Peter Wehner, a former official in the George W. Bush administration, has achieved minor fame as a critic of Christians who voted for Donald Trump. He has become a darling of the establishment media, which is always up for a little Christian-on-Christian rhetorical violence.
Wehner, even though he sees himself as a very civil and temperate fellow, is always happy to oblige the media’s appetite for such conflict. Lost on Wehner in these ginned-up disputes is the irony that he displays a politico-religious zeal far more intense than his conservative Christian targets. He joins the media in treating them as dangerous extremists, even as he allows himself absolutist edicts against them. He is the kind of “moderate” who doesn’t think it extreme to leave the GOP over Trump’s tweets and doesn’t understand why other Christians haven’t followed him.
His loudly advertised “moderate” Christian conservatism rests upon an immoderate rage and is perfectly tailored to the secularist tastes of his editors at the New York Timesand the Atlantic. In late November, Wehner churned out a characteristic column against Trump-voting Christians for the Atlantic in which he took special aim at Franklin Graham and Christian radio talk show host Eric Metaxas. (“Are Trump’s Critics Demonically Possessed?”) Wehner didn’t care for a recent conversation they held on air about the left’s drive to remove Trump from the presidency. It is not clear what Graham or Metaxas said that strayed from a defensible application of traditional Christian belief. Speaking about the “demonic” opposition to Trump from the anti-God left, Metaxas had merely said that we are witnessing a “spiritual battle” play out, one that is marked by a bogus moralism from pundits who normally don’t care a whit about morality:
People seem to have devolved to a kind of moralistic Pharisaism, and they say, “How can you support somebody blah, blah, blah,” and then go on to cite how he’s the least Christian — you know, they go on and on, and I think these people don’t, they don’t even have a biblical view when it comes to that — you know, that if somebody doesn’t hold to our theology, that doesn’t mean they can’t be a great pilot, or a great doctor or dentist. I mean, it’s a bizarre situation that we’re in, that people seem only to have these standards for the president somehow.
That aside was enough to get Wehner frothing at the mouth. Why, Graham and Metaxas are “demonizing Trump’s opponents,” harrumphed Wehner. He then launched into an insiderish rebuttal ascribing positions to Graham and Metaxas they hadn’t taken:
There is no biblical or theological case to support the claim that critics of Donald Trump are under the spell of Satan. It is invented out of thin air, a shallow, wild, and reckless charge meant to be a conversation stopper.
Just ask yourself where this game ends. Do demonic powers explain opposition to all politicians supported by [Franklin] Graham and Metaxas, or to Trump alone? Would they argue that all Christians (and non-Christians) who oppose Trump are under the influence of Satan? What about when it comes to specific issues? Should we ascribe to Beelzebub the fact that many Americans differ with Graham and Metaxas on issues such as gun control, tax cuts, charter schools, federal judges, climate change, the budget for the National Institutes of Health, foreign aid, criminal justice and incarceration, a wall on the southern border, and Medicaid reform? Are we supposed to believe that Adam Schiff’s words during the impeachment inquiry are not his own but those of demons in disguise? Were the testimonies of Ambassador Bill Taylor, Fiona Hill, and Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Vindman truthful accounts offered by admirable public servants that badly hurt the president’s credibility — or the result of demonic powers?
For Graham and Metaxas, it appears that agreeing with them equates to agreeing with God — and disagreeing with them, at least when it comes to Donald Trump, means doing the work of the evil one.
One can only laugh at such immature ranting. By resorting to such crude straw-man argumentation, Wehner is clearly not interested in engaging the substance of what Metaxas is saying — that one of the fronts in the spiritual battle for Christians has formed in our vicious politics, in which the most rabid pro-abortion secularists seek to destroy a pro-life presidency on whatever specious grounds they can find. Why is that point so outlandish for a Christian to make?
What’s astonishing is not that Metaxas and Graham have given voice to this vision but that a self-described Christian like Wehner could be so blind or indifferent to it. it makes one wonder: What, exactly, does Wehner believe? The political-culture war against Christianity has never been more obvious or its stakes higher, given the impact that the 2020 election will have on the judiciary. His unwillingness to fight it, or even let others like Graham and Metaxas identify it, suggests that he doesn’t believe in much, save the “consensus” views of any other D.C. operative.
The Christianity of Wehner is of the Beltway variety — very doctrinaire about the “vulgarity” of Trump’s tweets and other matters of taste while very flexible about the doctrines of Christianity. Wehner pooh-poohs talk of demons while casting Trump as one.
“Donald Trump is a deeply corrupt man in virtually every area of his life… his corruptions have an enormous blast radius, inflicting injury upon our nation and its norms, standards of decency, and honor, and America’s civic and political culture,” writes Wehner.
Could anyone ever imagine Wehner using such fiery language to describe the destructiveness of gay marriage and abortion? No, that would knock him out of Washington’s “in” crowd, leading to canceled columns, speeches, and the like. Like his oh-so-civil co-author Michael Gerson, Wehner makes sure that his Christianity is perfectly calibrated to the manners and mores of his liberal betters, whose esteem he so desperately craves. His is the toothless, liberalism-bolstering Christianity of the PBS NewsHour and the New York Times op-ed page — an amalgam of moderate Republicanism and lowest-common-denominator theism that is non-threatening to the ruling class but utterly scornful of traditional Christians.
Say what you want about Graham and Metaxas, the words and concepts upon which they draw are at least recognizably Christian. The same can’t be said for the blather of Gerson and Wehner, whose “compassionate conservative” moralizing is always restricted to the safest and most generic subjects, the ones most likely to generate a pat on the head from secularists, many of whom, let’s face it, do hate Christianity and use opposition to Trump as a proxy for that hatred.
While Wehner is reluctant to call gay marriage proponents “un-Christian” — go back and look at his columns advocating a Big Tent approach to the subject — he is happy to slap that label on Trump’s Christian boosters. The charge is richly ironic, not only because it violates Wehner’s previous civility decrees but also because it contradicts the “be realistic and prudent” advice he used to give Christians back in the days of his work for the Bush administration. Wehner was part of the GOP Beltway crowd urging Christians to be less starchy and more flexible in their politics — call it the “half a loaf is better than none” school of thought.
Isn’t that precisely what Christians are doing now in supporting Trump? They know perfectly well that he is flawed. They also know that he is a hell of lot better than the alternative — a Democrat who will resume the war on Christianity Obama began. Since when has the exercise of prudence and self-defense been prohibited by Christianity? To hear Wehner rant and rave about the “corruption” that granting political support to Trump entails, one would think it does prohibit it. In fact, Christianity has always held that prudence — which requires choosing between lesser and greater evils — is connected to good character. It is the very imprudence displayed by Wehner that renders a person’s character unstable. He has allowed his apocalyptic hatred of Trump to drive out all other prudential considerations, a stance that taken to its logical conclusion surrenders all political ground to the factions most determined to destroy Christianity.