Over at The Atlantic, Michael Gerson, a former George W. Bush speechwriter, has penned an extended essay that attempts to explain a complex and disturbing reality — how Evangelicals “became an anxious religious minority seeking political protection from the least traditionally religious president in living memory.” Gerson is Evangelical, he has deep knowledge of Evangelical history, and his essay is compelling on a number of fronts. It suffers, however, from a rather curious omission — especially for an essay that’s explaining Evangelicals to a largely secular and progressive audience.
While Gerson ably explains that Evangelicals feel as if they’re under siege, he doesn’t give an adequate explanation as to why. He communicates the reality that Evangelicals feel embattled without providing sufficient explanation for that belief, belittling their concerns as hysterical and self-pitying. The effect is to make Evangelicals appear irrational when, in fact, Evangelicals made their political choice in response to actual, ominous cultural and legal developments that jeopardized their religious liberty and threatened some of their most precious religious and cultural institutions.
Yes, some went too far and adopted the “Flight 93 election” rhetoric that helped poison American political discourse, but one doesn’t have to think that the republic was at stake to understand that the issues in play were very serious.
This is an omission of no small consequence. Until the progressive community understands the gravity of its attacks on Evangelical institutions, there is little hope for understanding — much less changing — an increasingly-polarized American political culture.
Here’s how Gerson describes the evolution of modern Evangelical political priorities:
The evangelical political agenda, moreover, has been narrowed by its supremely reactive nature. Rather than choosing their own agendas, evangelicals have been pulled into a series of social and political debates started by others. Why the asinine issue of spiritually barren prayer in public schools? Because of Justice Hugo Black’s 1962 opinion rendering it unconstitutional. Why such an effort-wasting emphasis on a constitutional amendment to end abortion, which will never pass? Because in 1973 Justice Harry Blackmun located the right to abortion in the constitutional penumbra. Why the current emphasis on religious liberty? Because the 2015 Obergefell v. Hodges decision legalizing same-sex marriage has raised fears of coercion.
This is a curiously reductive way of describing a series of legal changes that undermined the traditional constitutional order, cleared the way for the deaths of tens of millions of innocent children, and jeopardized the autonomy and liberty of the institutions Christian parents choose to train and educate their kids.
Why would Obergefell “raise fears” of coercion? Perhaps because of these actual words from President Obama’s solicitor general during oral arguments:
Justice Samuel Alito: Well, in the Bob Jones case, the Court held that a college was not entitled to tax-exempt status if it opposed interracial marriage or interracial dating. So would the same apply to a university or a college if it opposed same-sex marriage?
Soliticitor General Verrilli: You know, I, — I don’t think I can answer that question without knowing more specifics, but it’s certainly going to be an issue. I don’t deny that. I don’t deny that, Justice Alito. It is — it is going to be an issue.
Just after the presidential election, David Bernstein highlighted that exchange and called the Obergefell argument the “oral argument that cost Democrats the presidency.” While there are many things that cost Democrats the presidency, that moment is certainly one of them. Think, for a moment, of the cultural and legal implications.
Culturally, this is the president’s lawyer casting traditional Christians outside the boundaries of mainstream American society, placing them in the same category as racists for upholding a biblical definition of marriage. Legally, he’s raising the possibility that the schools and institutions educating young Christian kids by the millions could face the choice between compromise and financial crisis.
And, keep in mind, this statement occurred against a generation-long campaign of elite demonization of Evangelical Christian belief and practice. In my own law practice, I witnessed more than 100 colleges and universities attempt to bar one or more Christian student groups from campus — mainly on the grounds that it was “discriminatory” for Christian groups to reserve leadership positions for Christian students. I represented Christian students who were told they had to change their religious beliefs to earn degrees from public universities.
Moreover, the solicitor general made his statement mere weeks after Christians watched, aghast, as our nation’s largest and most powerful corporations gang-tackled the state of Indiana for having the audacity to enact a Religious Freedom Restoration Act that did little more than re-instate traditional legal protections for religious liberty. This corporate gang-tackle featured an absurd media pile-on as reporters on the hunt for anti-gay bigotry fixed their eyes on a previously unknown pizza store simply because it hypothetically wouldn’t serve pizza at a gay wedding.
Do I also need to mention that the Obama administration attempted to force nuns to facilitate coverage for contraceptives? Do we need to remind America that Hillary Clinton called for ending the Hyde amendment? This term the Supreme Court is considering two major compelled-speech cases. In one, the state of California is attempting to compel pro-life pregnancy centers to advertise for free and low-cost abortions. In the other, the state of Colorado is attempting to force a Christian baker to use his artistic talents to custom-design a cake to help celebrate a gay wedding.
Thus, there were very good reasons why it was rare indeed to find even a Never Trump Evangelical who was tempted in the slightest to vote for Hillary Clinton. It’s easy to see why so many Evangelicals — given the choice between a morally corrupt enemy and a morally corrupt ally (or at least someone who promised to be their ally) — chose the ally.
If the story had stopped there, then progressives should be engaging in at least as much soul-searching as Evangelicals. I’ve seen enormous amounts of anti-Christian hate in the American elite, especially at colleges and universities. I’ve watched the systematic slander of an entire American community. After the election, all too many secular progressives pointed fingers at Christians and mocked them for their political expediency without questioning in the slightest their own fears and bigotries. Simply put, those who voted for Hillary and defended her character occupy moral ground no higher than those who voted for Trump and defended his alleged virtue.
Moreover, Never Trump conservatives like me were asking our Christian friends and neighbors to make a considerable leap of faith — to boycott both major-party candidates and run the risk of considerable (and important) legal and political losses out of the conviction that the character of a leader ultimately matters more than the policies he promises. We were asking Evangelical conservatives to make a sacrifice the Democrats had already proved — when they circled the wagons around Bill Clinton in 1998 — that they were unwilling to make themselves.
But the story doesn’t stop there, and it’s discussing post-election Evangelicalism where Gerson’s essay is most persuasive. It’s one thing to face a tough choice between voting for a morally corrupt man and staying at home. It’s another thing to join the morally corrupt man’s tribe. It’s another thing entirely to excuse in him behavior that you’ve long condemned in anyone — everyone — else. We’re treated to the utterly appalling, continuing spectacle of watching Christian leaders excuse Trump’s worst characteristics and rationalize away his most obvious sins. Some of the worst even turn Trump’s vices into virtues and revel in his combative, vicious rhetoric.
It turns out that the pull of tribalism is very strong indeed. Moreover, many millions of Christians want to believe that their side is good. They want to believe that Trump is better than he is. So they’ll eagerly pass around pictures of him praying with Christian leaders. They’ll share examples (and there are many) of mainstream media excess and hysteria. They build a fortress of denial.
But even here, Gerson goes too far. Gerson claims that Trump’s strong Evangelical supporters have reached an accommodation with Trump’s alleged racism:
Here is the uncomfortable reality: I do not believe that most evangelicals are racist. But every strong Trump supporter has decided that racism is not a moral disqualification in the president of the United States. And that is something more than a political compromise. It is a revelation of moral priorities.
While this may be true of a tiny few Trumpist Christians, it’s utterly inconsistent with the entire enterprise of pro-Trump Evangelicalism. It’s denialism first, whataboutism second. They just don’t believe he’s racist. It’s fake news. Similarly, in a poll late last year, only 8 percent of Trump voters believed the sexual-assault claims against him were credible. And then, if you puncture through the disbelief, there’s always a Democrat who’s done something just as bad. Trump allied himself with Steve Bannon. Isn’t there a picture of Obama smiling right next to Louis Farrakhan? Didn’t the domestic terrorist Bill Ayers host a coffee for Obama?
But the very exercise of whataboutism is an admission of moral defeat. At its very core, it’s a declaration that our guy is like your guy and that the moral playing field is even. While that may be useful for dragging an opponent off his high horse, it means that Evangelicalism and secularism wrestle in the mud together. The true tragedy of Evangelical support for Trump is that a group of Americans who have a higher call on their lives — and faith in a far greater power than any president — now behave (with notable exceptions) exactly like simply another American interest group.
This is Gerson’s key insight, but it matters exactly how Evangelicals arrived where they are today. It wasn’t the hysterical reaction of a self-pitying people. For most it was the sad result of a series of tough choices — made in response to difficult and unreasonable challenges. Even today there are millions of Evangelicals — people who still count themselves reluctant Trump supporters — who are deeply uneasy with the president and the state of their own religious movement. It serves no one’s interests to minimize the legitimacy of their deep political concerns.
Gerson has written a powerful essay, but it understates the justification for Evangelical support for Trump and exaggerates rank-and-file Evangelical perfidy. Evangelicals aren’t worse than other American political tribes. Instead, we’re proving that in politics we’re just like everyone else. In other words, the true sin of white American Evangelicalism isn’t that we’re exceptionally bad, it’s that we’re not exceptional at all.