In October 2016, an Access Hollywood video clip of Donald Trump making demeaning remarks about women was leaked.
In the aftermath of this revelation, the president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, Al Mohler, wrote for The Washington Post, “Trump’s horrifying statements, heard in his own proud voice, revealed an objectification of women and a sexual predation that must make continued support for Trump impossible for any evangelical leader.”
But last week, Mohler said that the “partisan divide had become so great” and Democrats had “swerved so far to the left” on issues of abortion, religious liberty, and LGBT policies that he planned to vote Republican for the rest of his life. This, of course, includes voting to reelect Trump this fall.
One of the disappointing things about Mohler’s remarks was that they came during a pandemic and a terrible economic downturn, said conservative evangelical writer David French, who has been outspoken about his opposition to Trump since 2016.
“While I don’t put all that on Trump’s feet, he just did some really incompetent things that had a severe cost,” said French. “And then to come in the middle of that, while we’re bearing that cost, and to say ‘Four more years,’ seems to be indicating that evangelicals are saying, ‘As long as you’re okay on the checklist, no matter your character, no matter what else is happening in the country, we’re with you.’ I just found that to be very narrow.”
French joined digital media producer Morgan Lee and editorial director Ted Olsen to discuss what white evangelicals can learn about political engagement from black Christians, why white evangelicals by and large have not been disturbed by Trump’s cruelty, and at what points French’s own #NeverTrump convictions have been most tested.
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The transcript is edited by Bunmi Ishola
Highlights from Quick to Listen: Episode #209
Let’s start with Al Mohler. Were you surprised to see his remarks last week?
David French: I haven’t known Mohler for a very long time. I’ve been a guest on his podcast, and we’ve had some conversations, but I haven’t known him personally. However, I have to say that I am not surprised. At this point, I can probably count on the fingers of one hand the number of publicly prominent evangelicals that would surprise me if they decided to support Trump.
Were you surprised that his comments in 2016 were so strongly critical of Trump?
David French: If you go back to 2016, many things were going on at once. You had a lot of absolutely principled objections to Donald Trump, you also had tactical objections to Donald Trump, and then you had the doubtful objection. And so when you’re talking about people who were thinking into 2016, those are sort of three of the strands that we’re working together.
And so, I think that what's happened with a lot of evangelicals is the character aspect has receded. And with the other two—the thought that he’d lose and the doubt that he wouldn’t follow through on various promises regarding religious liberty or Supreme Court judges—they have been absolved. And so it’s created a huge tension.
Now there’s also another strand that I was working on, which was just the fitness aspect. Is this guy competent enough? Does he have the mental acuity, the mental faculties, and the intellectual temperament to be a leader? And that was sort of a fourth strand with me.
One other very important thing is that there is a very large undercurrent of anger and fury within the white evangelical world in support of Trump. And so if you are opposed to Trump, there is an awful lot of cruelty and anger and malice and fury that heads in your direction. There’s this constant hammering that happens when you are not supporting Trump. And part of this is a reflection of the character of the man because he specializes in cruelty and malice himself. And so a lot of the advocacy on his behalf, even sadly within the larger Christian world, echoes that cruelty and that malice and those relentless personal attacks.
Is this something new since 2016?
David French: I think there is a sad reality of the larger evangelical voting public: It’s really hard to disentangle it from the Republican party.
I think that what you’ve seen is that despite more than 20 years of statements to the contrary, I think evangelical Republicans thought of themselves as evangelical in all caps and Republican in regular case.
We have many aspects of our lives and personalities, but when push came to shove it came down to your public-facing political persona. And what ended up happening is the evangelical was now in lowercase and Republican was in upper case.
When you read something like the 1998 Southern Baptist Convention resolution on the moral character in politicians, you realize it’s just completely incompatible with the support of Trump. One of the clauses reads, “Whereas tolerance of serious wrong by leaders sears the conscience of the culture, spawns unrestrained immorality and lawlessness in the society, and surely results in God's judgment.” If in a vacuum you asked a Christian, is that a true statement? Yes, absolutely.
And then there were clauses like, “Be it resolved, we urge all Americans to embrace and act on the conviction that character does count in public office and to elect those officials and candidates who, although imperfect, demonstrate honesty, moral purity in the highest character.” Is that consistent with voting for Donald Trump? The answer’s no. It’s just not.
And so what ended up happening is that for a long time, evangelical Republicans could see no tension between those two terms. And that allowed them to sail forward with some very confident moral declarations. But then in 2016, those two terms, “evangelical” and “Republican” became in great tension with each other in some important ways. And one term yielded to the other.
Do you think Christian leaders say “no comment” when asked about their voting, or is it an important part of leadership to kind of state your plans?
David French: Well, I think part of it depends on what is your role.
So as part of my public role in life, I feel like it's important for people to know where I stand politically. But if you're a pastor of a local church, I can think of a million reasons why you would not want to engage in a political endorsement. There is a very interesting distinction between supporting and voting, but what ends up happening is that, for 99 out of 100 people, those two terms get very blurred.
The instant you say, “I want to vote for Donald Trump.” You are declaring, I want him to win the election. And as soon as that happens, a powerful incentive structure kicks in, and that incentive structure says, “Every time I criticize him, I'm providing fuel for those who would seek to defeat him.” So if you're a supporter of his, there is a very strong incentive to minimize the things that he does poorly and to maximize the things that he does well. And that repeats itself and it becomes so self-reinforcing that I will speak to people who should know better, who are completely unaware of common criticisms and common facts about Trump.
I'm not going to say Mohler is like that, but I can count on the fingers of one hand the number of Christians who will vote for Trump and are still able to call out bad things that he does publicly. It becomes very rare, very fast.
That sounds like possibly an argument against voting, that the easiest way to be an honest broker as a Christian is to say maybe Christians should abstain so they don’t compromise and stop criticizing things that need to be criticized. Is that the argument or is there a better way?
David French: My stance against Trump is pretty well known. And so people ask me, how do you decide whether or not to vote? Or how do you decide who to vote for?
I’m socially conservative, I’m pro-religious liberty, I have been resolutely pro-life, but I look at these issues as necessary but not sufficient for my vote. I have sort of a two-prong test: One, does this person possess the character that is commensurate with the office that they seek? And two, do they share my political values?
Now, neither test is a test of perfection. No politician is going to align perfectly with me on everything. But if test A and test B are met, you get my vote. If A or B is not met, you do not get my vote. I think what has ended up happening is that a lot of evangelicals have said, “We’re discarding A and we're not even going to take a holistic look at all the policy positions for B. We're just going to go through the checklist, which is abortion, sexuality, and religious liberty.”
And you know, one of the things that was disappointing about Mohler’s announcement is that he made this announcement during a pandemic and terrible recession that may turn into a depression. And while I don’t put all that on Trump’s feet, he just did some really incompetent things that had a severe cost. And then to come in the middle of that, while we’re bearing that cost, and to say ‘Four more years,’ seems to be indicating that evangelicals are saying, “As long as you're okay on the checklist, no matter your character, no matter what else is happening in the country, we're with you.” And I just found that to be very narrow.
One thing that there is a lot of dissonance around is Trump’s consistent cruelty in office. When you're talking about this checklist, are you saying that you think so many people just become so narrowed in on that checklist that they don’t even see his cruelty? Or is this something that they’ve just been completely insulated to? Or is it because they’re not a member of the people that he is directing this to it doesn’t matter as much?
David French: I’m a conservative Christian living in a conservative Christian region of the country, and I can tell you that a ton of people not only do not care about that cruelty, but they are also happy about it. I’m telling you, there are Christians who are thrilled about the way Trump fights. This is just a flat-out fact.
What they forget is that there are other Republicans, and even many Democrats, who’ve actually accomplished more for the causes that they care about without treating people like this. People have such myopic views of history—and I'm not talking about rank-and-file voters, I'm talking about people who are politically engaged to the level of the evangelical leadership—and they consistently over-hype Trump and underappreciate the level of the cruelty that he projects and the effect it is having on the evangelical Republican community.
The level of cruelty that I see around me directed towards political opponents is off the charts. The level of cruelty that I have experienced, and my family has experienced, is off the charts. And I’m not saying all evangelicals, but that is such a dominant tone of the discourse. This is what happens when you take the character test and you just throw it away.
Since the 2016 election, have there been moments when you have felt your own “never Trump” convictions being tested?
David French: Uh, no. There have been none at all. I had three main concerns about Trump: Trump’s character, Trump’s policies, and the people around Trump. Other than that, he was fine.
There has not been a moment since he's been president where there has been any evidence that he is anything other than the person that he’s been and was during the campaign. So on the character point, he’s not changed. In his policies, there was a point in 2017 where I was much more positive about this presidency that I am right now. He passed the decent tax cut, he had demonstrated that he was going to nominate good judges, he actually seemed to be on the verge of a sensible immigration compromise, and I was thinking, “This is a better policy outcome than I thought.” But then he begins this process of cozying up to Kim Jong-un, he launches a trade war that has negative consequences, he undermines alliances. And then he continues to surround himself with questionable people.
So, there were things that he has done that I’ve liked and I’ve said so, but the character has never changed, the policy has been a mixed bag, and he’s been consistently surrounded by some people that I think are malignant. And so, no, I’ve never really been tempted.
Do you think that voting for Trump is a sin or that Christians are obligated not to vote for Trump?
David French: I think it’s a mistake.
We’re dealing with a wide variety of human knowledge about who Trump is and what Trump has done. And so there’s an awful lot of Christians who are going to go into the voting booth, and based on what they know, what they understand, what their experience is, they’re going to vote for Donald Trump. I don’t begrudge them that vote.
What I’m talking about is the political class of Christian leaders who know facts, who know history, who are intellectual leaders, who are theological leaders. I think that many of them are making a grave mistake and some of them are sinning. And when I say that they’re sinning, I mean that they are misleading their congregations about who Trump is. They’re misleading their listeners about the past, the present, and the future. And I think some of that is flat out sinning.
I don’t know how else to describe it when I see them use hypocritical rhetoric, deceptive rhetoric, and often devolve into cruelty. I think it’s part of accountability. Why do you not call out a lie for a Republican when you would for a Democrat?
So what about the average voter? What are you hoping they do?
David French: My request is that you use the power that you have to veto against cruelty, against malice, and against low character. And then rally back to the flag, if the flag is worth rallying around, when there’s a person of better character. Have faith that the United States of America is stronger than crumbling to pieces over a lost election.
The world does not end if a president from the other side wins. But our witness is hurt if we sacrifice our principles and we sacrifice our integrity for the sake of supporting a cruel and malicious and deceitful man.
How have you processed your disillusionment as you’ve watched many white evangelical leaders decide that they're going to support or vote for Trump without very much criticism whatsoever? And how do you think other Christians should process this?
David French: Well, back in 2016, there weren’t that many people that surprised me with their support for Trump, so I wasn’t dissolutioned then. I think I have been a little bit more distressed as time has gone by.
But my beliefs indicate that we as people have problems, including me. And if we’re going to sit here and expect an explosion of virtue in the face of intense cultural pressures, we’re going to be disappointed.
I also think we make a huge mistake when we take a human being who makes a political decision—even a political decision that we think is so wrong as to be sinful—and use that to evaluate the totality of that person. That’s not how Christ approaches us.
There are decisions that I have made that have been sinful throughout my life, and thank God I’m not defined by them. But I do want people to address it with me and to call me out on it if I’m doing something sinful, and I do not believe that that is condemning me.
We get into this binary where we say, either I have to agree with somebody 100 percent of the time on everything that’s important or I hate them. And one of the things that distresses me about this Trump moment is I’ve had an awful lot of people approach me and say, “I’ve always respected you until you came out against Trump.” That’s one piece of who I am.
I have to remind myself of that feeling of injustice when I’m talking to people who I think are making a very serious mistake and turning their backs on their own articulated principles to support Donald Trump. This is a part of their lives. It is not their lives. And even if it’s a big part of their lives, to think of the level of grace demonstrated at the cross, how can I hate? How can I consign someone to the outer darkness? This too is covered by the blood.
We are all sinners saved by grace. And just as I may feel justified in calling out what I think are lies and deceptions coming from the church in some areas, I do that fully knowing that there are many ways that I’ve fallen short.
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