David French recently published an article in National Review titled ‘Franklin Graham and the High Cost of the Lost Evangelical Witness.’ I came across it in my Facebook feed yesterday.
A friend of mine – a Never-Trumper like French – had posted it. Two pastors who are mutual friends had commented. One said it was a gutsy article. The other said it was an accurate article. Out of respect for them and their opinions and judgment, I decided to click on the link.
I braced myself for some variation on the claim that Christians who voted for and continue to support President Trump are compromising their character and testimony for political gains because Trump is an immoral man.
This expectation was not disappointed.
French quoted two contrasting sets of remarks made by Franklin Graham – pastor and son of legendary evangelist Billy Graham. One was in response to President Clinton’s philandering with Monica Lewinsky. The other was regarding President Trump, specifically his alleged affair with porn star Stormy Daniels, and the hush money paid to keep her from going public.
During the Clinton scandal, Franklin Graham had written that a President’s character mattered. Indifference toward Clinton’s sin would sear the conscience of the nation. What Clinton had done was intolerable.
Fast-forward to President Trump. The good reverend sings a different tune. Now, a public official’s extramarital affairs are nobody’s business. Graham still fully supports President Trump.
French says this is double-speak, and is due to a purely partisan, transactional attitude toward political commentary. Franklin Graham has therefore abandoned his principles. His hypocrisy has damaged his credibility, and that of all Christians. What is more, French believes the example of Graham is indicative of what has happened more broadly in America with the testimony of evangelical Christians who support President Trump.
Is David French Right?
First, let me say that I do not follow Franklin Graham closely, and I was unaware of what public positions he took regarding Bill Clinton’s dalliances before reading the David French article.
Speaking for myself, what Graham had to say at the first about tolerance and normalization of President Clinton’s sins and what such would do to the conscience and character of the nation was correct.
Going back farther, the same should have been said of JFK and LBJ. I understand that their antics were not widely known during their time in office, however.
John F. Kennedy was a notorious womanizer. Lyndon Baines Johnson made a habit of exposing himself to staff and visitors to the White House as a way of asserting dominance.
Go back further in the history of 20th century U.S. Presidents. We know that Dwight D. Eisenhower had a long-running affair with his secretary during World War II. Franklin Delano Roosevelt was also unfaithful.
Looking back on the lives and administrations of each of these men, I believe it is fair to say that their private character and conduct had an impact on their public service. Whether or not their sin was publicly known is beside the point. Their inner circles certainly knew. Like pebbles dropped in water, their secret vices negatively impacted both themselves and those around them, including the nation as a whole.
The same is no less true for President Trump.
Today, however, the mainstream media in America does not gloss over presidential indiscretions or embarrassments. Every word, deed, and appearance is sifted for any nugget of guilt or incrimination that can be used to invalidate the executive, and stymie if not torpedo his initiatives.
This is the far more pressing threat to our national character and conscience.
Of Prophets and Evangelists
In the gospels accounts, John the Baptist called Herod to repent for taking his brother’s wife. This led to his arrest, imprisonment, and eventual beheading.
Nathan the prophet boldly told King David “you are the man” when confronting him about stealing the wife of Uriah and arranging the murder of that faithful servant.
As an aside, I would point out that the Biblical narrative does not record Nathan confronting David for having multiple wives. David French seems to imply Trump should be rebuked for having been married three times now. Yet King David’s chief transgression – the one for which both he and the nation of Israel suffered – indisputably was taking another man’s wife and having that same man killed to cover up the transgression.
Whatever John felt toward Herod, I am sure it was not for lack of love or support for David that Nathan rebuked him. Just so, it would not be unloving or unsupportive to call President Trump to repentance for his sin.
That said, let us put aside for a moment questions of Franklin Graham and his consistency or lack thereof. When it comes to our support or lack thereof for any governing authority, should we recognize a meaningful difference between transgressions we knot to be occurring in the present and those which are merely purported or alleged to have happened years or even decades ago?
For instance, would there have been an equal imperative for Christians to denounce or rebuke President Eisenhower for the affair before he was President, when he was serving as Supreme Commander of Allied Forces?
What about John F. Kennedy having his brother and others daily arranging trysts in the White House while he was serving as President?
Is there a significant distinction between these examples? I think there is.
The Evangelical Testimony
The answer may be that we should call anyone who claims to be a Christian to repent publicly of all of their past sins that are publicly known.
But is President Trump a Christian? Dr. James Dobson claimed during the 2016 presidential campaign that someone close to Trump claimed he had been ‘born again’ in recent years.
Even if Trump makes no claim of heartfelt orthodox Christian faith, and even if he is not a Christian, it would be right to call him to repentance of sin. Herod made no claim of Christianity when John rebuked him publicly.
It is by confession, repentance, and genuine belief that one becomes a Christian. If President Trump is not a Christian, we should desire and invite him to become one no less than anyone else.
Yet political commentary in public can be separate and distinct from privately sharing the gospel with someone.
I should want my manager at work to become a Christian if he is not one. Yet I do not best pursue that end by calling him to repentance of his private sins at a weekly staff meeting.
On the contrary, I pursue that end best by making the most of private opportunities to discuss spiritual matters with him, and doing my own job well, and acting and speaking with integrity myself so as to have a good testimony myself. His actions are not my testimony.
If my manager asks me about a project I’m working on, or I’m talking with a co-worker about what we have been asked to do by our chief, I maintain my testimony best by faithfully serving the legitimate ends towards which we are all working together, so long as nothing we have been asked to do is inherently ungodly.
Just so with President Trump.
Biased Calls for Repentance
It does not naturally follow that evangelicals betray their principles by supporting or defending President Trump’s administration. Nor is the mark of the true Christian to abandon President Trump when his opposition trots out his past moral failures. Even less when unproven accusations and irresponsible speculations are leveled, no matter how loudly and often.
If it were revealed that Trump was still in the present committing adultery and being sexually immoral, that would be a thing to rebuke and call him to repentance for. But supposing those things are in the past, what would we be asking Trump to do differently in the present if we called on him to repentance?
Besides this, it is not only reasonable, but imperative that we balk at media personalities and politicians on the Left when they disingenuously rail against Trump for having been crass and sexually immoral in the past.
The Left is not bringing these things up because they believe what Trump did was ungodly or immoral. No, they’re bringing these things up because they hate that he’s undoing their disastrous foreign and domestic policies.
For proof of the Left’s bad faith, we need look no further than the incessant mockery of Vice President Mike Pence and the national embarrassment that was Brett Kavanaugh confirmation hearings.
In the case of Brett Kavanaugh, decades-old unproven allegations were trotted out as established fact. Kavanaugh was presumed guilty until proven innocent because of ulterior motives.
In Mike Pence, we have a man of upstanding character who refuses even to be alone with women who are not his wife. And because he believes homosexuality is a sin, he is derided as a bigot.
Abandoning Trump would not undo the contempt the Left has for public Christianity.
Testimony or Reputation?
David French criticizes Franklin Graham and like-minded American Christians for being double-minded and two-faced. We are not being good Christians to have voted for and supported President Trump.
Never Trump conservatives like French are fond of saying character matters. Yet all too often the presumption seems to be that character is only what a person is not doing.
We know from the Scriptures, however, that sin and righteousness are more than avoiding wrong actions. They are also a matter of righteous activity. There are sins of commission – bearing false witness, theft, murder, etc. But there are also sins of omission. And we are guilty of this latter kind of sin when we do not do the right thing.
As James writes in the New Testament, “So whoever knows the right thing to do and fails to do it, for him it is sin.”
My fear is that conservatives Christians like David French have become more concerned with their reputation with the Left than they are with their testimony for doing and supporting the right thing. For this reason, they have often refused to acknowledge what character is revealed in President Trump’s courageous pursuit of doing what is right in the face of fierce opposition.
Speaking for myself, I am very concerned that we Christians maintain a good testimony. Toward this end, we would do well to remember and heed the words of Exodus 23:1-3.
“You shall not spread a false report. You shall not join hands with a wicked man to be a malicious witness. You shall not fall in with the many to do evil, nor shall you bear witness in a lawsuit, siding with the many, so as to pervert justice, nor shall you be partial to a poor man in his lawsuit.”