Doomsday Grips Evangelical Politics

Editors’ Note: Excerpted from a New York Times column, December 6, 2019, by Peter Wehner.

We are facing an existential moral crisis.

That at least is the view of many Christians who have given their full-throated support to President Trump. Some of them will privately admit that he is deeply corrupt, but the justification for their support of him goes something like this: Mr. Trump may be unethical, unscrupulous and morally dissolute, but he is by far the lesser of two evils.

After all, they insist, Mr. Trump may be personally immoral, but he is also a viciously effective street fighter for their cause. He is also the only person preventing a takeover of America by the Democratic Party and progressives — and that, they insist, would produce a moral calamity nearly unmatched in American history.

The view that Mr. Trump is all that stands between America and a moral cataclysm was encapsulated by Eric Metaxas, an influential evangelical author and radio talk-show host, who said in 2016, “The only time we faced an existential struggle like this was in the Civil War and in the Revolution when the nation began.” He added, “We are on the verge of losing it as we could have lost it in the Civil War.”

This wasn’t just election-year rhetoric. Last year, Mr. Metaxas told the journalist Jon Ward that while he did not mean to compare Hillary Clinton to Adolf Hitler, “Christians who think the Church in America might have survived a Hillary Clinton presidency are something like the devout Christian Germans who seriously and prayerfully thought it un-Christian to be involved in opposing Hitler because to do so would have dirtied their hands with politics.”

Sohrab Ahmari — a convert to Catholicism who is both the op-ed editor of The New York Post and a contributor to the religious magazine First Things — was so outraged that drag queens were reading stories to children at a library in Sacramento that he has relegated civility to a secondary virtue while turning against modernity and classical liberalism.  Mr. Ahmari and those who share his worldview believe our traditions and way of life are under assault by an aggressive, ruthless adversary and that liberalism is a huge part of the problem.

“To hell with liberal order,” as Mr. Ahmari put it. “Sometimes reactionary politics are the only salutary path.”

But just how bad are things, really? [Emphasis added.] In answering that question, it’s important to understand the perspective of Christian social conservatives, many of whom put sexual ethics and especially abortion at or near the top of the list of their concerns.

A self-identified conservative Christian, Peter Wehner criticizes the doomsday hysterics of other right-wing Christians. He points out, with facts and statistics, that we are not near “the end of times.”

A self-identified conservative Christian, Peter Wehner criticizes the doomsday hysterics of other right-wing Christians. He points out, with facts and statistics, that we are not near “the end of times.”

So where do things stand with abortion? According to the Guttmacher Institute, the number and rate of abortions recently reached their lowest levels since the procedure became legal nationwide in 1973.

We’re also seeing encouraging trends in the behavior of young people. For example, the teenage birthrate in the United States is also at a record low. According to the C.D.C., in 2017 the percentage of high school students who reported that they had ever had sex was at the lowest level since the C.D.C. began conducting the survey in 1991. The percentage of students who said they had used select illicit drugs declined to 14 percent in 2017 from 22.6 percent in 2007.

Among high school seniors, we’re seeing the lowest levels of alcohol use and drunkenness ever recorded. As for violent crime, we have seen stunning improvement, with the rates having plunged since the early 1990s (although there has been a slight uptick in recent years). And in 2018 the divorce rate reached a 40-year low.

InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, one of America’s largest campus ministries, has had its status as a recognized student organization challenged on more than 40 campuses in recent years because it requires student leaders to affirm Christian doctrines. (In most of the cases a resolution was reached.) During his presidential run, Beto O’Rourke said he would support revoking the tax-exempt status of religious institutions — churches, colleges and charities — if they opposed same-sex marriage. The California State Board of Education is overhauling its sex education program, which will include teaching kindergartners about gender expression and identity.

Challenges hardly qualify as existential threats. Every society has problems and failures, areas of brokenness, even areas of ruin. Some things are almost always getting better while some things are almost always getting worse.

For many evangelical and Catholic Christians, these developments pose serious challenges to certain of their core beliefs. Yet these challenges hardly qualify as existential threats. Every society has problems and failures, areas of brokenness, even areas of ruin. Some things are almost always getting better while some things are almost always getting worse. A nation can have low out-of-wedlock birthrates and no drag queens while also allowing for slavery and segregation and exploiting young children by having them work in horrible conditions.

To my fellow Christians, then, a friendly reminder from a conservative who shares many of your concerns: We are not living in Nero’s Rome. In world history, there are very few nations that have been as accommodating to Christianity as the United States is today; and America is hardly on the edge of a moral abyss…. Moral concern has given way to moral panic…. This apocalyptic moral mind-set has led to an alliance with a shockingly unethical figure, who embodies a mobster’s mentality and an anti-Christian ethic.

To my fellow Christians, then, a friendly reminder from a conservative who shares many of your concerns: We are not living in Nero’s Rome. In world history, there are very few nations that have been as accommodating to Christianity as the United States is today; and America is hardly on the edge of a moral abyss.

One of the things I have been most struck by in my conversations with Christian conservatives is how moral concern has given way to moral panic. It distorts their perceptions about the very real progress that has been made while causing feelings of deep insecurity and fear, despite “fear not” being one of the most frequently repeated commands in the Bible.

Many Christians have become invested in a dark narrative. As a friend of mine puts it: “They seem to have some kind of psychological craving for apocalyptic fear. I wonder if walking it back is even possible.”

Whether these Christians will be able to walk back or not, the effects have been injurious. This apocalyptic moral mind-set has led to an alliance with a shockingly unethical figure, who embodies a mobster’s mentality and an anti-Christian ethic. Mr. Trump, a skilled demagogue, has taken full advantage of this. There appears to be almost nothing he can say or do to break the bond that has developed, and virtually nothing that many of his Christian supporters will not excuse.

If anything, the attachment to Mr. Trump among many evangelical Christians has deepened to the point that Ralph Reed, one of the movement’s most influential political figures, recently declared: “There has never been anyone who has defended us and fought for us, who we have loved more than Donald J. Trump. No one!”

But the measure of Christian success cannot be infatuation with and fealty to Donald Trump. A movement characterized by anxiety and anger, by harsh language and hard edges, by defensiveness and undue pessimism, isn’t going to win many converts. Why would it?

 



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