About 4 years ago, I wrote a blog post entitled Respect for the President in which I argued that Christians have the moral duty to show a certain degree respect to the leader of their country. I wrote:
The Bible passages above make it clear that we are required to give respect and not merely grudging obedience to our leaders. Of course, it is perfectly acceptable to criticize the President's policy decisions, to sound the alarm at usurpations of power, to whistleblow crimes, to reject immorality etc. You are not required to agree with him or her, any more than the command to "honor your father and mother" means you must always agree with their decisions.
About the specific candidates for the election, I said that:
That does not mean I am neutral when it comes to this election. While I am not a huge fan of either candidate this season, Donald Trump is far more dangerous, irresponsible, and crude than his rival, and I may have some personal difficulty in following my own advice if he is elected. Although it is conceivable he would keep his promise to appoint justices to the Supreme Court in keeping with my own views, this year the "worst case scenarios" for the Executive Branch seem way worse than for the Judicial Branch.
Well, Trump has kept his promise to appoint conservative justices, I'll give him that.
But in other respects, I don't think he's really governed as a conservative at all. Nobody who is almost completely without respect for honor, decency, military service, civil unity, the Constitution, or due process of law, can really be called a conservative in any meaningful sense. Unless you just mean that phrase as an arbitrary label to describe one particular political team, I think that both in temperament and policy, St. Joe Biden is much closer to being conservative than Trump is.
(For that matter, I have some qualms about calling a "conservative" anyone who doesn't believe in some form of environmental conservation—the arguments for doing so are almost exactly the same as the arguments for not making radical changes to the economy or civil society, namely that these things represent a delicate balance that has evolved over a long period of time, and that balance is easy to destroy but very hard to replace. In other words, it's a bad idea to try to cut off the branch you are sitting on.
Except that actually it's even more foolish to ruin the ecology, as in that case we are talking about a system which God allowed to evolve over millions of years, not mere hundreds of years. I believe that we humans have been placed on this Earth as divinely appointed stewards of the Environment. God wants us to cultivate our planet and care for it—not pillage and destroy it for the short-term profit of shareholders. It may be hard to replace a repressive system of government, but it is far easier than to recreate an extinct species, or to suck 1/3 of the carbon dioxide out of the air in order to return the atmosphere to the condition it was in before the Industrial Revolution.)
This is not really a political blog, and I don't think it is useful to make long lists of links to describe (1) all of the cruel or irresponsible things that the current President has done, (2) formerly respected conservatives who have come out against him, (3) the way his politicization and minimization of the Covid Pandemic led to a far larger death toll than necessary (currently around 200,000). There are plenty of other places on the Internet to read about this sort of thing, so I try to avoid getting mired in politics except when I have a distinctive angle. Nor do I think I am very likely to persuade anyone of Trump's unfitness to hold office, who doesn't already acknowledge that fact.
Nor is it particularly worthwhile to recount all of the ways in which Trump, at least verbally, likes to subvert American instiutions by verbally playing around with ideas like violence towards journalists, or voting twice, or chanting "12 more years" instead of "4 more years" during the Republican Convention. (But I'm sure he just meant 4 more years of him, and then 8 more years of some other Republican crony. Right...) This is the way he tests out authoritarian fantasies (things that are currently impossible in our system, but would be possible in other countries, and might eventually become possible here).
If people call him on it, his supporters just say that he was just joking. But even if that is true, this is still not the path of wisdom:
Like a madman shooting
firebrands or deadly arrows
is a man who deceives his neighbor
and says, “I was only joking!”
Without wood a fire goes out;
without a gossip a quarrel dies down.
As charcoal to embers and as wood to fire,
so is a quarrelsome person for kindling strife.
Jesus calls us to be peacemakers, not to sow discord and strife!
Even an Incompetent Administration gets some things right
It would probably be far easier to make a list of the very few things I think the Trump administration has done well, such as signing the First Step Act, negotiating a peace treaty between Israel and the UAE, and rolling back a few of the last administration's more creative interpretations of Executive authority (for example on educational policy).
The tax bill he signed made a few structural improvements (e.g. by cutting back on several popular deductions which many economists think are bad policy), and might end up becoming a balanced reform after Democrats get a chance to make some changes. But I think it was a net negative, due to killing the individual mandate. Despite its unpopularity and dubious constitutionality, the mandate was originally motivated as a way to minimize the risk of a future death spiral totally destroying the individual insurance market. Removing the mandate alone, without changing anything else about how Obamacare is structured, was deeply irresponsible.
I also think his administration made a good faith effort to negotiate with North Korea, even though, unsurprisingly, very little came from it. (However I deeply disagree with his approach to the Iran treaty. It was as good of a deal as we were likely to get. Since we weren't prepared to go to war, America should have tried to make it work.)
Is Respect still Warranted?
But what I want to talk about today is this. If the leader of our nation is this selfish and irresponsible, are Christians still obliged to respect him? In other words, was my blog post 4 years ago wrong?
First let me dispose of one rhetorical maneuver I don't think is very sensible. Sometimes people of a liberal bent say things like "Well, Trump is not my president", or that he's an illegitimate President because of issues with the election.
But I think these types of slogans are confused about the definition of the term "legitimate". Our system of government does not allow for the possibility of a vacancy in the Presidency for 4 years. So it's only reasonable to say that Trump isn't really the President, if you think that somebody else is the President. But no judge, no matter how liberal, thinks that whether or not a bill becomes law depends on whether Hillary Clinton signs or vetoes it, or that she has the power to nominate Judges to be considered by the Senate. No, right now that President is Donald Trump. (Although more likely than not, he won't be for much longer.)
The main supposed problem with the election was that Russia paid for fake internet accounts which persuaded too many voters to support the wrong candidate. Now I'm not going to say that Putin trying to mess with voters is a good thing. But in a democracy the goal is to persuade the voters. If you think the voters were persuaded wrongly, by bad people, that doesn't make the system undemocratic. It means that Clinton should have done a better job of persuading the voters she had their best interests at heart. Just as a monarchy doesn't cease to be a monarchy because the King listens to flatterers who don't have the country's best interests at heart, so to a democracy doesn't cease to be a democracy when some of the people listen to fake news. It just makes it a democracy where the sovereign is behaving in a foolish manner. If you only accept the results of democracy when the voters do things you like, then you don't believe in democracy at all.
(As for the Electoral College, that's the system we have for picking the President unless and until it is changed, so deal with it.)
Now to answer the question, I'm going to say Yes, it's still important to show some degree of respect to civil leaders, including Donald Trump (and also the Governor of your own state who may or may not be mismanaging things, and also local authorities—this isn't just about the top position.)
The first reason I think this, is because I think that if Democrats had done a better job of respecting their civil leaders when St. George W. Bush was in charge, and if Republicans had respected St. Barack Obama when he was in charge, then I think the contrast between that respect and Trump's disrespectful demeanor would have been so great, that he could never have captured the Republican primary. It is only because our civil society was already wounded by extreme partisan bias on both sides, that a person who specialized in trolling people was able to take charge of the political process.
So if I said people didn't have some obligation to show a some degree of respect for the current President, I would be enabling the same process that led to Trump being President in the first place. That seems counterproductive, to say the least!
Comparison to Respect for Parents
Secondly, I think it is helpful to make an analogy to another commandment about respect, Honor your father and mother. (This is one of the Big Ten, so we definitely aren't allowed to ignore this commandment and hope it goes away.)
Our parents gave us life, provided for us in our early years, and gave us rules and principles to live by. For religious people, our earliest image of what God's character is like, will be a combination of the character of our father and our mother. Hence, our (limited) respect for our parents is a natural corollary of our unlimited respect for God, who is totally authoritative, and the giver of all life.
But parents differ in their quality. Let's consider 4 cases:
1) Some people, like me, grew up with great parents, who were loving and wise and interested in our welfare, and set a good example. (Nobody is ever a perfect parent, of course, and in a fallen world, every parent is going to leave their kids with issues of one sort or another.) But taken as a whole, such parents make it easy to respect them as images or symbols of what God is like.
2) Or you might have had mediocre parents who did everything necessary, but not in a super inspirational sort of way. Perhaps they weren't very affectionate, or were overly strict, or workaholics, or got a messy divorce. But they still definitely loved their kids and took care of them and gave them a reasonable start in life.
3) Or you might have had 1 or 2 parents who did a terrible job of parenting. Perhaps they were unaffectionate, abusive, neglectful, just plain irresponsible. But they still probably cared about you to some extent, and they still did some of the jobs a parent is supposed to do. (In extreme cases, they may be sufficiently bad news that their children might even need to resort to cutting off all contact with them, for the sake of their own sanity and protection.)
4) Finally, another class of parents were just completely absent as a caretaker. They took zero responsibility once you were born (or in the case of the father, begotten), and totally abandoned you. The only reason you are still alive today, is because somebody else stepped up to the plate to take care of you when you were younger.
Now God says to the children of all of these people, Honor your Parents. There is no person to whom this commandment is totally inapplicable, since none of us can survive early childhood without having received some caretaking from somebody. But it must be conceded that this commandment is going to be a lot harder for people in the last two categories than for people in the first or the second categories.
I think everybody is capable of obeying this commandment in one way or another. However, the way in which we do so, may reasonably depend on what kind of parent we have had.
In any of the first 3 cases, we can honor our parents by giving them credit for whatever good things they gave us (with no need to pretend that their mistakes didn't happen). And to take care of them in their old age to the extent that this is reasonable and possible given your circumstances. In cases of abusive parents, it may not be safely possible to interact with them, and the best you can do to fulfill your filial obligation is pray for their souls from a distance. In a few extreme cases, the most reasonable old age pension might be in a jail cell!
If your parents were totally neglectful (case #4), or if you had to be removed from them (in extreme versions of case #3), it seems appropriate to give the greater degree of honor to whoever actually raised you in their place. Those folks, whoever they are, may have a much greater claim to be respected as your "parents". But this does not give you the liberty to curse or hate your biological parents. For it is written:
Woe to him who quarrels with his Maker—one clay pot among many. Does the clay ask the potter, "What are you making?" Does your work say, "He has no hands"?
Woe to him who says to his father, "What have you begotten?" or to his mother, "What have you brought forth?"
Even if your biological parents provided you nothing except for your genetic material and 9 months in a womb, you can still honor them for that one little thing, because by doing so you are really only respecting your own self. Otherwise you are saying "I wish I was never born", and (unless your piety and suffering equals that of Job) that can slip very easily into despising the Lord who created you, who is your true loving Father.
I recently saw the film Capernaum, in which a Syrian boy named Zain is born in poverty to selfish parents, runs away from them after they sell his sister in marriage, and after a series of unfortunate events, ends up in jail. There, he sues his parents for allowing him to be born. This lawsuit is, I think, an example of something that the 5th Commandment categorically prohibits. (And for those who have seen the movie, I do not, in fact, think that it would be better for the world if Zain hadn't existed; for one thing he spends a good portion of the movie trying to take care of a baby after its mother is deported.)
So what does this mean for you if you are an American who hates Donald Trump and thinks he's bad for the country? Well, he doesn't seem to be like a parent in class #4, who isn't trying at all to run the federal government. At worst he's in category #3, an irresponsible and abusive authority.
Respect doesn't mean you have to pretend he's doing a good job when he isn't. (Although, I don't think he's the worst President ever, when you remember that this includes people whose mismanagement led to a literal Civil War, and also people who directly supported slavery, or segregation, or the genocide of Native Americans.)
At the very least, you can refrain from making juvenile permutations of his name, since that is totally unnecessary in order to make substantive criticism of his administration of office. You can still acknowledge that he is the President of your nation. You can grudgingly acknowledge it when he occasionally does good things. And you can pray for him, in ways that aren't entirely about him being struck by lightening, or ignominiously losing the election. That would be a start.
The Mirror of the Word
I also don't think that respect for Civil Authority means that we shouldn't hold up the mirror of Scripture to the President's conduct, to see how it looks from a spiritually informed perspective.
I thought this article about 10 Scriptures to pray for Donald Trump crossed the line from sermonizing to cheerleading, especially in the topic headers, for example: praying for "Trump to do everything in his power to continue to care for those who need assistance" (as if he ever cared), or that "Trump will lead America to continue to be a light for all nations" (which misinterprets "my chosen people" in Isaiah 51:4 as though it referred to the USA, a theological blunder with serious political implications).
Don't get me wrong, I think it's great to compile a list of Scriptures which are helpful for understanding how we should think about Donald Trump as Christians. But no such list is complete which doesn't include this obviously applicable statement:
There is no fear of God before his eyes,
for in his own eyes he flatters himself too much
to detect or hate his sin. (Psalm 36:1-2)
Now let me make another hopefully obvious point. If children have the responsibility to honor their parents, then obviously parents also have the responsibility to try to be the sort of parents that are easy to honor. Otherwise, they (the parents) are responsible for the profanation of the Divine Name that occurs when their children reject or despise them. Perhaps, they are even more responsible for the violation of the commandment than their children are.
The rest of this post is aimed mostly at political conservatives. I'm sure there are also lots of liberal-minded people who read my blog, but they are unlikely to be very tempted to support Donald Trump, and so the points I am going to make are not primarily aimed at them.
If you are a political conservative; if you believe in the importance of civil society; if you think it is important for people to respect the Constitution and the laws—then obviously it is important to select leaders who model that kind of respect for something higher than themselves. Respect works best when it is reciprocal. Only a leader who cares about being respectable is likely to inspire respect.
Similarly, if you want people to respect the cops, then this is a lot more likely if the cops hold themselves to high standards, and strictly adhere to the law and to their constitutional limitations, without people giving them a free pass.
There are lots of ways to win politically in the short run, but the only way to win in the long run is to win hearts and minds. Anything you do for a political position or party which doesn't work towards this goal, is in the long run counterproductive.
(For example, the last thing the pro-life movement should want, is for the face of the movement going forwards to be a man like Donald Trump. That is like saying, yes please tie a millstone around the neck of my social movement and toss it into the sea! )
Hence, if you are a political conservative who wants to get people to respect lawful authority, your standard of goodness had better not be that anything which "triggers liberals" is therefore good. That is the exact opposite of Winning Hearts and Minds. As St. Paul wrote to Christians:
Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay," says the Lord. On the contrary:
“If your enemy is hungry, feed him;
if he is thirsty, give him something to drink.
In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.
Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. (Romans 12:17-21)
No matter how misguided you think another group of people is, defining their evil as your good is one of the quickest ways to become evil yourself. There is no group of people so terrible, that opposing them can be a substitute for doing justice, loving mercy, and walking humbly before God. To be respectable, you need to have your own moral compass, not simply borrow another person's and then turn it upside-down.
When I was a kid our one of our neighbors had a large, rowdy dog that would sometimes bark at us, through the fence. It was rather intimidating. One afternoon, me and my younger siblings started loudly barking back at the dog to show we weren't afraid of it. Well my Dad didn't like that. He said, "If you meet that dog in a dark alley someday, do you want it to lick your hand or tear you apart?"
Don't get me wrong. Sometimes in politics, it's necessary to do the right thing even when the other side calls you Hitler. Most politicians are cowards, and yes, it's often hard to do the right thing when a lot of people in the media take everything you do out of context.
Still, you should be trying to maximize the amount of accomplishment per unit of outrage. Not deliberately doing cruel things which don't lead to any permanent good, just in order to spite and enrage the other side. That will just lead to worse things down the road next time the other guys are in charge.
Considerations while Voting
Next I'm going to say something now a lot of political operatives on both sides don't want you to hear, so pay attention. Since WWII, the White House has pretty regularly switched back and forth between Republicans and Democrats every few years. It's unrealistic to expect either party to have a victory that will permanently shut out the other party. If you aren't going to advocate for a dictatorship, or permanently killing or disenfranchising your enemies, or rigging elections, things are going to go back and forth.
So if you think the only way to save America is for Democrats (or Republicans) never to win another election, then I hate to break it to you, but that ain't gonna happen!
You should think of it more like this. You should vote, because on average your vote can do a significant amount of good. But in every election, you aren't just helping to determining whether the R's or D's win. You are also helping to determine what kind of party the R's and D's will be going forward. And this is even more important that deciding who wins in the short run.
If you want the future Republican party to look more like Donald Trump, and the future Democratic party to look more like Warren or Sanders, then by all means vote for Trump! But if you would prefer a Democratic party that looks like moderates like Biden, or a Republican party which looks like somebody who cares about something other than their own ego, then you should probably vote for that outcome.
Yes, Christians should respect Civil Authorities like the President. And if we are obliged to have respect for the Presidency, then a natural outgrowth of that is that we should try to vote for people who will treat that Office with respect. Character matters, and people in high office who have a bad character will tend to corrode the work of everyone they oversee below them. As it is written:
If a ruler listens to lies, all his officials become wicked.
By the way, I don't want to hear any replies in the comments complaining about the media's double standards, or "What about this other terrible thing that Democrats did, and liberals let them get away with it?!?"
If you are going to have a double standard at all, at least make it point in the right direction: conservatives should hold conservative politicians to a higher standard than they hold liberals to, and liberals should hold liberal politicians to a higher standard than they hold conservatives to. Whichever "side" you agree with more, those are the people you should hold to a higher standard! Not the other way around.
(Far more so, as a Christian, I expect the Church to uphold a higher standard than the world, and I'm okay with the world holding the Church to a higher standard as well. We should be held to a higher standard.)
It is predictable that liberals would react with outrage to a Republican president regardless of how bad he was. No matter how bad the President is, there are always going to be hyperbolic people who think he is 10 times worse than he actually is. (It is not hard to find conservatives overreacting to Obama.)
Precisely because this overreaction is predictable, and happens no matter what, you cannot allow them to shatter your own sense of morality, by saying that because they overreact, you are therefore pre-emptively justified in ignoring the real problems and issues caused by the President's lack of moral character (which currently has a significant death toll, remember). Is it really an excuse to say: the other side is going to complain no matter what, so I may as well do terrible things? Is that what passes for moral analysis in politics-land?
I'm sick and tired of partisans on both sides of the political spectrum using the (real or imagined) terribleness of people on the other side, to excuse bad behavior on their side.
If you genuinely thought that Trump was the lesser evil in 2016, or 2020, I profoundly disagree, but I understand that people of good conscience can weigh issues differently than I do. I will not cut you off from my friendship or disrespect you, simply because you have different political opinions from me about which priorities are most important.
(And yes, there are more abortion deaths every year (around 600,000) than Covid deaths this year. However, as St. David French points out, the abortion rate is now lower than it was in the year Roe v. Wade was decided, suggesting that Winning Hearts and Minds, supporting mothers with crisis pregnancies, and encouraging Adoption might actually work better than direct attempts to change the issue by means of Supreme Court politics—something which would at best return the issue to the States and allow abortion to be banned mostly in Red States where it is already rare.)
The trouble is, that a lot of the people who were arguing that Trump was the lesser evil in 2016 (because of abortion or whatever), are now bending over backwards to present him as the greater good, covering up all of his flaws, and trying to purge from the Republican party anyone who criticizes him. That's not what supporting someone as the "lesser evil" means. That's moral corruption.
I don't think you have to endorse everything a politician does in order to vote for him, or to encourage others to do so. But Trump, because he loves flattery, makes it pretty hard for famous people to support him, if they show any reservations at all, and aren't enthusiastic about him. So lots of people have ended up endorsing lots of bad stuff along with the good stuff.
Corruption in the Church
This is most disturbing when the people who do so, are respected leaders in the Church.
Because, while the Church ought to submit to Civil Authority so far as it acts within its legitimate authority (for example, when your State's Governor requires you to wear a mask in large gatherings for your own safety!), Christian pastors and leaders also have a Spiritual Authority of their own, which they need to exercise to ensure that people know about the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Thus, a pastor who meets with the President, has the obligation to inform him of the basics of what God expects.
And yet, respected evangelical leaders like Sts. James Dobson and Franklin Graham (son of the great evangelist St. Billy Graham) chose to whitewash Donald Trump, and pretend he was a Christian, in order to reassure rank-and-file churchgoers to get them to vote for him. (To anyone who is old enough to remember what Dobson or Franklin Graham said about the ethical character of President Bill Clinton, just 16 years earlier, the stench of hypocrisy is palpable.)
They did this, even though quite clearly, Trump is not a Christian in any meaningful sense of the word. (Trump has said that he's never repented of any sins; if this is true he is definitely unsaved by according to any Evangelical Christian theology.)
Thus, these "leaders" chose to sacrifice the very sine qua non of Evangelicalism—conversion to Christ, being "born again"—for political advantage. In doing so, they also sold the soul of Trump himself—who is desperately spiritually sick—for the sake of a mess of pottage, namely their chance at defeating their enemies in the culture wars (although, this will inevitably be a hollow victory, because of the Not Winning Hearts and Minds thing).
As God said to the prophet Ezekiel:
Now at the end of seven days the word of the Lord came to me: “Son of man, I have made you a watchman over the house of Israel. When you hear a word from My mouth, give them a warning from Me. If I say to the wicked person, ‘You will surely die,’ but you do not warn him—you don’t speak out to warn him about his wicked way in order to save his life—that wicked person will die for his iniquity. Yet I will hold you responsible for his blood. But if you warn a wicked person and he does not turn from his wickedness or his wicked way, he will die for his iniquity, but you will have saved your life. (Ezekiel 3:16-19)
It was the duty of Evangelical leaders to warn Trump that his towering arrogance put him out of touch with God, and to explain (however unlikely it might seem that he would accept it) the Good News that there is somebody even more important than he is, who was capable of saving him.
But they chose not to warn him. They kissed him on the cheek, soothed his worries, and left him drowsily sliding towards Hell. And God will hold these Evangelical leaders accountable for his blood.
[Some people might think it's not very consistent to worry about the damnation of the President at the end of a blog post where I urge people to be more respectful of the Presidency. But respect includes taking people seriously. And urging people—not just Donald Trump, but also Joe Biden, and all the other politicians and preachers, and all the readers of this blog post—to be reconciled with God is not only a serious matter, but the kindest and most loving thing we can do for them.]