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Opinion A conversation: How can evangelicals support Trump? (Part 2)

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In my quest to understand how evangelicals of deep faith are supporting Donald Trump. I reached out to my friend Peter Wehner, who has written elegantly on the subject of religion and politics. Part 1 can be read here. What follows is the balance of the conversation.

RUBIN: The embrace of a crude, arrogant bully by people of deep Christian faith is not what most of us expected.

WEHNER: Nor did I. It’s all very odd and worrisome, since many faith voters — like many conservative Trump supporters — are jettisoning long-held convictions in order to rally around Trump. There’s a cult of personality involved here. And Trump himself — rude, vulgar, cruel, crude, narcissistic — is having a corrosive effect on our civic culture, which “values voters” once claimed to care for. People who once argued that moral character mattered in leaders are sympathetic to a man who is genuinely proud of his vices, who celebrates them. Christians are facilitating what Nietzsche called the transvaluation of values, paving the way for the Will to Power. So this is a very strange moment.

RUBIN: That all makes perfect political sense, but I am still surprised that there was not more reticence about Trump. Trump is bigoted, crude, mean and dishonest and yet people of faith seem not to care. “Values” used to mean humility, kindness, self-discipline and so on. Yet Trump sneers at these values. I don’t mean to be flip, but I expected more from Christians. Have secular trends including the degeneration of popular culture afflicted evangelicals as well?

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WEHNER: I don’t mean to be flip, but I expected more from Christians, too!

Your observation is a good one. We’re all products of our cultural environment — and we’re all tainted by it. If the lake is polluted, all the fish that swim in it, regardless of the species, are affected. To be sure, Christians are called to offer an alternative to the world, including a different way of looking at things. “Do not conform to the pattern of this world,” St. Paul wrote in Romans, “but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.” At the same time, Christians believe everyone, including those of the Christian faith, are fallen. Our lives are broken in many areas. None of us is insulated from having our thoughts corrupted; none of us is fully redeemed.

Still, the resonance Mr. Trump has with some Christians is rather stunning to me, for the reasons you say. Jerry Springer said the other day that the Trump show was too juvenile and offensive even for him. That tells you how dramatically things have fallen.

Donald Trump isn’t responsible for our cultural rot, but he is helping to spread it in ways that were once unimaginable. And it’s not just one thing with Trump; it’s the whole ugly, packaged deal — the crudity and vulgarity, the vindictiveness and ease with which he lies, the unprincipled stands and staggering shallowness on issues, the erratic behavior and vanity, the open admiration for tyrants and slandering of America, the utter indifference to justice, the belief that might makes right, the contempt for the weak and powerless, the cruel mockery even of people with disabilities. The fact that people of the Christian faith aren’t repelled by this, or are even draw to him, is difficult to comprehend.

Not long ago I posed a question to a close friend of mine, who is not of the Christian faith, asking him why he thought evangelical Christians shouldn’t support Mr. Trump. He told me that as a general matter he’d say evangelicals value some character traits in leaders — moral uprightness, compassion, honesty, fidelity, godliness — and value some substantive commitments in politics: the defense of the unborn, concern for the poor, prioritization of religious liberty, and a grasp of the moral foundations of our society. He quickly added that there has probably been no major party candidate for national office in the history of the United States who has so thoroughly failed both sets of tests at once and has so embodied in his personal life and in his work what social conservatives believe is wrong with modern America. That sounds right to me.

Because I do think it’s important, I do want to re-emphasize that many evangelical Christians are taking a stand against Trump for reasons that are tied to their faith, and that shouldn’t be overlooked.

Let me say just one other thing: The people in my life whose faith commitments I most respect by and large share my views of Mr. Trump. But some of my friends, including those of the Christian faith, don’t. When I see Mr. Trump I see one thing; when many of my fellow evangelicals see him, they see something very different. I look at Trump I see a person running a malicious and deeply destructive campaign; when they see Trump they see someone who will be beat the political establishment, which they hate, into submission. That is so important to them — their rage is so overwhelming, their sense of injury and grievances so powerful — that they are willing to give Mr. Trump a pass on almost everything else that usually matters to them.

I think they’re wrong to do so — that they’re suspending their moral faculties to support a fraud, a con artist, a carnival barker — and I think in doing so their faith witness is being damaged. That when non-Christians see people like Jerry Falwell, Jr. lining up to support Mr. Trump and people like Mike Huckabee defend him rather than challenge him — speaking out on behalf of Trump’s “moral authority” — they can’t help but think the whole thing is a hypocritical joke, that it was fine to use the issue of character to beat Bill Clinton upside the head but when it comes to Donald Trump it suddenly doesn’t matter. The very same arguments the Left used to defend Clinton are now being used by Trump supporters.

With all that said, I’m steeped in enough Christian theology — I know myself well enough — to know that my perspective is hardly perfect. It’s a lot easier for me to see how politics and certain predilections distort the faith of others than it is to see when that same thing is happening to me.

So I’ll leave it as this: When it comes to Mr. Trump, time will tell whose views of him are closer to the reality of things. For now, maybe the best we can do is to have dialogue and debate and arguments, to make our case as reasonably as we can and see which views events vindicate and which views they repudiate. So far, I’d suggest that the case, including the Christian case, against Donald Trump is stronger than the case for him. By a country mile.