Mirror of Justice

A blog dedicated to the development of Catholic legal theory.
Affiliated with the Program on Church, State & Society at Notre Dame Law School.

Tuesday, November 17, 2020

One Christian’s Fallible Thoughts on the Lessons of (and Warnings from) the Election for People of Faith on Both Sides


To my faithful friends and family of who voted for the losing candidate:

“[Biden’s] victory caused people to weep in joyful relief as they became aware of the heaviness that had afflicted their hearts, after they’d suddenly been relieved of it.”

The words above express what so very many of us felt when the presidential election was finally called days afterward. I myself was startled to find tears forming in my eyes when I knew for certain that the Trump presidency was now in its last days. I truly felt like a heavy weight had been lifted off my chest.

I do understand that those who voted for President Trump had a very different emotional reaction after his defeat: grief, anger, fear, denial. I do wish to extend sympathy toward Trump supporters with their deeply felt disappointment. I have always sought to understand in a sympathetic way why so many of my brothers and sisters in Christ reached a decision to support this man, who I saw as so undeserving of their faith (and I speak more of what I think I’ve learned in my words to Biden supporters below).

But in the interests of understanding each other in the community of Christian faith, I do ask those who voted for Trump to take a moment and try to understand (and perhaps even find empathy for) why so many of us felt intense relief that we would not be experiencing another four years of this presidency. Can you appreciate the wounds that so many Americans felt from the hostile words, blizzard of insults, and unceasingly childish behavior of the man in the White House?

I had wondered at some points during the last four years whether Trump was conducting a sophisticated social experiment to see how many groups he could alienate by his tweets, how many people he could insult, how many people he could bully, how many times he could tell outrageous lies — and yet still manage to barely hold on to just enough public support to squeeze his way toward a thin re-election. Well, the results of the experiment are in:  He apparently went just enough too far.


As a person of generally conservative inclinations, I was startled by how often those who claimed my same political values would follow Trump’s lead in mocking and jeering anyone who dared to criticize their chosen leader. Did they really think their cause would be advanced in the forum of public opinion when they characterized an independent thinker as a “libtard”? Could they appreciate how offensive that particular insult was, not only to the person who was targeted, but to cognitively challenged persons? Or did they think they would persuade a critic of President Trump to reconsider their concerns when they retorted that the questioner suffered from “TDS”? (For those who remained blissfully ignorant of the code words of the Trump cult, “TDS” stands for “Trump Derangement Syndrome.”)

Now I recognize that my brothers and sisters in the faith were not among those who resorted to such childish and offensive taunts. I myself have never spoken to a Christian supporter of President Trump who used such insults or defended them. But seldom did I hear resounding condemnation by Christian leaders of the troubling growth of such behavior among many Trump supporters.

And this matters especially for our Christian witness. If support of Trump (including his worst behavior and that of his most rabid supporters) is seen by our fellow Americans as synonymous with Christian faith, then the Gospel of Christ is tarnished by that association. For the sake of the Gospel, I pray that those Christians who supported Trump will work hard in the years ahead to make plain that Trump was not speaking as a disciple of Christ and that the faith was not defined by the Trump campaign.

For me as a Christian, the low point of this presidency was his appalling behavior at the annual prayer breakfast. He publicly denigrated the faith of anyone he saw as a political enemy. At a prayer breakfast! He was vindictive and insulting. At a prayer breakfast! To the Gospel theme of the breakfast — the direction of Jesus to love our enemies — he responded with bitter disdain. At a prayer breakfast!

On this singular occasion, Donald Trump moved well beyond obscene behavior to outright blasphemy. He mocked the Christian faith and vigorously denied Christ. And yet his supporters in the faith community mostly remained silent.

Four years ago, I had lunch with a good friend I had known since college. He is an evangelical Christian who works in campus ministry. We were struggling over how to respond to the surprising nomination for the presidency by our own party of a man who we thought unfit for office. My friend's perspective is that of someone who regularly preaches the Gospel of Christ to college students who are searching for meaning and a relationship with God. What he said has stayed with me. He sadly observed there was no message of love, no message of charity coming from the Trump campaign.

Right after Trump had been elected in 2016, a thoughtful and faithful colleague of mine, who had been one of the few not to be surprised by Trump’s election, explained the result to me this way: So many people she knew were angry. I could understand that and had to agree it explained much. And it explains the resiliency of his base after four tumultuous years.

But now that the country has rejected the Trump presidency, those who voted for him should consider whether the way forward would better be expressed in love rather than anger. As my own family would remind me, when I am angry, I do not make good decisions. And people hardly find me more attractive, in words or demeanor, when I am lost in anger.

Please don’t misunderstand what I am saying. I am not suggesting that my faithful friends and family who voted for Trump are lacking in love or charity in their own lives. I know well that they have walked faithfully with Jesus. But they also did walk in politics with a man who too often embodied the antithesis of the Gospel.

Again, please don’t misunderstand me. I have repeatedly said that I understood and respected the reasons why many people, although recognizing the grave flaws in this president, nonetheless reluctantly came to cast a vote for him. I am not arrogantly calling for repentance, because I genuinely am not accusing of sin. I do not mean to throw stones, because I too live in a glass house.

Yet surely people of faith who supported Trump might appreciate the confusion this episode has caused to the Christian witness? Surely one can see that our fellow citizens may have found it hard to discern the Christian message of love and hope when they heard the frequently troubling words uttered by the president that was still held up as a pro-Christian warrior?

We desperately need the teachings of our conservative Christian brothers and sisters, as part of our broader Church. We need them both for our own salvation, and also for the common good, to remind us not to seek salvation in politics. We need the prayers of all the faithful. We need the witness of the Gospel from those in every walk of life. I earnestly hope that we can move beyond this toxic period to turn the eyes of our fellow citizens to more worthy things than what they have seen and heard these past four years.


To my faithful friends and family who voted for the winning candidate:

It would be churlish for me or anyone to deny those who voted for the winner a time to celebrate a victory. But please do not gloat. Please do not confuse this outcome with the coming of the Kingdom. And do not forget that your victory was a felt loss for many others.

I think most of us expect that history will regard Donald Trump as among the worst of the presidents. And I expect, now that he has been repudiated, that we will hear even more from those who worked with him about just how bad things were in the White House these past four years. We will learn that things were worse than we could have imagined (and we learned to imagine rather darkly).

And yet despite his manifest unfitness for high office, 47 percent and some 72 million of our fellow citizens nonetheless voted for him. I’m guessing that at least half of those Trump voters recognized his multifarious disqualifications, but still worried that the alternative was even worse. That speaks rather powerfully of the fears of many citizens and many Christians about what the winners of this election are planning for our country.

Remember that the 2020 election was pretty good for Republicans. Republicans moved closer to a majority in the U.S. House of Representatives, probably will hold a majority of the Senate, and took control of more state legislative bodies. Here in my State of Minnesota, Republicans retained majority in the state senate, reduced the Democratic majority in the state house, and picked up a congressional seat. In Minnesota, it was a darn good night for many Republicans — whose last name was not Trump.

Biden supporters should also remember that this victory was only possible because of many voters, like me, who thought it more important to end a Trump presidency than to start a Biden one. As I noted at the beginning of this post, my reaction to the result was less celebration than relief.

Yes, I understand that elections have consequences. I understand that Democrats will now move public policy more to the left than before and more than I would prefer. I understand that Republican political failures open the door to Democratic initiatives.

But if Democrats mistakenly conceive this result as an endorsement of the socialist platform of the far left or the values of the secular liberal elite, there will be two detrimental consequences.

First, a hard lurch to the left by the Biden Administration will make it impossible to unify the country and will instead produce more division and anger. Joe Biden seems to understand this. It remains to be seen whether he can bring the rest of his party with him.

Second, just as the country has repudiated the far right, it will repudiate the far left if it overreaches in public policy. This remains a center nation. Maybe, just maybe, it is no longer center-right. But it has not become center-left. And it most certainly is not a left-wing country.

For people of faith in the winning coalition, we need you to be more vocal against the errors of the left. Show us how to do it. If the people of faith in the losing coalition fell short in standing against excesses and speaking out against Trump’s rhetorical rejection of basic Christian values, that is no warrant for the people of faith in the winning coalition to do the same. Turn-about is not fair play. And it certainly is not the Gospel of Christ.

Consider the concerns of conservative people of faith that flowed from the experiences of the Obama years and led in part to the Trump insurgency. If I had said during the 2008 campaign that Barack Obama if elected would deny that churches, synagogues, and mosques have a First Amendment right to choose their own ministers, I would have been attacked for fearmongering. And yet the Obama Administration did exactly that, telling the Supreme Court that the First Amendment provided no protection at all — was not even implicated — for religious organizations in appointing ministers, which instead should be subject to second-guessing by judges and juries through the means of discrimination lawsuits. The Supreme Court, unanimously, rejected the Obama Administration’s position as “extreme.”

And if I had told you during the 2008 campaign that, if elected, Barack Obama would try to force a Catholic convent of nuns serving the poor and Catholic schools and universities to provide free contraception contrary to religious views, I would have been attacked for fearmongering. And yet the Obama Administration did exactly that. There too the Supreme Court ultimately rejected that position as contrary to constitutional religious liberty, although by a narrower margin.

And it should be noted that, after four years now of broad religious exemption from the contraception mandate, there has been no crisis of affordable access to contraception. The contraception mandate, which was found nowhere in the language of the Obamacare statute, was not designed by the Obama Administration to address a genuine and compelling health care need. Rather, the universal contraception mandate came from an aggressive campaign inside that administration by the pro-abortion wing of the Democratic Party, hoping thereby to get the camel’s nose under the tent for eventually requiring all health insurance to provide for free abortions.

Now reliable sources tell me that then-Vice President Joe Biden was a voice for moderation and reason during the contraception mandate fiasco. Biden urged the Obama Administration to leave room for religious dissent on the subject and warned against the culture war strike of the pro-abortion left.

If those stories are true, then it bodes well for the coming Biden administration. And yet we have seen this year a political reversal by Biden on public-funding for abortion, which remains opposed by a solid majority of Americans. To be sure, Biden’s switch appeared to be more of an accommodation to the left of his party than a matter of his personal conviction, but that still doesn’t speak well of Biden’s fortitude.

Again, people of faith who voted for Biden should be heard, and not just seen, if and when the Biden Administration sows its own divisions with Americans of traditional values or starts to slide on religious liberty and tolerance.

                *             *             *

During the last four years, Donald Trump would respond to a critic by pointing at the White House and saying, essentially, “so there! The White House belongs to me.”

But he was wrong. The White House belongs to the people. And having shown himself to be the worst tenant of the White House in my lifetime, the people are evicting him.

We the people, the landlords of the White House, will be watching the new tenant carefully.


Sisk, Greg | Permalink