The Corner

Religion

Christian Realism and the Long Game

Franklin Graham

Last week here on the Corner, David French reproached fellow Evangelicals who defend the president against accusations of sexual misconduct and, in particular, of paying hush money to a porn star. “It’s a sin,” David wrote. With his characteristic moral clarity, he contended that just because it’s sexual sin committed in private doesn’t mean that a Christian should condone it if it becomes public.

Franklin Graham concurred, arguing that sin harms not just the soul of the sinner but the whole society. “Like a boat, whose wake can capsize other boats, sin leaves a wake,” he explained in the Wall Street Journal. “Just look at how many have already been pulled under by the wake of the president’s sin.” Graham took special aim at the King David defense, which is that we should forgive the president because “God pardoned David’s adulterous act with Bathsheba”:

But forgiveness is not the end of David’s story. Huge consequences followed immediately. . . . David, who confessed his sin when confronted by Nathan (perhaps God’s special prosecutor), also witnessed a bloody coup attempt by his own son, Absalom. He was never the same king.

The private acts of any person are never done in secret.

The president’s sin can be forgiven, Graham concluded, “but he must start by admitting to it and refraining from legalistic doublespeak.” Moreover, “acknowledgment must be coupled with genuine remorse. A repentant spirit that says, ‘I’m sorry. I was wrong. I won’t do it again. I ask for your forgiveness,’ would go a long way toward personal and national healing.”

Of course, Graham has evolved — or flip-flopped, depending on your point of view — since he wrote that 20 years ago, when the president was Clinton. “I think when the country went after President Clinton, uh, the Republicans, that was a great mistake that they, it should never have happened, and I think the same with Stormy Daniels and so forth,” he told the Associated Press in an interview published last week.

The mistake, as Graham calls it, was certainly political, at least at the time. The Right tried to make hay of the Clinton sex scandals and was discredited by a public that would rather compartmentalize them. The economy was good.

Those whose views on abortion the president supported had their own reasons to defend him. The journalist Nina Burleigh said that she would be happy to perform oral sex on him “just to thank him for keeping abortion legal. I think American women should be lining up with their Presidential kneepads on to show their gratitude for keeping the theocracy off our backs.”

In 2018, President Trump’s Christian defenders are grateful to him for keeping off their backs a secular Left that seeks to criminalize conduct and speech that reflect their traditional moral values. They can rationalize their political calculation as Christian realism à la Reinhold Niebuhr. “We weren’t looking for a husband,” Penny Nance tells the New York Times, explaining the Evangelical vote for Trump in 2016. Nance is the president of Concerned Women for America, a Christian advocacy organization that promotes conservative social policy. “We were looking for a body guard.”

That’s what Middle Eastern Christians say when defending their historical support for strongman dictators — Saddam Hussein and Bashar al-Assad are the prime examples — under whose rule they find some shelter and protection. In Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon, the interest that Christians have in self-preservation aligns almost perfectly with their commitment to defend the church, whose presence in the region depends on their not being wiped out by jihadists. (Their American co-religionists who have followed them into Christian realism in domestic politics happen to oppose them on U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East, where most Christians consider the Iran-Russia-Assad-Hezbollah axis to be on their side, but that’s a topic for another post.)

Christian realism is based on the assumption that sometimes, in this fallen world, the end justifies the means. The question for American Evangelicals who support Trump on that ground is not whether their chosen means, a Trump administration, justifies their end, a society that is just in terms consistent with an orthodox Christian worldview. The question is whether, on balance, a Trump administration helps or hinders them in their effort to translate their religiously informed political vision into social reality. What is the benefit, and what is the cost? The most obvious benefit that they hope to see unfold over the long term stems from the appointment of young conservative judges who will be on the bench for decades. The most obvious short-term benefit is that Hillary Clinton isn’t president.

Her candidacy exposed a generational rift among conservatives, as Ben Shapiro notes at The Weekly Standard. Gripped by a “crisis mentality,” as he calls it, older conservatives tended toward the fear that her election would spell the end of the republic. Younger conservatives disapproved of her but with less intensity. The difference in degree between the two evils they had to choose from in November 2016 was not as great in their eyes as it was in the eyes of their parents and grandparents.

Consequently, younger conservatives are more alert to the lasting damage that Trump can do to the Republican brand. Many conservatives maintain that he’s a policy vessel and that the effect of his personal character is of little consequence by comparison, but the political reality is that no one votes for policy because it’s not on the ballot except in state and local referendums. In presidential elections, we vote for men and women, whose character can lend a halo to the causes they embrace. It can also taint them. In Trump’s case, the Hefnerian reputation that he sought and cultivated for much of his life is not even the most serious expression of underlying character defects.

To older conservatives who denounced Bill Clinton for his sexual misconduct and subsequent dishonesty about it, it was wrong with respect to both tablets of the Ten Commandments. It was a sin both against God — or the natural law, if you prefer — and against neighbor.

Younger conservatives tend to be not so interested in the offense against God. The offense against neighbor, however, disturbs them more visibly than it does their elders. The recent avalanche of allegations of sexual misconduct by older men in positions of power in Hollywood, Washington, and elsewhere is a new turn in America’s post-1960s culture and is becoming a movement that social conservatives have reason to support, notwithstanding its excesses. Those who are fighting the last war, against the Clintons, are too busy protecting their own character-challenged president to see the possible future cost of their strategy. Meanwhile, after shifting pro-life beginning earlier in the decade, Americans under 30 have swung sharply pro-choice. Paul Moses at Commonweal speculates that it’s in part a Trump effect.

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