The National Religious Broadcasters sponsored a debate on Friday morning between two Never Trump evangelicals and two evangelical Trumpers. The event, held at the National Press Club, was emceed by NRB’s President and CEO Jerry Johnson, who called it a “family conversation.” Johnson, whose own inclinations seemed to rest with Trump’s advocates, was careful to say that NRB members are on both sides of the debate and the group itself does not support or oppose political candidates.
Representing the Never Trump position: pundit Erick Erickson and Bill Wichterman, who served in George W. Bush's White House. Arguing that evangelicals should rally around Trump were radio host Janet Parshall and anti-gay activist Bishop Harry Jackson. The event was structured with two rounds, starting with an Erickson v Parshall bout, followed by a Jackson v Wichterman match-up.
Erickson got the ball rolling saying he wouldn’t tell people not to vote for Trump, but he said that Christians with public platforms should not support Trump publicly “because I think it’s harmful for our witness.” When asked about Jesus, he said Clinton called Him her savior, and Trump gave vague and rambling responses.
Justifying support for Trump based on “values,” he said, runs up against the reality of Trump’s behavior as someone who “has bragged in his books about multiple affairs, including with married women, has cheated widows and single moms and the elderly out of money through Trump University, has stiffed the low-income worker on his buildings, telling them if they want to collect everything they’re owed they need to sue. Why do you go with him instead of her? Well, you say, ‘our values.’ How does he represent our values?...If you want to advocate for that, OK, but how are you advancing the kingdom of God?” Trump, he noted, says he’s a Christian but has repeatedly said he has never repented or asked for forgiveness.
To those who have suggested God could be using Trump like he used biblical figures like King Cyrus, Erickson said God had done that on His own and “has never asked His people to choose the evil.” Erickson said that he’s sure that there were some in Babylon saying “go on and bow, it’s just a statue,” but that the names we remember are those who resisted.
Parshall seemed a bit peeved about Erickson’s arguments. She talked about the supermajority support Trump is getting from conservative Christians and adopted evangelical pollster George Barna’s nomenclature for “SAGE Cons” – Spiritually Active Governance Engaged Conservatives. Trump’s support from that group, she said, has grown from 11 percent early in the year to 80 to 85 percent now.
“I’m interested in keeping the republic,” Parshall said. She dismissed the question of Trump’s character by saying that everybody is a sinner and “God has a track record of using flawed and broken people, even when it doesn’t look right to us.” She read a long list of moral failings by presidents throughout history, saying, “We are not electing a Messiah.” She did a similar litany with biblical figures, saying, “Noah was a drunk. Abraham lied. Jacob was a liar. Moses was a murderer. Samson was a womanizer. Rahab was a prostitute. Elijah was suicidal. Isaiah preached naked. Jonah ran from God. Job went bankrupt. Peter denied Christ.”
Parshall suggested that Trump’s victory over the huge field of Republican competitors was a sign of God’s favor: “For those who have been praying and fasting through, during and for this process, have we now believed the sovereignty of God didn’t apply? Did He take off to Philadelphia, as W.C. Fields said? Or was a God sovereign in this entire process? Can God raise up a leader who just doesn’t look right to us, but is exactly who God wants for such a time as this?”
During a Q&A session, Parshall said that evangelicals should look to Trump’s pick of Mike Pence, “who represents everything we evangelicals love and support,” as his running mate. Wichterman said that the vice president has as much power as the president wants him to have. Trump, he said, is not someone who surrounds himself with people who challenge his authority or is willing to hear from dissenting opinions. “I don’t have any confidence that Mike Pence, a good man, will be able to have that influence on Donald Trump,” he said.
In his response to Parshall, Erickson said essentially that yes, we are all sinners, but do we revel in our sin or repent of it? Are we to lower the bar or strive for something higher? Embracing Trump, he said, neither glorifies God nor advances the kingdom. Parshall responded that Christians have responsibilities on earth to be engaged culturally and politically. She said she doesn’t care that Hillary Clinton says Jesus is her savior if she also supports “the denigration of marriage” and the “annihilation of the pre-born.” She said she was interested in what a candidate will do for the country and “first, last, and always, what will you do with the court?” She said the difference between the judges Hillary Clinton would nominate and Trump’s list is “the difference between darkness and light.”
Harry Jackson started the second round, making the astonishing assertion that Trump “may be the only one who’s able to bring some substantive healing to the racial divide,” because, Jackson said, he could help the country by advancing “practical answers” on educational and economic opportunity. Black and Hispanic voters, he said, have too often settled for “the politics of grievance.”
Jackson’s top three reasons for all Christians to vote for Trump were religious liberty, the Supreme Court, and support for Israel. He cited other reasons of particular interest to Black and Hispanic Christians to back Trump, including educational reform, economic development in urban areas, and family-oriented tax policies.
Trump isn’t perfect, Jackson said, but he’s getting better. Besides, he said, a little “organized and strategic chaos” might be just what the country needs to shake up the status quo of generational poverty and explosive racial tension. “We are at a place in our culture that the folks who control the system, their grasping little fingers need to be broken off the controls.”
Wichterman, a former special assistant to George W. Bush who now runs a ministry to congressional staff, established his conservative bona fides by saying that "you’ll have a hard time getting to my right. I’m a Republican because I’m a conservative, and a conservative because I’m a Christian. I believe conservative policies best reflect a Christian worldview.” Wichterman said he had been ready to support any of the other 16 Republican candidates, but is not willing to support Trump. Wichterman said he will vote for third-party candidate Evan McMullin.
Wichterman took on three of the arguments being used to justify evangelical support for Trump: Trump is the lesser of two evils; God uses bad people for good purposes; and Trump is a “good man”—a phrase Pence repeats over and over when talking about Trump.
Wichterman says the lesser of two evils argument is the most compelling. He said he has used it himself over the years, and understands that Trump is more likely to nominate conservative judges. But that’s not enough, he said, because Trump may actually be “a threat to our democratic republic”:
I care about the Supreme Court because I care deeply about the government handed down to us by the founders…Trump, on the other hand, has too often demonstrated contempt for the rule of law. He has sounded more like a strongman impatient with constitutional constraints. He advocates death to the innocent family members of terrorists…He advocates torture, not as a means of extracting important intelligence, but as a means of retribution. He said he would do a hell of a lot more than waterboarding.
Wichterman slammed Trump for praising dictators like Vladimir Putin – who is a strong leader in the same way arsenic is a strong drink – and the Chinese officials who Trump says showed “strength” by slaughtering peaceful protesters in Tiananmen Square. He cited examples of Trump encouraging violence against protesters. “Trump admires strength whatever form it takes,” he said, which is “inimical to the Gospel.”
Wichterman challenged people who say they won’t vote for Clinton because they believe she’s a liar, but will vote for Trump hoping that he’s been lying and doesn’t really mean what he says. Trump, he said, corrupts his supporters and corrupts “what it means to be a Republican.”
Regarding the argument that God uses bad people for good purposes, Wichterman said that doesn’t mean Christians are called to do bad so that good may result. “I’ve heard some evangelical leaders say we need a bad man to stand up to the bullying of the left…It’s almost as if we’re hiring a hitman to play dirty for the sake of good government,” which is an idea, he said, that “has nothing to do with our faith.”
Wichterman said the argument that Trump is a good man, a humble man, a truth-teller, “completely mystifies me.” He cited a litany of Trump outrages, including the implication that liberal judicial nominees should be assassinated and his reckless talk about rigged elections, which could be a set-up to civil strife. “If Trump is a good man, then I’ve got an entirely different definition of what ‘good’ is,” he said.
In his response, Jackson provided an example of the kind of double standard on truth that Wichterman had talked about. Jackson said Trump ran his primary like a “shock jock,” saying things to get attention, but that he is “growing.” Jackson said that people have been failed by both parties and that Trump can be a “change agent” who can move America forward by “pragmatically” addressing race and class issues.
In his response, Wichterman took on Jackson’s “shock jock” justification for Trump’s comments. What should concern us more, he asked, that Trump means the “profoundly destructive” things he says, or that he doesn't really mean them but says them to get some votes? He thinks Trump’s repeated expressions of admiration for Putin suggest that brute strength is “what he really appreciates and adores.”
He returned to his criticism of Trump’s support for dictators and his dog-whistle on “Second Amendment” responses to possible Clinton judicial nominees. “Is that the kind of society we want,” he asked, “where we’re killing one another over our disagreements?” Wichterman said it makes his blood boil when Trump talks about “knocking the crap out of” people. Trump, he said, is “profoundly reckless” with the rule of law, which is “a precious thing.”
When the NRB’s Johnson started a Q&A session, Parshall responded to Wichterman’s support for McMullin, who is a Mormon, by attacking Mormon theology and Mitt Romney:
What I want to know is why we didn’t have this discussion four years ago. We had a man from Massachusetts who was pro-abortion before he was pro-life, who was supporting Obamacare before he said he opposed it. But far more importantly, because this is an evangelical conversation, I love my friends who are members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. I’ve coalesced and worked with them on many an occasion. But this is an ecclesiastical conversation. That candidate wore underwear that he felt would protect him from harm, believed that Jesus was Satan’s spirit brother and believed that Jesus had returned already to the earth but only to the southern hemisphere. And yet we have a member of our panel who yet again is advocating another Mormon. If we’re going to have an ecclesiastical conversation about evangelicals, then let’s put doctrine on the table and see if that’s our driving factor.
In response to a later “lesser of two evils” question, Wichterman seemingly responded to Parshall’s attacks on Mormons by saying “I know many non-Christians who have wonderful character, and I know many Christians who have deplorable character.”
In response to a question about whether Trump’s comments about immigrants and others had been misinterpreted as “blanket statements,” Erickson said it is troubling that those in the alt-right who embrace a kind of white “tribalism” hear Donald Trump and think he is one of them. The campaign, he says, has made a mistake in “fostering those dog whistles for that group.”
Johnson asked Wichterman about a video created by Catholics for Trump meant to suggest that Trump’s much-criticized mocking of a disabled reporter might have been a more generic form of making fun of people. Even if you give Trump the benefit of the doubt in that specific instance, Wichterman said, Trump has a habit of “unapologetically” making fun of people for how they look, something Wichterman said is “corrosive to our national character” and “says something deeply wrong about the man’s character.”
In his closing remarks, Wichterman said people do not have to give into a binary choice. The founding fathers, he said, didn’t trust majorities, which is why they built in checks on power, including the electoral college. “I think we need to take seriously Trump’s words,” he said, “and we need to stop hoping that he’s just a huckster and a charlatan and just lying all the time.”