How, Then, Should Christians Vote?

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.

Is there a Stone Jury Scandal? Not So Fast ...

Also, Trump is abusing his power, again.

Today I’m going to wade into two controversies that are swirling around the Trump presidency—the Roger Stone trial and sentencing and the president’s treatment of former National Security Council aide Alexander Vindman. First, a fair warning. The facts are in a state of flux, so don’t look for absolute certainty on all counts. Indeed, one of my conclusions about Stone is a strong “maybe.” Let’s do this newsletter question-and-answer style.

Question: Did a biased juror deprive Roger Stone of a fair trial?
Answer: It doesn’t look like it. At least not yet. 

Explanation: Earlier this morning, Trump supporters on Twitter exploded with allegations of jury bias in Roger Stone’s case. One of the jurors, a woman named Tomeka Hart, wrote a Facebook post defending the four prosecutors who withdrew from the case in protest after their superiors at the Department of Justice reversed their sentencing recommendation (more on that below). 

The instant Hart outed herself, conservative journalists combed through her social media history and found that she’s not just a Democrat, she’s a former Democratic congressional candidate, a frequent donor to Democratic campaigns, and before the trial tweeted multiple times not just against Trump but also about the Mueller investigation. President Trump immediately weighed in:

So, there we have it—proof the trial was tainted, correct?

Not so fast. Neither the law nor the known facts support the claim. At least not yet. The law does not require judges to sideline potential jurors who have strong political beliefs. Democrats can sit in judgment on Republicans, and Republicans can sit in judgment on Democrats. The key question isn’t whether a person is partisan but rather whether they’re capable of setting aside political bias to decide questions of fact fairly and impartially. And, believe it or not, this happens all the time in the United States of America. It’s happened in my own cases.

Moreover, the jury selection process (called voir dire) provides attorneys with a limited number of peremptory challenges—which permit attorneys to strike jurors without showing cause—and ample opportunity to challenge jurors for cause. In the Stone case, the trial court struck at least 40 jurors for cause (38 in response to the defense team’s initial requests and two more after a request for reconsideration). 

The voir dire process is vitally important. If the prospective juror discloses all relevant material facts in response to questions from the judge and/or opposing counsel, and the judge is still satisfied that the juror can set aside any political bias to render a fair verdict, their decision will rarely be reversed. If, however, the juror is deceptive in voir dire, then the defendant may well be denied a fair trial. In a 1984 case called McDonough Power Equipment v. Greenwood, the Supreme Court succinctly explained the standard:

We hold that to obtain a new trial in such a situation, a party must first demonstrate that a juror failed to answer honestly a material question on voir dire, and then further show that a correct response would have provided a valid basis for a challenge for cause. The motives for concealing information may vary, but only those reasons that affect a juror's impartiality can truly be said to affect the fairness of a trial.

Did Hart truthfully answer every material question on voir dire? If so, then these “revelations” aren’t revelations at all, and the likelihood that they could form the foundation of a new trial are slim to none. Fortunately, there’s a transcript of the oral voir dire, and the transcript does not help Roger Stone. 

Hart (identified only as Juror 1261, but identifiable by her statement that she ran for Congress and other biographical details) was questioned by the trial judge and by defense counsel. After first asking questions about Hart’s prior service on a grand jury, the judge asked a series of key questions:

THE COURT: You've also indicated a fair amount of paying attention to news and social media including about political things?

PROSPECTIVE JUROR: Yes.

THE COURT: And when we asked what you read or heard about the defendant, you do understand that he was involved in Mr. Trump's campaign in some way?

PROSPECTIVE JUROR: Yes.

THE COURT: Is there anything about that that affects your ability to judge him fairly and impartially sitting here right now in this courtroom?

PROSPECTIVE JUROR: Absolutely not.

THE COURT: What is it that you have read or heard about him?

PROSPECTIVE JUROR: So nothing that I can recall specifically. I do watch sometimes paying attention but sometimes in the background CNN. So I recall just hearing about him being part of the campaign and some belief or reporting around interaction with the Russian probe and interaction with him and people in the country, but I don't have a whole lot of details. I don't pay that close attention or watch C-SPAN.

THE COURT: Can you kind of wipe the slate clean and learn what you need to learn in this case from the evidence presented in the courtroom and no other source?

PROSPECTIVE JUROR: Yes.

THE COURT: You actually have had some interest in Congress yourself?

PROSPECTIVE JUROR: Yes.

THE COURT: Does the fact that this case involves allegations of not being truthful to Congress, is that something that you think that the nature of the allegations

alone would make it hard for you to be fair?

PROSPECTIVE JUROR: No.

The prosecution declined to ask Hart any questions. Then, defense counsel had its turn:

MR. BUSCHEL: Did you ever work for anyone in Congress?

PROSPECTIVE JUROR: No.

MR. BUSCHEL: You've worked on campaigns for Congress people running for Congress?

PROSPECTIVE JUROR: I ran for Congress.

MR. BUSCHEL: You ran for Congress?

PROSPECTIVE JUROR: I worked on my own campaign.

MR. BUSCHEL: And you have friends who worked for other congressmen?

PROSPECTIVE JUROR: Yes.

MR. BUSCHEL: Do you have any political aspirations now?

PROSPECTIVE JUROR: I don't know, not federal.

MR. BUSCHEL: What might they be?

PROSPECTIVE JUROR: My home state in Tennessee. No local.

MR. BUSCHEL: Just recognize that there might be some media— What are your aspirations?

PROSPECTIVE JUROR: I served, can I just say I served in political office in Memphis in a local office on the school board. So I, one day I wake up and say I run for, you know, office again in Memphis to impact education. One day I wake up and say no way in the world would I do that. So I don't have an immediate plan to run for office.

MR. BUSCHEL: The fact that you run for an office, you're affiliated with a political party. Roger Stone is affiliated with the Republican party, Donald Trump. You understand what I'm saying and getting at?

PROSPECTIVE JUROR: I do.

MR. BUSCHEL: How do you feel about that?

MR. KRAVIS: Objection.

THE COURT: Can you make that question a little bit more crisp? Is there anything about his affiliation with the Trump campaign and the Republican party in general that gives you any reason to pause or hesitate or think that you couldn't fairly evaluate the evidence against him?

PROSPECTIVE JUROR: No.

MR. BUSCHEL: Thank you, ma'am.

THE COURT: All right, you can step out.

R. BUSCHEL: Thank you, ma'am.

THE COURT: All right, you can step out.

(Prospective juror leaves courtroom.)

THE COURT: Mr. Buschel, you have a motion?

MR. BUSCHEL: No.

THE COURT: Okay, let's bring in the next juror.

So let’s recap. Stone’s lawyers knew that she was generally familiar with Stone, they knew she ran for Congress, they specifically asked about political bias, and then refused to seek her removal

Trump’s defenders online are pointing to the fact that she tweeted a few times about the Mueller investigation and even at least once about CSPAN, but that’s thin gruel for claiming a material omission (especially when they’re pointing to only a few tweets out of more than 13,000 she’s tweeted).

Let me add an important caveat. I’ve not seen her responses to the jury questionnaire, and the Stone jury questionnaire was far more comprehensive than in most federal cases:

Thus, it’s possible that there were material omissions in her written answers, but again—Stone’s lawyers knew she ran for Congress and they still didn’t initially seek to strike her. 

The trial judge has already rejected Stone’s request for a new trial on the basis of alleged bias of a different unnamed juror, and unless Hart lied in response to written voir dire, it’s unlikely Stone would be awarded a new trial based on Hart’s alleged bias. Time will tell, however. In the meantime, don’t believe any Twitter lawyer who claims that partisans must be disqualified from serving on juries. The question isn’t whether Hart is a Democrat, it’s whether she hid facts that would have provided a valid basis to challenge her presence on the jury.

Question: Did prosecutors seek an excessive prison sentence for Roger Stone?
Answer: Maybe.

Explanation: Earlier this week Donald Trump exploded in Twitter rage when he learned that prosecutors in Stone’s case were seeking a nine-year prison sentence. 

After Trump erupted on Twitter, the DoJ overruled the prosecutor’s recommendation, and four of the prosecutors withdrew from the case in protest (one resigned from the DoJ entirely). Putting aside for the moment the propriety of Trump’s outburst and the propriety of the attorney general’s intervention in the case, is it true that the prosecutors were unduly harsh on Stone?

Honestly, given the context, it’s far from clear. The core of the prosecutors’ case for a substantial sentence rested on the claim that Stone threatened a potential witness, Randy Credico. The alleged threats included the following (taken from the indictment in the case):

On or about April 9, 2018, STONE wrote in an email to Person 2 [Credico], “You are a rat. A stoolie. You backstab your friends-run your mouth my lawyers are dying Rip you to shreds.” STONE also said he would “take that dog away from you,” referring to Person 2’s dog. On or about the same day, STONE wrote to Person 2, “I am so ready. Let’s get it on. Prepare to die [expletive].”

If those threats were serious, then the sentencing enhancement is entirely appropriate. If they were mere bluster and puffery, then the enhancement is excessive. And, as defense lawyer Caroline Court notes in a thoughtful piece about the recommendation, Credico testified at the trial that he did not feel physically threatened by Stone. 

My own view is that reasonable minds can disagree about Stone’s threats, and it’s hardly absurd for prosecutors to take the words seriously—especially given the oddly specific threat on Credico’s therapy dog. That’s hardly the stuff of normal bluster and puffery. 

In addition, it’s worth noting that prosecutors do not decide the sentence. Stone’s lawyers have the opportunity to contest the sentencing recommendation, and the judge makes the ultimate decision. Trump was angry at a potential injustice, not an actual injustice, and his Twitter explosion created the impression that he was treating Stone to a “friends and family” criminal justice discount.

And that brings us to the next question.

Question: Is Donald Trump abusing his power with his public tirades against his enemies?
Answer: Certainly.

If we zoom out from the narrow specifics of the Stone case and look more broadly at Trump’s actions, it’s quite clear that the world’s most powerful man is sending a message—it’s time to punish his enemies and reward his friends, norms and law be damned. Yes, he’s entitled to the advisers he wants on the National Security Council, but his public attacks against Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman go far beyond the bounds of decency, propriety, and possibly even the law. 

Tweeting vicious insults against Vindman is dishonorable enough, but Trump went further, suggesting that Vindman should face military discipline

"We sent him on his way to a much different location and the military can handle him any way they want," Trump said.

Asked if he was suggesting that Vindman face disciplinary action, Trump said that would be up to the military.

If you look at what happened ... they're going to certainly, I would imagine, take a look at that," Trump said.

Federal law prohibits military commanders from engaging in unlawful command influence. Specifically, the law states, “No person subject to this chapter may attempt to coerce or, by any unauthorized means, influence the action of a court-martial or any other military tribunal or any member thereof, in reaching the findings or sentence in any case, or the action of any convening, approving, or reviewing authority with respect to his judicial acts.”

In plain English, it means that commanders cannot direct the outcome of military judicial proceedings, and even if Trump himself can’t be held legally responsible for unlawful command influence, his subordinates can, and unlawful command influence would be a defense in any proceeding brought against Vindman. 

And what about Trump’s intervention in Stone’s case? I agree with Jack Goldsmith’s analysis on our home page this morning:

This brings us to the Trump-Stone matter. Obama understood and supported the norm against White House non-comment on ongoing investigations but broke it a few times. That was bad. Donald Trump’s behavior here is much, much worse. It took him a long time to discover the norm, and when he did, he famously said that it was “the saddest thing.” He also attacked the norm and broke it very often in his tweet-attacks of, to take only the most prominent example, the Mueller investigation and its various trials and sentences, including its investigation into the president himself. Trump’s latest comments and criticisms about the Stone sentencing recommendation are but the latest of hundreds of violations by Trump of the norm.

Until the Stone episode, however, one could make a plausible case that the Justice Department had ignored or deflected the president's norm-violating attempts at influence. But soon after Trump’s tweet attack on the prosecutors and the judge involved in the Stone case, the Justice Department announced it was course, overruled the sentencing recommendation of career prosecutors, and recommended a lighter sentence. The Justice Department denied that political considerations went into the reversal. But that was very hard to believe since the reversal was announced in light of Trump’s comments and pressure. It became harder to believe when the president tweeted: “Congratulations to Attorney General Bill Barr for taking charge of a case that was totally out of control and perhaps should not have even been brought.” No matter what went into the reversal, it now invariably seems to be a cave to the president.

Yes indeed. The president is rewarding his (criminal) friend with special attention and advocacy and targeting his (law-abiding) enemy with threats of criminal reprisal. This is yet another abuse of presidential power, and the abuses will no doubt continue until the moment his presidency ends. 

A late addition ... 

Just as I was finishing my newsletter, Attorney General William Barr signaled that he’d had enough of Trump’s tweets. In an ABC News interview, Barr made his displeasure crystal clear: 

I’d urge you to watch the entire clip. It’s an extraordinarily blunt statement of opposition to the president’s conduct. We shall see how Trump responds.

One last thing ... 

I’ve stopped paying much attention to the political pronouncements of athletes and celebrities. I truly don’t care. I do pay attention, however, to their acts of charity and generosity. That’s where they leave a legacy, and this—from the GOAT—is outstanding. Back in 2015, he announced that graduates from his I PROMISE network would receive full-tuition scholarships to Akron University. The oldest students are now high school juniors, and he’s been able to add Kent State University to the list of schools they can attend. This is how you create opportunity and rebuild a sense of hope in America’s most vulnerable communities:

Bernie Sanders’s Abortion Comments and the Unnecessary Intolerance of the Culture War

There are lots of ways that Democrats could appeal to pro-life voters. What they lose when they choose not to.

In a town hall last week, MSNBC’s Stephanie Ruhle asked Bernie Sanders, “Is there such a thing a thing as a pro-life Democrat in your vision of the party.” Bernie’s response was blunt—“I think being pro-choice is an absolutely essential part of being a Democrat.” 

That was a terrible answer. Not only did this response send a negative message to millions of pro-life Democrats, it also actively repulses pro-life voters who dislike Donald Trump, and—even worse—it was a symbol of the way that the American culture war has grown unnecessarily and gratuitously intolerant. 

Why do I say unnecessary and gratuitous? Let’s consider a different answer from Bernie—one I’m pretty sure he could give without altering a single one of his policy positions. Here’s Earth Two Bernie with an alternate-universe answer:

Yes, absolutely, Stephanie. In my vision of the party, pro-life Americans would want to be Democrats. No, not because we’re going to reverse Roe. We’re not going to do that. Protecting a woman’s right to choose is a core plank in the Democratic Party platform, and I’m going to protect that constitutional principle. 

But here’s why pro-life Americans will want to vote for me—because in my America there will be fewer abortions, a lot fewer abortions. No woman will struggle to afford contraceptives. Fewer women fear that they can’t afford to be pregnant. No longer will they worry if they’ll have the financial resources to raise and educate a child. And they won’t worry that they’ll lose their job if they want to spend valuable time with their newborn. If their child is diagnosed with special needs, they won’t bear the crushing burden of the costs of care. 

Remove the cost of health care and education, along with the corresponding fear and economic insecurity, from women’s lives, and I believe with all my heart that we’ll see the abortion rate decline even more. It declined during Barack Obama’s presidency when he expanded access to health care even while he protected abortion rights. It will decline in my presidency when I expand access to health care even while I protect Roe. 

With a response like this, Sanders tells pro-life voters he values them. He tells them that he believes that Democratic policies will save lives. And he also communicates directly to a segment of the voting public that calls itself pro-life but isn’t seeking a total ban on abortion. 

It isn’t just Bernie who could give this answer. Every Democrat who is aware of long-term declines in the abortion rate can justifiably argue that those declines will continue in his or her administration, and they can also argue in good faith that their policies—which are often designed to provide greater financial security to struggling and marginalized families—may well hasten the decline. 

In fact, a shrewd Democrat could aggressively confront a pro-life Republican and argue that he’s selling his pro-life constituents a bill of goods. He can’t ban abortion. He likely can’t even assure that Roe will be overturned. Even worse, his policies will provide less care for pregnant women and young mothers and perversely may sustain the demand for abortion. 

Moreover, an aggressive Democrat could challenge pro-life Americans by arguing not only that their policies would lower the abortion rate, they’d lower the rate without having to compromise commitments to human dignity after a child is born. Pro-choicers have long accused pro-lifers of being “pro-birth,” not pro-life. Now they can tout no more “kids in cages.” No more family separation.

The reasons for the decline in abortion are varied and complex, and there are responses to these hypothetical pitches to pro-life conservatives. I am deeply skeptical, for example, that a regime that directly publicly funds abortion (as many Democrats want) will lead to fewer abortions. I’m also skeptical of the affordability and wisdom of Medicare for All for a host of reasons. But if Sanders is the nominee, I strongly suspect that Republicans won’t have to worry about overtures to pro-life voters. I strongly suspect he’ll simply stick with the answer he gave Stephanie Ruhle.

Here’s why—in the extremist world of the revolutionary left it is often unacceptable even to imply that there should be any discomfort at all with the decision to abort a child. In that world, there is only one way to speak about abortion—as an empowering, even possibly virtuous act. Abortion isn’t problematic. Abortion is simply health care. 

That’s why you don’t hear many Democrats repeat the Bill Clinton-era mantra of “safe, legal, and rare.” And while activists who “shout their abortion” are so few and far between that hardly anyone has heard of them outside of political hobbyists, the Online Left punches far, far above its real-world weight. 

As negative polarization accelerates, politics is becoming less about bridge-building and far more about line-drawing. Activists want to win, certainly, but they want to win with their people by their side. It’s good versus evil, and who wants to ally with evil? 

In fact, in addition to shunning pro-life voters, Bernie himself has demonstrated unacceptable, open hostility to believing Christians. Remember when he grilled a Trump appointee to the Office of Management and Budget over his theological beliefs about Christianity and salvation? He said that a person who believed and wrote completely conventional Christian teachings about the necessity of faith in Christ for salvation was “really not someone who this country is supposed to be about.”

Not only was this statement contrary to the spirit of American religious tolerance, it violates the text of the Constitution itself. Article VI prohibits religious tests for public office. 

I would not expect Sanders to share an Evangelical Christian’s theology. In another setting they could debate their differences vigorously. Instead, Sanders chose unnecessary and unlawful provocation. And yes I know that neither Sanders nor any other Democrat has the market cornered on unnecessary and unlawful provocation (just read my previous newsletter), but there is a better way. Amy Klobuchar, for example, gets it. The tweet below offered a refreshing contrast to Sanders’s radicalism:

Andrew Yang’s recent comments on abortion are interesting as well. He’s pro-choice, but he’s also under fire from some abortion rights activists for the words below:

But Yang’s words ring true to countless Americans who are both uncomfortable with the morality of abortion and uncomfortable with abortion bans. In fact, I’d argue that this exact moral position is in part responsible for the increase in the percentage of unplanned pregnancies carried to term. Many pro-choice women simply won’t abort their own unborn child, no matter their personal circumstances. 

In that context, being “personally pro-life” saves lives even if it doesn’t change laws.

Make no mistake, a Democrat may well win the election even if he or she drives virtually every pro-life voter outside the Democratic tent and then places armed guards at the door to keep any stragglers from sneaking back in. This is an era of base-mobilizing politics, and they’ll be running against a president who is going to be smacking his enemies in the face, all day, every day. Trump will be motivating his base by mobilizing his opposition.

But there is a different path, and there are Democrats who know there’s a different path. In a recent Vox interview, Democratic strategist James Carville launched a memorable rant against the Democratic temptation to embrace revolutionary, radical politics. I could quote entire paragraphs (read the whole thing), but here’s one of the tamer portions:

The real argument here is that some people think there’s a real yearning for a left-wing revolution in this country, and if we just appeal to the people who feel that, we’ll grow and excite them and we’ll win. But there’s a word a lot of people hate that I love: politics. It means building coalitions to win elections. It means sometimes having to sit back and listen to what people think and framing your message accordingly.

There are a pro-life Americans who want to save unborn lives and who want an alternative to the Trumpist GOP. A Democratic candidate who would shun these voters is a candidate who only reaffirms the core Republican attack—that the party is in the grips of a fringe that is more pro-abortion than it is truly pro-choice. 

One last thing ... 

You knew it was coming. Another Ja Morant highlight. It’s often said that it’s better to be lucky than good. But the ideal is to be lucky and good. Watch the greatest rookie in the NBA turn a broken play into a dagger three. 

Photograph of Bernie Sanders speaking at the Our Rights, Our Courts Forum at New Hampshire Technical Institute in Concord, N.H. on Feb. 8, 2020, by Jessica Rinaldi/Boston Globe via Getty Images.

Will Somebody Please Hate My Enemies for Me?

Donald Trump is making it even harder for Christians to defend him, and yet they still do.

This year’s national prayer breakfast was a study in contrasts. Washington Post columnist and former American Enterprise Institute President Arthur Brooks spoke before Donald Trump. He delivered a theologically true and moving address about a profound and difficult biblical command—loving our enemies. It began like this:

As you have heard, I am not a priest or minister. I am a social scientist and a university professor. But most importantly, I am a follower of Jesus, who taught each of us to love God and to love each other.

I am here today to talk about what I believe is the biggest crisis facing our nation—and many other nations—today. This is the crisis of contempt—the polarization that is tearing our society apart. But if I do my job in the next few minutes, I promise I won’t depress you. On the contrary, I will show you why I believe that within this crisis resides the best opportunity we have ever had, as people of faith, to lift our nations up and bring them together.

I’d urge you to read the entire thing. It was powerful. It was profound. Most importantly, it was true. And note that throughout the entire speech he does not once urge any Christian to relent in the quest for justice. We can and should fight for the religious, cultural, and political values we hold dear, but as we seek justice we must also love our enemies. We must also bless those who persecute us. These are not tactics. They’re commands. 

Then, Trump spoke. At the outset he said, “Arthur, I don’t know if I agree with you” and proceeded to do exactly what Trump does—hate on his enemies. He aired his grievances against political opponents in personally insulting terms, at length. But none of this is truly news. This is what the president does, day after day, on Twitter, during rallies, and to the press. It’s been a core theme of his presidency and, before that, his candidacy. When many of his most zealous Christian defenders say that “he fights,” this is exactly what they’re talking about.

The proper way for Christians to engage in politics is a rich subject—one worthy of book-length treatment—but there are some rather simple foundational principles that apply before the questions get complex. For example, all but a tiny few believers would agree that a Christian should not violate the Ten Commandments or any other clear, biblical command while pursuing or exercising political power. 

But of course we see such behavior all the time from hardcore Christian Trump supporters. They’ll echo Trump’s lies. They’ll defend Trump’s lies. They’ll adopt many of his same rhetorical tactics, including engaging in mocking and insulting behavior as a matter of course. Take this tweet, for example, from Jerry Falwell Jr., the president of one of the nation’s most important Christian universities. He was very angry that Russell Moore, the head of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberties Commission had tweeted his concern about the treatment of migrant children at the border. Falwell shot back with an insult:

Yet there are millions of Trump supporting Christians who would read that exchange and think, “That’s way too far. I’m not like that. My Trump-supporting friends aren’t like that.” And they’re right! They’re not like Falwell. They would never act like Falwell. But I’d submit that a person doesn't necessarily wash his hands of sin by delegating that sin to another person. 

Or, to put things more plainly, one doesn't comply with the command to “love your enemies” by hiring someone to hate them for you.

Let’s talk for a moment about a far more common Christian Trump supporter. And I’m going to pull real-life examples from countless conversations, including with many close friends. Imagine a kind, sweet Christian woman—a person so nice in person that you’d hardly think it’s real. But she loves Trump, and she loves Trump because she’s sick and tired. She’s sick and tired of the elite media deriding her faith as bigoted. She’s sick and tired of a political party that rejects the humanity of unborn children. She’s appalled at the way she believes the media have gone out of their way to destroy good men. I mean, they treated Mitt Romney as if he was some sort of woman-hating, callous monster. Mitt. Romney. 

Donald Trump says “Enough!” Sure, he’s rude, and she wishes he wouldn’t tweet quite like he does. But the bottom line is that he fights. He punches back. And that’s what we need. 

She doesn’t necessarily like Trump’s lying, but the Democrats lie too, and if you read what she writes on social media, and you hear what she says to her friends, it’s full of condemnation against Adam Schiff, the Steele dossier, and the other laundry list of Resistance sins. 

She doesn’t like Trump’s personal insults, but her political conversations are full of shock and anger at the opposition’s disrespect for a president she appreciates. That’s where she invests her emotion. That’s where she focuses her activism. Have you seen what The Squad says about Trump? The misdeeds freshman members of Congress loom far larger in her mind that the misconduct of the world’s most powerful man.

Here’s the end result—millions of Christians have not just decided to hire a hater to defend them from haters and to hire a liar to defend them from liars, they actively ignore, rationalize, minimize, or deny Trump’s sins. They do this in part because they can’t bring themselves to face the truth about Trump and in part because they know it is difficult to build and sustain a political movement if you’re constantly (or even frequently) criticizing the misconduct of its leader. To criticize Trump even a quarter of the time he does something wrong would be to unleash a constant drumbeat of criticism against the man they hope to re-elect.

It’s at this point that many Christian Trump supporters will deploy the, err, trump card—the statement that’s supposed to settle the argument. What about the babies? If push comes to shove, they tell themselves, I’m going to support the person who seeks to end the slaughter of unborn children in the womb over the candidates who wants to expand legal protection for abortion and even publiclyfund that horrible practice. 

I’ve been pro-life from the moment I understood what abortion was. I formed a pro-life club at Harvard Law School that existed for two decades. I’ve worked for the most powerful pro-life legal organizations in America, and I’ve represented pro-life students (pro bono) in cases from coast-to-coast. I’ve helped raise millions of dollars for pro-life causes. I’ve never voted for a pro-choice politician, and I don’t ever intend to. But in more than three decades of pro-life work, I’ve understood two things quite clearly—the defense of the unborn does not justify sin, and the battle for the unborn is far more spiritual and cultural than it is legal and political. 

Remember, the Christian command to love your enemies came from a savior who was an entirely innocent man about to be executed by his enemies, yet he was also dying for them at the same time. When the Apostle Paul told first-century Christians to be “kind to everyone, able to teach, patiently enduring evil,” he was speaking to an early church that wasn’t enduring tweetings, it was facing beatings. It was facing death from the leaders of an evil regime. Those were the enemies Christians were to love. 

Love isn’t optional, not even when lives are on the line.

In fact, love has long been the best and most enduring  “weapon” of the pro-life movement. In spite of relentless media attacks, its fundamental, loving nature has persisted and borne fruit. And it’s made a life-and-death difference regardless of who is in the White House. I’m going to show you a chart that might shock you (but if you read me frequently, you’ve seen it before). It’s the abortion rate since Roe

These numbers are from the pro-choice Guttmacher Institute, and their latest figures show the rate continuing to drop. Since the awful peak of the abortion rate, the number that matters most—human lives saved—has improved during every administration since Carter regardless of whether the president was pro-choice or pro-life, regardless of whether his judges upheld abortion restrictions or struck them down. 

Does this mean that policy doesn’t matter? Of course not. But for all the focus on national politics, the policies that matter most are most often enacted at the state level. And when was one of the greatest bursts of pro-life lawmaking in recent American history? During the Obama administration:

The abortion rate has dropped for many reasons—including for reasons completely unrelated to the pro-life movement—but it’s simply true that more unplanned pregnancies are carried to term, and one reason is love. The best part of the pro-life movement loves babies, it loves moms, and it moves sacrificially to put that love in action. 

Hate has no place in pro-life America. None. And embracing or defending hate—even hatred of the movement’s most vigorous opponents—for the sake of life contradicts the spirit of the movement and stands to do more harm than good to the political cause that so many Christians value the most. 

American Evangelicals represent one of the most powerful religious movements in the world. They exercise veto power over the political success of any presidential candidate from one of America’s two great parties. Yet they don’t wield that power to veto the selection of a man who completely rejects—and even scorns—many of their core moral values.

I fully recognize what I’m saying. I fully recognize that refusing to hire a hater and refusing to hire a liar carries costs. If we see politics through worldly eyes, it makes no sense at all. Why would you adopt moral standards that put you at a disadvantage in an existential political struggle? If we don’t stand by Trump we will lose, and losing is unacceptable. 

The pastor of my old church used to refer to the kingdom of God as “upside down.” The last are first? To gain your life, you have to lose it? It simply defies earthly common sense. As Paul said, “[T]he wisdom of the world is foolishness to God.” I’m reminded of the old Christian hymn, “Trust and Obey.” While it ruins the rhyme, I like the concept with the words reversed—obey and trust. Obey the creator of the universe when he tells me to love my enemies and then trust that justice will still be done and that God’s will still prevails. 

I’m an imperfect man, but when I’m aware of my sin, I repent. And I make a simple vow—by God’s grace, I will love my enemies, and I will not hire anyone to hate them on my behalf. 

One last thing ... 

Speaking of love, it felt appropriate to share perhaps the most powerful pop culture depiction of deep grief, forgiveness in the face of terrible wrongdoing, and the triumph of love, it’s hard to do better than “It’s Quiet Uptown” from the musical Hamilton:

Photograph of Donald Trump at the National Prayer Breakfast by Nicholas Kamm/ AFP/Getty Images.

If the President Is Going to Be So Powerful, Can We Ask He Also Be Good?

The need for presidential character has never been greater, while the demand has rarely been smaller.

With the Senate’s acquittal of Donald Trump on Wednesday, the presidency has reached the apex of its modern, peacetime power. Both parties—in impeachments spaced less than a generation apart—have demonstrated that partisan loyalty outweighs any independent duty to check presidential lawlessness or abuses of power. Presidents now have but one binding obligation—to win. Today’s French Press

  1. The greater the power of the president, the more we need him to be good.

  1. A necessary reminder that individual liberty can be a unifying force.

As Congress steps back, character steps up as a necessary presidential constraint.

So long as the American economy holds, what are the precise constraints on presidential misconduct? We know that the Department of Justice won’t indict a president for crimes while still in office. That’s been the announced policy of the DoJ for decades. Presently, the Trump administration is fighting hard to immunize the president also from state investigative processes. 

We also know that the president won’t be removed even if there is overwhelming evidence that he commits an actual felony in office. The Democrats established that precedent in their defense of Bill Clinton. 

We now know that the president won’t be removed even if he distorts American diplomacy in a strategically vital region of the world in service of a personal, vindictive vendetta against a political opponent (and to pursue a truly bizarre conspiracy theory).

We also know that the people are turning a blind eye to presidential misdeeds. Fear and hatred of the other side trumps any concern for truth and dignity on their own. The president has permission to do as he wills, so long as he wins.

Sure, the president’s partisan defenders will promise they were principled. But we know the truth. We know that if you switched the parties but kept all the facts the same, we’d have seen essentially the same outcome. There would be a few members of Congress who’d remain true to their convictions, but only a few. Every single angry Republican taking to Fox to furiously defend Trump would be impeaching a Democratic president under identical facts. Many of the Democrats who impeached Trump worked mightily to keep Bill Clinton in the Oval Office. 

It’s cynical. It’s shameful. And it magnifies the power of the president immensely, far beyond the Founders’ intent.

As we survey the American political landscape, it’s become increasingly clear that both parties love their living Constitution. Structural originalism is dead. Congress is no longer the supreme branch of the government. It’s supine before the presidency. The federal courts are no longer the “least dangerous branch.” The president’s hand-picked judges often dominate American politics. 

The president is now the true colossus astride the American political scene. He commands an immense federal bureaucracy that—in direct defiance of America’s founding principles—makes more law than Congress. He wields the awesome power of the world’s greatest military, and he’s long ago determined that the constitutional imperative that Congress declare war before that power is deployed is but a suggestion, something that might sometimes be politically wise but is never constitutionally necessary. 

The president makes the law. He executes the law. He chooses the people who interpret the law. It’s good to be king. 

But then we need the king to be good. If no one is going to require him to put the national interest over his personal interest in international diplomacy, we need him to choose the right course. If no one is going to require him to tell the truth under oath, then we need him to possess a modicum of integrity and decency. If Congress won’t command him to seek its approval before waging war, then we need the president to set a positive precedent. 

And now even the electoral safeguard against presidential abuse is fraying. There is not much demand for public virtue. Talk to a Trump base voter, and you’ll hear unrelenting scorn for Mitt Romney—the only senator in American history brave enough to vote to convict a president from his own party and one of the most decent men in American politics. His sin? He lost. He’s a loser. In fact, Trump tweeted a video mocking Romney for his defeat. 

Never mind that Barack Obama would have nuked Donald Trump from orbit if he ever faced Trump in an election. Never mind that Romney’s record includes winning a governor’s race, winning a Senate race, and saving an Olympics. It was Donald Trump who wiped the smiles off those smug faces on CNN. Trump is our champion now.

Why did Democrats adore Bill Clinton so much? After all, if you talked to the average Democrat in the weeks and months after the Clarence Thomas confirmation hearings and told them that in a few short years they’d be circling their wagons around a man who lied under oath in a sexual harassment case and who faced a strongly corroborated rape claim, they’d say, “Surely not. We respect women.” 

But Bill Clinton was a winner. He ended the 12-year Reagan/Bush dynasty. He humiliated Newt Gingrich. And so even after his impeachment —even after his shameless perjury and pitiful lies to the American public —in the 2000 Democratic National Convention, he executed a WWE-style stage-walk and basked in the roar of the crowd. 

The lesson here is clear. Just win, baby. Just win, and we’ll love you. We’ll defend you. And as we do, we’ll enrage our fellow citizens with our merry hypocrisy. Until it is their turn to rule, and then we’ll wonder why they won’t uphold the principles we so gleefully discarded. 

With all due apologies to Friedrich Nietzsche, good is dead, and we have killed it. We will come to regret the world we’ve made. 

Respecting civil liberties can bind us together

If you follow at all the conservative civil wars over liberalism, “Frenchism” (I still can’t believe that was ever a thing), and the challenges of American culture, you’ll recall that one of the central critiques of classical liberalism was its emphasis on individualism. An emphasis on individual liberty was perceived as atomizing. What we really need is for the government to advance and enforce public policy aimed at building social solidarity and community.

I took the opposite view—a proper respect for individual liberty is unifying. In a diverse, pluralistic community, public policies aiming at creating social solidarity are often inherently divisive, in large part because in the absence of organic and “natural” solidarity, a government becomes a blunt instrument wielded against disfavored minorities, the alleged enemies of unity.. 

Individual liberty can build social solidarity in at least two key ways—through understanding and action. First, it’s vital to understand that our rights are interlocking and dependent. The right to free speech or right to free exercise of religion cannot exist just for me and not for thee or they are not “rights” at all. They’re mere exercises of power. Thus, when a political opponent wins a court victory vindicating individual liberty, I win as well. When he loses, I lose. 

And that brings us to the unifying action —a legal corollary to the Golden Rule. Since their victory is also our victory, we should fight for the rights of others that we would like to exercise ourselves. I know from personal experience that this simple action can create meaningful bonds of friendship and fellowship across the widest of ideological and even religious boundaries. 

Given these realities, I wanted to further highlight a legal case I wrote about on The Dispatch website yesterday. An Arizona federal judge applied a statute that many on the left hate—the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA)—to keep four progressive activists out of prison:

Using RFRA, [the court] overturned the convictions of four people affiliated with the Unitarian Universalist Church who were prosecuted for “violations of the regulations governing the Cabeza Prieta Wildlife Refuge.” The defendants were convicted after entering the refuge without the necessary permits and “leaving supplies of food and water in an area of desert wilderness where people frequently die of dehydration and exposure.” They were trying to save the lives of illegal immigrants who were making their way across “one of the most extreme environments in North America.”

If you haven’t read the piece yet, please read the whole thing. As the title of the piece indicates, religious liberty isn’t just for social conservatives. It never was. And the sooner we can stop evaluating fundamental liberties on the basis of “who benefits from this case” rather than understanding that we’re protecting the cultural and creedal fabric of our nation by vindicating individual rights, then the sooner we can start to turn down the ideological temperature of American constitutional debate. 

One last thing ... 

Some of my valued readers may be under the impression that I talk about Ja Morant and the Memphis Grizzlies too much. Au contraire! I’m pretty sure I talk about them too little. And what persuaded me of this fact? Well, the good folks at The Ringer love Ja so much that they made a music video about him. Clearly, my efforts are inadequate. Watch and enjoy:

Photograph of Donald Trump by Mark Wilson/Getty Images.

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