Guest post by Benjamin J. Dueholm
Do Christians resent their own morality?
I’ve been asking myself this since I saw video of the president of the United States engage in a rollicking, vicious parody of Christine Blasey Ford, who had recently testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee about her alleged assault by now-Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh. He did this in Mississippi, in front of one of the rapturous crowds he seeks out with such desperate regularity. It was a cruel and ugly spectacle seemingly at odds with the respectful words (however grudging they may have been) used by Republican senators as they sought to push Kavanaugh’s confirmation ahead without appearing to slander or demean his accuser. And the audience, as if it needs to be said at this point, ate it up.
The commentary from and about the part of the electorate once labeled “cultural conservatives,” “values voters,” or just “conservative evangelicals” has evolved over the last three years. At first, when the GOP nomination was still an open contest, it was claimed that religious commitment offered an inoculation of sorts against Trump’s misogynistic, openly bigoted appeals. When conservative Christians proved to be just as willing as anyone else in the Republican coalition to vote for Trump, it was sometimes interpreted as an explicitly transactional “bargain.” They didn’t identify with Trump’s personal immorality or rhetorical excesses, they just wanted judges and policies from him. “We’re not under any illusion that we were voting for an altar boy,” said First Baptist Church of Dallas pastor and frequent Trump defender Robert Jeffress (though as far as I know, Baptist churches don’t have altar boys anyway).
Increasingly a new meme is establishing itself: these voters don’t actually dislike Trump at all, in any respect. Their support for him is deep, genuine and profoundly personal. This is more interesting, I think, and perhaps more revealing. It’s one thing to rationalize support for morally defective individuals, as most people have to do at some point if they’re going to preserve both their Christianity and their engagement in civil politics. It’s another thing to truly come to love and identify with the defects themselves.
Not that long ago, exchanging lewd pictures with adult film actresses was enough to kill a political career. Now it’s possible not only to have an affair with an adult film actress only months after your wife bears your child, but to pay hush money for it, offer no somber expression of remorse but publicly call your partner in adultery “horseface,” and only come out stronger. Not that long ago, I took seriously the claim from conservative, traditionalist Christians that their approach to sexual morality was quite distinct from the vicious pick-up-artist version of gender essentialism. Now I’m not at all sure. When every grotesque slur and ludicrous transgression only bonds people more tightly to him, I have to wonder if, on some level they are perhaps not inclined to admit, these Christians admire Trump for breaking the rules they deeply resent but feel obligated to keep. Maybe adultery and misogyny are guilty pleasures they will grudgingly deny themselves but want to see someone get away with.
This wouldn’t be a novel problem, after all. Martin Luther, looking back on his career as a monk, wrote, “I couldn’t be sure that God was appeased by my satisfaction. I did not love, no, rather I hated the just God who punishes sinners. In silence, if I did not blaspheme, then certainly I grumbled vehemently and got angry at God.” Luther’s way out of this double-mindedness was to reformulate the Gospel as the promise that God makes one righteous, thereby emptying the Law of its terror. On this basis, Luther argued that the believer could indeed joyfully affirm the righteousness of God and love God’s Law. But the dynamic he identifies—of pious fear of the Law on one hand and resentment of it on the other, coexisting with and reinforcing each other—is an enduring problem. Nietzsche, three centuries later, diagnosed Christianity as perpetuating a “slave morality” derived from a human version of just such a resentment. We’ve certainly provided evidence for his claim, as we do every time we cheer on people who live with less constraint and more vice than we dare to.
I don’t even think this is a uniquely Christian problem. Humans being that we are, we’re always going to be formulating moral codes we can’t live up to, and forcing ourselves into positions of ambivalence toward both the code and the transgression. Those who try and fail will always be tempted to envy those who don’t even try and pay no price, at least if we can be persuaded to identify with them on some other grounds. I don’t doubt that this is part of why liberals, men in particular, have been so late in jettisoning their attachment to Bill Clinton, and why bad behavior of various kinds has been covered up or winked at in business, entertainment, academia and, yes, the church.
But Christianity is supposed to offer another way, an alternative to a perpetually frustrated search for moral purity on one hand and a nihilistic rejection of all morality on the other. We’re supposed to believe both in sin and the gift of repentance, both in inescapable moral demands and the promise of grace. Embracing the “both”-ness of Christianity can certainly feel paradoxical and unsettling (and for Martin Luther and, well, me, it literally is a paradox). But if we won’t embrace it, proving our past and present critics right will be the least of our problems.
Benjamin J. Dueholm is Pastor of Worship and Education at Messiah Lutheran Church in Wauconda, Illinois, and author of Sacred Signposts: Words, Water, and Other Acts of Resistance (Eerdmans, 2018).