“Lincoln, Grant, Trump and the Evangelical Voter”
Dr. Richard J. Alberta
June 11, 2016
The late Historian Shelby Foote used to tell an amusing story about President Lincoln. As he watched victory in the Civil War seeming to slip away in the summer before the election of 1864, a trusted cabinet member came to him with a concern. He warned the President that rumors of Grant’s excessive drinking had become everyday fare among the troops. Lincoln’s response? “Find out what brand he drinks and send a case of it to all of my other Generals! I need this man! He fights!”
Would Mr. Lincoln have preferred his most effective General to be a pious man? Sure. A man known for his prayer life and frequent references to repentance like the estimable General Lee? Of course. It would have been nice if Grant could both fight and embrace piety. Certainly! Yet…Grant was not like Lee who was known to have his “quiet time” mumbling his prayers on horseback as he led his troops. Or calling for clean language and moral propriety among his troops because he was a follower of Christ. That was Lee. Even as he led his army in defense of the hideous abuse of other human beings who were born black in West Africa. Even as their families were torn apart, their women abused and their life spans reduced to barely two decades, Lee defended the south. But he was pious and frequently penitent. Interesting.
What are we who are evangelical to think of the pious who display unrighteousness? And what are we to think of the impious that do the right thing? And are we kidding ourselves if we demand deep spiritual DNA in our leaders? Are we looking for solid moral footing from men and women with feet of clay?
As an evangelical Pastor, I interact regularly with evangelicals who are voting for Donald Trump. And some who find the very idea unthinkable! I am not saying I am or I am not at this point. Because the Trump candidacy is so polarizing, I may never reveal my choice. But I think I know what is going on in many evangelical minds. Thus…a few well-intentioned, non-combative…hopefully beneficent thoughts on this blog!
In a sense, perhaps evangelicals have simply become more realistic. Perhaps without knowing it, they are respecting what theologians call “Common Grace.” For those unfamiliar with that term, a brief review: “Special Grace” means that gift from God that enables a Christian to believe in Christ and be born of the Holy Spirit. It takes a special merciful and totally undeserved act of God to show a person the truth of the Gospel and give him or her the faith that leads to eternal life. In contrast, “Common Grace” is the gifting of God to all people that enables them to develop talents and skills that are good for the society and pleasing to God. Hence, the policeman on the corner may be a hardened atheist but an excellent cop! Or, a general may be known for steroidal impiety but be a remarkable tactician! The best dentist in town may have no fear of God but in pain I might turn to him or her without hesitation.
When Lincoln overlooked Grant’s drinking, he did not endorse it or find it amusing. But he saw in Grant a man who could win in battle. My sense is that many evangelicals see in Trump a man who can fight. Right or wrong, they are quite willing to overlook his rhetorical road rage, his irascibility, and smart remarks about other people and all of the rest. Why? Because at this point in America with a twenty trillion dollar debt load and Isis looming and the Supreme Court pending, evangelicals are frightened. Yes… evangelicals would like a management type in the White House who was also born of the Holy Spirit and a complete gentleman. I get that. Me too. But, absent those traits, they can live with someone more earthy and, at times, arrogant if he can get the job done. “If he can fight,” Lincoln might say.
That evangelicals are willing to accept Mr. Trump seems puzzling to many people. Their question seems to be “How can people who say they are Bible-believing and devoted followers of Christ…possibly vote for a man who insists he has never prayed for forgiveness despite his record of moral migetry? This man shows no familiarity with simple humility and repentance!”
Sure seems that way. However, if humility and regular penitence are required for the Oval Office, one must wonder how to look at many of America’s past leaders…some of them quite effective. Shall we dismiss TR because of his bombastic and, at times, cruel tongue especially towards his political enemies? The great TR who referred to native Africans as “ape-like naked savages” and native Americans as evil nine out of ten times? Was TR ever penitent? Not much evidence of tears trickling down Mt. Rushmore. Yet…many say he was a pretty good president.
Historians can’t find any contrition in the life of Andrew Jackson either. A President who wanted to Christianize the savage native Americans but whose views may have paved the way for the “Trail of Tears.” No, not much evidence of repentance there. Or FDR whose long running affair with a secretary broke his wife’s heart. No indication of contrition. Then of course everyone’s favorite General Eisenhower who’s well known romance with his personal driver left his good wife humiliated? No repentance at least publicly. How about JFK whose many ladies in waiting included skinny dipping secretaries in the White House pool while his wife walked the hallways? To say nothing of Bill and Hillary who, up to this point, have not exactly beaten a path to the confessional. The former president going so far as to insist to interviewer Mike Wallace that he had “nothing to be ashamed of!” A popular president who embodied Jeremiah’s charge against ancient Israel “You have forgotten how to blush!” (Jeremiah 6:15) Indeed, Mr. Clinton managed to demonstrate feet of clay and a wagging finger as he stared into the camera. Repentance? Hardly. Yet each of these people had strengths and brought some leadership to America.
Is it possible that racism and peccadillos have been often the norm and not the exception? Maybe evangelicals are coming to grips with the real picture and setting aside some ideals in pursuit of effective governance? True…some suggest that evangelicals who called for Clinton’s resignation are now hypocrites if they accept Trump’s bad behaviors. Possibly. That would require further argumentation to demonstrate that the two sets of moral lapses are equivalent. After all, Clinton was the president when he sinned. If Trump is elected and falls into the same wickedness then the word impeachment will no doubt surface again. But the irony is almost amusing that Bill Clinton so lowered the bar regarding expected presidential morality that evangelicals may have found a new tolerance for decadence!
A further irony is that Clinton’s supporters insisted that his personal life had nothing to do with his suitability for office. But now many of them join evangelicals demanding a “penitence litmus test” suggesting that no self-respecting voter with any religious or moral scruples could vote for such a man as Trump. This is really quite confusing! Why? Because despite all of the high level moral preening by those who despise Trump, Clinton is still held in high regard. Why? Because he did do some very good things as president. So….if evangelicals are inclined (some of them) to overlook Mr. Trump’s personal short comings, they are in good company vis-à-vis the rest of the electorate.
Thus far, Mr. Trump has not contacted me for advice. But allow me to speculate on what I would suggest if he did so. First, I would advise Mr. Trump to knock off the crude and off-putting remarks. Such talk is boorish and really quite obnoxious. I’d tell him to be more careful with words and explain his views with greater nuance. And to be smarter with questions designed to leave him with a label. Did you really mean that no Mexican could ever be a good and competent judge because he or she is of Mexican origins? Or…did you mean that a particular judge has ruled against you with such bias that you are wondering if his devotion to his heritage has impeded his objectivity? Why not refer to former Attorney General Gonzales, himself of Hispanic origin, who has said your question was “legitimate?” And why not point out that your views on killing the unborn have changed and Hillary’s views have not; they’ve hardened further with palpable disregard for unborn life?
Finally, as a born-again Pastor I would encourage Mr. Trump to pursue the Lord Jesus Christ with far greater passion than the Presidency. But whatever happens, evangelicals are growing in their understanding that we are not electing a prayer warrior or a Priest or a Pastor or Rabbi. But an executive. And evangelicals are anxious. Because they know that this is where we raise our kids and this is where we rely on the police and this is where we pay our taxes. And this is a country on the brink of fiscal implosion. And Isis is right there. Or maybe even right here! And the evangelicals I speak with sense that we desperately need some real presidential management for a change. My guess is that many of them will roll their eyes on Election Day and give Trump their vote. Why? Because when it comes to many of their issues…”he fights.”
(Friends of this blog…your corrections regarding spelling, grammar and typos are more than welcome! I am my own editor! J)