And do Evangelicals owe Bill Clinton an apology?
Last Sunday I wrote about the inconsistency between the Bible’s command for Christians to love their enemies and the willingness of many Christians to rationalize, approve, and sometimes even applaud Donald Trump’s vengeful rhetoric and acts of punitive retribution. One does not comply with the command to love your enemies by electing someone to hate them for you.
I was overwhelmed by the response and deeply encouraged at the depth and sincerity of the discussion it triggered online, in my email inbox, and in the comments to the article. Apart from observations and questions about the merits of the argument itself, the most common question I received was simple: What exactly do you suggest Christians do? Should they hold their nose and vote for Trump but endeavor to still see him clearly and hold him accountable for his misconduct? Should they vote for Democrats even when Democrats would protect abortion rights and restrict religious freedom? Or should they vote third party or write in a name?
Let me answer with my voting philosophy—one I believe advances a Christian biblical witness and the long-term peace and prosperity of our national home. In each race, I impose a two-part test on candidates. First, they must possess a personal character that is worthy of the office they seek. Second, they must broadly share my political values. If a candidate fails either prong of that test, he or she doesn’t receive my vote.
There was a time, when Bill Clinton was president, when virtually every Christian conservative I know would nod along in ready agreement with both parts of that test. In fact, they were distressed—even anguished—that a critical mass of their fellow citizens didn’t seem to agree. So long as the economy boomed, they were blind or indifferent to the way in which profound failures of character not only degraded the nation’s culture, it damaged the nation’s social cohesion.
And make no mistake, the economy boomed. In 1998, the year the House impeached Clinton, America’s gross domestic product grew 4.5 percent. Next year it grew a stunning 4.8 percent. The budget deficit vanished, and there were budget surpluses the last three years of the Clinton presidency. The economy created more jobs than during any other presidential administration in American history. Yet the president was a tawdry, adulterous, and dishonest man. He had a sexual relationship with a young intern in the Oval Office—an act that today would likely lead to the immediate termination of virtually any CEO who exploited such a vast power difference over a junior employee. He then lied under oath about that affair in a deposition in a sexual harassment suit over a separate incident—an allegation that he exposed himself to a woman while he was governor of Arkansas. He obstructed justice to try to conceal his affair, and he confessed and apologized only when DNA evidence conclusively exposed his lies.
Oh, and there was considerable evidence that—years ago—he raped a woman in an Arkansas hotel room.
In response, all too many of Clinton’s defenders raced to redefine sexual morality. Some, at the extremes, longed for a more “European” sexual ethic, where wife and mistress could peaceably coexist. Others mocked the puritanical zeal of Clinton’s critics. Still others argued for a “compartmentalized” vision of public office, where private scandal was irrelevant to the public good. And there were new moral inventions, like the idea that “lying about sex” was somehow a lesser lie, in spite of its profound impact on the fabric of family life.
Evangelicals responded. They wrote eloquent, moving declarations of the importance of personal character in public officials. And these arguments weren’t mere political screeds. Theologians and scholars turned to the Bible and Christian tradition to issue a clarion call for personal integrity in public life.
The Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) put forth a “Resolution on Moral Character of Public Officials.” It began with a simple and powerful statement from the book of Proverbs: “Righteousness exalts a nation, but sin is a disgrace to any people.” It lamented that “many Americans are willing to excuse or overlook immoral or illegal conduct by unrepentant public officials so long as economic prosperity prevails,” and it 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.”
The SBC was hardly alone in sounding the alarm. On November 16, 1998, a who’s who of Christian scholars issued a “declaration concerning religion, ethics, and the crisis in the Clinton presidency.” These words stand out:
We are aware that certain moral qualities are central to the survival of our political system, among which are truthfulness, integrity, respect for the law, respect for the dignity of others, adherence to the constitutional process, and a willingness to avoid the abuse of power. We reject the premise that violations of these ethical standards should be excused so long as a leader remains loyal to a particular political agenda and the nation is blessed by a strong economy.
In 1998, I believed those words were true. But let’s be honest. They were also easy to write. They were easy to say. Because the statements came mainly from Christian conservatives, their declarations of theological principle dovetailed neatly with their partisan interests. Not long before the Trump presidency I found myself reflecting on the Clinton years, and I silently asked myself a question. Would we still believe those words if the truth was hard to say—much less hard to live?
Given conservative Evangelicals’ stunning reversal on the importance of character in politicians, do they now owe Bill Clinton a heartfelt apology?
But I think the Christian statements of the 1990s were exactly right. Jesus, in the Sermon on the Mount, said that his people were “the salt of the earth.” When I read that verse, I can still hear my youth pastor saying, “Salt preserves, y’all.” Or, if you prefer something more ornate, here is Origen of Alexandria, one of history’s most renowned theologians, reflecting on that same verse:
Now is the proper time to say why Jesus’s disciples are compared with salt. Salt preserves meats from decaying into stench and worms. It makes them edible for a longer period. They would not last through time and be found useful without salt. So also Christ’s disciples, standing in the way of the stench that comes from the sins of idolatry and fornication, support and hold together this whole earthly realm.
How does this relate to politics? I’m reminded of these famous words from John Adams: “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious People. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.” In other words, virtue is indispensable to the proper functioning of the American nation, and without that virtue, America could become, in Adams’s words, “the most miserable habitation in the world.”.
Put simply, the Christian salt of this American earth must preserve not just its laws but also the core moral strength of its culture.
We see now the immense strain placed on our system by relentless dishonesty. We see the division and discord sown by vengeance and rage. Our culture still reels from the decadence of pornography and sexual infidelity. Yet the church does not treat those maladies when it uses its truly immense political power to place a dishonest, vengeful adulterer at the heights of American political and cultural influence.
One does not cure cultural moral cancer with more cancer. We preserve nothing. Instead, we hasten the decay.
And yes, Christians also hasten the decay if we vote for policies and people who would scorn the church, denigrate the value of unborn life, and celebrate other values contrary to biblical truth. But we do not have to choose between evils. Our nation’s two political parties do not dictate to the church how it must use its vast cultural and political power. The church must instead communicate its standards to our parties.
If the world’s wealthiest and and most powerful collection of Christians are supine before their political masters in the United States, marching to the beat of secular drummers (even if allegedly “holding their noses” all the while) then I fear the message that sends is that we do not have faith that God’s providence governs the nations. We cannot and must not “put our trust in princes.” There is no such thing as a “binary choice.” We can choose not to yield to the spirit of the times.
Theological truth can also create a pragmatic reality. Over time, perhaps the best method of cleansing our political class of the low, narcissistic characters who all too often occupy public office is to stop voting for them.
It’s no answer to respond by declaring, as so many Christians do, “Well, nobody’s perfect.” While we all may be equally in need of a savior, our characters are not all the same. Can a Trump defender say with honesty that the president’s character is similar to Ronald Reagan’s? To George H.W. Bush’s? To George W. Bush’s? Are they even in the same ballpark? Declaring “nobody’s perfect” is an absurd rationalization. It’s gaslighting. We know nobody’s perfect. But some men are decent. Some men are truthful. Some men are brave. Some men are none of those things.
The results of my test are clear. Assuming Donald Trump is the Republican nominee, I can’t vote for him. Even if I do like some of the things he’s done, he lacks the character to be president. But I cannot join some of my Never Trump friends in backing the Democratic nominee. Many of them may well pass the character test, but I cannot vote for a person who would put in place policies I believe are harmful and potentially destructive—especially to unborn life.
“Whatever you do,” Paul says, “do all to the glory of God.” I don’t see how it glorifies God to use the power of my vote or my voice to help make Donald Trump the world’s most powerful man.
One last thing ...
One day I won’t link to We the Kingdom, the worship band from my church. But today is not that day. I love their new song—a song that contains the Christian’s lament, “Why do I do the things I don’t want to do?” Have a blessed Sunday.
Photograph of a polling station by Joseph Prezioso/AFP/Getty Images.