It almost never fails. When I’m asked to speak to Evangelical audiences about politics, I can predict the reaction to the speech based almost entirely on the age of the audience. If a Christian is older than me, he’s often angry. If younger, usually grateful.
A recent interaction is typical. After being asked in a question-and-answer session about Trump’s use of Twitter, I argued that Christians should be just as concerned about falsehoods and unpresidential behavior as they were during the Obama administration. The same people who launched extended diatribes about various Obama offenses against decorum (feet up on the Oval Office desk, a sloppy salute before entering Marine One) were laughing at Trump’s gifs, memes, and insults. Deceptions and misconduct aren’t cleansed by partisan affiliation. The blood of Jesus can wash away sins. A red political jersey cannot.
After the speech, I was speaking to a small group of younger Christians when an older man walked up, glared at me, and said, “You just wanted Hillary.” (I did not.) Conversations like this have happened time and again. It’s the answer to all critiques. Worried that Trump’s team has lied about the extent of their contacts with Russia? “Hillary.” Concerned about chaos in the West Wing? “Hillary.” Alarmed at the failure of Obamacare repeal and the obvious lack of presidential leadership? “Hillary.”
Oddly enough, this ongoing older-generation Hillary obsession makes me less pessimistic about the long-term future of Evangelical political engagement. When committed support for Trump is both generational and situational, there’s less chance that we’re looking at a permanent Evangelical shift towards “by any means necessary” political combat. There’s a better chance that we’re looking at the sad by-product of the worst presidential choice in living American memory.
Younger Evangelicals (and younger conservatives more generally) saw Hillary as a corrupt choice for president. She was no more honest than Trump, but unlike Trump she was actively hostile to religious liberty and increasingly radical in her support for abortion. That’s bad enough, of course, but older Evangelicals were carrying a full quarter-century of baggage into the fight. Beginning in 1991, she wasn’t just at the center of scandal after scandal, she was on the wrong end of the culture wars, and she was an icon of the brand of arrogant, condescending feminism that most Christian conservatives openly despise. And she was in our face for decades.
In other words, if the Democratic party wanted to nominate the one person in the entire United States most calculated to get Evangelicals to hold their noses and walk to the polls for a man like Donald Trump, then congratulations. Mission accomplished.
Moreover, the complete shock of Trump’s win (followed quickly by the Gorsuch nomination) forged a bond between older Evangelicals and Trump that isn’t easy to break. They thought all hope was lost. They thought that the Clintons were immune to the laws of political gravity, and no amount of scandal could bring her down. When the darkness is perceived as particularly bleak, the dawn is greeted with even greater joy. Younger Evangelicals didn’t perceive the same darkness. Thus, the light is not as bright.
But now, six months into a dysfunctional presidency, it’s time for Evangelicals to come to their senses. It’s time to fully understand that Hillary is actually vanquished. There is absolutely no criticism of Trump that will cause her to parachute into the White House. Indeed, if the political crises grow increasingly grave, then the choice wouldn’t be Trump or Hillary but rather Trump or Pence. Moreover, withholding criticism of Trump’s bad acts enables his worst behavior. Holding firm behind him no matter his actions reinforces his own view that “his people” support him unconditionally. Given his erratic behavior, that’s dangerous for him to believe. He should understand his political limits.
There is absolutely no criticism of Trump that will cause Hillary to parachute into the White House.
Cutting against the chance of Evangelical accountability are the powerful forces of opportunism and rationalization. It’s obvious that the conservative Christian movement has more than its share of throne-sniffers, the kind of people willing to give a big grin and thumbs-up right in front of a Playboy magazine cover (as did Jerry Falwell Jr. and his wife, during a photo-op a year ago in Trump’s office). Trump was able to appeal to the ambition of a motley collection of fading Christian stars. They’re with him, they gush about him as if he’s God’s great gift to America, and they’ll stay with him if he live-tweets himself murdering someone on Fifth Avenue.
But that’s the fringe. The masses are more vulnerable to rationalization — the quest to justify or excuse conduct you’d otherwise condemn. This is the heart of the appeal of anti-anti-Trumpism. No matter what Trump does, you can find someone on the Left doing something worse. Trump tweets about Mika’s alleged facelift? Well, didn’t Kathy Griffin hold up a model of Trump’s severed head? Never mind the enormous disparities in power between the president of the United States and any member of the media or any celebrity. Never mind the hypocrisy in excusing misconduct that you’d condemn in others.
It’s the ancient human tendency. We always refight the last war, and the last war featured two equally powerful corrupt forces, but one of them had the advantage of at least paying lip service to Christian conservative concerns. There’s a new political war now, and in this one, the most powerful man in the land has proven to be exactly as deceptive and erratic as many of us feared. Yes, some of the forces opposing him are hysterical and unhinged. But if Christians want to preserve their witness and their influence, they cannot and must not march in lockstep behind a man who scorns their values in word and, most important, in deed.