Democrat and Republican, conservative and liberal, red states and blue states—the political divides in our country tend to fall into binary structures. The ones we are most familiar with tend to be firmly established, and we often know, through intuition or experience, what side we align with.
But over the past few months there has been a new political divide, an intramural division within American social conservatism. And this discord has been felt most prominently within the evangelical wing of this movement.
Evangelicals are not a monolithic entity, and there have always been differences and disagreements on politics. Still, within the social conservative faction (which accounts for around 60 percent to 75 percent of evangelicalism) there has been a general sense of unity. At least there was before this election season. The candidacy of Donald Trump has caused a split within this group that has grown increasingly rancorous as we inch closer to the election.Even by the standard of partisan politics, Trump is a uniquely polarizing figure. Before this year few could have predicted he’d bisect socially conservative evangelicals into warring camps.
Witness vs. Justice
In an attempt to bridge this chasm I want to explain the reasoning of both sides (at least as I have observed the debates), examine their strengths and weaknesses, and propose a way forward. While the two sides may not agree on much before November 8, we can at least attempt to seek a modicum of understanding and reconciliation.
There are differences and disagreements within each group and just as many areas of overlap between the two sides. By painting their outlines with a broad brush we will miss many important aspects and nuances. Still, doing so will help us focus our eyes on a few of the most essential elements.
To give a label to each side, we can identify the division as between those focused on Witness and those foregrounding Justice. Let’s start with by explaining the Justice side.
The concern of this group can be summed up in two words: Supreme Court. Many of the issues they care about most are matters of justice that will likely be decided by the court—abortion, marriage, transgenderism, religious liberty, and so on. They’re legitimately worried that if the liberal party candidate, Hillary Clinton, is allowed to choose the replacement for the late Justice Antonin Scalia it will set us back decades, and even push us to a point from which our country may never recover.
Although Trump might not have been their first choice of candidates, they see him as the lesser of two evils. They don’t necessarily know what he would do in office, but they are quite certain how Hillary will govern. For this reason they are willing to take a chance on Trump. To reverse an old saying, “Better the devil you don’t know than the one you do.”
The strength of this position is its clarity and simplicity. This group reasons that even if Clinton and Trump were to govern in the exact same way on every issue and differ only on Supreme Court nominations, we would be no worse off and would, in many ways, be much better off since the Court would be returned to its former status quo.
This is form of minimax strategy, which is often used in two-player, zero-sum games (like presidential elections). Minimax is a strategy of always minimizing the maximum possible loss that can result from a choice a player makes. The Justice side believes by supporting and voting for Trump they are minimizing the maximum possible loss of justice that would result from a Clinton presidency.
For the Justice side, the timeline we should be thinking on is decades, rather than the next four to eight years. My TGC colleague Bethany Jenkins summed up this rationale when she said, “As a lawyer who has read hundreds of cases, I’ve found one thing certain: Presidents come and go, but a SCOTUS Justice lasts a lifetime.” (NB: Bethany is not a Trump supporter, though she is sympathetic to the concerns of the Justice side.)
That is the main strength of the Justice position. The drawback is the trade-offs they have to make to endorse Trump, specifically sacrificing the “character issue” not only from this current presidential election but also from every election in the future.
A prime example of a champion on the Justice side is Robert Jeffress, the pastor of First Baptist Church in Dallas and a member of Trump’s Evangelical Executive Advisory Board. After hearing Trump bragged about committing sexual assault, Jeffress said the comments were “lewd, offensive, and indefensible.” But he said he’d still support Trump for President. “I would not necessarily choose this man to be my child’s Sunday school teacher,” he said. “But that’s not what this election is about.”
The implication is that there is not even a minimal biblical standard of character for a man or woman seeking a leadership role in America’s government. While integrity and a reputable character might be preferred, it’s a luxury good, not a prerequisite to receive the political support of evangelicals.
The result of this decision to disregard character is likely to live longer than even the most robust Supreme Court Justice. No longer can we credibly claim a lack of character is a disqualifier from public office. If Hugh Hefner decides to run for president and chooses Larry Flynt as his running mate, they could credibly claim to be the candidates for evangelical “Values Voters,” so long as they promised to appoint conservative judges.
Now let’s examine the Witness side. This group is also concerned about the long-term threat that will result from allowing Clinton to choose Supreme Court justices. In fact, on this matter they share all of the same concerns as the Justice side. Where they differ is in fervently believing the damage done to our gospel witness in choosing Trump outweighs the potential devastation caused by a liberal Court.
This side rejects the concept of the “lesser of two evils” as being unbiblical since Scripture calls us to reject all evil. They believe the character of both candidates has made them unfit for the highest office in the land, and that voting for either to be President would violate their conscience. Additionally, they believe Trump has made comments that reveal him to be racist, sexist, and/or anti-life—all while claiming to be a Christian. For this group, turning a blind eye to Trump’s character for the sake of political expediency betrays our calling as Christians.
The strength of the Witness position is its integrity and faithfulness. They contend that by supporting Trump (or Clinton) evangelicals are sending the message that we’re willing to sacrifice our witness as ambassadors of Christ, and that we’re willing to choose evil on the chance it will lead to a good outcome.