How Now Shan’t We Vote?

How Now Shan’t We Vote? October 31, 2020

Giant Meteor 2020 Yard Sign - Just End It Already!

As usual, I am coming late to the take game on this topic, perhaps the one where Yet Another Take is least sought. And yet, here I go, writing My Election Take, even though it will be outdated in three days, because some people seem to want it and because I can’t not. So let’s crack on, shall we?

In my defense, among the proliferation of Takes that have been littering the interwebs in past weeks, a good take has been hard to find. To be clear, this cuts all ways. Pro-Trump, pro-Biden, and Never Trump Takes have all earned their place in the Hall of Takes That Make Esther Want to Gouge Her Eyes Out With a Spoon. Meanwhile other takes have fallen somewhere in the middle, like Al Mohler’s recent case for a reluctant pragmatic Trump vote. Mohler sketches out a position for which I can see some logic, even though I still regard it as an unfortunate mistake. I find both Trump’s reaction to the piece and Never Trumpers’ reaction to the reaction rather amusing. The Never Trump crew amuse me with their hysteria (and irk me with their unfair attacks on Mohler’s character) while Trump amuses me with his vanity in retweeting the piece while apparently missing the many negative things Mohler still had to say about him. But what else is new?

Meanwhile, the reader who bothers to click through my favorite Bad Takes will notice I’ve included John Piper’s much-ballyhooed article in the mix, aka the article everyone was talking about sixty seconds ago before they started talking about the Mohler article. To be sure, it’s not the only facepalm-worthy Never Trump piece to go around, and to be sure, it’s generated responses that are at least as facepalm-worthy in the opposite direction (also linked—may it never be said that I was not an equal opportunity facepalmer). However, it was still a painful read, frustrating in part precisely because there were so many far better ways to reach the conclusion it wanted to reach, i.e., that Christian voters should abstain from the top of the ticket in 2020. Not to mention the irony in the apparently now-forgotten fact that years ago, Piper made a big song and dance about not wanting to overtly affirm a marriage referendum in his capacity as a minister, since it violated a necessary principled separation between church and state. Would have been nice to see some of the passionate spirit in this new post back then. He certainly seems to have lost his old qualms about weighing in on political things during sensitive months like October.

In any case, I myself am not the target audience for this particular pitch, having abstained from the top of the general ticket for my entire voting life. Watching heated “to vote or not to vote” arguments play out over the last two election cycles has been a source of some wry amusement for someone who didn’t even for Romney. (Sorry, Mitt. You were a good egg.) I need no convincing from John Piper nor from anyone else to not vote for Donald Trump. I do not take the position that a Christian is morally obligated to cast a vote in any presidential election, though I try to model engaged voting down-ticket where I see other races, referenda, etc., on which there is a clear best choice. While I do believe a vote can be a sin of commission (as I believe is always the case for voting Democrat), I don’t believe withholding a vote is a sin of omission. My personal philosophy of what a vote is somewhat follows Susannah Black’s reasoning in this round-table discussion hosted by Alastair Roberts (also featuring Miles Smith and Steven Wedgeworth—good Twitter follows all). Black considers her vote in general to be something like a fealty pledge, an offer of allegiance to a candidate whom one feels one could “follow” in more ways than one.

For reasons we’re all quite familiar with by now, suffice it to say that Trump doesn’t meet this standard. I went through my own stages of grief back in 2016, when I called myself “Never Trump” before the phrase took on the baggage it has today. While I wouldn’t self-identify that way now, I remain dispirited and disappointed by those friends and acquaintances who’ve backed him out of enthusiastic loyalty versus reluctant pragmatism. People I otherwise respect seem to persist in a rut on this issue, to the point where I gave up engaging with them some time ago. As I saw Douglas Murray put it in a podcast recently, I’m embarrassed on behalf of everyone I know who’s spent significant emotional and political capital pretending that Trump is something he’s not.

Nevertheless, good friends of mine are still choosing to cast a vote for him, and it seems Piper primarily aimed his article at people in this demographic. Others have put together some better responses to Piper, echoing many of the same points I would make, one obvious point being that Piper is not comparing like to like when comparing Trump’s character with Biden’s policy rather than Biden’s character. Karen Swallow Prior at least tried to do some of this in her CT piece, which was still disappointing (more on this in a moment). Then there’s Piper’s repeated baffling insistence that there is nothing to choose between the lethal effects of abortion policy and the effects of “unrepentant sexual immorality (porneia), unrepentant boastfulness (alazoneia), unrepentant vulgarity (aischrologia), unrepentant factiousness (dichostasiai)” on the polis. We didn’t really need the mini Greek lesson to be reminded that sin is bad. On that, we’re all agreed. But to say Piper ascribes slightly more power to Trump than he actually has would be an understatement. He seems to envision numerous people literally being fast-tracked to hell as a direct result of the Trump presidency. I simply don’t agree that this is a given.

Now, to be as fair as possible to Piper, his name was subsequently used without his permission as part of an ad for a “Christians Against Trumpism” campaign, whereupon he commendably clarified that he hadn’t signed and wouldn’t sign the statement they were peddling. For the side billing itself as the standard-bearers of Moral Probity in the Age of Trump, this was, let’s just say, a bad look.

I found Karen Swallow Prior’s abstention take only somewhat less disappointing than Piper’s. It does weigh Biden’s personal and policy defects more thoughtfully, and certainly it’s light years better than the juvenile pro-Biden take linked above, which was allegedly written by a historian of mature age but reads like it was written by a 12-year-old. Still, even Karen has an unfortunate tendency to recycle certain knee-jerk Never Trump talking points that even some of Trump’s fiercest critics on the left recognize are untrue. For example, the claim that Trump is tellingly negligent in denouncing white supremacy, with citation to an NPR article about a debate moment where Trump was, in fact, clearly attempting to be compliant in denouncing white supremacist groups. Or the claim that he called neo-Nazis at Charlottesville “very fine people.” Again, even hard-left enemies of Trump realize this was debunked long ago. (Just listen to Sam Harris and Andrew Sullivan on their latest podcast. Trump stumpers, they are not.)

It may be worth pausing here to note that I consider myself savvier than average when it comes to the genesis and rise of the alt-right, the actual alt-right. I was watching the proto-alt-right put out tendrils and warning friends away before anyone was talking about the alt-right. After several years of watching Trump, after being concerned like David French and others that he might be that thing, I’ve concluded that in fact, he is not that thing. The people who think he is are just confused. Sincerely confused, but confused.

Meanwhile, once again, even lifelong liberals such as Bret Weinstein and his wife Heather Heying are able to recognize that the most looming immediate threat to America’s cities and streets is not coming from the right. It’s coming from lawless mobs on the left. They are the reason why, as I write this, businesses across this country are hunkering down in anticipation of election day. Biden, Harris, and other Democrats have clearly signaled that they have no plans to hold these mobs in check in a systematic way. Trump meanwhile has exercised what limited power he has over this phenomenon as president (more limited than people think, in this as in many areas), to at least make an attempt at containment. At least he has the basic intuition that this is unacceptable and must be stopped, a bar which now apparently is too high for some politicians. I can understand why this is a cause of deep concern for urban voters in particular, and why it could be the straw that breaks the camel’s back and pushes them to pull for Trump—or maybe more accurately, against the Democrats.

Then there’s the claim that Trump has proven himself “anti-life” in his administration’s COVID response, which once again is grossly over-inflated. This public FaceBook post from a registered nurse includes a nice point-by-point summary of all the reasons why. Yes, Trump was oblivious to the pandemic… in a phase where multiple political leaders and public figures were in a similar state of oblivion. There’s no good reason to single him out for special censure here. And quite frankly, his most recent messaging about the virus comes at a moment where we’ve begun to see lockdown measures as their own kind of devastation. The suggestion that we not let COVID dominate our lives at this stage is not “anti-life.” It’s just basic good sense, if we’re to find our way back to anything like a functioning society.

My point in all of this is not to say you should vote for Trump, as I’ve made clear. I’m simply proposing that Trump has numerous enough real faults as a candidate without our inventing imaginary ones. It hasn’t been fair, it hasn’t been constructive, and it was never going to help potentially persuadable Trump voters come over to the side of those who abstain. And, sadly, it has widened a rift that will remain and drive wedges between people long after this election, whether Trump wins or loses. As my friend E. Stephen Burnett put it on FaceBook, “Aunt Paula posts too much fake news and The Church’s witness is compromised [among certain leftists or skeptics who also in the very least lack moral proportion]” has simply not cut the mustard, substantively or pragmatically. The need for a better way will be all the more acute in the event of a Trump win. Engaging culture means engaging all culture, including Trump-voting culture, even if you still disagree. No, this does not let aggressive Trump voters off the hook either. It just means everyone is on the hook, equally, including those who fancy themselves off the hook.

Meanwhile, let’s step back a moment for a look at the big picture, if that’s possible. One among many things 2020 has brought home is how comparatively little power rests in the seat of the presidency, and how much of that power is actually distributed among state and local governances. When it comes to the things that affect Americans’ day-to-day lives and livelihood, I have news for you: Neither Donald Trump nor Joe Biden, by themselves, whichever of them wins, is going to have nearly as direct of an impact as your governor, or heck, your county sheriff. Vote your conscience, but vote with this sense of proportion in mind.

At the end of the day, you owe a vote to no one. You owe fealty to no one, except God. You should find this to be an encouraging thought. I certainly do.

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