Published November 25, 2019
It isn’t enough for Franklin Graham and Eric Metaxas, two prominent figures within the American evangelical movement, to lavish praise on President Donald Trump. They have now decided they must try to demonize his critics.
During his November 21 interview with Graham, Metaxas, a Salem Radio Network talk-show host, asked the son of the late evangelist Billy Graham, “What do you think of what is happening now? I mean, it’s a very bizarre situation to be living in a country where some people seem to exist to undermine the president of the United States. It’s just a bizarre time for most Americans.”
Franklin Graham, president and CEO of the Billy Graham Evangelical Association, responded, “Well, I believe it’s almost a demonic power that is trying—”
At which point Metaxas interjected, “I would disagree. It’s not almost demonic. You know and I know, at the heart, it’s a spiritual battle.”
Graham agreed, though his defense of Trump was based on economic rather than spiritual or cultural issues. (Graham argued that a strong economy leads to more tithing and church-building programs.) Metaxas then complained, “People seem to have devolved to a kind of moralistic Pharisaism, and they say, ‘How can you support somebody blah, blah, blah,’ and then go on to cite how he’s the least Christian—you know, they go on and on, and I think these people don’t, they don’t even have a biblical view when it comes to that—you know, that if somebody doesn’t hold to our theology, that doesn’t mean they can’t be a great pilot, or a great doctor or dentist. I mean, it’s a bizarre situation that we’re in, that people seem only to have these standards for the president somehow.”
To which Graham responded, “I believe that Donald Trump believes—he believes in God. He believes in Jesus Christ. His depth—he doesn’t, you know, he went to churches here in New York; he didn’t get a whole lot of teaching.”
There are several things to say in response to the Graham-Metaxas conversation, starting with the theologically distorted and confused charges that were leveled by Graham and amplified by Metaxas. They didn’t make the case that Trump critics are sincere but wrong, or even that they are insincere and unpatriotic. Instead, they felt compelled to portray those with whom they disagree politically as under demonic influences, which for a Christian is about as serious an accusation as there is. It means their opponents are the embodiment of evil, the “enemy,” anti-God, a kind of anti-Christ.
There is no biblical or theological case to support the claim that critics of Donald Trump are under the spell of Satan. It is invented out of thin air, a shallow, wild, and reckless charge meant to be a conversation stopper.
Just ask yourself where this game ends. Do demonic powers explain opposition to all politicians supported by Graham and Metaxas, or to Trump alone? Would they argue that all Christians (and non-Christians) who oppose Trump are under the influence of Satan? What about when it comes to specific issues? Should we ascribe to Beelzebub the fact that many Americans differ with Graham and Metaxas on issues such as gun control, tax cuts, charter schools, federal judges, climate change, the budget for the National Institutes of Health, foreign aid, criminal justice and incarceration, a wall on the southern border, and Medicaid reform? Are we supposed to believe that Adam Schiff’s words during the impeachment inquiry are not his own but those of demons in disguise? Were the testimonies of Ambassador Bill Taylor, Fiona Hill, and Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Vindman truthful accounts offered by admirable public servants that badly hurt the president’s credibility—or the result of demonic powers?
For Graham and Metaxas, it appears that agreeing with them equates to agreeing with God—and disagreeing with them, at least when it comes to Donald Trump, means doing the work of the evil one.
In their interview, Graham and Metaxas presented a rather misleading picture of how strong Trump’s economy is and how weak Barack Obama’s was.
It’s true that the unemployment rate is the lowest it’s been in half a century, and the stock market is at a record high. That’s all to the good. At the same time, economic growth under Trump has been so-so. GDP growth—which, under Trump will not reach even 3 percent during his first three years in office—is decelerating. The deficit has exploded. The manufacturing industry is in recession. And job growth during the last 33 months of the Obama presidency was higher than job growth during the first 33 months of the Trump presidency. (A fair-minded comparison of Obama’s and Trump’s economic records can be found here.)
Yet even if the economy were “screaming forward” in the way Graham claims, this problem would still remain: During the second term of Bill Clinton’s presidency, when the economy was in many respects stronger than it is today, Franklin Graham wasn’t defending Clinton’s moral and ethical transgressions based on the economy growing at 4 percent annually, which might translate into more tithing and church-building projects. He didn’t overlook Clinton’s affair with an intern because we had a budget surplus. Instead Graham wrote this:
The God of the Bible says that what one does in private does matter. Mr. Clinton’s months-long extramarital sexual behavior in the Oval Office now concerns him and the rest of the world, not just his immediate family. If he will lie to or mislead his wife and daughter, those with whom he is most intimate, what will prevent him from doing the same to the American public? … The scandal of Mr. Clinton and Ms. Lewinsky has forced us to examine the morality of public and private behavior with new intellectual and spiritual vigor.
That new intellectual and spiritual vigor seems to have waned a bit.
Graham is applying quite a different standard to Donald Trump, who during the 2016 campaign was actively involved in engineering a hush-money payment to a porn star with whom he had had an affair while married to his third wife. Graham is using a glaring double standard, the kind that seemed to bother Jesus quite a lot.
For his part, Metaxas, who wrote a popular (if slipshod) biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, creates a silly caricature of Trump’s critics. Metaxas claims that some Christians criticize the president because they don’t think he’s a Christian and he doesn’t share their theology. In fact, the criticisms of Trump by every Christian I know have nothing to do with his views on infant versus adult baptism, or premillennialism versus postmillennialism. Nor do they hold the view that a successful president must be a Christian president.
Rather, their concerns are based on their belief that Donald Trump is a deeply corrupt man in virtually every area of his life and that his corruptions have an enormous blast radius, inflicting injury upon our nation and its norms, standards of decency, and honor, and America’s civic and political culture.
Trump’s Christian critics don’t really care whether he leans more in the direction of predestination or free will; what troubles them is that he’s a pathological liar engaged in an effort to annihilate truth as a concept; a conspiracy-monger; and a misogynist and bully who dehumanizes his critics and mocks former prisoners of war, the parents of fallen soldiers, and people with disabilities. What upsets them is Trump’s open admiration for brutal dictators, including Kim Jung Un, who ranks among the worst persecutors of Christians in the world; his easy betrayal of everyone from his wives to allies like the Kurds; and his history of engaging in predatory sexual behavior. What alarms them is that we have a president who fans the flames of ethnic and racial hate, who is willing to pressure foreign nations to dig up dirt on his political opponents, and who was the subject of a nearly 500-page report by a special counsel offering a portrait that was damning and went unrefuted.
That Metaxas ignores all of that, and instead pretends that the objections of Christian critics of Trump are theological and doctrinal in nature, illustrates how fundamentally weak his case is. He won’t fairly represent the arguments of the other side because he can’t refute them.
Graham and Metaxas do not represent all of the white evangelical world, but they do represent a significant part of it. And what their comments offer the rest of us is a window not only into the massive theological, intellectual, and moral deformations caused by acute political tribalism, but also into the dangers of those who see themselves as the Children of Light and those with whom they disagree as the Children of Darkness.
Graham and Metaxas appear to believe that they, along with Donald Trump, are part of a holy crusade to rid the world of evil, wickedness, and demonic powers. What they are saying in their interview is that you either stand with them, or you stand with the forces of Satan.
There is no middle ground.
This mind-set is not new, but it is dangerous. Among other things, it leaves no room for the democratic virtue of compromise—after all, how can you compromise with those animated by demonic powers?—or epistemological humility. It makes learning from others who hold different views almost impossible. It also treats critics of Trump, Christian and non-Christian alike, not as fellow citizens but as agents of Satan.
For my part, I don’t think either Graham or Metaxas are wicked, malevolent, or at the mercy of demonic powers. Graham’s work with Samaritan’s Purse is humane and laudatory, and Metaxas can be clever and engaging. I believe, too, that they have convinced themselves that they are acting faithfully.
But here’s what I also think: Franklin Graham and Eric Metaxas are acting irresponsibility and unwisely. In their zeal to defend Donald Trump, they are leveling rash and careless attacks. And they are doing significant, if unintentional, harm to the Christian witness.
And there are far too many others like them.
However admirable these men might be in their personal lives, their portrayal of Christianity to a watching world is of a faith coiled with anger, ungracious and harsh, rigid and resentful, overflowing with grievances. They speak as if gripped by fear, which gives rise to antipathy toward others, which in turn creates unnecessary divisions and hostility. (In 2016, Metaxas described America as facing an existential crisis akin to the Civil War.)
As a result, they make the job of the so-called New Atheists so much easier than it would otherwise be. All militant atheists need to do is to point people—young people in particular—to conversations like the one between Graham and Metaxas and say, “Is that the kind of faith you want to be associated with?” If that was what I thought even remotely embodied true Christianity, I would want nothing to do with it.
When a close friend of mine who is an atheist hears people like Graham and Metaxas speaking as they do, he thinks Christianity is unreasonable, politically weaponized, and utterly unappealing. (This person, by the way—after I sent him this clip of the grieving families of those killed at a church in Charleston in 2015 confronting and then forgiving the murder—wrote me and said, “I don’t think I even understood the word ‘grace,’ in a Christian context, until I saw the church members’ reaction in Charleston. I probably still don’t understand it fully, but I feel a lot closer.”)
It’s been said that C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien never lost their wonder and enchantment with the world. It’s an unfortunate commentary on the state of things that the same can be said of so few public, and certainly so few politically active, evangelicals. It seems to me that Christians in public life should make a compelling case for social order and moral excellence. They should speak truth even when it cuts against the cultural grain—including the cultural grain within their own Christian subcultures—but do so with a generosity of spirit, all the while offering a healing touch, especially to those who are suffering and living in the shadows of society.
Those of us of the Christian faith should do a much better job than we do at modeling listening well to others, learning their stories and struggles, hearing their doubts, welcoming them, and being agents of reconciliation and redemption. (I explored these themes in my recent book, The Death of Politics, from which I’ve drawn for this essay.)
“We need a gospel culture as opposed to a political culture,” James Forsyth, the senior pastor at McLean Presbyterian Church, in McLean, Virginia, once told me. “Jesus challenges all our categories—political, theological, ethnic, racial, cultural.” He added, “What we need is a humble remapping of cultural engagement.”
In his book What’s So Amazing About Grace? Philip Yancey tells of how prior to writing his book, he began asking strangers a question when striking up a conversation: “When I say the words ‘evangelical Christian’ what comes to mind?” Yancey writes that he mostly heard political descriptions—and not once did he hear a description redolent of grace.
Yancey adds this:
Grace comes free of charge to people who do not deserve it and I am one of those people. I think back to who I was—resentful, wound tight with anger, a single hardened link in a long chain of ungrace learned from family and church. Now I am trying in my own small way to pipe the tune of grace. I do so because I know, more surely than I know anything, that any pang of healing or forgiveness of goodness I have ever felt comes solely from the grace of God. I yearn for the church to become a nourishing culture of that grace.
So do many of the rest of us. And so does Jesus.
Peter Wehner is a contributing writer at The Atlantic, a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, and Egan visiting professor at Duke University. He writes widely on political, cultural, religious, and national-security issues, and he is the author of The Death of Politics: How to Heal Our Frayed Republic After Trump.