ways, evangelicals in 2016 had little choice “when confronted with one candidate who seeks to advance the common good and another candidate who supports grave moral evil.” This disingenuous argument fails to consider the third-party and abstention options available to voters. And the argument makes even less sense in 2020, when the president’s record of conduct in office—from his love affairs with autocrats to his cover-up of a hush-money payment to a porn star to his violent disruption of a peaceful protest for a Bible-waving photo op to his assault on democratic norms—suggests that it is not far-fetched to also accuse him of “grave moral evil,” as well.
At times, Reed’s theology is a fair and accurate representation of the broad umbrella of evangelical Christians, even those who chose not to support Trump. He quotes Isaiah 8:12-13 (“It is the Lord of hosts who you should regard as holy. He shall be your fear, and He shall be your dread.”) and tells his readers to put their faith and hope in God rather than man, saying: “Followers of Jesus are taught by Scripture to fear God alone and look only to Him for their salvation and deliverance—not to any politician, king, or parliament.”
Writing an entire book about why Christians should put their faith in Trump, however, suggests that Reed doesn’t believe his own message. For every line of good theology he offers, he has more than double the amount of poor theology as he twists the Bible to suit his political purposes. Reed says that the argument that Christians should refuse to vote for Trump because of his past misdeeds “removes the heart of the Gospel message from our civic discourse—the grace and forgiveness available to us all through faith in Christ.” Reed’s message might bear more weight if not for Trump’s proclamation that he didn’t need to ask for forgiveness (“I mean, why do I have to repent? Why do I have to ask for forgiveness if you are not making mistakes?”). Additionally, Reed’s strained attempts to convince Christians to forgive Trump’s sexual misconduct run in tandem with Reed’s and Trump’s clear lack of forgiveness for Hillary Clinton’s attempts to justify her husband’s wrongdoing.
Reed’s rosy-eyed view of Trump’s courtship of the evangelical movement is also laughable. In one of Trump’s first appearances to a thousand-person crowd of evangelical leaders and pastors, back in 2011, Trump attempted to impress his audience with a photo from his confirmation. Even Reed admits: “He seemed unaware that most Evangelicals view their spiritual journey as beginning with a conversion experience, which they describe as being ‘born again’—not a graduation from confirmation.” Reed forgives this, however, saying that this “showed Trump’s longing for a connection with Evangelicals as he sought, however awkwardly, to establish a bond with them.” Which is worse—that Trump would show up to speak to leading evangelical leaders of the day without caring enough to take the time to understand what they believed, or the fact that evangelicals would fall into his lap despite Trump’s blatant condescension toward and disrespect for the thing which they hold most dear? There is a third problem, too: Reed denies the most plausible argument, which is that the relationship between Trump and his evangelical supporters is purely transactional from both ends.
Yet Reed demonstrates this point himself. He speaks from the heart later on in the book when he says with pride: “Trump, it seemed, had broken the code of the Evangelical vote. He didn’t need to quote the Bible or pretend to be something he wasn’t; he only had to demonstrate that he shared their values and would fight for their issues.” (Following Trump’s Two Corinthians debacle, it was wise of him to steer clear of quoting the Bible.) That passage reveals a truth about Reed, one that he seeks to prescribe to all other Christians: Vote for Trump despite Trump’s complete lack of moral compass or presidential fitness because it will secure the evangelical Christian agenda.
A closer look at how well Trump has done on those issues, however, might make one pause. Take the pro-life movement. Reed is quick to highlight Trump’s anti-abortion rhetoric in multiple presidential debates and point to the fact that Trump was the first president to ever attend the March for Life in person. But previous Republican presidents also had admirable records defending unborn life without all of Trump’s other disturbing moral baggage. And what about the rest of Trump’s record? When it comes to the lives of the elderly during COVID-19, for example, Trump’s actions show the limits of his caring about the most vulnerable among us.
How about religious freedom? Reed insists: “Trump has led with great moral clarity as he has . . . defended religious liberty at home and around the world, [and] successfully fought for the release of Pastor Andrew Brunson in Turkey and other Christians held in the prisons and gulags of authoritarian regimes.” Yes, there have been political “wins” for evangelical Christians—as there would have been under any other Republican president—but where is the principled pluralism that defends all religions? Muslim Uyghurs sitting in concentration camps would question the claim that Trump has championed religious liberty “around the world.” Similarly, Trump’s ham-handed prioritization of Christians in the Middle East has jeopardized their position, as they fear that this prioritization will create resentment from the Muslim majorities there. This worry resounded most loudly following Trump’s executive order temporarily banning immigration from seven Muslim-majority countries while confusingly talking about allowing protection for Syrian Christians.
Lastly, while Trump, with the guidance of the Federalist Society, has nominated some two hundred judges and justices who have been confirmed, it is far from clear that the two justices appointed by Trump to the Supreme Court will prove to be as consistently conservative as evangelicals initially thought. Indeed, according to one analysis, in his first term on the Court Brett Kavanaugh aligned himself with the progressive justices Stephen Breyer and Elena Kagan on the same percentage of cases he did with Neil Gorsuch. Kavanaugh has sided with progressives on Planned Parenthood, environmental, and Apple antitrust cases. And Gorsuch’s June opinion on a case touching on sexuality, gender, and employment has been excoriated by conservative legal analysts.
Reed is correct that evangelicals, who tend to care about Israel for a variety of reasons, have reason to be pleased with Trump’s decision to move the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. But is that small success enough to outweigh the 166,000-plus lives that have been lost to COVID-19, in part because of the inaction and incompetence of the president?
This November, we Christians should ask ourselves whether Trump, a man who has proved himself to be morally repugnant and racially divisive, is the candidate who best represents our values. This is not necessarily the “Christian case for Joe Biden.” By allying ourselves with Trump, however, we risk handing away our moral credibility for what may turn out to be little more than a mess of pottage.