informal essays

Can Bad Character Prevent Good Leadership? A Question For Evangelical Trump Supporters

Two months ago, Amy Gannett struck a chord with thousands of Christian Millennials with her blog post “How Evangelicals Are Losing An Entire Generation.” I’ve been thinking about that post again as I watch more and more evangelical pastors and leaders from the Baby Boomer generation joining the chorus to support Donald Trump for president.

Now Christians are going to have different opinions about politics, and we need to be able to talk humbly to each other about them. I don’t claim to speak for everyone in my generation – I know many who don’t agree, and some from other generations who do – but based on countless conversations, various polls, and relentless online streams, I think this election has exposed a major generation gap between Baby Boomers and Millennials – a gap that will persist regardless of who wins in November – a gap we need to be talking about.

This is not a criticism.

It’s a cry for help.

American Evangelical Millennials. We’ve grown up in a strange world. Bill Clinton’s sex scandal is the first major political event many of us remember. We all didn’t understand what sex was, but we got the impression that what Clinton did was bad and it was another symptom of how the country was getting worse and how everything would have been better if a Republican had been in office. Evangelical leaders like James Dobson called out Clinton’s adultery, and his lying about it, as evidence of his fundamental lack of character for such an important leadership position:

What has alarmed me throughout this episode has been the willingness of my fellow citizens to rationalize the President’s behavior even after they suspected, and later knew, that he was lying

As it turns out, character DOES matter. You can’t run a family, let alone a country, without it. How foolish to believe that a person who lacks honesty and moral integrity is qualified to lead a nation and the world! Nevertheless, our people continue to say that the President is doing a good job even if they don’t respect him personally. Those two positions are fundamentally incompatible. In the Book of James the question is posed, “Can both fresh water and salt water flow from the same spring” (James 3:11 NIV). The answer is no…

I just don’t understand it. Why aren’t parents more concerned about what their children are hearing about the President’s behavior?

What have we taught our boys about respecting women? What have our little girls learned about men?

We are facing a profound moral crisis — not only because one man has disgraced us — but because our people no longer recognize the nature of evil.

Now we see those very same leaders turning around and defending a man who has committed adultery in multiple marriages, a man whose lies repeatedly try to rewrite the history of his past positions as if we have no memory, who claims he never said things when there is clear footage that he did, who attacked an opponent with baseless allegations from the National Enquirer and even lied about what that tabloid said about it, a man who lies so consistently, so brazenly, so unrepentantly that he makes Hillary Clinton look honest.

We are so confused.

Why does it seem like our evangelical leaders hold partisan politics more constant than what they say the Bible teaches about those politics?

This is something that matters deeply to us. Many of us have friends who have left the faith in large part due to disillusionment with the hypocritical joining of American Republicans and religion. We don’t want to run away with them. But we understand how they feel.

Our evangelical leaders criticized a Democrat’s moral failures, and when people said, it’s ok, the president is not a pastor, he’s doing a good job with the economy, our leaders said, No, character is fundamental to leadership, you can’t make good decisions without it. Now we have a Republican candidate with arguably far worse moral failures, and we’re saying, it’s ok, the president is not a pastor, he might be good for the economy?

Can bad character prevent good leadership? Or not?

This is more than just a rude guy saying some mean things. Doesn’t Proverbs say “a lying tongue” is one of God’s seven abominations (Prov. 6:17)? If “the Lord detests dishonest scales,” (Prov 11:1) should we be concerned about one who shortchanges his contractors? If safety comes from a “multitude of counselors,” (Prov. 11:14) should we be concerned about one who prides himself on his own instincts, gets bored when advisors try to prepare him for a debate and chides them when they to correct his delusion that he won it anyway? If “he who restrains his lips is wise,” (Prov. 10:19) should we concerned about one who recklessly spreads rumors about sex tapes of women after already doubling-down on criticizing their weight?

If Trump is the “wrecking ball” we need to overthrow the corrupt government, how do we know we won’t end up like the man who expelled an unclean spirit but didn’t replace it with anything good and ended up in a “last state” that was worse than the “first”? (Matt 12:43-45)

Are we really saying the character of the most powerful leader in the world does not matter a single iota regarding the powerful decisions they will make as long as they run with an (R) after their name and claim they’ll appoint some other leaders we’ll probably like?

Of course no one is perfect. But imperfect people with integrity can be good leaders. And imperfect people without integrity cannot.

Or at least that’s what every evangelical influence told us for years and years.

The teaching we thought we received from the leaders of the previous generation seems so fundamentally at odds with the positions they are taking now. And we don’t know how to process that. Are they wrong about this? Were we wrong about them? About ourselves? None of it makes sense to us.

We are so confused.

Ever since we’ve been old enough to vote – only three or four cycles, really – we’ve heard the admonitions about voting for the lesser of two evils. And we’ve watched as the lesser keeps getting less good. With both major candidates at record unfavorable ratings, there are multiple third parties polling at record levels this cycle (the Libertarians with their two former Republican governors have been flirting with double-digits). Could our evangelical leaders have tried to get behind a third-party bid, even with the resignation of switching back to (R) if it didn’t take off? We can’t help but wonder why we didn’t even try to snap out of the lesser-of-two-evils spiral.

To be honest, we’re not sure the (R) is the lesser evil this time around.

This may come as a surprise to some of you, but we’re just not that scared of Hillary Clinton. It’s not that we think she’d be good, either. But we’ve heard our leaders spend the last eight years warning Obama was going to cause the destruction of America, and now they sound like the boy who cried wolf as we look around thinking things aren’t so bad.

Yes, we’re heartbroken by abortion. We think Obamacare has made things worse for a lot of us. We’re not really expecting much Social Security from our government’s unsustainable fiscal path. But we’re not really convinced Trump has a plan or even an interest in changing any of those things. And we don’t all think Hillary and the Democrats are “100% wrong” – as I saw one pastor recently post – about everything. A lot of us kinda like the idea of welcoming more refugees; we think there might even be something Biblical about it that’s worth what we think is a negligible risk. Some of us even think it might be worth at least doing a little something about the risk of climate change.

Maybe that’s why Hillary’s potential to maybe nominate somebody to the Supreme Court who might get to take cases that might nudge some issues away from what we’d prefer… well, that doesn’t really scare us, either – or at least it’s not obvious to us that it’s definitely worse than the potential downsides of Trump directly managing everything in the executive branch. (When you consider life expectancy these days, what if no more justices die in the next four years? Should we throw away our integrity for an event that might not even happen?) Our hope hasn’t been in politicians for awhile… maybe it never was?

I know, I know. We have biases, too. Maybe we’re all young and naive. Maybe we’re not old enough to understand the way the world really works or what our country really needs. We need elders, mentors, leaders. Please forgive us when we’re stubborn, angry, quick to speak and slow to listen. But a lot of us are starting to think that we don’t know what to do.

I’m not just talking about who to vote for president this year. What I really mean is, a lot of us don’t know who to look up to anymore. Unlike some of our friends, we still believe in God. We still want to believe in the Bible, and we don’t really want to run to the liberal theology of some of our other friends, either. But we find ourselves increasingly apart from the leading figures of our parents’ generation.

Who do we follow? Dr. Russell Moore of the Southern Baptist Convention, in my opinion, has been fantastic, on everything from civil rights and racism to refugees to abortion. I’m sure there are others. But I don’t want evangelicals to just split into pro-Trump and anti-Trump factions. I don’t want to say “we’re right” and go with the people I agree with. I hope we can have conversations about things like character in leadership.

I’ll leave with these profound words from Amy Gannett:

Over the last several months, I have lost respect for the Republican party, and I honestly thought that would be the biggest tragedy of this election. But the disappointing truth is this: I’m losing faith in Evangelicals.

And this is frightening. I am an Evangelical. I hold to Evangelical theology. I have attended not one, but two Evangelical schools…

Evangelical leaders are going to lose an entire generation of Christians in the wake of our current political and social climate. This is not an article asking millennials to leave Evangelicalism because I believe it can’t be saved, nor is this article saying that Evangelicalism is dead. It also is not a proposal of a useful way forward in this“dumpster fire” of an election. It is a plea for reform. It is a big ask of Evangelical leaders to reevaluate the stakes they have put in the ground and ask if there could be a better, more truly Evangelical way…

Because you’re losing us, and we don’t want to be lost.

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