Never Trump, Never Biden, Or Neither?
Updated: Apr 22, 2020
The discussion about what Christians should do in November got more heated this week when Albert Mohler, the President of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, and the presumptive next president of the SBC, said he would be voting for Trump in 2020. What’s interesting is Mohler emphatically refused to vote for Trump in 2016. Why the change?
These are the kinds of intramural discussions Christians should be having leading up to the November election. Even as many Christians have their minds made up about the election, I hope for more of this kind of constructive discussion about real political issues. There’s more to politics than social issues. Here are a few of the conversations going on among Christians. Even if you know who you’re voting for, these perspectives are worth considering and understanding:
From Never Trump to Maybe Trump
On an episode of his podcast, “Ask Anything,” Dr. Mohler fielded the question, “How do you wrestle with the issues of voting for President Trump due to character issues vs. sanctity of life advancement?” This is a great question, because it captures two points at the center of the debate about Christians voting for Trump. First, there is a lot to wrestle with. Even for those Christians who have supported President Trump from the beginning, it’s important to acknowledge that his character makes it difficult for Christians to support him, no matter how he governs. Second, it identifies what has become the strongest moral argument for supporting Trump against Clinton and now Biden, the sanctity of life. The President has been unapologetically Pro-Life, from his executive orders to his Supreme Court nominations.
Having identified these issues, though, Mohler didn’t support Trump in 2016 because he could not come to grips with his lack of moral character. He made this case in an excellent essay on Christians and politics, “Character in Leadership - Does It Still Matter?” in June of 2016. By this time Trump had locked in the nomination, having won the necessary delegates after the Washington primary on May 26. In the article, he argues that character is the only sure foundation for trust in political leadership and the assurance of moral courage in office. He likened the election to parents choosing a babysitter; “Americans have retained enough moral sense to know that personal character still matters in the choice of a babysitter. If this is true, we can hardly claim with a straight face that character is irrelevant to those who hold high positions of political leadership.”
Mohler ended that essay with a statement that many are citing against him now, “I read those words because I want to make certain I am consistent over time and not bending my argument to the political urgency of the moment. 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 would have to admit that my commentary on his scandals was wrong. I don’t believe I was. I don’t believe evangelicals who stood united that time were wrong.”
Things have changed. On “Ask Anything,” Mohler announced that he was leaning in a different direction heading into 2020, partly because the stakes are even higher in 2020 than they were in 2016. Mohler gives several reasons for making this point: first, the partisan divide in the country has gotten worse. Second, we don’t have the ability to choose the candidates, just to choose between the two candidates. Third, the mystery that surrounded Trump in 2016 is gone. Fourth, the party platforms have solidified and while there is some room in the Republican platform for Christian causes, the Democrats have closed the door on the issues Christians are most committed to.
Here’s the key point that Mohler makes: a vote for Trump is a vote for the Republican platform. There is only one party in the United States who supports the right to life, religious freedom for individuals and those serving in government, the difference between a man and a woman, school choice, conservative Supreme Court justices, and many other issues conservative Christians value. In fact, it’s not just Christians making these arguments, Kathy Gilsinan made this case for every conservative voter in The Atlantic last month. In the political sphere, this is the route many of Trump’s opponents have taken, including Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, Lindsay Graham, Ben Sasse, and Mitch McConnell. Now, these are not the only issues. Christians who will vote for Democrats in 2020 will do so because they believe the Democratic party has a better approach to immigration and social justice - and because they’d rather see anyone in the White House other than Trump. While those may be valid concerns, and that’s hotly debated, most Christians look at these two lists of issues and choose the first one.
The bottom line for this group is that while it would be better to have a different conservative candidate, while it would be nice to have a more presidential President, while it would be preferable for Trump to speak and behave differently, voting for a Republican president now is still better than voting for a Democrat in 2020.
This strikes me as one of the predominant views among Christians heading into 2020; in fact, it may be the second most popular view among Christians. Next to the group that voted for Trump in 2016 and will vote for him again in 2020, the next most popular option might be to vote for Trump in 2020 having not voted for him in 2016. It doesn’t appear that many people who voted for Trump in 2016 have been so disappointed in his presidency that they will vote for Joe Biden in 2020. The traffic is moving the other direction. In addition, many who were skeptical about Trump heading into the first term have been horrified at the reaction to Trump on the left. Between the media coverage of his presidency, the impeachment hearings, and even the blame game over the Coronavirus, many voters have become Trump supporters because the alternative looks far worse now than it did in 2016. If the decision in 2016 was Trump or Clinton, now the choice is four more years of conservative governance or four years of the histrionics we’ve seen from the Democrats since 2016. Framed this way, it’s an easy choice.
Never Stop Never-Trumping
This isn’t the only faction of evangelical Christians. Next to those who will absolutely vote for Trump and those who are now considering voting for Trump, there is also a group who will not vote for Trump in 2020. In some cases, the Never Trump movement has all but blended in with the left since 2016. Prominent formerly conservative voices like George Conway, Peter Wehner, Michael Gerson, Bret Stephens, Tom Nichols, Jennifer Rubin, David Frum, and Joe Scarborough have become nearly identical to their counterparts on the left, and in some cases, their vitriol is even more potent. Most, if not all of this list endorsed Hilary Clinton in 2016. Every one of them will vote for Biden in 2020.
There’s another group of Never Trumpers who have consistently opposed Trump but have also opposed the Democrats in an effort to be both anti-Trump and politically conservative. Along with David French, this group includes Jonah Goldberg, Yuvan Levin, George Will, Robert George, Meghan McCain, Ross Douthat, and Russell Moore. It’s worth pointing out that many of the Christian Never Trumpers have gone the way of this group. They’ve written and spoken about the Pro-Life movement, small government, conservative judges, and other social and moral issues for decades. Their opposition to Trump is not enough to cause them to vote against these issues, but it is enough to keep them from voting for Trump.
David French has been the best representative of this position. His writing is thoughtful, convictional, and often overtly biblical. He doesn’t pull any punches; he’s been as critical of Trump as anyone in the media, but he’s also disciplined enough to see both sides clearly. In his article, “How, Then Should Christians Vote,” French lays out the conservative Never Trump case. He cites the President’s divisive and vengeful rhetoric, his sexual immorality, and the inconsistency among evangelical leaders of opposing Clinton and voting for Trump. He concludes with a comparison that many conservatives have made between the Republican stalwarts of the last 50 years and the current President, “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.”
This leads him to the Never Trump conclusion; “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.” This is a clear, reasonable, and moral conclusion, and it also grasps a point that many other Never Trumpers miss: Never Trump has to mean Never Biden as well.
In his latest article, he responds to Mohler’s podcast and those who have changed their minds from 2016 to 2020. While there is a significant group of people who believe that the last four years make a better case for Trump, French disagrees. He believes that Christians who vote for Trump have not only surrendered the moral argument but the competence argument as well. He argues that Trump has shown his incompetence through his handling of the coronavirus and casts doubt on the position that Trump has governed well through the first four years. Then he deals with Mohler directly: “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.”
To make the point even sharper, French says that politics cannot and should not be reduced to a policy checklist. “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.” It’s unclear what the alternative would be for French. What is clear is that he believes the President’s character, his disregard for the welfare of the citizens of the United States, his penchant for misinformation and his tacit support for “racist alt-right” demand that Christians abstain from voting for him.
For this reason, French believes that Christians should write in a more suitable candidate in November or refuse to vote for Trump. Whether you agree with it or not, this is the most consistent position among the Christian Never Trump groups. His care and attention to truth and character in political leadership, avoiding the simplistic “lesser of two evils arguments,” and maintaining a prophetic voice against Trump’s worst qualities are admirable positions. They are ones that every Christian has to wrestle with.
Regardless of Trump
Mohler offers one approach for Christians who are struggling with what to do in November, French offers an alternative. I see no reason why Christians can’t adopt either of these positions, even if they bitterly disagree. Within certain bounds, we need to preserve the role of the individual Christian conscience.
Unfortunately, in the midst of all the discussion of Trump, we’ve been lulled into asking the wrong questions. For everything else he’s been, Donald Trump has also been a colossal distraction for the church. The country will be worse in the long run for Trump’s lack of personal morality, just as it will be better for his Supreme Court picks and his protection of religious freedom and the lives of the unborn. It’s important to remember both of those things. But the more pressing matter is what we’re doing with the freedoms we have.
Christians have a calling from God that is independent of politics, style of government, and who’s sitting in the Oval Office. In the good and necessary arguments over who we should vote for, we may have lost sight of our central mission. We can change the world without the government. It’s not ok to depend on the President of the United States, or the state and local governments, to bring about the changes we want to see in our world. We should be giving, serving, planning, praying, and building toward a more just and God-glorifying society no matter what the government is doing. If the President is inclined to help, all the better. That should be a secondary consideration, but I’m worried it has become a primary consideration. The most lasting difference in our communities will come from Christians who believe that it is up to them to share the gospel, to disciple young believers, to raise their children to know and love the Lord, to stand up for the oppressed, and to do what’s right. For everything else we’re for, if we’re not for those things, we won’t be for anything that lasts.
Cole Feix is the founder and president of So We Speak.