J.D. Vance and the Great Challenge of Christian Malice
There are no “right people” to hate.
I’m going to try an experiment. I’m hoping to start a weekly (or so) “ask me anything” session with Dispatch members. I’ll be on Zoom, and you can ask me about my newsletters, my podcasts, or how I cultivated my remarkable taste in movies. The catch is that it will be for Dispatch members only, so if there’s something I write below that you love (or hate!), join now and let me know when we chat this week. Now, on to the newsletter.
If you missed the headlines last week, in a tragic on-set accident Alec Baldwin accidentally shot and killed a cinematographer named Halyna Hutchins and wounded a director named Joel Souza with a prop firearm. We’re still learning about the facts of the terrible incident, but there is thus far zero evidence that Baldwin intended to kill anyone. Our hearts break for the victims, and our hearts break for him. Can you imagine carrying the weight of an accidental killing on your heart?
I write those words with the full knowledge that Alec Baldwin is a man with very sharp rhetorical elbows and a troubled past. But in the absence of any evidence that he intended harm, that past is irrelevant to how we treat him today.
But then there was this, from Ohio Senate Candidate J.D. Vance, one of the more prominent Christian intellectuals and politicians in the United States:
We all know what this means. Vance wants to see Baldwin publicly and relentlessly mocked by the once-most powerful man in the world. This is not right. There’s no legitimate defense for cruelty like this.
No, it’s not “nutpicking” (the practice of amplifying the voices of fringe figures and holding them out as representative of your political opponents) to critique Vance’s words. He’s the author of Hillbilly Elegy, a massive bestseller that purported to explain the culture and experience of the white working class in the years before Trump. The book became a movie directed by Ron Howard and starring Glenn Close and Amy Adams.
(Vance’s story is incredibly compelling, and I thought the movie was profoundly moving. I interviewed both Howard and Vance for The Dispatch.)
And now Vance is running for Senate in the state of Ohio, and he is surging in the polls. It’s entirely possible that he’ll be the junior senator from Ohio and immediately one of the most prominent members of the chamber. And yes, he is very publicly Christian. His conversion to Catholicism made national news.
I’m highlighting Vance’s comment not because it is exceptional, but rather because it is all too typical of a kind of Christian public engagement in the age of Trump. To a degree that non-political Christians do not see or experience, the Christian public square is increasingly consumed with a kind of resentful, vengeful fury that’s extraordinarily difficult to square with the words and example of Jesus Christ.
Before we go any further, I want to introduce you to a new term, one I learned from Josh Strahan, a New Testament professor at my alma mater, Lipscomb University. That term is “orthocardia.” Essentially it means “having a right heart.” And when I learned that term, it started to transform the way I understood our times.
You’re not going to find much literature about orthocardia. But the concept is both simple and profound. As explained by Methodist Pastor Jason Valendy, it’s distinct from and essentially precedes two terms that are familiar to Christians, orthodoxy (right belief) and orthopraxy (right practice.)
Both of these terms are extremely valuable, yet incomplete. As one seeks to imitate Christ, you learn quickly that the fullness of the Christian life lies beyond both beliefs and behavior. Let’s first discuss orthodoxy. Knowledge and understanding of the finer points of Christian theology is important, but this knowledge about God is distinct from faith in God. For example, one of the most famous passages in the Bible declares, “You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe—and shudder!”
When we move from belief to practice, there are even more words from scripture that are profoundly sobering. The Apostle Paul famously wrote, “If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give away all I have, and if I deliver up my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing.”
These are extraordinary words, and they indicate that I can know the right things and even do many great things and yet there is something missing. The beliefs and practices must flow from a heart that is oriented towards God. Or, as Jesus said, “The good person out of the good treasure of his heart produces good, and the evil person out of his evil treasure produces evil, for out of the abundance of the heart his mouth speaks.” (Emphasis added.)
Let’s make this more concrete. Earlier this month, I joined my friend Russell Moore on his podcast, and we reflected back on two years of debates about “David Frenchism.” For those who don’t know what that is, in 2019 New York Post editorial page editor Sohrab Ahmari wrote an essay in First Things called “Against David Frenchism.” His critique of me was multilayered, but it contained two essential components—first, a critique of classical liberalism itself, and second, a critique of my (highly imperfect!) commitment to civility and decency as a mode of political discourse.
As I wrote at the time, Ahmari used me as a “proxy for two competing visions of American life”:
Ahmari’s desire, he says, is “to fight the culture war with the aim of defeating the enemy and enjoying the spoils in the form of a public square re-ordered to the common good and ultimately the Highest Good.” By contrast, he says, I believe “that the institutions of a technocratic market society are neutral zones that should, in theory, accommodate both traditional Christianity and the libertine ways and paganized ideology of the other side.” Thus, he constructs a dichotomy between people like him, who understand “politics as war and enmity,” and people like me, who possess an “earnest and insistently polite quality” that is “unsuitable to the depth of the present crisis facing religious conservatives.”
To say the fight went viral is a bit of an understatement. It spawned countless essays, a New Yorker profile of both of us, and it culminated in a rather contentious debate before a packed house at Catholic University in Washington D.C.
Over the last two years, I’ve been asked repeatedly why the debate achieved the prominence it did within conservative and Christian circles. I don’t think it’s because of Ahmari’s particular ideology. He’s broadly an adherent to Catholic integralism, a belief system that seeks to place the Catholic church at the center of American faith and politics and to integrate religious and political power in a way that utterly contradicts the current American constitutional order.
There is no meaningful political constituency for such a belief.
But I think his essay had a different kind of power, and it’s expressed in these sentences:
Progressives understand that culture war means discrediting their opponents and weakening or destroying their institutions. Conservatives should approach the culture war with a similar realism. Civility and decency are secondary values. They regulate compliance with an established order and orthodoxy. We should seek to use these values to enforce our order and our orthodoxy, not pretend that they could ever be neutral. To recognize that enmity is real is its own kind of moral duty. (Emphasis added.)
These words provided a theological and intellectual rationalization for a particular kind of public aggression, the same kind of aggression we saw from J.D. Vance above. Moreover, they provided a theological and intellectual rationalization that allowed angry Christians to connect with the very particular spirit of the Trumpist age. They provided a sacred frame that allowed and even encouraged Christians to conform their words to the words of the most publicly cruel man to ever occupy the Oval Office.
My wife and I are currently watching Impeachment: American Crime Story. It’s a remarkable walk down memory lane, and it’s a reminder of a previous cruel age in American politics. The story focuses around Monica Lewinsky, Linda Tripp, and the impeachment of Bill Clinton. It does not whitewash Clinton’s conduct at all. In fact, when you watch the events unfold through the prism of a post #MeToo culture, it’s remarkable how sinister it all feels.
We’ve just reached the episode where the affair is discovered, and it features footage from the countless celebrities who viciously mocked Monica. A young woman was sexually exploited by the president of the United States and then encouraged to lie under oath by that same president, yet her appearance, her sexual history, and her family were devoured by the cultural wolves, day after day and night after night. It was and remains one of the grossest moments in modern American cultural life.
Is it any wonder then that the Southern Baptist Convention in 1998 felt compelled to pass a resolution on the moral character of public officials? It contained these memorable words: “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.”
These words proved true, but not in the way many Christians predicted. The legacy of the Clinton years was less a loosening of sexual morality (indeed, by many measures Americans have grown more sexually conservative since the Clinton years) than a burning sense of grievance and an understanding that the ends justify the means.
The latest episode of the show ends with the famous moment when Clinton met with Dick Morris, looked at grim polling numbers indicating that his public support might collapse if they learned the truth about his lies, and allegedly said, “Well, we just have to win then.”
And win he did. It was one of the moments (and hardly the only one) where our politicians broke our political culture. “We just have to win” became a dominant ethos in American political life, including in Christian political life. In hindsight, however, the Christian warning to “them” about the moral character of public officials should also have been read as a warning to us.
Let’s turn back to J.D. Vance. In large part because of his prominence and his shift to pugilism, his campaign has become arguably the most-watched Senate race in America.
In August, the American Conservative published a fascinating profile of Vance. With great nuance and insight, it described the escalating American culture wars, and the sense that many Americans felt that they were fighting for their beliefs and their very way of life. But the last paragraph contained these ominous words, especially coming from a Christian politician: “I think our people hate the right people,” Vance said.
With those words, I believe Vance reflected one of the most prevalent spirits of the times. Do we wonder why animosity dominates our discourse? Do we wonder why so many people were ready and willing to receive a message that declared even decency itself a “secondary value”?
The real crisis in American Christian political engagement isn’t truly over Christian positions. Opposition to abortion, to take one example, is vital and just. And there is ample room for good-faith Chrsitian disagreement over the proper response to American challenges ranging from race to economics to immigration to sexuality and to the pandemic.
The real crisis is instead a crisis of the heart. Our orthodoxy is undermined by our actions, and our actions spring forth from the deepest parts of our being. At a time of rising antipathy, a Christian political community should blaze forth with a radiant countercultural embrace of kindness and grace. Instead, all too many of us have forgotten a fundamental truth. There are no “right people” to hate.
One last thing …
I’m going to break a bit with Sunday tradition and end with a news report instead of a song. Please watch it all. It’s one of the best things I’ve seen all year. In a time of seemingly relentless gloom, there are genuine, glorious points of light: