Ethics & Public Policy Center

Christian Doomsayers Have Lost It

Published in The New York Times on December 6, 2019


We are facing an existential moral crisis.

That at least is the view of many Christians who have given their full-throated support to President Trump. Some of them will privately admit that he is deeply corrupt, but the justification for their support of him goes something like this: Mr. Trump may be unethical, unscrupulous and morally dissolute, but he is by far the lesser of two evils.

After all, they insist, Mr. Trump may be personally immoral, but he is also a viciously effective street fighter for their cause. He is also the only person preventing a takeover of America by the Democratic Party and progressives — and that, they insist, would produce a moral calamity nearly unmatched in American history.

The view that Mr. Trump is all that stands between America and a moral cataclysm was encapsulated by Eric Metaxas, an influential evangelical author and radio talk-show host, who said in 2016, “The only time we faced an existential struggle like this was in the Civil War and in the Revolution when the nation began.” He added, “We are on the verge of losing it as we could have lost it in the Civil War.”

This wasn’t just election-year rhetoric. Last year, Mr. Metaxas told the journalist Jon Ward that while he did not mean to compare Hillary Clinton to Adolf Hitler, “Christians who think the Church in America might have survived a Hillary Clinton presidency are something like the devout Christian Germans who seriously and prayerfully thought it un-Christian to be involved in opposing Hitler because to do so would have dirtied their hands with politics.”

Sohrab Ahmari — a convert to Catholicism who is both the op-ed editor of The New York Post and a contributor to the religious magazine First Things was so outraged that drag queens were reading stories to children at a library in Sacramento that he has relegated civility to a secondary virtue while turning against modernity and classical liberalism.

Mr. Ahmari and those who share his worldview believe our traditions and way of life are under assault by an aggressive, ruthless adversary and that liberalism is a huge part of the problem.

“To hell with liberal order,” according to Mr. Ahmari. “Sometimes reactionary politics are the only salutary path.”

But just how bad are things, really? In answering that question, it’s important to understand the perspective of Christian social conservatives, many of whom put sexual ethics and especially abortion at or near the top of the list of their concerns.

So where do things stand with abortion? According to the Guttmacher Institute, in 1990 there were more than 1.6 million clinical abortions, the historical high-water mark in absolute numbers. (The abortion rate reached its peak in the early 1980s.) Since the early 1990s, the number of abortions has declined steadily, and recently the institute reported that the number and rate of abortions reached their lowest levels since the procedure became legal nationwide in 1973.

Clinics performed about 862,000 abortions in 2017 — the latest year for which data is available — the lowest number since 1974, when about 898,000 abortions were performed. Late last month the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which collects abortion-related data somewhat differently from the Guttmacher Institute, reported that the number of abortions in the United States in 2016 dropped to about 623,000, the lowest number since 1973.

The number of abortions started to drop right before Bill Clinton was first elected president; it has dropped steadily since. It’s worth noting that during the years between 1992 and 2017, it was Democrats who dominated control of the White House, the second Bush presidency notwithstanding, and therefore more liberal than conservative justices were seated on the Supreme Court — and still, the number and rate of abortions dropped. In fact, the total number of abortions dropped during 15 of the 16 years of the Clinton and Obama presidencies. (It dropped most years during the George W. Bush presidency as well.)

Set aside for now cause and effect. The reasons for the decrease in abortions are undoubtedly varied; they most likely include increased use of contraceptives, widespread use of sonograms, state laws that protect the unborn and other factors. My point is that culture and human behavior are complicated; making direct link, as many religious conservatives do, between who is president, who is on the Supreme Court and the prevalence of abortions in America can be a mistake.

Abortion is hardly the only area where social progress has been made. We’re seeing encouraging trends in the behavior of young people, too. For example, the teenage birthrate in the United States is also at a record low. According to the C.D.C., in 2017 the percentage of high school students who reported that they had ever had sex was the lowest level since the C.D.C. began conducting the survey in 1991. The percentage of students who said they had used select illicit drugs declined to 14 percent in 2017 from 22.6 percent in 2007.

Among high school seniors, we’re seeing the lowest levels of alcohol use and drunkenness ever recorded. As for violent crime, we have seen stunning improvement, with the rates having plunged since the early 1990s (although there has been a slight uptick in recent years). And in 2018 the divorce rate reached a 40-year low.

So whether we’re talking about the number and rates of abortions; teenage abortions, pregnancies and births; teenage sexual activity, drinking alcohol or marijuana use; or violent crime and divorce rates, we’re seeing the news getting better over the past five years or more, in some cases at a pace that once would have seemed unimaginable.

Of course, for many socially conservative Christians, areas of real concern remain. Though the number and rate of abortions have been notably reduced, they still remain disturbingly high for those who hold anti-abortion views, while Roe v. Wade remains the law of the land. Today nearly 40 percent of children are born to unmarried mothers. Pornography is ubiquitous in our society, and we face an opioid epidemic and an alarming increase in teenage suicides.

InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, one of America’s largest campus ministries, has had its status as a recognized student organization challenged on more than 40 campuses in recent years because it requires student leaders to affirm Christian doctrines. (In most of the cases a resolution was reached.) During his presidential run, Beto O’Rourke said he would support revoking the tax-exempt status of religious institutions — churches, colleges and charities — if they opposed same-sex marriage. The California State Board of Education is overhauling its sex education program, which will include teaching kindergartners about gender expression and identity.

For many evangelical and Catholic Christians, these developments pose serious challenges to certain of their core beliefs. Yet these challenges hardly qualify as existential threats. Every society has problems and failures, areas of brokenness, even areas of ruin. Some things are almost always getting better while some things are almost always getting worse. A nation can have low out-of-wedlock birthrates and no drag queens while also allowing for slavery and segregation and exploiting young children by having them work in horrible conditions.

To my fellow Christians, then, a friendly reminder from a conservative who shares many of your concerns: We are not living in Nero’s Rome. In world history, there are very few nations that have been as accommodating to Christianity as the United States is today; and America is hardly on the edge of a moral abyss.

One of the things I have been most struck by in my conversations with Christian conservatives is how moral concern has given way to moral panic. It distorts their perceptions about the very real progress that has been made while causing feelings of deep insecurity and fear, despite “fear not” being one of the most frequently repeated commands in the Bible.

Many Christians have become invested in a dark narrative. As a friend of mine puts it: “They seem to have some kind of psychological craving for apocalyptic fear. I wonder if walking it back is even possible.”

Whether these Christians will be able to walk back or not, the effects have been injurious. This apocalyptic moral mind-set has led to an alliance with a shockingly unethical figure, who embodies a mobster’s mentality and an anti-Christian ethic. Mr. Trump, a skilled demagogue, has taken full advantage of this. There appears to be almost nothing he can say or do to break the bond that has developed, and virtually nothing that many of his Christian supporters will not excuse.

If anything, the attachment to Mr. Trump among many evangelical Christians has deepened to the point that Ralph Reed, one of the movement’s most influential political figures, recently declared, “There has never been anyone who has defended us and fought for us, who we have loved more than Donald J. Trump. No one!”

But the measure of Christian success cannot be infatuation and fealty for Donald Trump. A movement characterized by anxiety and anger, by harsh language and hard edges, by defensiveness and undue pessimism isn’t going to win many converts. Why would it?

If I could impart a different way of approaching politics and shaping culture to my coreligionists, it would be to realize that a commitment to moral truth need not be at odds with being instruments of healing and grace. We need to find ways to love others in unexpected ways and show what it means to live faithfully in a world full of fear, as Mark Labberton, president of Fuller Theological Seminary, puts it. We should be willing to accept good news where we find it. We shouldn’t assume that joy, gratitude and kindness are synonyms for weakness. And we should be known more for caring for our culture than for constantly being at war with it.

Jesus didn’t view the world primarily as a battle zone. Neither should we.

Peter Wehner (@Peter_Wehner) a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, served in the previous three Republican administrations and is a contributing opinion writer, a visiting professor at Duke and the author of “The Death of Politics: How to Heal Our Frayed Republic After Trump.”

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