Evangelicals Have Abandoned the Character Test. The Competence Test is Next.

Christian political engagement is about more than an issue checklist.

On April 15, the United States hit a horrifying milestone. It not only crossed 30,000 total COVID-19 deaths, but for the fourth consecutive day, the daily death toll was so high that COVID-19 was the single leading cause of death in the United States. This visualization of the rising death toll is simply horrifying:

At the same time, new reports have emerged demonstrating the president’s incredible reluctance to come to terms with the scale of a crisis that wasn’t just foreseeable, it was foreseen by members of his own administration. And while Trump deserves credit for limiting travel from China in late January, he not only squandered any advantage gained by that move, he actively spread misinformation about the virus throughout the month of February and into March. 

Then, when he finally began to acknowledge the scale of the emergency, he went on national television and botched his own primetime address, misstating administration policies and triggering a panic from Americans in Europe who believed—based on the president’s own words—that they would be barred from coming home.

Since that time, his daily press conferences have featured a parade of presidential overstatements, misstatements, and outright falsehoods. He’s often fact-checked in real time by his own advisers. In the meantime, 22 million Americans have lost their jobs.

Something else happened on April 15—Albert Mohler, the president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, the presumptive next president of the Southern Baptist Convention, and a man I respect a great deal—spoke from the midst of a ruined economy, soaring death rates, and presidential blundering and said . . . four more years. He declared not only that he’d support Donald Trump in 2020, but that he’ll almost certainly support Republican presidential candidates the rest of his life. Mohler focused on the classic culture war issues—marriage, sexuality, constitutional interpretation, and abortion. He expressed the belief that the “partisan divide had become so great” and Democrats had “swerved so far to the left” on those key issues that he can’t imagine ever voting for a Democratic president. He also claimed that Trump has been “more consistent in pro-life decisions” and consistent in the quality of his judicial nominations than “any president of the United States of any party.”

As he made clear in the video, Mohler has not always supported Trump. In 2016, he was consistent with his denomination’s clear and unequivocal statement about the importance of moral character in public officials. He has now decisively changed course.

In 1998—during Bill Clinton’s second term—the Southern Baptist Convention declared that “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” and therefore urged “all Americans to embrace and act on the conviction that character does count in public office, and to elect those officials and candidates who, although imperfect, demonstrate consistent honesty, moral purity and the highest character.”

Mohler so clearly recognized the applicability of those words that he said, “If I were to support, much less endorse Donald Trump for president, I would actually have to go back and apologize to former President Bill Clinton.” I do wonder if Mohler will apologize. He absolutely should.

Look, I know that for now I’ve lost the character argument. It’s well-established that a great number of white Evangelicals didn’t truly believe the words they wrote, endorsed, and argued in 1998 and for 18 years until the 2016 election. Oh sure, they thought they believed those words. If someone challenged their convictions with a lie detector test, they would have passed with flying colors. 

(By the way, I use the term “white Evangelicals” because that’s Trump’s core political constituency. That’s the base that gave him 81 percent support in 2016. The rest of the Evangelical community leans Democratic.)

When C.S. Lewis said “courage is not simply one of the virtues, but the form of very virtue at the testing point, which means at the point of highest reality,” he was speaking an important truth. We may think we possess an array of virtues and beliefs, but we don’t really know who we are or what we believe until those virtues and beliefs are put to the test. There is many a man who goes to war thinking himself brave, until the bullets fly. There is many a man who thinks himself faithful to his wife, until the flirtation starts.

There were many men who thought character counted, until a commitment to character contained a real political cost. But that’s the obvious point. I’ve made it countless times before today. White Evangelicals, however, have shrugged it off. “Binary choice,” they say. “Lesser of two evils,” they say—even though those concepts appeared nowhere in the grand moral announcements of the past.

Many millions of Trump-supporting white Evangelicals no longer care about character (though a surprising number are still remarkably unaware of his flaws). That much is clear. But the story now grows darker still. As they’ve abandoned political character tests, they’re also rejecting any meaningful concern for presidential competence. 

Listen to Mohler’s announcement, and you’ll hear a narrow political philosophy—one that’s limited to evaluating a party platform on a few, discrete issues. It’s nothing more than a policy checklist. He speaks of religious freedom, LGBT issues, and abortion. 

Yet as the pandemic vividly illustrates (and as 9/11 also highlighted in recent years past), the job of the president extends well beyond the culture war. Indeed, there are times when a president is so bad at other material aspects of his job that he becomes a malignant force in American life, regardless of his positions on white Evangelicals’ highest political priorities. 

The role of the people of God in political life is so much more difficult and challenging than merely listing a discrete subset of issues (even when those issues are important!) and supporting anyone who agrees to your list. The prophet Jeremiah exhorted the people of Israel to “seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the LORD on its behalf; for in its welfare you will have welfare.”

This is a difficult, complicated task. We can’t reduce it to a list. In fact, this complexity is one reason why two key communities of churchgoing Americans are dramatically split in their political preferences. Black Christians go to church every bit as much (if not more) than white Evangelicals, yet they reject Trump every bit as much as white Evangelicals embrace him. 

Are they less Christian? Or is their experience of the welfare of the national community shaped by history and experience that’s quite different from that of their white Evangelical brothers and sisters? And while that history is complex, it does clearly teach the deadly consequences of hate and the dangers of white populism. 

When a president declares that there were “very fine people” in a collection of tiki-torch-toting white supremacists, shouldn’t Christians of all colors be gravely concerned? Shouldn’t they be alarmed when the CEO of the president’s campaign and his chief strategist declared just before his ascension to the president’s team that he wanted his publication (Breitbart) to be the “platform” for the racist alt-right? And when a president issues a stream of misinformation about a mortal threat to public health (with one eye on the stock market), is there not cause for accountability?

I could go on and on, but there are Christians in this country – mostly from communities who’ve suffered in the recent past at the hands of malignant government power—who look at Trump and do not see a man who’s concerned for their welfare. What is the white Evangelical obligation to listen to them? To hear their concerns? 

The response can’t be the checklist. And when vulnerable Americans suffer mightily from the health and economic consequences of a global pandemic the president minimized, the response can’t be the checklist. White Evangelical leaders owe us a serious argument as to why that checklist trumps character and competence in the leader of the free world. 

No one should minimize the difficulty of the job of president of the United States. It’s a fact that a number of democracies have struggled even worse than America to respond to the coronavirus (some have done much better), and economic damage will be felt worldwide. China bears immense blame for our national plight. 

But President Trump was warned and warned and warned. For day after crucial day he chose to mislead Americans about one of the most significant threats to their well-being—to their “welfare”— in the modern history of the United States. He faced a key test, and he did not rise to the moment. And when he failed, he did real damage that even later course corrections could not entirely fix.

And please Christians, do not run back to arguments about “binary choice.” When I walk into the voting booth (or mail in my ballot), I will see more than two names. I’ll also have a choice to write in a name. I will not have to compromise my convictions to cast a vote for president. 

If you do, however, want to revert to the language of “binary choice,” we need to examine the larger context. In January the nation faced a different kind of binary choice. It was, quite simply, “Trump or Pence.” When the president was impeached after he clearly attempted to condition vital military aid to an ally on a demand for a politically motivated investigation of a political opponent and on a demand to investigate a bizarre conspiracy theory, white Evangelicals had a decision to make. 

They chose Trump.

They chose Trump when they would have certainly sought to impeach and convict a Democrat under similar facts. 

In fact, for four long years, when the choice has been between Trump and even the most momentary break with the president for a single news cycle, the overwhelming majority of white Evangelicals—and their political leaders—have spoken loudly and clearly. 

It’s Trump. It’s always Trump. 

In the fourth year of Donald Trump’s first term, the deal white Evangelicals have struck is now increasingly clear. Their leaders will get unprecedented Oval Office access. They’ll get a few good religious liberty regulations. They’ll get good judges. Those judges will almost certainly issue rulings that protect religious liberty. They might issue rulings that marginally protect life (though the pro-life battle is fought far more in the culture and in the states than in the courts). Those will be important and good things. They are not the only things.

White Evangelicals will have also squandered any argument that character matters in politicians. That means we’ll have more politicians of low character. 

White Evangelicals are squandering any argument that they seek to love their enemies. That means we’ll see more hate from America’s bully pulpit.  

White Evangelicals are not only squandering any argument that competence matters, they are working hard to try to force more incompetence on their American community. Trump’s impact on the welfare of the American city is increasingly clear. It’s more division. It’s more hate. It’s more incompetence. And now that terrible combination has yielded a series of dreadful errors in the face of a deadly pandemic.

White Evangelicals, one of the most politically powerful religious movements in the entire world, should not use their power to maintain and ultimately renew the authority of one of the most malignant and incompetent politicians ever to hold national office. They shouldn’t, but they will. 

One last thing ... 

This has been a rather grim newsletter, but authentic religious discourse requires discussing and debating hard questions, and the answers are not always easy or uplifting. I want to end not with a hymn or worship song, but rather something closer to a lament. It’s from one of my favorite artists, Sara Groves, and it speaks to the uncertainty and difficulty of life in a time of vulnerability and loss. 

Photograph of religious leaders praying over President Trump at the El Rey Jesus church in Miami in January 2020 by Adam DelGiudice/Echoes Wire/Barcroft Media/Getty Images.