Have Christian Intellectuals Made Any Difference in This Election?

With just over a month until Election Day, I hope that lots of fellow Christians paid attention to Miroslav Volf’s interview with journalist Jonathan Merritt, since the Yale theologian makes a plausible argument that

Volf, A Public FaithHillary Clinton is not only the more competent of the two major party presidential candidates running for office now, but that the kind of vision she stands for is more in line with the Christian faith than is Donald Trump’s.

…on balance she better represents the convictions and character that should concern Christian citizens. No candidate is perfect. There are certainly areas where Secretary Clinton’s policies and record might give Christians pause. But she takes the threat posed by climate change seriously. Her policies, such as paid family leave, would actually strengthen American families. She is committed to a just and welcoming approach to immigration that does not unduly compromise the legitimate good of security. She supports major reforms to America’s overly retributive and racially-biased criminal justice system. And, perhaps most importantly, she has demonstrated much deeper commitment to supporting the disadvantaged and the vulnerable than her opponent has, his grandiose rhetoric notwithstanding.

The second best case for voting for Secretary Clinton is Donald Trump. Mr. Trump is an exceedingly poor candidate whose public life has not demonstrated a single one of the moral virtues that are important for a political leader to have. Braggadocio is not the same thing as courage. His policy proposals, such as they are, range from half-baked to obviously incompatible with deep Christian convictions, such as the importance of welcoming the needy stranger, care for the non-human creation, and pursuing peace.

Volf’s argument is hardly unassailable. He might have persuaded more #NeverClinton readers if he had actually named one of the “areas where Secretary Clinton’s policies and record might give Christians pause” and weighed it against other factors. And his answer to Merritt’s ensuing question on abortion was both eloquent and unlikely to satisfy anyone on either side of that issue.

Still, even if I weren’t largely sympathetic to what Volf is saying, I’d like to think that I’d take it seriously as a thoughtful, nuanced word to all Christians who believe (with Volf) that their faith has a public dimension “concerned with common goods” in a plural society.

Yet I would be shocked if Volf succeeded in swaying more than a handful of Christians who had been planning to vote for Donald Trump.

And if one of the world’s most respected Christian intellectuals can’t help move the needle in this election, who am I to think that I can do better?

* * * * *

“Why do you do that to yourself?”

That’s what someone whose opinion I highly respect asked me a week ago, after I published my most recent Trump-related post: one asking if evangelicals would be so likely to vote for so unlikely a choice if fewer of their leaders were white males.

Even after five years of blogging, I still get heartburn at the thought of posting anything remotely controversial. And thinking, let alone writing or speaking, about politics has always raised my stress level.

Donald Trump earlier this year
Licensed by Creative Commons (Gage Skidmore)

Still, every so often this year I’ve felt like I had something potentially helpful to put before readers/voters — whether it was encouraging people to take seriously the concerns of Trump’s working class supporters, exhorting the church to respond to Trump with its own versions of “telling it like it is,” or explaining my decision to sign the Historians Against Trump letter. And after much second-guessing and prayer, I’ve pressed publish on each post, shared the link on social media, and anxiously awaited the response.

Some have done alright. But last Thursday, I waited — and little happened. It got a few more views than a typical post, and a modest number of social media likes/hearts. But hardly any shares or retweets — a better indication that a post is finding a wider audience. I read or heard only a few comments, most from die-hard Republicans I already knew well enough to know what they’d say.

By itself, causing so small a ripple wouldn’t have bothered me. There was nothing particularly brilliant about the post, and the same question will be more asked more effectively by others. (See the recent study finding that “Even after controlling for partisanship, evangelicals are nearly twice as likely (as other voters) to believe that men make better political leaders than women.”) And while I’ve far exceeded my expectations for the success of this blog, I know the limits of its reach; had the post been wildly successful by Pietist Schoolman standards, it would have reached thousands instead of hundreds.

But something clearly pushed me over a tipping point of frustration. I won’t repeat all my venting, but suffice it to say that “Why do you do that to yourself?” was a perfectly reasonable thing to ask. So was the follow-up:

“Do you really think you can make a difference by blogging?”

* * * * *

Frankly, I’m not sure that I can, at least not when it comes to the intersection of religion and politics.

First, it’s highly likely that there’s little that anyone of any standing can say to change many minds at this point.

After a group of conservative professors and writers signed their own statement in support of Trump (“the candidate most likely to restore the promise of America”), conservative professor/writer Alan Jacobs started to write a response, then realized:

Alan Jacobs
For more discussion of Jacobs’ recent “Watchmen” essay (cited below), listen to episode 195 of The Christian Humanist Podcast

You all know who Trump is. You know that he’s a preening, vaunting, compulsively dishonest ignoramus with a mean streak a mile wide, whose only criterion for evaluating other human beings is: Do they like me? You are intelligent and well-informed. You can be under no illusions in these matters. And yet you not only will vote for Trump, you are warmly encouraging others to do the same.

Jacobs suggested (borrowing a concept from Thomas Kuhn) that “If an intelligent and well-informed person is not only voting for Trump but also advocating for him as someone who can ‘restore the promise of America,’ then it is clear that our premises about politics — about what politics does, what politics is for — are so radically different as to be incommensurable.” There was, Jacobs decided, “no possibility of my even having a meaningful conversation with the people who signed that document.”

And that’s frustrating because I want so badly to believe that reasoned, civil discourse can still make a difference in democratic politics. I suppose the Republic might survive a Trump presidency (or a second Clinton one, if that’s how you feel about it), but I’m not sure the Union has much of a future if its citizens cling to “premises… so radically divergent that adherents of one theory simply cannot speak coherently and usefully with adherents of another”

But frankly, I would be a happier person if I never wrote another post about politics. And at the end of the day, I’m not nearly so concerned about the future of any kingdom of this world as I am about the church of Christ — whose white evangelical (and, to a lesser extent, white mainline) wing has embraced Donald Trump to an extent that raises significant questions about its witness, discipleship, and leadership.

That concern — and not the outcome of the election — motivated last week’s post. However the vote goes next month, I’d like to think that it’s not too late to convince fellow evangelicals that our movement needs to take a hard look at itself if it’s to have any future — e.g., asking why a majority-female, increasingly diverse movement continues to entrust so much of its leadership to white men, too many of whom either embraced Trump this year or stayed on the sidelines.

Now, there’s no shortage of evangelical academics (many of them white men) who have tried to call evangelicals back to their senses. I don’t know if they qualify as “Christian intellectuals” by Jacobs’ much-discussed definition (“intellectuals who speak the language of other intellectuals, including the most purely secular, but they should also be fluent in the concepts and practices of faith”). But people like Russell Moore, Alan Noble, John Fea, Tommy Kidd, Matthew Lee Anderson, Tracy McKenzie, and my Anxious Bench colleagues Kristin Du Mez and Beth Allison Barr have been the “watchmen in what otherwise would be a pitch-black night” (the Karl Mannheim quotation that gave Jacobs the title for his Harper‘s essay on Christian intellectuals).

And I think that’s what Volf is trying to do, for an even broader Christian audience. But while I’m sure he and the others I’ve named have received many times as many views as me, I don’t see much evidence that any of us have succeeded in changing many Christian minds — or even causing soul-searching. The rationalizations for Trump sound much as they did six, twelve, or eighteen months ago; there are just more Christians willing to make them.

So maybe it’s not simply that our premises are “incommensurate” with those of the 70+% of evangelicals planning to vote for Trump. Perhaps people who share our theological convictions but not our education and calling simply don’t care what Christian intellectuals think.

Worse yet: perhaps they reject what we say precisely because we are intellectuals.

And yes, perhaps we’ve overreached, thought too highly of our own judgment, and deserve to be ignored. (I’m still prepared to be convinced that I did wrong to sign an anti-Trump statement in my capacity as a historian.) Indeed, I still agree with Jay Green’s argument that Christian scholars should be prepared “to learn from the ‘uneducated’ men and women who form the pillars of most evangelical churches and small towns in America.”

Stephens/Giberson, The AnointedBut I can’t shake the question raised by Karl Giberson and Randall Stephens in the book Green critiqued: “…why Christians listen to certain leaders while ignoring better-informed but equally evangelical alternatives.”

I don’t mean to sound naïve. (Someone somewhere just said, “Duh.”) But if you’ve been reading me for a while now, you know that I’ve been energized in recent years by the idea of taking up what McKenzie has called our “vocation to the church” — to use our gifts and training not simply to advance in the secular academy, but to contribute directly to the life and mission of the church by teaching, blogging, podcasting, etc. specifically for that audience. (And even by serving in church leadership.)

I still think that’s the right thing for us to be doing. But as we finally reach the end of a terrible year in American political history, I’m less confident that the church is all that eager to listen.

If you’ve actually made it all the way to the end of this, thanks for bearing with an unusually self-loathing example of my commitment to use this blog to think out loud. I’m not typically this cynical and would appreciate hearing responses that either confirm or counter my thinking. Tomorrow I’ll be back with a much more hopeful post.


8 thoughts on “Have Christian Intellectuals Made Any Difference in This Election?

  1. Chris, I’ve appreciated your thoughts and you’ve helped to clarify my own thinking. I’m glad you are writing and I’m glad you’re taking your vocation to the streets (or to the church, as it were). I periodically find myself depressed about the actual outcomes of writing and thinking out loud. I’m in just such a funk myself right now. But especially with all things Trump, it seems light cannot penetrate the darkness. Jacobs’ thoughts are depressing but, sadly, I fear they are accurate. I continue to be astounded by leaders that people have given authority to in their lives–especially as I watch evangelicalism devolve into a quasi-religious nationalism

    1. Sorry to hear that you’re in a similar funk, Kirk. At least in part, I know this is an inevitable part of being an author of any sort – no matter how excited you are to share an idea or story, you can’t control the response of the audience.

  2. I am just a high school teacher and an evangelical, but I was encouraged by this as I have the same concerns you have about Trump. I am also a liberal when it comes to most things political so I do not have to make as large a leap to Hillary Clinton, but there are aspects of her behavior and history that are troubling. I work with more conservative evangelicals and we talk a lot and we can maintain respectful friendly relationships without demanding agreement with our positions. This is the most disturbing aspect of the Trump campaign for me, it makes it much more difficult for friends with different points of view to talk to each other and get along.

    This said, what I find most encouraging and enlightening about this blog is its thoughtfulness and the support it gives to the Christian intellectual (why does it give one a feeling of “shame” almost to call him or herself an intellectual, Christian or otherwise). Thank for the work you do.

    Cordially,
    J. D. Wilson, Jr.

  3. Chris,

    I think among many older generation Evangelicals (over 50 especially) there is a calcification in thought that unfortunately sometimes comes with age. This combined with having outright hated Hillary Clinton for decades now, makes it literally inconceivable to vote for them to vote for anybody other than Trump. If there is a bit of encouragement I can give, it is that among younger Evangelicals (say those born after 1980 or so) it seems that there are significantly less willingness to buy what Trump is selling. Among the numerous acquaintances I have who are Evangelicals, I can count on one hand the number who are under 40 and admit to voting for Trump. The number actively opposed would require more fingers and toes than I have. Among this group, I believe that the warnings of Evangelical intellectuals has had a positive effect.

    Michael

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