Point of View
On October 30, 2019, EPPC Senior Fellow Peter Wehner appeared on the radio program Point of View (with guest host Penna Dexter) to discuss his recent essay in The Atlantic, “The Deepening Crisis in Evangelical Christianity,” and the relationship between evangelicals and President Trump.
Click here or below to listen:
Below is a partial transcript of the conversation:
PENNA DEXTER: Let’s go to Georgia, and speak with Anthony. What’s your question for Peter?
ANTHONY: Well, I have a question, but I would like to make a statement first. Mr. Wehner, it’s pretty obvious to me, and I think most Americans would say the same thing listening to you, I question your motive. You’re making points about a lot of the small, negative things that Trump has done and is doing. But when you seriously compare those small things compared to the positive things that he’s doing, the positives outweigh the negatives. When you consider what his stance is with abortion, and human rights, taxes, his stance on how he loves America, when you compare that to Obama and all the things that he did, just the opposite of what Trump is doing, how can you put so much focus on his personality rather than focusing on all the positives that he’s doing. And that’s why I question your motives.
DEXTER: Okay, Peter, your response?
PETER WEHNER: You know, as a general matter, I try not to — getting into questions of motives is always dangerous, because our own motives, we hardly know those, let alone other people’s. So people can ascribe to motives whatever they want.
And the larger point about these being small negatives, I think they’re more significant. So for example, I believe – and I understand people who disagree with me – but I believe that the full scale, all-out assault that Donald Trump is waging on truth, truth as a concept, is very, very damaging to the civic and political culture. And the assault on the idea of truth itself. I just don’t think there’s any question, and I could run through, but I would run out of time, the number of lies he tells.
I understand the people who think that the lies aren’t important.
I think the conspiracy theories that he promotes, I think that asking a foreign power to intervene in an American election is a problem. So I don’t think those are small. But let’s grant for the sake of the argument that I’m wrong about that and that the positives that he does in policy outweighs the negatives. As I’ve said about two or three times now, and I’ll say it for a fourth time: I understand that argument, and I understand if you feel like, because of your belief on a series of issues from the courts to abortion to others, that you need to vote for him rather than a Democratic alternative and that’s better for the common good. So I get that. That’s not really the dispute.
What I would say that what you need to answer and what I think a lot of people who view the world like you do, is why aren’t you using the same standard with Trump that you would use for Obama or Clinton on the issue of character, morality, integrity and ethics?
That is, if you flipped things around and if Obama or Clinton had done the very same things that Trump has done, I can just about promise you that almost everybody who is listening to our broadcast and you and others would have considered those things enormous issues. Indeed, we’ve had that experiment; it was called the 1990s and the Bill Clinton scandal. And I remember many of the same people who today are sotto voce, who are quiet with Trump or defending him, saying time and time again how much character mattered and how integrity did. So all I’m asking you to do is not to vote, not even to….
DEXTER: Yeah, but it didn’t get the right anywhere to do that, because actually the left made gains in Congress and President Clinton was re-elected, so it didn’t do any good. So I think the right kind of learned that lesson.
WEHNER: But I’m certain that you wouldn’t argue that standing for integrity and morality is a utilitarian issue and you only do it when it’s politically advantageous. That’s not your position. The reason that you would stand up and say that morality matters, you have to defend truth, you have to stand up for matters of right and wrong, is because it’s the right thing to do. And even as a person of the Christian faith, you would want to do it. So it’s not a question of if it’s utilitarian; then you would say you’re a relativist. You’d say, “Well, we’ll stand for truth when it helps us politically — but when it hurts us politically we’ll stand for lies.”
DEXTER: But I don’t think believers are not standing for truth. They’re just choosing not to criticize and critique the president because they see that he’s taking positions and advancing causes that they believe in, so they don’t want to hamstring him, basically.
WEHNER: Well, if that’s what they want to do, then they should be up front about it and then they should say, “Look, we don’t really care about integrity in political leadership and character….”
DEXTER: No, I don’t think that’s fair to accuse Christians of that just because they support the president’s policies.
WEHNER: Well, let me make the argument since you raised the question. If you believe that, if your view is that character, integrity, morality, ethical conduct matters, but it only matters if liberals go cross-wise of those things, then we’re going to raise it; but if it’s a conservative, if it’s Donald Trump, then we’re going to overlook it and we’re going to defend him – if that’s your position, because your argument would be if we raise it it’s going to weaken him and if we weaken him we weaken America, then just come out and say it. Then say, “Actually, these issues of truth and morality and integrity were mere instrumentalities. They were means to an end, the end being political power.” Then that would save us a lot of energy in the debate. We wouldn’t really be having a debate about whether ethics matters; you would simply be saying “It matters if it helps us politically, but if it hurts us politically, then we won’t really talk about it.”
Now maybe that is the position. I think for a large number of people that may well be the position, because that explains why, when it comes to Trump, they not only won’t publicly challenge him, they will defend him — even though if the exact same thing or a fraction of the same thing had happened with Hillary Clinton or Bill Clinton or Barack Obama, they would raise those issues. That’s all I’m saying. Let’s be candid about it then. If you really believe morality, ethics, integrity, right and wrong are mere instrumentalities…
DEXTER: I just don’t think you can, most evangelicals do not believe that. But they’re also not asking for theologian in chief as president. They want somebody to get some things done, and he has gotten a lot of things done.
WEHNER: I understand. But you were the one who made the argument five minutes ago that said the reason they don’t want to say these things is that they think that in your words it will “hamstring” him. So you’re the one who’s making the argument that the kind of standards, the kind of moral arguments they would make….
DEXTER: I’m not sure what anyone’s motives are. But I think that’s a possible motive for some people.
WEHNER: Alright, is it something you think would be problematic? What is your view? Would your view be that we should have essentially the same standard…
DEXTER: I think we should call, just as we called President Bush out on things that we didn’t agree with, we could call President Trump out on things. But overwhelmingly when you see, you’re shocked by a person who keeps campaign promises, you’re shocked by the stance on religious liberty, for instance, you’re shocked that a president would actually be with us on certain things, you can also say those things.
WEHNER: Number one, the number of campaign promises he’s kept is actually not that good compared to other people, but bracket that for the time being. Again, it’s perfectly fine to say that on religious liberties….
DEXTER: You know what, Peter, the segment is ending. I appreciate your sticking with us and thank you for bringing all of this up. It’s food for thought.