It’s well known that conservative Christians are among Donald Trump’s strongest supporters. If all you knew about me was where I’ve worked, you’d probably assume that I’m in the Trump camp too.
I spent nearly three decades with social-conservative organizations, the lion’s share at one of the most prominent evangelical groups—Focus on the Family, founded by James Dobson. As a writer and sometime-editor, I worked for Focus for more than 20 years, first as a staffer (1997-2003), then as a regular contractor. Although most of what Focus does isn’t political, what I did was: I worked for the public-policy department, mainly for its magazine, Citizen (canceled in late 2018).
So yes, I’m a conservative Christian, albeit not an evangelical like most of my former colleagues. (I’m a Missouri Synod Lutheran—different theology, but similar views on many social issues.) Yes, I strongly support pro-life, pro-religious liberty causes. Yes, the Trump administration has done some things to help those causes—appointed some judges, taken some positions in court, enacted some executive-branch policies.
But no, I don’t support Donald Trump. Never have, never will. The price is far, far too high.
The reasons why—well, where to start? More than that, where to stop? Because with Trump, it never stops. The torrential lying and gaslighting. The pathological narcissism. The pettiness, bullying, and cruelty. The Twitter tantrums and schoolyard name-calling. The corruption and abuse of public power for private interests. The assaults on institutions and standards across government and culture. The admiration and emulation of dictators. The derogation of public servants, statesmen, and heroes. The elevation of cranks, crooks, and clowns. The bizarre rants and conspiracy-mongering. The shameless appeals to the ugliest instincts. The blatant racism. The staggering ineptitude. The sheer stupidity. The . . . okay, you get the point.
Any of Trump’s vices by itself could be disqualifying for office. Trump has all of them, and on steroids. There’s just no universe where I can imagine getting behind someone like that.
I’ve got more company than you might think. I know a fair number of Christians—many of them people I’ve worked with—who are appalled by Trump. I find them without really searching. Usually we discover one another in casual conversation: Something Trump said or did will come up, and one of us can’t contain his dismay or disgust (even if it’s just a sigh or a groan), the other picks up on it, and soon we’re bonding, each of us thankful to find another kindred spirit.
One reason our numbers remain somewhat hidden is that some of us have chosen to stay low-profile. Another reason is that we don’t have high-visibility media platforms like those of the major Christian organizations. Even those of us who work for such groups are (in my experience) more common at the middle and rank-and-file levels than at the top: We’re not the ones who choose the content of the broadcasts, magazines, and websites. We’re here: We just can’t get a good idea how many of us are here.
However many there are, though, it’s safe to say we’re a minority in my circles. I certainly know more Trump supporters than opponents. I’ve had many conversations with them. Or maybe I should say I’ve had the same conversation with many of them.
Okay, I exaggerate. Not every Trump supporter I know has the same level of enthusiasm for him: Some are rah-rah, others more reluctant. The latter will concede some faults in him, even express exasperation with him. (“I wish he could just say something right,” one friend said recently.) But sooner or later, when I press my case against Trump, I always get the same answer: But the Democrats.
That’s their eternal bottom line. No matter what this president does, no matter how indefensible, the greatest dangers they see always come from the left. How can I fail to back Trump, they wonder, with those threats looming? The closer Nov. 3 comes, the more urgently some of them want to know.
Well, I see dangers on the left too. Just not only on the left. We can’t afford ideological tunnel vision. There also are dangers on the right, like a white-identity politics that’s heavy on grievance, resentment, and fear. And there are dangers that don’t fit on our standard left-right spectrum. If a president is (say) an utterly amoral, unstable, incompetent, insecure egomaniac, then he’s just got to go. Likewise if he acts like an autocrat, a thug or a criminal. Or if he’s beholden to hostile foreign powers. Or if he tramples the constitutional boundaries of his office, undermines basic norms and institutions, shreds the social fabric, poisons civil discourse, promotes tribalism and sets Americans at each other’s throats. He’s. Got. To. Go.
This is not to minimize my differences with Democrats. Those are serious and often deep. It’s a measure of Trump’s all-around awfulness that it overrides those differences for me, and does so overwhelmingly. I’ve found that “but the Democrats” arguments don’t make me feel even a slight tug in Trump’s direction. If anything, they make me feel the reverse. The prospect of Democrats in power does make me feel a more urgent need for an alternative, but one that’s everything Trump is not—decent, honorable, uplifting, ennobling. (Think Philippians 4:8.) It makes me feel a more urgent need to reject Trump and Trumpism—emphatically and publicly.
In part, this is simply a matter of moral integrity. We’ve seen a lot of Christians making a lot of excuses for Trump over the past few years. We’ve seen them twist themselves into knots to avoid facing who he clearly is. We’ve seen them jettison one long-proclaimed standard after another to let him off the hook. We’ve seen them resort to denial, downplaying, and deflection. We’ve seen them deploy and distort Scripture in Trump’s defense as they’d never dream of doing for a Democrat. (To cite the obvious example: If this had been Bill Clinton. . . .)
This is just sad. Christians who spent decades decrying America’s turn toward moral relativism are the last people who should go down this road. We know better. When we do it anyway—sacrificing our professed principles on the altar of political convenience—that changes us. It erodes our character, both individually and corporately.
Besides our own moral integrity, though, there’s another consideration that deserves more attention than it gets. Rejecting Trump is also a matter of moral credibility. This country badly needs credible conservative voices—but more than that, it badly needs credible Christian voices. It will have neither to the extent that conservatives and Christians are broadly identified with support for Trump. People won’t take us seriously. Worse, they’ll recoil against us for the same reasons they recoil against him.
Who can blame them? After all:
How are they to believe we care about children and families when Trump intentionally rips children away from migrant and refugee families?
How are they to believe we care about women when Trump brags about getting away with sexual assault and mocks the appearance of some of his accusers, claiming they’re not attractive enough for him to molest?
How are they to believe we care about fighting racism when Trump panders to it so frequently, from pushing birtherism to Charlottesville to telling his nonwhite critics to “go back where they came from”?
How are they to believe we care about the rule of law when Trump so aggressively flouts it—encouraging violent vigilantes and self-styled militias, usurping powers, blocking due process, desperately hiding his finances both from the public and from prosecutors?
How are they to believe we care about national security when Trump regularly sides with Vladimir Putin over our national security professionals?
How are they to believe we care about freedom, democracy, and human rights when Trump acts like an aspiring autocrat at home and cozies up to established autocrats abroad—even as he shows open antipathy toward our democratic allies?
How are they to believe we care about virtues of any sort—love, compassion, humility, service over self, basic decency, you name it—when Trump so persistently embodies the opposite? As one father (a Republican) put it in 2016, “Trump is everything I teach my sons not to be.” Those words have stuck with me. My Dad would have said the same thing; I can just hear him now.
That’s the kind of comprehensive revulsion Trump provokes. He repels across ideological and religious lines. But this has ideological and religious consequences. Trump’s toxicity inevitably spills over onto the people who back him and the things they believe. Millions of other people—not hard leftists or angry atheists, just regular folk—have a visceral reaction: “If that’s what it means to be a conservative, a ‘pro-lifer,’ a Christian, I want no part of it.”
This would be a good time to think about the early church. New Testament believers did what they could to protect their reputation, lest their behavior discredit their faith. They faced persecution simply for being Christians—for professing and living by their convictions. Jesus had warned them about this and blessed them for suffering on His account. But they sought to avoid alienating people for other, less commendable reasons. They were winsome to non-believers. They held their leaders to high standards, including being “well thought of by outsiders” to avoid “falling into disgrace.” They did good works partly to attract others to their faith.
As they did, so should we. By all means, hold to the convictions of our faith in a culture that’s loath to tolerate some of them. By all means, defend ourselves when our motives are attacked (as “hate” or various “phobias”) or when we face harassment (sometimes by our own government: Christian legal-defense groups seldom lack work). It’s right to stand by our principles, especially when the state seeks to force us to act against them. But it’s folly for us to act in ways that lend credence to our accusers. And in today’s context, that applies to more than just how we act in our personal lives. It also applies to the public figures we choose to support, and how they act.
Which brings us back to you-know-who. It’s not enough for us to behave well individually if we collectively support someone who behaves like Trump. How many people will believe we’re not motivated by hate and fear if we tie ourselves to someone who traffics in both—someone who invites the worst elements of society to come out and play? How many will believe we are motivated by conscience if we rally behind someone who’s devoid of one? What kind of Christian witness is that to the world?
In short, how much do our political allegiances damage the faith that we’re supposed to be spreading?
In the end, this might be the most compelling reason for Christians to reject Trump. There’s no shortage of others. Yes, he’s bad for our society in so many ways. Yes, he’s bad for the very causes some of us see as reasons to support him. Above all, though, he’s bad for the cause of Christ—in ways more destructive than an army of avowed enemies could ever be.
From a Christian’s perspective, nothing should matter more than that. And if something does—like defeating Democrats at all times, at all costs—then I fear we’re falling into the devil’s trap. In The Screwtape Letters, C.S. Lewis had some things to say about the spiritual perils of politicized Christianity—how factionalism and partisanship can skew our priorities. See for yourself in chapter 7: Like most things Lewis wrote, it’s worth the time.
I know the partisan temptation well: I’ve felt it often enough, particularly when I was a young man. And in my line of work, I also know the temptation to focus so heavily on certain issues that you lose sight of the big picture. Breaking away from those mindsets is a long-term process that takes conscious effort. But break away we must. If the Donald Trump experience doesn’t motivate us to do it, I don’t know what will.