Three devout Christians made statements last week that point to the challenge for evangelicals as we step into the muddy waters of another electoral season.
The first comes from Pope Francis. Responding to Donald Trump’s views on illegal immigration from our southern border, he said that anyone who wants to build a wall is not “Christian.”
I didn’t think the Pope was judging Trump’s relationship to God (he’s said on other occasions, “Who am I to judge?”). I think he was making a moral pronouncement about “the wall”: He was saying it would be unchristian—or immoral—to build such a wall.
I trust we never get to a point where morality and policy are completely divorced. But in this instance, as in so many, it’s difficult to determine what in fact is the “Christian” position. Despite the ugly rhetoric, Trump and friends are deeply concerned about the security of US citizens. This is a moral concern, a Christian concern—we want to protect the lives and jobs of our fellow citizens. I don’t happen to think building a wall is the best way to achieve security, nor the best way to live up to our national ideas of welcoming the “tired,” “poor,” and “huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” My Christian faith informs my judgment. But it would be self-righteous to say that mine is “the Christian position” and that any other is not “Christian.”
Many political solutions are rife with moral ambiguity. The security barrier that separates Israel from the West Bank is a deeply troubling phenomenon: it divides people, brings unnecessary hardship to those who must cross it daily to work, and symbolizes the failure of democratic values. But since it has been erected it has saved thousands of lives by thwarting terrorist attacks in Israel. Is the security barrier “Christian”? Is it “moral”? Yes and no.
Another comment from last week came from Jerry Falwell Jr., who recently endorsed Donald Trump. In explaining his endorsement, he said,
I do not believe, however, that when Jesus said “render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s” that he meant we should elect only someone who would make a good Sunday School teacher or pastor. When we step into our role as citizens, we need to elect the most experienced and capable leaders.
He’s right about this, of course. An apocryphal quote of Martin Luther says, “I’d rather be ruled by a competent Turk than an incompetent Christian.” On the other hand, the personal morality of our leaders does affect their leadership. Bill Clinton’s sexual exploits while in office distracted his administration, preventing his team from accomplishing anything of significance for months. I don’t know that his administration ever quite recovered from his immoral behavior.
Finally, there’s the temptation to judge a candidate by relying on a personal impression. Pastor Mark Burns, a Christian television entrepreneur based in South Carolina, has endorsed Trump. Before meeting him, he was “full of apprehension,” but he said that he “really wanted to hear the man's heart.” He explained:
For those of us who are evangelical leaders and pastors, we are led by listening to the spirit of an individual, and we also believe that through the Holy Spirit, [it] will reveal to us whether someone is truthful or not. All of us, especially after that first meeting, and especially us in the African American evangelical community, [we] came out believing that this person is legit.
We want to support leaders we can trust, and meeting a leader face-to-face often encourages trust. But we evangelicals can be just as gullible as was Neville Chamberlain, who after meeting with Adolf Hitler in 1939, wrote in his diary that Hitler was a man one could “do business with.” I’m not comparing Trump to Hitler, but I am saying that charismatic figures can fool us into trusting them when they are, in fact, not trustworthy in the least.
We are wiser politically to not take a politician’s word or read his “heart,” no matter how sincere he or she seems. Politics in the end is about effective action, which come about through specific policies. We should place our trust not so much in leaders who seem trustworthy as those whose actions prove they are.
Listening to another’s “heart” blinds us not only to policy but also to morality. This is most evident in Falwell’s assessment of Trump:
I do believe Trump is a good father, is generous to those in need, and is an ethical and honest businessman. I have gotten to know him well over the last few years and have come to admire him for those traits.
It’s hard to imagine how Falwell can blithely ignore Trump’s founding of gambling casinos and his bragging about the famous women he has slept with—not to mention his habitual arrogance, the very opposite of the Christian virtue of humility. Whatever attractiveness he might have for some, the plain fact is that Trump is not a paragon of virtue.
Politics is partly about morality and partly about effectiveness. It’s partly about the character of leaders and partly about their ability to lead. That’s what makes politics so aggravating, unpredictable, and just plain fascinating. Wisdom is not isolating one aspect, whether that be moral or pragmatic, and using it as the sole criteria, but holding many things in tension. It also means we cast our ballots while praying, “Lord, have mercy.”
Mark Galli is editor of Christianity Today.