The Gospel of Life Is Clear: Virtuous Ends Do Not Justify Vicious Means
Against the rhetoric of religious war.
Last month I had the privilege of debating one of Donald Trump’s most prominent and outspoken Evangelical supporters, Eric Metaxas. You might know Metaxas as a Christian speaker and author of popular biographies of Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Martin Luther and also as the author of pro-Trump children’s books, such as Donald Drains the Swamp and Donald Builds the Wall (part of his “Donald the Caveman” series). Gabe Lyons, co-founder of Q Ideas, moderated our discussion. You can read a full transcript here.
I’d encourage you to read the entire thing and judge for yourself the respective merits of our positions, but I do want to highlight a few of Metaxas’s assertions. And remember, I did not debate a fringe Evangelical. Eric would be considered not just entirely mainstream but also a member of the Evangelical intellectual elite. He’s a graduate of Yale University, and he used to host a popular discussion series in Manhattan called “Socrates in the City.” My wife and oldest daughter enthusiastically attended a session that featured Malcolm Gladwell.
First, Metaxas spoke as if the stakes of the election were extraordinarily high. Regarding abortion, it was as if slavery was on the ballot:
How can you even divorce policy from character? In 1860, slavery was on the ticket, okay? You could elect, if there was somebody really close to Jesus who was pro-slavery, you would simply say that slavery–no pun intended–completely trumps the man’s moral character. There are issues. The life of the unborn is an issue, it’s the equivalent of slavery in our time.
But the stakes are even higher than slavery to Metaxas. (Though his comments did make me wonder why—if he believed those words—he paid homage to George Washington in his book, Seven Men: And the Secret of Their Greatness.) The very existence of the country hangs in the balance:
We are not talking about that, we are talking about a man that a lot of people don’t like, and he expresses himself in ways that often I don’t like, but when the poor are on the line [Metaxas argued Biden was an advocate for socialism], when real human beings in the womb are on the line, I simply don’t see how anything that has been said here or has been said would get me to allow someone like Joe Biden or a Hilary Clinton to genuinely destroy America forever and we haven’t even touched on Kavanaugh.
With stakes allegedly that high, Donald Trump was sent to “shame” the church for not fighting hard enough for its values. Trump was showing the church how to fight:
And perhaps, God chose Trump to shame the Church. The Church had not been living out its faith in a way that was changing the world, that was sacrificial as Keller put it, and that God as he often does reaches outside the camp to someone that will make our heads explode, and chooses him to shame us, to fight, because we decline to fight. Bonhoeffer went through this same thing, the church in Germany, they would not fight against Hitler they were not willing to fight.
He kept going with the Hitler analogy:
[The German church] said, ‘We just want to preach the Gospel, we want to have a clean witness for the Gospel.’ And because of that, because they didn’t want to get their hands dirty, because they were obsessed with their own piety and justifying themselves before God, they refused to get down and dirty and fight the enemy, who is Satan, in the form of Hitler and the Nazis. And Bonhoeffer was saying, ‘You don’t understand. You must see this differently. It’s not about your holiness, your witness has failed, the Church’s witness has failed, we now need to stand up and be counted.’
While I made a number of arguments in the moment, the more I reflected on the exchange (especially as I went back and read Metaxas’s words), I was struck by the extent that I had just encountered the rhetoric of religious war. This was the kind of reasoning that had long justified atrocities in the name of faith.
The formula was clear. He placed his argument in a false, catastrophic cultural context, he justified the “down and dirty” of extreme resistance, he cast his opponents in Satanic terms, and he described the moment to “stand up and be counted” in terms of rejecting the power of the Christian witness.
This is dangerous. It attempts to justify profound moral compromise. It rationalizes evil in the pursuit of justice. When a nation is at its political best, its political leaders are just and they also pursue just causes. At a polity’s best, a just people pursue just causes. American Christians should seek to model politics and culture at their best—especially when the stakes are high.
A simple way of understanding the necessity of right conduct even in the most extreme of circumstances is through the lens of just war theory. A just war requires jus ad bellum and jus in bello. Jus ad bellum refers to a just cause for war—such as self-defense or defense of an ally who has its own just cause. Jus in bello refers to right conduct in war. This relates to concepts like distinction, proportionality, and humanity.
The United States unquestionably had just cause to strike the Taliban and al-Qaeda after 9/11, but that “just cause” didn’t grant it the right to intentionally target civilians, use banned weapons, or torture prisoners—even if those tactics would prove effective in the fight. Though the stakes are as high as they could get (human lives are on the line every moment of every day in combat), those high stakes did not justify or permit dishonorable conduct.
Let’s pull our analysis out of the extremes of warfare and apply it to one of the issues that Metaxas mentioned in our debate—the grim reality of abortion. It’s a mostly forgotten fact that a large section of the Protestant church is a Johnny-come-lately to the pro-life movement. When Roe was decided, even the Southern Baptist Convention supported abortion rights. It has since repented of its error, but one consequence of its late arrival to the fight is that—unlike devout Catholics—Protestants are all-too-rarely taught a true theology of life.
When I came of age, my “theology of life” was relatively primitive—“Thou shalt not kill.” I dove into the heart of the pro-life movement powered mainly by the Sixth Commandment. While I certainly developed a more robust theology over time, I was still floored by the richness and depth of Pope John Paul II’s 1995 Evangelium Vitae.
The Gospel of life described in those pages presents the protection of life in the womb as part of the expression of the “incomparable worth” of the human person from conception until the moment of natural death. There is no such thing as hate in the name of life. There is no such thing as malice in the name of life. In fact, hate, cruelty, and malice are antithetical to the Gospel of life.
Let’s put it this way—opposition to abortion may be moral, but opposing abortion cannot justify immorality. A believer in the Gospel of life should be marked by character and conduct that reaches far, far beyond taking the right position in public policy debates about abortion rights. For example, I must confess that I’m mystified by the frequent mockery of George W. Bush’s pro-life credentials when he not only nominated pro-life judges and signed pro-life laws, but he also speaks with sincere love for his fellow man.
Is this not what the Gospel of life looks like in a national leader?
The view that good policy can redeem immoral acts treats a policy statement as a form of baptism—it washes away the person’s sins. Are you hateful? Are you deceitful? Are you incompetent? Well, the Metaxas Christian says, so long as you don’t support the killing of countless thousands of children in the womb we can lock arms. You can even teach us how to fight.
And if conservatives think they have cornered the market on body count morality and are thus somehow entitled to great leeway as they ally with hateful, dishonest men (we want to save more lives than you!), progressive climate change activists would like a word about the millions of people they fear will die if our nation and the nations of the world continue on their present course.
With so many lives on the line, who has time for morality or character? With so many lives on the line, public policy is character. Or it’s the only form of political character that truly counts.
Christians look back in shame at the countless moral compromises and outright evil acts committed during conflicts such as the European wars of religion. But under the Metaxas formulation, perhaps we should rethink our shame. After all, the combatants believed the stakes were so very high. Is there anything more important than the eternal fate of the human soul? In the wars between heretic and blasphemer, it’s necessary to get “down and dirty.” Moral compromise is of less consequence than the ultimate “sin” of defeat at heretical hands.
Make no mistake, the Gospel of life does carry with it political implications, but it is at its heart an ethos, and without that ethos, even the best laws lose their potency.
Let’s take a terrible example that burst into the national consciousness last week. The state of Georgia is thick with just laws. It rightly prohibits murder. It rightly prohibits false imprisonment and menacing a man with a weapon. It rightly sets up a thicket of public officials charged with investigating and prosecuting deadly crimes. But when unjust people are charged with enforcing just laws, the system fails.
For week after terrible week, the unjust leaders of the justice system in Brunswick, Georgia, turned a blind eye to the vigilante murder of Ahmaud Arbery. A series of public officials watched a terrible video of a brutal slaying and refused to charge the men who hunted and eventually killed an unarmed black man in the street. It took a public leak of the clip from a private attorney to generate enough public outrage to cause a different and better set of government eyes to arrest the killers and right a terrible wrong.
The question for pro-life Christians is simple, really. At the core of our public identity, are we abortion opponents, or are we ambassadors for the Gospel of life? And if the answer is the latter—as it should be—is it really true that Donald Trump “shames the church” because he’s showing us how to fight?
I say he shames the church, but in a very different way. He obscures the Gospel of life. In his cruelty he defies the Gospel of life. A Christian embrace of Trump does not tell each and every American that they are a person of “incomparable worth.” Instead, it presents a relentless message from the people of God that virtuous ends justify vicious means. At the end of the day, however, even if they win, their unjust man can and will undermine their just cause.
One last thing . . .
I love this song. Through its words it’s a tremendous expression of the Gospel of life. It’s also marvelous to see it come through the church in the United Kingdom. We often think of Britain as part of the post-Christian west, but the Good News can still be heard from across the pond:
Photograph courtesy of Q Ideas.