David French remains very disappointed that many of his fellow evangelicals support President Donald Trump. He has used the Wuhan virus pandemic to reiterate and expand his arguments against the president’s character and competence (spoiler: He still thinks Trump is too wicked and incompetent for Christians to vote for him).
But he ignores that evangelical support for Trump, warts and all, is justified by principles French has urged on us — namely, that ours is not a Christian nation and that our political leaders do not have to be representatives for our faith.
White Evangelicals long ago gave up on the character test. Now, as tens of thousands of Americans die and the economy crashes in a foreseeable crisis Trump spent weeks minimizing, they've abandoned the competence test as well: https://t.co/33jGQBpQnE
— David French (@DavidAFrench) April 19, 2020
After all, French was behind “Evangelicals for Mitt” and spent years arguing that our political leaders need not be avatars for our beliefs. More recently, in his debates with Sohrab Ahmari and others, he has asserted that America is a “permanently pluralistic nation,” meaning not a covenant Christian nation, but a classical liberal one, with evangelical Christians representing only one faction among many. The coalitional nature of politics in a pluralistic nation means Christians are free to support non-Christian politicians who will advance our interests, protect our rights, and govern better than the alternatives.
Of course, French has attempted to qualify this conclusion by arguing that Christians still have an absolute duty to vote for candidates of good character and presumed competence. Thus, he found Mitt Romney acceptable, but not Trump. But French has failed to establish, either by scripture or reason, such a duty, let alone measures by which to determine disqualifying levels of bad character and incompetence in a candidate.
This task, of course, is impossible, for judgments regarding worldly character and competence are comparative and relative to historical contingencies. Discerning them is the task of prudence. Thus, French has slandered his Christian brothers and sisters by writing, “Many millions of Trump-supporting white Evangelicals no longer care about character.” Perhaps that is true for some, but most of us still believe character is important, just not that it is dispositive.
French Makes Principles out of His Judgments
Christians may prefer political leaders of good character while recognizing that sometimes a bad man may be the best we can do. It is easy to find instances in which morally compromised politicians were nonetheless good leaders for their time, or in which they were worth supporting over a worse alternative (e.g., vote for the crook, it’s important). From the War for Independence to the civil rights movement, many of our national heroes have also had deep moral failings.
Character matters, but evaluating it and its importance in a particular political situation may be challenging even for the wise. In difficult cases, we may take comfort in the truth that our political leaders are not avatars for our religion.
Unfortunately, French has sought to make an absolute principle out of his prudential judgments regarding Trump, which has led him to be uncharitable and ungracious toward those of us whose judgments diverge from his. That we do not find the president’s many moral defects intrinsically disqualifying does not mean we believe character doesn’t matter, only that other considerations matter more in our current circumstances.
It is against these considerations that French’s charges of incompetence are directed. He says, “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.” Even if we set character aside, French argues Trump is too dangerously incompetent for us to support his reelection.
Plenty of Blame to Go Around DC
French is certainly correct that Trump made mistakes in responding to the coronavirus; some of his tweets were particularly foolish and will be used against him. But French’s indictment of Trump would be more convincing were there not such an abundance of blame to go around. It is not obvious that a different president would have produced very different results.
The greatest failure of the federal response was the testing debacle overseen by the experts at the Centers for Disease Control and the Food and Drug Administration. Many Democrats and their media allies were no more on top of the developing crisis than the president, and even denounced his initial travel restrictions.
Furthermore, local and state authorities have control of much of the pandemic response, including lockdowns, which means they bear much of the responsibility, regardless of ill-advised presidential tweets. Among the nations with more COVID-19 deaths per capita than the United States are Belgium, Spain, Italy, France, the U.K., the Netherlands, and Switzerland.
The attempt to present Trump’s coronavirus response as uniquely incompetent is another example of our leadership class struggling to condemn Trump while excusing itself. Did Trump’s tweets make the Swiss incompetent?
Trump’s rise is the product of elite failures: moral, political, and cultural. For instance, this pandemic has demonstrated the folly of the expert consensus regarding our relations with China. More trade with the Chinese communists did not bring political liberalism to China, but it did empower a ruthless geopolitical enemy and eviscerate essential parts of the American economy — as we are relearning, “Made in the USA” matters.
Character Isn’t the Only Consideration
As for French’s insistence that evangelicals must vote for a generally competent candidate, competence is contextual, so we must ask: competence in and for what? President Trump has been very competent at some of his duties, such as not entangling the United States in new endless wars, and nominating qualified originalists to the federal bench. Whether these outweigh his incompetence elsewhere is a prudential judgment that must take account of circumstances and reasonable alternatives.
But French wants to make his prudential disagreements with his fellow evangelicals into matters of principle. Consequently, he claims they have “abandoned” or “no longer care about” character and competence in politicians.
This is not true. We may recognize the president’s flaws and regret that they make his administration less effective than we would like, yet still support him as a better option than either the Democratic alternative or a protest vote. Character matters, but so do many other things, and we may accept a politician of low character to attain them.
French’s efforts to counter this point are borderline disingenuous. For instance, regarding the judges Trump has appointed, he writes, “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).” But as French knows, those state battles often run through federal counts. In fact, he made that abundantly clear in his legalistic posturing against Ahmari’s cultural focus.
In many states, we have the votes to restrict or even abolish the extreme abortion regime the Supreme Court imposed on the entire nation. The main obstacle to our progress is the judiciary; if the federal courts are controlled by Democrat appointees who enforce a legal regime of abortion on demand, our efforts in statehouses across the nation will be stymied. Practicing pro-life litigators know that Trump judges are saving lives by permitting restrictions on abortion to go into effect.
If French finds this and other accomplishments of the Trump administration insufficient reason to vote for the president’s reelection, that is a point for reasonable debate. But his assertion that support for the president is a violation of Christian principle, rather than an error of prudential judgment, is undercut by his own political theory.
For years, he has told us our political leaders are not representative of our faith and that ours is not a covenant Christian nation, but a permanently pluralistic state in which we are but one faction among many. Very well, then: we will vote like it.