As I write this, I have no idea if or when we will see something no generation of Americans has ever witnessed: a mug shot of a former president of the United States. What I do know is that the entire country is waiting with a sense of unease about just that possibility and about what happens next.
Last weekend, former president Donald Trump posted on his social media platforms that he expected to be arrested this week, on charges by a New York grand jury of illegally reporting the hush money cover-up of an alleged affair with “porn star” Stormy Daniels.
Part of the confusion is that this potential indictment is almost universally considered the weakest of the (at least) four criminal investigations now ongoing regarding the former president.
The biggest difficulty related to this potential prosecution is the fact that we are dealing with probably the single most polarizing figure in American life in at least a century.
Not many families were divided into seething groups who refused to speak to one another over the relative merits of Hubert Humphrey or Bob Dole. I can’t imagine that very many pastors agonized over whether they would lose their pulpits over inadequate enthusiasm for Adlai Stevenson or Gerald Ford.
Imagine trying to find a jury of 12 people without already-fixed views on Donald Trump, even if the entire country were the pool for the search. That’s amplified for us as evangelical Christians because there’s an assumption in American life that “evangelical Christian” and “Donald Trump enthusiast” are synonyms.
Not all of us are, by any means. But it is fair to say that, in some ways, the tumult around Trump and Trumpism is heightened even more for those who are theologically conservative churchgoers—often dividing Black and white evangelicals, younger and older evangelicals, and sometimes urban, suburban, and rural evangelicals. So, regardless of all our disagreements about Trump, how should we think about the possibility of his arrest?
First, let’s recognize that our political viewpoints do not determine the question of someone’s guilt or innocence. The Mosaic Law points to an important moral truth—one that the founders of the American legal system aspired also to recognize—when it says, “Do not pervert justice; do not show partiality to the poor or favoritism to the great, but judge your neighbor fairly” (Lev. 19:15).
That means more than just “innocent until proven guilty.” It also means that what we are to judge are the alleged crimes, not whether the person is significant or insignificant, “one of us” or “one of them.”
If I were on a jury in this case, I would have a moral obligation to put aside the reality that (as I’ve said repeatedly for the last seven years) I don’t believe Donald Trump is fit for office. Instead, I would have to look at whether the hush money was actually paid and concealed; whether that is, in fact, a crime; whether the intent was to commit a crime; and every other consideration that goes into an impartial judging of the case.
The question of whether any person—be it Trump or Hillary Clinton or Joe Biden or anyone else—is innocent or guilty cannot be determined based on whether he or she is on “our side,” in either direction.
Second, let’s recognize that, sometimes, questions of criminality and questions of morality are not the same. Let’s suppose, as many suggest, that the criminal indictment in the Stormy Daniels case is much weaker than the potential others against Trump—such as an attempted overthrow of the election results in Georgia, his actions on January 6, or his handling of classified documents at Mar-a-Lago.
For the sake of argument, let’s go even further and assume this case is merely political theater by the Manhattan district attorney. That might settle the question of criminality here, but it does not settle the question of morality.
Cheating on one’s wife with a porn star is not a crime. Lying to one’s spouse and to one’s supporters is not itself a crime. All sorts of things that aren’t prosecutable offenses—nor should they be—are nonetheless morally repulsive. Just as those of us who are not Trump supporters must be forceful in stating that Donald Trump (and anyone else) is innocent until proven guilty, Trump supporters should recognize what now should be obvious: Personal character does indeed matter.
There’s a world of difference between saying “This charge of awful immorality shouldn’t be settled in a courtroom” and saying “Who among us hasn’t paid hush money to an adult film star?” There’s a chasm between saying that a prosecution is too politically charged to pursue and waving away a public leader’s calling a woman “horse face.” The truth is, the sort of “lesser of two evils” argument that character doesn’t matter moves quite easily into a “see no evil” mentality.
Third, let’s realize that threats of violence must not deter justice. The most disturbing part of these unfolding events is not the argument back and forth over whether indicting a former president is justifiable—in this case or at all.
Rather, to me, the most disturbing element is the former president, once again, posting social media comments that called on people to “protest” and “TAKE OUR NATION BACK!” This is combined with his seeming encouragement for New York police to defy orders to protect prosecutors and grand jury members from violence. These actions are chilling considering the effect similar rhetoric had in mobilizing a mob on January 6, 2021.
Some would say the threat of violent protest is a reason to avoid prosecution. Again, whether or not a Christian concludes that charging Trump is legally unwarranted or even unjust, we must not make such determinations based on which side has an angrier mob.
The Book of Acts is filled with accounts of mobs—such as the Ephesian silversmiths of the cult of Artemis (Acts 19:23–29)— seeking to intimidate with violence. Such examples are everywhere, and they are always contrary not only to the way of Christ but also to every conscience seeking to preserve a society based on the rule of law rather than the will to power.
The “look what you made me do” defense of mob violence is evil—whether made by the Weathermen of the 1960s Left or by the insurrectionists of the 2020s Right.
Christians may well disagree about what’s just or unjust in some of the legal decisions ahead, and we should be able to have those debates and listen to one another. But what we shouldn’t disagree about is whether justice matters at all.
Russell Moore is the editor in chief at Christianity Today and leads its Public Theology Project.