Leaving behind the days when strength was weakness and courage was cowardice.
On January 15, Hunter Baker, the dean of arts and sciences at Union University—a Baptist college not far from me in Jackson, Tennessee—did something exceedingly rare in our highly polarized time. He published an apology. In an essay in Public Discourse, he forthrightly declared that he “severely underestimated the threat posed by a Donald Trump presidency.” He acknowledged that Never Trumpers were correct that “there were significant risks involved with Donald Trump that could very well outweigh the policy outcomes.”
In a particularly poignant passage, he wrote, “I have awakened on too many days with gratitude on my lips for the blessing of living in a peaceful, orderly, democratic, and free society to see such hard-won advances thrown away for immoderate political ambition. Those who realized our inheritance was at risk saw more clearly than I did.”
In our present environment, it takes guts to write an apology. It’s countercultural within our broader society, and it’s even more countercultural within the MAGA community. As my colleague Jonah Goldberg noted on Friday, even after the calamity of January 6, most MAGA voices are busy doubling down, demanding continued loyalty to Trump and seeking punitive actions against the 10 House Republicans who voted to impeach.
Baker was the brave exception, and the correct response to Baker’s words is simple: Thank you. Apology accepted.
But Baker did more than just say he was sorry. He did us the favor of not just explaining why he rejected Never Trump arguments, but also candidly explaining exactly what he once thought of Never Trumpers like me. It’s important to hear, and it’s not pretty. In sum, he thought we were weak and fragile. Here’s Baker:
The Never-Trumpers—who never seemed to stop issuing their warnings and critiques—struck me as psychologically and emotionally weak people with porcelain-fragile sensibilities.
My judgment of colleagues and of various conservatives who opposed Trump was privately severe. On the surface, I fully granted the strength of their concerns. But in the confines of my mind, I concluded that they were moral free riders.
Later, he says that he believed we were seeking to “court favor with elites.”
I highlight his thoughts not to pick on Baker (who’s a good man) but rather to demonstrate the extent to which Christian Trumpism turned morality and reality upside-down. If even someone like Baker can fall for the illusion, then just imagine how widely the deception spread.
In fact, if I had to pinpoint the single most common personal attack throughout my years of opposition to Trump, it would be that I was “weak” or a “coward.” Baker was hardly alone in his thoughts, and that same critique rang out across the length and breadth of MAGA media.
I was “weak” in 2015 when I decried the rise of the alt-right as my daughter’s face was photo-shopped into gas chambers and slave fields and my wife was bombarded with gruesome pictures of murders, suicides, and assassinations.
I was “fragile” in 2016 when the harassment escalated to the point where online threats culminated in a screaming, profane person hacking into a phone call between my wife and her elderly father.
I was a “coward” in 2018 when the FBI came to our home and told us that Trump superfan bomber Cesar Sayoc had searched for my address, and we had to warn our neighbors to be on the lookout for suspicious packages.
I was “courting elites” in 2019 when the “David Frenchism” controversy ignited, someone damaged our front door apparently trying to enter our house, suspicious vehicles cased our home, and individuals began contacting drug rehab and porn addiction centers around the country posing as me, saying I needed help, and providing detailed personal contact information.
I was allegedly just as weak as recently as this month when someone again found my cell number, texted racial slurs, and began calling all hours of the night from unknown numbers, sometimes leaving voicemail messages that sounded like recordings of people screaming.
And all of that was happening amidst a constant avalanche of personal insults, angry attacks on my employers, threats to withhold donations, calls for my termination, and a steady stream of online lies so voluminous that there are people who are simply furious at me for positions I did not take and beliefs I do not hold.
My wife has her own stories, including of individuals online mocking her and lying about her experience of sexual abuse at the hands of a pastor when she was only 12 years old.
She has endured lost career opportunities, lost income, and lost relationships as confrontations would flare at church—or at our kids’ Christian school—when Christian men would angrily confront her about Trump (or even Roy Moore), sometimes when she was conveniently alone and they didn’t have to deal with me.
We could have stopped this abuse at any time simply by our silence. But silence was assent, and we could not assent to the cruelty, lies, and ultimate attempted insurrection of Donald Trump’s single, terrible term in office.
In short, aside from my Iraq deployment the last five years have been among the most difficult of my life.
But, hey, I did publish a handful of pieces in the New York Times, the Washington Post, and The Atlantic. So, I guess it was all worth it, right?
What happened? How did the world turn upside down? How did compliance with the Republican Christian crowd become courage and dissent become cowardice? How did support for perhaps the least courageous and most dishonest man ever to sit in the Oval Office become a litmus test of strength and bravery for many millions of followers of Jesus Christ?
Here’s a chilling truth. More than two decades ago, Christians predicted the wages of moral compromise and then — during Trump’s term — many of these same Christians fulfilled their own prophecy. In fact, Baker’s own denomination most clearly articulated the awful consequences of deficient moral character.
The year was 1998, Bill Clinton was president, and the Southern Baptist Convention issued a Resolution on Moral Character of Public Officials. At the time, it was hardly controversial in Christian Republican circles. Bill Clinton had been caught dishonoring his office with a tawdry affair and attempting to hide it behind a smokescreen of lies. The conservative moral outrage was palpable.
It thus seemed self-evidently and immediately true when the Baptists declared, “Tolerance of serious wrong by leaders sears the conscience of the culture, spawns unrestrained immorality and lawlessness in the society, and surely results in God’s judgment.” After all, there were partisan cultural elites who tried to normalize adultery. They shamed Monica Lewinsky. They engaged in behavior that would shock the conscience of the #MeToo generation.
But fast-forward to the end of 2020 and the beginning of 2021. Did Christian Trump supporters tolerate “serious wrong” by Trump? Yes indeed. They tolerated porn star payoffs, multiple corroborated allegations of sexual assault, boasts about sexual misconduct, an avalanche of lies, and abuses of power they’d never excuse in a Democrat. Even now, many of them are tolerating Trump’s incitement of a violent attack on the Capitol—an attack that featured a host of Trump supporters seeking to lynch Trump’s Evangelical Christian vice president.
Why do I say they are tolerating that intolerable event? Because they steadfastly argue that Trump should not be held accountable and instead that Republicans who voted to impeach should pay a political price.
Let’s examine the consequences in light of the Baptist resolution. Christian consciences have been seared. In fact, if you talked to the average Christian Trump supporter in 2014 and asked them if they would ever defend all the misconduct I described above, they’d be insulted. “How dare you,” they’d say. “I would never stoop so low for any politician.”
Yet stoop they did. And all too many stoop low now, believing and spreading the wildest and most destructive conspiracy theories and radicalizing fellow believers. Did this sin spawn unrestrained lawlessness? Yes, and it was shocking to see:
Did all of this result in “God’s judgment”? I don’t know. I’m very leery of proclaiming when and how God judges His people, America, or anyone else. I will note, however, that even the most cold-eyed pragmatist has to acknowledge the political disaster that’s been visited on the GOP. Not since Herbert Hoover has a one-term president also cost his party the House and the Senate.
Yet in spite of the heartbreaking facts, I’m already getting bombarded with requests to “move on,” to turn the page and focus on Joe Biden. Paying continued attention to Trump is further evidence of my alleged Trump Derangement Syndrome. However, no one can truly “move on” until we properly and justly finish the last lingering act of Trump’s term.
His second impeachment trial is expected to begin within days, and his principal political defenders will include Evangelicals in the Senate. His grassroots constituency demanding acquittal will include millions of Evangelicals in the heartland. And many of those same Evangelicals will continue to seek to ostracize and punish fellow Christians who call for meaningful accountability for serious, proven wrongs.
What can be done? Hunter Baker has shown us one path. More Christians can demonstrate his humility and courage. And when or if they do, it’s important for even those who suffered profoundly for their anti-Trump stands to grant forgiveness immediately and without hesitation.
But there’s more. Christian Trump supporters can no longer say, “We won’t tolerate serious wrongs.” That ship has sailed. They can, however, say “Enough. No more.” And it’s vital that they do. Only they can impose true accountability on Trump. Without them there simply isn’t sufficient support to bar Trump from public office and limit his malign influence on American life.
And if they do choose hold Trump accountable, they won’t be “weak.” They won’t be “fragile.” And they won’t be “courting favor with elites.” They’ll be demonstrating at long last the courage of their professed convictions and living up to the promises of their own past words.
One more thing …
My newsletter last week generated more heartfelt correspondence — especially from southern Christians — than virtually anything else I’ve written. So very many readers recognized shame/honor patterns in their homes, their towns, and their churches. They experienced the culture and sometimes felt its bite. I wish I could have responded to all your messages with the same thought and care with which you wrote me. But I read them all, and you’ve given me much to think about. Thank you.
One last thing …
I’ve been really enjoying listening to Ellie Holcomb of late, and I think this song is just marvelous. Come for the song, and stay for the poem in the middle. The ending is particularly powerful. I hope it blesses you as much as it blessed me.