The shallowness of the NeverTrump evangelical mind over the last two years has been remarkable. I first pointed this out months ago in the first article of this website’s “Sorry State” series: that trendy evangelical political theology is nothing but a set of disparate mantras, slogans, clichés, or catchy phrases into which they socialize evangelicals, effectively excluding both contrary voices and precise thought. With this rhetorical power, these evangelicals serve as gatekeepers of orthodox political thought. The second article in that series demonstrated how these phrases function rhetorically: as Christianizing devices that elevate emotively held moral sentiment into Christian moral legitimacy.
For almost three years, NeverTrump evangelicals have listed Trump’s moral failures as reasons not to vote or support him. They’ve unfortunately continued to rely on dated and imprecise mantras, such as “Christians should not vote for an immoral man.” We’ve pointed out the folly and absurdity of this claim, and I haven’t seen a substantive response. (I encourage you to read the article to put much of this article in perspective). While no one could reasonably affirm that a candidate’s morality is utterly irrelevant to a principled voting decision, the complexity and various forms of immorality in life and the myriad ways that immorality in leaders interacts with existing political and social institutions demands more than a simple principle or mantra for our voting theory. Our time cries out for a robust Christian theory of voting. NeverTrump evangelicals however have given us little beyond lists of Trump’s moral errors lined up against a set of slogans or mere assertions of disparate principles or propositions.
The Gospel Coalition recently posted an article on voting by Dr. Thomas Kidd that garnered quite a bit of online attention. Having read and benefitted from some of Dr. Kidd’s scholarly work, I was excited to read this article, hoping and expecting (in vain) that someone as gifted as him would lay out a clear and precise Christian theory of voting, taking into account the sort complexity he regularly sorts out in his historical writings. But he didn’t—at all. It is devoid of insight and even much argumentation. Dr. Kidd’s article is almost entirely a continuous reassertion of his conclusion and lacks any sign of analytical thinking. I analyze the article in detail.
Right Ideas and Personal Integrity
Dr. Kidd begins his article with this:
The Donald Trump presidency and our recent outbreak of pastoral and denominational scandals have brought into focus how much we need both the right ideas and also personal integrity from our leaders.
He’s clued us to his main point, that those we support for office ought to have both the “right ideas” and “personal integrity.” Let’s call the former A and the latter B. Dr. Kidd is proposing that Christians should vote for someone only if the candidate meets both A and B, so let’s simplify this to (A & B). We can assume that since he is proposing (A & B), he will provide reasons to believe it.
Too often, our tendency is to think that all that matters is a leader’s ideas, or just that they’re on our “team.” We’ll put up with childish behavior, boorish or creepy treatment of associates, and other warning signs, so long as they support the right “principles,” the right denominational cohort, or our preferred political party.
Summary: We Christians too often affirm only A and disregard B, because we place a premium on A.
So far he has provided no support for (A & B), only a description of what it might look like to deny (A & B).
Prioritizing a person’s ideas or affiliations over character is a huge mistake.
Dr. Kidd asserts that denying (A & B) is a mistake. He continues,
In politics, Richard Nixon was the ultimate mistake on this front, though to be fair, Nixon did a good job of hiding his paranoia and profane character from the public before Watergate….In church, we’ve seen a reckoning against charming celebrity pastors and powerful denominational leaders. But if they were on “our side,” we may have been less disposed to see the train wreck coming.
Summary: Nixon and fallen celebrity pastors are examples of what you get when you place A above B.
This is the only reason offered for (A & B) in the entire article, i.e., that insisting on personal integrity prevents the “train wreck” from coming. Of course, Train Wreck Nixon ended the draft, ended the American involvement in the Vietnam War, signed the Endangered Species Act, expanded Medicare, and normalized relations with China. Nixon cannot be the “ultimate mistake” by standards of good political outcomes.
And it is certainly not the case that all those who lack “personal integrity”—such as the adulterous JFK and MLK and the fierce and brutal Steve Jobs—lead to train wrecks. Dr. Kidd’s examples show only that the absence of “personal integrity” can lead to public scandal, but it certainly need not and it often does not. Dr. Kidd has not supported his case (relying on a sort of selection bias). The issue here is far more complex than referencing Nixon. Notice as well the consequentialist assumption at work: that “personal integrity” is necessary in order to prevent a bad outcome.
As we’ve said, Christians should prefer moral character and treat it as an important factor in their voting decisions, but it remains only one factor among others and should be considered, in its unique complexity, in light of its probable interaction with existing institutions and circumstances. One could conclude, for example, that President Trump’s boorish behavior is but an unfortunate byproduct of the sort of character the United States needs in order to produce the best possible civic outcomes. Regardless of whether this evaluation of Trump is true or false, at least it conforms formally to explicitly stated principles, and does not hide behind obfuscation, a set of slogans, and imprecision. Dr. Kidd continues.
No leader is perfect (save for a certain carpenter’s son from Nazareth), and we shouldn’t expect them to be or treat them like they are. But we also need to step back, as a culture and as churches, and re-think our expectations of leaders.
Summary: We should reevaluate the “only A” position.
Dr. Kidd goes on to assert very briefly that the nature of the office, political or ecclesiastical, shapes the “balance” of A and B. He does not discuss this “balance,” nor give reasons to believe (A & B). Dr. Kidd fails to address the most pertinent and necessary questions. If we can support and vote for imperfect people, then we must distinguish different kinds of imperfections. What is the principle by which we make that distinction? He doesn’t tell us.
But we should want all our leaders to meet basic standards of personal integrity, as well as intellectual affinity for the true and the good.
Dr. Kidd merely reasserts (A & B).
Tribal allegiances of party and denomination remain relevant, of course, as we can’t function without them. But they can’t be the controlling factors.
Dr. Kidd suggests that those who disagree care only for “tribal allegiances,” poisoning the well against those who might deny or want to modify (A & B).
These two priorities—integrity and intellect—should change the way that Christians think about choosing leaders, voting for politicians, or withdrawing support from a leader who’s on your political or denominational “team.”
Summary: Since (A & B) is true, it should change voting behavior.
But he hasn’t provided even one decent reason to believe (A & B), so the conditional is vacuous.
Lots of white evangelicals reviled Barack Obama, for example, and I certainly disagreed with him on most major social issues. But he set an excellent example for the nation on a personal level, especially in his dealings with his family and his dignified bearing as president.
Summary: Obama was a good example of B.
Kidd does not explain at all how this supports his thesis. Why should Obama’s public family life lead me to believe (A & B)? Did his family life shape the country in some positive way? Did his good example fundamentally transform marriage and sexual ethics for the better? Kidd fails to ask and address the most pertinent questions. Indeed, the rapid social changes that occurred during Obama’s administration suggest the opposite, that his family life had no effect on social stability or good social norms, which actually undermines Dr. Kidd’s thesis. And doesn’t his point have consequentialist assumptions? Does he believe in a consequentialist theory of voting? He doesn’t tell us.
I agree more often with the positions taken by Donald Trump’s administration (though I have sharp disagreements on some issues) than Obama’s. But Trump’s observable character flaws should still make him a highly problematic choice for Christians.
Summary: Since (A & B) is true and Trump is not B, Christians shouldn’t vote for him.
Dr. Kidd is finally making an argument, but the argument assumes the very proposition at issue, for which he’s provided no reason to believe.
We need to take both ideas and also character into account.
Dr. Kidd reasserts (A & B) , as if the truth of a proposition arises from how many times it’s asserted.
I couldn’t vote for President Obama because of differences of principle, and I couldn’t vote for President Trump because of personal character.
Since (A & B) and Obama is not A, Kidd couldn’t vote for him.
Since (A & B) and Trump is not B, Kidd couldn’t vote for him.
But why (A & B)? Do you think we’ll finally get a reason to believe (A & B)? Kidd concludes:
I’m not saying that all faithful Christians must make the decisions I did, but I am saying that both principles and character must factor into our decisions.
Dr. Kidd reasserts (A & B), and that’s his conclusion.
It’s comically bad, and it’s disheartening to see how many people online seemingly approved of an argument that is, to be harsh (as Joe Carter suggested is often necessary), utter garbage. It’s as if NeverTrumpism is an ideology by which people suspend their reason and sense to serve a political creed or dogma and praise anyone who, however poorly, recites it. The only reason Dr. Kidd offered for B (which itself isn’t defined) is the “ultimate” example of Nixon. That’s it. Much of the rest is a reassertion of his unproven premise (A & B)—a proposition that in itself isn’t very controversial. Everyone prefers or wants a politician of competence and good character. What is pertinent to our time is not that (A & B) but precisely what we mean by it. How should good character function in a voting decision? Is it a matter of good outcomes? Is it part of a rigid litmus test (absolute standard) or one factor weighted in importance among others? And how can existing political and social institutions and circumstances relate to, shape, or hinder the potential excesses of that character? Instead of reasserting his main premise over and over, Dr. Kidd could have at least given a nod somewhere to the complexity of the issue and still kept the post brief.
Surprisingly, this sophomoric article was written by a scholar—indeed, one of the top scholars in the TGC crowd. It seems that even scholars can get caught up in the unprincipled and rhetorical strategies and the weak and imprecise argumentation of NeverTrump evangelicalism. What has happened? Is this the best that NeverTrump evangelicals can offer?
It’s really a scandal of the mind. The scandal of the NeverTrump evangelical mind is that there is not much of a NeverTrump evangelical mind. Dr. Kidd’s article simply disclosed the very structure of NeverTrump thought life: what is necessary is not reason, analytical thought, and honest argumentation, but moral certainty of one’s cause and the simple (and in this case repeated) declaration of NeverTrump political orthodoxy before a cheering crowd.
But Dr. Kidd is not alone.
This is your mind on NeverTrump
Take, for example, Ray Ortland’s celebratory tweet, at the eve of the 2016 election, on the loss of white rural America from evangelical legitimacy. These largely reluctant Trump supporters “held us back anyway,” he writes. Ortland and crew now have the very urban “[Acts]29, TGC, ERLC, T4G, reformed hip hop and poetry, etc. Great!” I suspect that most NeverTrump evangelicals are secretly embarrassed by Ortland (and rightly so, being the guy who recently tweeted about “gospel badassery”), but he is still a regular speaker at evangelical conferences. But we’ll move on to more serious people.
Jared C. Wilson, a writer for TGC, is willing to give all street beggars the benefit of the doubt (as Jesus did, he claims), asking us rhetorically “Is Jesus Smart?” We shouldn’t rely on the “plausible argument” (the quotation marks are his) that the homeless person will squander the money you hand him. Despite Wilson’s willingness to think the best of homeless people, he was perfectly willing to think the worst of his evangelical brothers and sisters who would choose, however reluctantly, to vote for Trump. He wrote and underlined back in 2016, “Voting for Trump might be loving my neighbor—if my neighbor looked just like me. But I think that’s the very definition Jesus meant to rebuke the legalist for.”
Nowhere does Wilson provide a detailed and systematic theory of voting. He repeatedly states the conditional, “If I support Trump, I support [something immoral or unloving].” But he never defines “support,” nor deals with the most obvious objection to his argument, namely, the possible equivocation of “support.” That is to say, he fails to address directly whether support by voting necessarily entails the support (or the endorsement) of the candidate’s moral failures. And if voting endorses immoral behavior, what is the ground or principle by which you distinguish the relevance or irrelevance of the various moral failures? For, after all, moral perfection is too high a standard; we can vote for imperfect people, but according to what distinguishing principle? These are the basic questions one should address before accusing a majority of your American Christian brothers and sisters of loving only their own race.
Instead, he concludes that all white evangelicals who voted for Trump loved only their own—their fellow whites. Instead of giving at least some of his brother and sisters of the faith the benefit of the doubt—for perhaps they thought that Trump’s economic policies would benefit both minorities and women (which they have in historic ways)—Wilson chose to call all white Trump voters a bunch of Pharisaical legalists.
Or take Matthew Lee Anderson’s 2016 claim that “there is no pro-life case for Donald Trump. ” Labeling it the “Dumb and Dumber” argument, Anderson dismisses the idea that Trump would nominate “conservative judge.” Of course, the dumb-dumbs were right: the exact opposite happened. As the New York Times recently reported, “Indeed, after just 18 months, Trump has “flipped” two circuits — the Sixth and Seventh — from liberal to conservative. Two more — the Eighth and the 11th — are on the verge of tipping. Even circuits that are decidedly liberal are undergoing significant changes.” Trump also nominated Gorsuch and Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court. Next to this monumental error are about a dozen other bad predictions about Trump’s presidency. Furthermore, despite his repeated claims about losing one’s “cultural and moral soul” by voting Trump, Anderson nowhere (that I’ve found) provided a detailed and systematic theory of voting permitting him to make such a conclusion. The best one can gather from his writing is a conflicting mess of rigid principles and loosely and unacknowledged consequentialist assumptions. Anderson (who no doubt regrets his endorsement with Joe Carter and Justin Taylor of Mike Huckabee in 2007, calling it a “worthy cause”) is simply a bad and unreliable commentator on politics.
What’s striking about the writing of Wilson, Anderson, and NeverTrump evangelicals generally is the utter absence of any theoretical discussion of what would seem to be a foundational issue, namely, how one would go about determining how one should vote. Why would a movement, one that so values truth and honesty, give so little attention to what is most necessary to prove their conclusions? The answer is this: NeverTrump evangelicals exist in a sea of rhetorical devices, tricks, moralisms, and pithy lines. The moment that they get precise they disclose their vacuous reasoning and the emotive foundations of their unthought and, in consequence, lose their cheering crowd.
And then there is Thabiti Anyabwile, a TGC writer and frequent conference speaker, who is awash with Twitter flattery from fellow woke evangelicals, despite (or perhaps because of his) demanding that all white evangelicals admit to their parents’ and grandparents’ “complicit[y] in murdering” MLK; and this is the “least” his white brothers and sister can do. But he (along with Anthony Bradley and Eric Mason) have been granted the privilege to make insane claims without consequence, so I’ll move on.
Anyabwile actually provided a workable theory of voting. It is the most radically consequentialist I’ve seen, certainly more than Wolfe’s linked above. His fellow NeverTrumpists regularly denounce “consequentialist” considerations in voting (though they quite obviously rely on them). Anyabwile voted for Hillary Clinton because he followed this principle: it is better to vote for the predictable evil (Clinton) than the unpredictable one (Trump). Now, I disagree with his argument in its form, but I can appreciate the attempt. It’s better than most of his allies’. But the content of his argument, viz. that Trump is a “revolutionary that would cast us in sentiment and law back to the 1940s at least,” was ridiculous then and is even more so now. Anyabwile, as with other NeverTrump evangelicals, were caught up in the widespread and worldly NeverTrump delusions and derangement, offering Christianized versions of secular NeverTrump apocalyptic visions of state-led physical oppression.
The sorry state of Anyabwile’s NeverTrump mind continued into his Washington Post article. The thesis of the article is not immediately clear, but it seems that his own consequentialist theory of voting underlies it. He recognizes that, with the retirement of Justice Kennedy, Trump has a clear opportunity to nominate a conservative, pro-life justice, making plausible the overturning of Roe v. Wade. We should first notice the hidden concession, namely, that Anyabwile expects Trump to nominate such a judge, which contradicts every NeverTrump evangelical expectation in 2016. Given his own consequentialist view of voting, the Trump voter might seem vindicated. So Anyabwile sees the need to offer additional reasons to de-vindicate the white evangelical Trump voter. Notice that this need arose only because of the embarrassingly poor prescience of NeverTrump evangelicals in 2016. So the argument itself already implicitly concedes that Trump voters were not as dumb as they suggested.
Trump voters should not celebrate the wisdom of their voting choice because of the “racial injustices this administration seems to multiply each day,” states Anyabwile. He mentions the Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ directive to federal prosecutors that they “seek the maximum penalty in drug cases they prosecute.” He then accuses fellow evangelicals of turning “blind eyes to their brethren suffering at the hands of this administration” and accepting a “Faustian bargain for the mere price of a Supreme Court nominee.” He then implies in the last paragraph (just read it) that those with “indifference” to these racial injustices should ask whether their purported faith is a lie—whether they actually still remain under God’s eternal judgment.
It seems that according to Anyabwile Trump voters who feel vindicated by this recent development are ipso facto “indifferent” to racial injustice, for they think that the Supreme Court nomination is enough to justify their vote, regardless of other injustices perpetrated by the Trump Administration. Notice again how the calculation has changed: instead of Trump taking us to the 1940s or worse, it is now a matter of unjust prison sentences for drug dealers in Federal-level cases. (Stop laughing or sneering.) But some things haven’t changed: there remains no room for discussion or disagreement. Evangelicals Trump voters are “blind” to these injustices, which means that any reasons offered in disagreement with Anyabwile are prima facie false, for denying these injustices is simply what someone blind to them would do.
But I’ll assume in charity that by “blind” Anyabwile means not that these injustices are epistemically inaccessible to these evangelicals, but that they have chosen to be indifferent to them. Still, at no point does Anyabwile grant the possibility of legitimate disagreement on either the fact or the degree of injustice multiplied by the Trump Administration. The injustice is so obvious that disagreement indicates only a deep-seated immoral indifference; Anyabwile bypasses any reasons for the rejection and conveniently goes straight for the man.
These injustices are so obvious that Anyabwile questions even whether those who disagree with him remain under God’s eternal judgment. Yes, he went there. Disagreeing with him that mandatory minimums for Federal drug cases constitute a supreme racial injustice might indicate that you are not a true Christian. Anyabwile’s argument is a complete disaster.
What we see here is the unraveling of evangelical NeverTrumpism. After failing to get almost anything right in 2016, they continue trying to justify themselves and their original claims by exaggeration, unjustified and calumnious accusations against their Christian brothers and sisters, and warnings of eternal damnation for failing to agree with their exaggerations. This reminds one of the many uncharitable NeverTrump accusations of 2016, e.g. that Trump-voting Christians are likely “nominal” or cultural Christians who are not on the “right side of Jesus.” Is it possible, evangelical NeverTrumpists, that at least some of the majority of your fellow Christians who voted for Trump might have reasons for their political sentiments that are worthy of your time and attention? Why do you refuse to listen to your Trump-voting Christian brothers and sisters?
On the morning of November 9, 2016, NeverTrump evangelicals woke up and realized that they are leaders without followers, influencers without influence, and bloggers and book writers without readers—that their critics are right: they are a self-anointed, self-appointed, and self-congratulating class, closer to their urban liberal elite friends than their own fellow Christians—a sort of (largely baptist) aristocracy, not one whose legitimacy and composition arise from the people they claim to lead, but from their own particular internally enforced in-group standards (a tailor-made program of “moral witness” to which one must conform). And having legitimacy, a composition, and a platform impervious to influence or objection from below, they lack any mutual understanding with the unprivileged many. But it turns out that the few needed the many and that calling them “nativists,” “nominal Christians,” “racists,” “xenophobes” and generally assuming the worst of them from the towers of national liberal newspapers was, surprisingly, not very winsome.
But NeverTrump evangelicals have remained so enmeshed in a creed, a technique, and a set of language—and so confident that they need only to re-sort and reshuffle their lines and priorities—that they still refuse to provide any persuasive and non-divisive contribution to Christian political action. Instead, they’ve merely sprinkled on their old handy rhetorical kitbag some identity politics, intersectionality, and racial animosity.
The NeverTrump evangelical mind is lazy and unimaginative because, from its inception, it had a moral certainty that needed no rational and systematic justification. Hence, we see articles like Dr. Kidd’s that repeats over and over the evangelical NeverTrump creed without providing reasons for it. The NeverTrumpist mind makes those who are otherwise quite intelligent spout off what, under normal circumstances, would be rejected as conspiratorial, ridiculous, unintelligent, absurd, calumnious, or incomplete at best. And they’ve unfortunately shaped minds with this shoddy, unprincipled rhetoric—creating a drone army of retweeters and shamers. For the sake of the Church of Jesus Christ, the scandal of the NeverTrump evangelical mind must come to an end.