The first rule of driving traffic to your blog is to give each post an eye-catching title, since that’s as far as most potential readers will get. But I’m going to leave this one untitled because I don’t want anyone offering a knee-jerk reaction to a five- or six-word headline.
See, this one is about Donald Trump. And Adolf Hitler. And historical analogies. And the moral responsibility of Christians in the political realm. And the unity of the church.
And, above all else, this post is conflicted, unsettled, conditional, provisional, and (I hope) nuanced.
I think it raises some important questions, but I’d beg readers to go through the whole thing before they answer those questions.
Yesterday afternoon at the Pietist Schoolman Facebook page, I shared a link to a piece entitled “Trump isn’t Hitler: It’s OK for a person of faith to vote for Trump.” By way of introduction, I wrote, “Even if you’re horrified by the rise of Trump (I am), take seriously the argument of Tobin Grant, a serious political scientist who studies the intersection of religion (especially evangelicalism) and politics.” Indeed, Grant is a political science professor at Southern Illinois University who writes a column for Religion News Service called Corner of Church and State. A graduate of Wheaton College, he first came to my attention last December and January for his criticism of how his alma mater handled the case of Larycia Hawkins.
I don’t share links at that Facebook page because I necessarily agree with them, but because I think they introduce important questions or ideas that might be easy to overlook in the midst of the digital barrage that we all encounter. That was my goal with sharing the link to Grant’s piece on Trump.
“I utterly reject this argument,” wrote one colleague last night. “As do I,” added another, quite a bit further to the left on the political spectrum.
“Which argument?”, I wondered. The title hints at a key one, but there are actually several interrelated arguments here. So let’s walk through the key points of his piece, since I think they do suggest important questions.
1. Grant won’t vote for Donald Trump.
It’s important to start here, since it’s where Grant began: “I despise nearly every statement and policy position of Donald Trump.” He went on to add that he finds “Trump’s positions antithetical to the Christian faith (as well as to Judaism, Islam, and every other major faith tradition)” and said he would “be standing against Trump…”
Likewise, please understand that I will not, under any circumstances, vote for Donald Trump. In most of the rare cases when his policy positions are expressed coherently, I find them to be foolhardy, irrational, and/or offensive. Unlike many of his supporters, I don’t believe that his business experience makes him a good candidate for president — I generally find wanting the argument that what the Republic really needs a CEO in the Oval Office, but with Trump, I find even less evidence of skills or experiences that would transfer well to the presidency. And to the extent that I think we can and should choose leaders based on such traits, Donald Trump fails almost every “character” test I can imagine. In particular, no general election “pivot” will let me forget the dishonest, dehumanizing ways Trump has talked about Muslims, Latinos, women, and immigrants.
So neither of us is going to encourage Christians to vote for Donald Trump. The question for Grant — and for me — is whether Christians can in good conscience vote for Donald Trump. A recent document suggests that they can not, implying instead that 20th century history suggests a moral imperative to resist Trump.
2. He doesn’t think that supporting Trump is morally equivalent to supporting Hitler.
What actually prompted Grant’s piece was the “Called to Resist Bigotry” statement signed late last month by dozens of Christian leaders. Here’s how it concludes:
When we face dangerous and demagogic messages of racial fear, hate, xenophobia, gender disrespect, and nationalist ideology, it is incumbent upon Christians to lead by example – on behalf of racial justice and reconciliation, mutual respect, civility, service, religious freedom, international peace, and partnership. We must lead with our best values, and show how the people of God can help guide the way toward a more diverse, just, and unified America. The Christian vocation is to build bridges instead of walls, as Pope Francis has recently reminded us.
German pastor and theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer once wrote, “Silence in the face of evil is itself evil: God will not hold us guiltless. Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act.” So we are called to speak and act, from pulpits and prayer groups across the nation, declaring our refusal to cooperate, in word and deed, against actions of intolerance and hate, not as a political group or partisan voice but as disciples of Jesus Christ. We can use the opportunity of speaking clearly about what we are against, to demonstrate and lead by example on behalf of what we are for.
We can do no other.
As Grant notes, Baptist ethicist David Gushee helped to draft the statement, and explained at his own RNS column that
The statement stems from the shared sense of the signers that the Trump phenomenon challenges Christians at a core moral level, such that faithfulness to Jesus Christ is at stake in how American Christians respond to him.
The language of “confessional resistance” harkens back to two moments in 20th century history in which groups of Christians in a particular context made major statements claiming that the very purity of the faith that Christians confess was at stake in a political phenomenon, such that failure to resist represented a failure to follow Jesus. Those two instances were Nazi Germany and apartheid South Africa. While no direct comparison is intended, the language of confessional resistance draws on that history.
Gushee and his co-signers might not intend any “direct comparison,” but they clearly intend to cause readers to perceive similarities between Donald Trump and Adolf Hitler, between the appeal of Trumpism in America today and the appeal of Nazism in interwar Germany. The letter, observes Grant, prompts us to ask, “Is the Trump candidacy something so repugnant that Christians must oppose it, just as they were morally obligated to oppose the Nazis or apartheid?”
Probably to a fault, my training as a 20th century European historian who spends a lot of time teaching about the Holocaust leaves me averse to any attempt to interject Hitler into American political debate. In general, as a fellow historian argued recently, historical analogies of any sort tend to be both alluring and ultimately misleading:
Appeals to history are wickedly hard to resist. For one thing, they’re almost always good politics. The most effective historical analogies condemn and canonize all at once, turning policy debates into morality plays and draping candidates with ersatz seriousness…. Historical comparisons also serve a more essential function by allowing human beings to safely encounter and organize a world in flux. Experience and previous categories help us evaluate new threats and opportunities while protecting us from information overload. History appears to tame epistemological chaos.
…Do we need to banish history from our public life? Of course not. But we ought to think more carefully about how we put it to use. Appeals to the past are most valuable, and do most to strengthen our democratic culture, when they help us see more potential futures: by showing events to be contingent and complex, turning us away from simplistic models and easy answers, and reminding us of the terrific, terrifying creativity that drives human behavior. In practice, that means we should spend less time trying to find the perfect single equivalence between Trump and politicians past and more time reflecting on broader patterns. More than particular historical analogies, we need historical thinking.
In particular… For all my concern about the state of politics and government in this country, we are not living in Weimar Germany. And for all my dislike of, even disdain for Donald Trump, he is not Adolf Hitler. As Grant notes:
As the Anti-Defamation League CEO Jonathan A. Greenblatt persuasively argues, comparisons of anyone to Hitler falls short. While the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) decries Trump’s statements, they recognize the order of magnitude difference between a bigoted candidate and a genocidal dictator.
Perhaps, as a colleague suggested to me this morning, there is no moral “equivalence” between Trump/2016 America and Hitler/1933 Germany, but there is instead a “moral parallel.” That’s something I’m prepared to consider. Andrew Sullivan’s widely circulated essay on democracies turning to tyranny may be suggestive in this regard.
But even so, I think it leaves much less obvious the answer to the question, What’s required of Christians faced with the possibility of Donald Trump being elected president? I’m sure that most Christians believe that, at some point, their faith compels resistance to evil and injustice. But have we reached that point with Trump? Grant doesn’t think so, and even allows for the possibility that Christians can reasonably — albeit contrary to his preferences — vote for Donald Trump.
3. He believes that Christians can have good (at least, understandable) reasons to vote for a bad candidate.
Here we might flip the question: is supporting Trump morally parallel (if not morally equivalent) to supporting Adolf Hitler? The “Called to Resist” letter, argues Grant, presents “the Trump candidacy as a crisis in which Christians should oppose Trump; to do less than to resist Trump is to support evil and injustice” (emphasis mine).
Now I’m not actually sure that the “Called to Resist” statement is quite meant to condemn voting for Trump. It’s aimed at “religious leaders” and “faith leaders,” reminding them of their “obligation to lift up the moral values of their faith traditions that offer instruction and guidance on issues of public consequence” and exhorting them to “take care to avoid being used by politics or politicians, or to allow their faith to be exploited for partisan causes or their faith communities turned into mere political constituencies.” But clearly the signers hope (however indirectly) to keep Christians from casting votes for Donald Trump.
Because of his field of research, Grant wants us to go down to the level of the individual voter and consider why they vote as they do. And because of the particular place he inhabits, he ends up living and worshipping with exactly the demographic that tends most strongly to support Donald Trump. “I know good people,” writes Grant, “who object to Trump’s bigotry who may still vote for him. Unlike most of the signers, I live in one of the poorest parts of the country.” It’s a part of the country that hasn’t seen a strong economic recovery, where Trump’s incessant promises of jobs and tough talk on trade make him hard to dismiss out of hand.
As I’ve written before, Christian leaders ought to take seriously — and address pastorally — the concerns of Trump voters, couched though they may be in hateful, fearful rhetoric. Here too, I’m not sure Gushee and the other drafters and signers would disagree: “There is understandable anger across the country. The failures of both Washington and Wall Street have created legitimate citizen anger and alienation across the political spectrum, and many of us are empathetic to the many people who feel marginalized and unheard by economic, political, and media elites that don’t serve their needs. Faith leaders and our communities need to reach out to all of those in marginalized communities — even across racial and ideological lines–to listen, learn, and serve.”
So where does that leave us? Is Gushee right that “faithfulness to Jesus Christ is at stake in how American Christians respond to” this one candidate?
Grant thinks not:
Religious leaders are right to denounce the many, many policies advocated by Trump that they find unjust. It’s too far, however, to treat this year’s vote as a test of one’s faith. I’ll be standing against Trump, but I expect I’ll be spending my Sundays with some Trump supporters with stronger faiths than mine.
For Christians who live in a democracy, I do think that elections are important moments. They confront us with differing visions and values, and they hold open the possibility of changing course when the common good is imperiled. So they’re times for Christians to consider what it means to live in the world but not of it.
But if democratic elections are tests of faith, they’re tests that we never pass with flying colors. As Grant puts it, “politics, even this year, is a mix of good and evil, justice and injustice, civility and vulgarity.” If so, then every time we enter the voting booth, we are weighing alternatives that mix good and evil, justice and injustice, civility and vulgarity. Any choice of Caesars is both necessary and, to some extent, a compromise with the values of the world over the values of the kingdom of God.
Now some of you might actually think that Trump is sufficiently “Hitler-like” that this election really does present something clearer than “the lesser of two evils.” But is the first or only time that you’ll believe this of a candidate?
A significant number of Christians think that they have a moral imperative to resist any candidate who supports abortion rights, capital punishment, or increased defense spending. (Or all three, viewing them as part of a “seamless garment” of protecting human life.) Others feel convicted, on the grounds of their faithfulness to Jesus Christ as Lord, to resist any candidate who promotes the idolatrous worship of this country, or its increasingly unequal economic system. Is Trump the only test of faith on the ballot? Can we have a functional democracy if the standard increasingly becomes that each voter “can do no other”?
(Incidentally, Grant redirects that allusion from the “Called to Resist” letter, pointing out some uncomfortably Trump-like attributes of Martin Luther.)
But I’m not worried solely about the effects of this electoral decision on the body politic. With the health of another Body in mind, let me ask this: Will you break fellowship with sisters and brothers in Christ who support Trump?
David Gushee has already this year encouraged conservative and progressive evangelicals to accept the inevitability of their divorce. Should we now accept a fissure between those who resist Trump and those who support him — or do anything less than resist him? (Keep in mind that this cuts across other divides: conservatives and progressives oppose Trump, though not always for the same reasons.) My Pietist self wants to reiterate that Christians are probably too prone as it is to impose particular tests of faith on each other.
That said, I still can’t shake the feeling that there is a moral imperative to resist Trump.
That even if he’s not Hitler, he’s something new and troubling in American politics. Again, the possibility of Donald Trump becoming the president of this country is utterly appalling to me.
But not to millions of my fellow citizens and fellow Christians, many of whom would be appalled to read that I am strongly leaning towards voting for the other frontrunner of 2016.
And where does that leave me, not just as a voter but as a Christian college professor who is in a position to offer “instruction and guidance” to people of voting age? To this point in the year, I’ve tried to find ways to get students to think through how they make a decision for any candidate — and prayed that they would be led to resist the Trump tide. Would anything stronger than that be appropriate, or an abuse of my position and power?
I’ve been agonizing over this post all morning, to the point that I’ve not only skipped lunch but failed to get done most of the other work that actually comes with my job. So I’m going to stop shy of 3,000 words and tackle some grading before I have to meet the kids at the bus stop.
But if you’ve got this far… Thank you for reading, and please consider sharing a comment. I’ve realized in writing this post that I’ve been having a conversation with two sides of myself, and it will be a far more fruitful conversation if other people join it.