When the Access Hollywood video of Donald Trump joking about sexual assault surfaced in early October, prominent Christian evangelicals like James McDonald and Beth Moore loudly condemned the Republican nominee and proclaimed that they could not in good conscience vote for him.
But to conservative Christian author and media personality Eric Metaxas, perhaps best known for his “stunningly flawed” biography of theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, voting for Trump is still a moral imperative for Christians — according to his recent piece in the Wall Street Journal.
In his article, Metaxas crafts false equivalencies between the 2016 election and historical moral injustices, and in doing so, he opens the door for a Christian extremism under the guise of resistance.
His lines of reasoning are extremely dangerous, and unconscionable for Christians.
Despite Trump’s subsequent attacks on women who came forward with stories of assault, Metaxas appears to have stuck by the thesis of his WSJ article, offering no strong denunciation of Trump and continuing to publicly exhort believers to cast their ballots for the real estate magnate.
That’s consistent with the point of his piece, at least, which is this: Nothing Donald Trump could ever say or do would be bad enough to justify voting for Hillary Clinton. Metaxas casts Hillary Clinton as the standard bearer for moral evil on par with slavery and Nazism, and urges Christians to resist her presidency no matter the cost. To Metaxas, a Christian’s vote to elect Trump is in line with the uncomfortable moral compromises made by titans of faith Wilberforce and Bonhoeffer (who fought slavery and Nazism, respectively).
What he’s saying implicitly is that any and all resistance should be on the table for Christians — after all, Bonhoeffer planned a political assassination of Hitler in his time.
Metaxas’ plea to Christians hinges upon several shaky assumptions — notions that are uncertain at best, and more likely outright falsehoods. To begin, he writes from a position of presumed authority regarding Bonhoeffer — making conjectures about what the German theologian would think about the 2016 election and American politics. But as scholar Charles Marsh points out, in an excellent essay for Religion & Politics, Metaxas’ understanding of Bonhoeffer is fundamentally flawed: He attributes beliefs and concerns to Bonhoeffer that the German’s own words contradict. Marsh notes that Metaxas’ attempt to reclaim a conservative, family-values-spouting Bonhoeffer from the “humanists” and “pacifists” is “complete nonsense,” and reveals a startling “lack of familiarity” with German source material. Metaxas “blithely ignores Bonhoeffer’s abiding loyalty to the Western humanistic tradition,” as well as Bonhoeffer’s refusal of Christian just war doctrine. For Christians, Bonhoeffer said, “Any military service except the ambulance corps, and any preparation for war” should be strictly forbidden.
Such a mischaracterization of the German thinker’s life, legacy, and theology should give Christians pause when reading Metaxas’ connection between Nazi Germany and the 2016 election.
But a possibly even more incorrect assumption underpinning Metaxas’ piece is the association he makes between Trump and the conservative social movement against abortion and for the poor and marginalized.
Metaxas writes that voting for Trump is essential in the advancement of a movement which defends children and the unborn. “A vote for Donald Trump,” he argues, “is not necessarily a vote for Donald Trump himself.”
Except for, well, it is. Trump is running on the platform of himself. His campaign presents a startling lack of any coherent political or moral ideology. His image relies completely upon his ability to remain at the forefront of American popular culture by way of a strongman cult of personality. If we made a list of people self-sacrificially invested in a larger movement, purpose, or ideology, Donald Trump would be lounging at the bottom of that list.
In his piece, Metaxas frames Trump as merely the spokesperson for a coherent ideological platform centered on caring for the poor and marginalized. In reality, though, Trump consistently thrusts himself into the limelight and tamps down substantive debate on key issues. Metaxas also ignores that his (and Trump’s) fixation on loading the Supreme Court is probably not even a good strategy for Christians concerned with abortion.
Regardless, Metaxas is firm in his attempt to make a connection between the 2016 election and the historical injustices of slavery and Nazism. He writes that Christians in the U.S. will never again have an opportunity to rescue “those suffering” from Hillary Clinton’s emails and foreign policy. If Christians don’t vote Trump, he contends, our country’s chance to have “the genuine liberty and self-governance for which millions have died…is gone. Not for four years, or eight, but forever.”
Metaxas attempts to whip up the same fear that Trump does when the candidate loudly claims that the country is being taken away from “real” Americans, or that a “rigged” election will deny agency to his supporters. Ultimately, there’s little difference between Trump’s not-so-veiled threats of force against Clinton and Metaxas’ connection between this election and the Bonhoeffer assassination plot: “For our kids and grandkids, are we not obliged to take our best shot at this?”
Metaxas is ostensibly concerned with Christians exercising the power to vote, but his defense of Trump leaves moral room for a whole host of violent acts in the name of preventing a Clinton presidency. And this violence, in the form of voter intimidation and assault, would be perpetrated upon the most vulnerable and marginalized voters in society — the Matthew 25 people. Such violence not only threatens the bedrock of American democracy that is the peaceful transition of power, but also goes against Jesus’ clear mandate to care for those on the margins.
Trump’s suggested refusal to accept the outcome of the 2016 election, coupled with Metaxas’ desperate insistence that this is our last chance to prevent moral evil equal to Nazism and the commodification of human bodies, provides horrifying permission for Christian Trump followers to act. The deadly combination of Trump’s inability to handle defeat and Metaxas’ “Never surrender” approach to politics could go far in encouraging armed Christians at polling stations — militias convinced that a great moral injustice transcending rule of law is occurring, and must be rectified through intimidation and physical violence.
Christians of all political persuasions should denounce Metaxas’ fear-mongering rhetoric and work together to prevent violence on Nov. 8 and beyond. That is what Bonhoeffer and Wilberforce would do.