Donald Trump has always been a bit of a history maker.
In 2016, he was the first person elected US president without prior government or military service. His three Supreme Court appointments in four years were the most in half a century. He was the third president to be impeached, and the first to be impeached twice. And this month, Trump became the first president to be indicted on federal criminal charges.
To be clear, these charges are different from those announced in March by New York prosecutor Alvin Bragg. That state indictment centered on Trump allegedly paying an adult film star to keep their relationship secret during the 2016 presidential campaign, and then effectively laundering the payment as a business expense.
The New York Times’s David French—hardly a Trump apologist—cast doubt on the wisdom of Bragg’s prosecution, describing that legal process as “one that [Bragg’s] predecessor didn’t choose to seek and that relies on federal criminal claims that the Department of Justice declined to prosecute.”
The federal indictment, on the other hand, is based on Trump’s handling of classified documents after leaving the White House. Specifically, federal prosecutors allege Trump took a trove of documents with him from the White House to his estate in Florida.
Some of these documents, they charge, contained classified and sensitive information—including about military readiness and possible attack plans. When asked to secure and return these documents, the indictment says, Trump refused and obstructed government officials’ efforts to reclaim them.
Make no mistake: These charges are serious.
Compared to the New York indictment, these federal charges are not just better documented; they highlight far more serious legal infractions. Yes, if the charges in the New York case are true, then Trump broke the law to conceal immoral activity. But if the charges in the federal indictment are true, then not only did Trump break the law, but he did so in a way that may have exposed America and its allies to serious harm.
William Barr, who served as attorney general in the Trump administration, admitted as much in an interview on Fox News: “He is not a victim here. … Those documents are among the most sensitive secrets the country has.”
The response to this indictment was swift. Trump’s critics praised the Department of Justice as taking a necessary step to check lawless behavior from a former (and potentially future) president. Mitt Romney stated Trump “brought these charges on himself” and claimed his actions were “offensive to the national interest.”
Erick Erickson at World magazine connected the indictment to Trump’s “poor judgment” and “regular lack of impulse.” And CT editor in chief Russell Moore issued what has become his familiar two-word response: “Character matters.”
Trump’s defenders, meanwhile, blasted the indictment as politically motivated and dangerous. Senator Josh Hawley complained that the indictment was an effort by the Biden administration to “take out” Trump, the presumptive Republican nominee for president.
Senator J. D. Vance said the indictment amounted to illegal election interference and was further evidence of America’s transformation into a “banana republic.” And House speaker Kevin McCarthy predicted the indictment would “disrupt this nation because it goes to the core of equal justice for all, which is not being seen today.”
But if the reaction to Trump’s indictment was swift, it was also unsurprising.
Research on political polarization has routinely shown that most of us do not react to political developments in a vacuum. Instead, we tend to treat our preferred candidate or party with the utmost charity while casting our opponents in the harshest of lights. We are prone to judge the motives and actions of political elites through the lenses of ideology and partisanship, with truth and objectivity too frequently taking a back seat to whatever framing helps us beat our opponents.
This approach to politics may be the norm for our society, but that doesn’t mean it should be acceptable. This is especially true for Christians. Followers of Jesus should not be counted on to respond in predictable and scripted ways to the political and legal developments of our day. Just as we are called to bring salt and light to a flavorless and dark world (Matt. 5:13–16), we should also adopt a political presence markedly different from what is expected by the broader culture.
What does this mean considering the charges brought against Donald Trump? Among other things, it means confronting the seriousness of the indictment without pivoting to the misdeeds and failings of other political actors. It means distinguishing between what Trump is charged with and Joe Biden’s careless handling of classified materials—and, crucially, how both men acted following these revelations. And it means treating the evidence from this indictment objectively and dispassionately, letting the facts of this case lead where they may.
A distinctly Christian response to this indictment implicates both of our major political parties. For Republicans, it means admitting that even if Trump is preferable to Biden (or any Democratic candidate), he is far from the martyr he so often paints himself to be. And for Democrats, it means refusing to celebrate or revel in the indictment of a former president and instead treating it as the lamentable development it is.
As Christians, we must adopt a posture of humility and consistency when reacting to the failings—legal, moral, or otherwise—of our political leaders, along with the recognition that people on “our team” can be as flawed as those on the “other side.” Just as Trump voters should be honest about the ways in which Trump’s actions are to blame for his current predicament, Biden voters must pair their criticism of Trump with honesty about the ways in which Biden’s presidency has fallen short, particularly concerning the unborn and human sexuality.
We are less than 18 months away from our country’s next presidential election. And while it’s clichéd to say that this will be unlike any presidential election in history, it does feel particularly true now. How could it not be? In the likeliest scenario, one candidate will be nearly 82 years old on Election Day—with another four years of the most demanding job on earth in front of him—while the other could be engaged in not one but two criminal trials, with jail time a very real possibility.
The year ahead will likely be a stress test for American political institutions and the guardrails of our representative democracy. The loudest voices among us will be selling scripts of hyperbole, fear, and anger to a population increasingly hungry for this reactionary rhetoric. It will be tempting for Christians to fall in line with the prevailing partisan sentiments.
Yet we should confidently reject this temptation—choosing instead to approach the political sphere with consistency, discernment, and a humility not of the world, but from the mind of Christ.
Daniel Bennett is an associate professor of political science at John Brown University and assistant director at the Center for Faith and Flourishing. His forthcoming book is Uneasy Citizenship: Embracing the Tension in Faith and Politics.
Speaking Out is Christianity Today’s guest opinion column and (unlike an editorial) does not necessarily represent the opinion of the publication.