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  • Josh Lewis

Rebuttal: Donald Trump and the Pharisees

As some of my friends are wont to do these days, I have been asked to provide my thoughts on another article written in support of Trump. The piece in question is Donald Trump and the Pharisees written by James Riley. Riley’s post seems specifically directed at taking to task Max Lucado’s own now famous post Decency for President. Lucado’s post is famous because, for the first time, this renowned Christian author and pastor broke his political silence to criticize the Republican nominee (a decision that Riley equates with misplaced priorities “just like the people who killed Christ.”)

This is a long piece, but it appears Riley’s basic argument can be boiled down to this: Vote for Trump because he says he’s prolife and that issue is so important nothing else he believes or does matters.

I don’t mean to be catty, only the rest of the lengthy piece is basically a series of ad hominem attacks against people he disagrees with (those “Pharisees”). Most of this isn’t so much an argument as a mocking/name calling of others and their intentions. This is a common but ignoble approach to political discourse. Rather than engage in debate and actually respond to your opponent’s arguments you can short-cut the process by claiming your opponent’s motives are questionable. Why do men like Lucado not support Trump? It certainly can’t be because they have a legitimate reason for doing so. They must have ulterior motives.

After reading Riley’s piece I have to conclude that he either 1) hasn’t taken the time to read Max Lucado’s post, 2) read it but doesn’t understand it, or 3) is intentionally misrepresenting what Lucado is arguing. As Lucado himself states, “the concern of this article is not policy, but tone and decorum.” Riley would have us believe Lucado is writing a political hit piece and that he objects to Trump simply because he once called a woman a “bimbo”.

I find this particularly troubling because Lucado has actually avoided the pitfall far too many renown pastors and theologians have landed in these days: he hasn’t offered his opinion on subjects he knows nothing about. In this election many public-figure Christians from Dr. James Dobson to Wayne Grudem to Jerry Falwell have offered embarrassingly uniformed political arguments as to why Trump should be president (some have even shamefully twisted the definition of Christianity to find a way to support Trump).

Lucado objects to Trump but he’s wise enough to steer clear of politics. He simply points out that Trump doesn’t pass the “decency test” he’d employ on prospective dates for his daughters and concludes that “whether we agree or disagree with the policies of the president, do we not hope that they speak in a way that is consistent with the status of the office?" It’s difficult to understand what Riley finds so offensive about this question.

Riley wastes no time in accusing Lucado’s political silence on a desire to “make sure the Democratic voters in his church, the ones who support abortion on demand, Islamo-pandering, and class warfare are not made to feel uncomfortable.” This is irresponsibly presumptive.

Riley claims “The #NeverTrump movement is defined by this Pharisee spirit. It is chock full of it.” I’ve no doubt there are many in the #NeverTrump movement who have bad motives or intentions (just as we could say of any political movement ever). Perhaps some of them truly are the “if my guy didn’t win I’m going to take my ball and go home” type. But is Riley claiming this describes EVERYONE in the movement? At what point is it reasonable to ask that Trump supporters stop mocking those who don’t support Trump and actually respond to their arguments?

If Riley would take the time to get to know #NeverTrump individuals such as myself and many of my conservative friends I believe he’d quickly discover this is hardly a “holier than thou” group. He’d find many of us haven’t been spared ridicule for taking a stand. We’ve even been grateful to find other likeminded individuals because it can feel downright lonely to stand against your own party all the while having your motives and your character questioned.

I wasn’t familiar with the author prior to reading this post. I’ll take him at his word that he is a “living historian, filmmaker, wine-lover, and would be novelist.” And, while he may be a decent writer, it is evident he is not an expert in politics. If he truly believes the “weightier matter of the law” is abortion it would behoove him to actually listen to what those who know something about politics are saying about Trump’s candidacy: namely, it’s profoundly foolish to suppose that electing Trump is somehow going to bring about the prolife agenda and there’s ample evidence it would actually set the prolife movement back considerably.

Want the Christian perspective on abortion? Ask a pastor. Want the Christian perspective on the best way to end abortions? Don’t ask a pastor. Why would they know? You’d need to speak with a Christian politician. The pastor is charged with shepherding the flock, studying the Word, and adhering to Biblical orthodoxy. He is not responsible for the Christian response or views on biology, healthcare, pop culture, or politics. That’s the job of Christians who study or work in those disciplines.

This is the trap Riley and far too many Christian leaders have fallen into. They are an expert in their respective fields, but a complete novice when they enter the field of politics. This is evident because, lacking the ability to present an actual argument, they have to resort to finding something about their opponents they don’t like. Riley can’t, on Biblical grounds, defend the multitude of examples of Trump’s sins, so he has to shift the focus to the astoundingly wrong assumption that EVERYONE who has a problem with Trump is being a hypocrite. And even if that were true, it doesn’t address the decency arguments against Trump.

I’ll give Riley credit for at least attempting to defend Trump towards the end of the piece. Perhaps it would be helpful to examine specific elements of Riley’s post:

“Donald is a blunt customer, but it looks like he does have a heart. When asked about abortion, Trump related a story close to home. He said that he knew of a pregnancy that was going to be terminated. ”That child today,” Donald continued, ”is a total superstar. It is a great great child.” – I’m not certain how this demonstrates Trump has a heart? Supposing Trump didn’t believe the child had grown up to be a “superstar”? Would an abortion have been appropriate then? I’m not accusing Trump of that, but this is hardly proof that someone “has a heart.”

“When Donald Trump picked the most pro-life running mate in history to be his partner in the quest for the presidency, Governor Mike Pence, he backed up that claim. He made good on his conversion to the life issue, and, in so doing, he proved to be the opposite of the Pharisee spirit — a man who cares about the “weightier matters of the law.” – Riley has a peculiar tendency to assume he knows someone’s motives. Lucado stays silent on politics because he’s appealing to all those pro-abortion Democrats in his church. Trump chose Pence because he’s now a bonafide prolifer. What if Trump chose Pence because he believed it would lead the easily deceived to suppose he was prolife? There is little evidence of the former and terrifyingly ample evidence of the latter.

“I’ve been around church people all of my life. Even at Stanford, where humanism was the prevailing denomination, I can tell you the religious spirit — whether it is lamenting “gambling” or shaming someone who didn’t recycle his bottle of Pepsi — brings out the worst side of human nature, and it brings ignorance into high relief.” – I don’t deny that hypocrisy and legalism are wrong, but surely Riley isn’t suggesting this is the ONLY motive for calling certain behaviors into question? Christ taught against hypocrisy, but He didn’t excuse sins based on the grounds we just aren’t allowed to talk about them. And He certainly didn’t suggest the act of calling sin a sin was a sin. The matter in question is whether it’s problematic that Trump behaves in certain ways, not whether certain people have the wrong motives for calling him out on it.

“The Bible, folks, doesn’t say much about gambling. Our pious ancestors in New England used lotteries to build churches. If your only objection to Donald Trump rests in casino ownership, you really would feel right at home with the Christ-killing band because you have imbibed legalism as doctrine.” – I’ve yet to meet the man whose only objection to Trump is his casino ownership. I doubt very seriously Riley has meet someone like this either. But again, is Riley suggesting no reasonable objections to casinos can be raised because it would immediately condemn us to Christ-killing legalism? Just out of curiosity, what sins can we object to? Is there a list of the really bad ones that are OK to be against and the not-so-bad ones we just have to tolerate?

“Foul mouthed? I’m guessing you haven’t read scripture with any real scrutiny, because when God gets angry, He doesn’t hold back” – I have and do read scripture with real scrutiny and, at no point, does God mock genders, the handicapped, prisoners of war, or entire ethnic groups. God is not a short-tempered, perverted, self-centered narcissist who puts people down or calls them losers because they have the audacity to point out character flaws.

“I will take a foul mouth defender of life over a church-sitting coward any day.” – That is not the choice we have before us. The choice before us is whether it is right or advantageous to support a dishonorable, bigoted conman advocating anti-Constitutional authoritarianism because you sincerely hope he’s not going to stab you in the back once you give him the reins of power over a decidedly liberal elitist with a long history of deception and corruption. I have made it very clear I don’t condemn someone who feels compelled to support one because the other is unthinkable in their mind. Some of us find them both unthinkable.

“Arrogant? I always get a kick out of people who spend all day in some corner of the bureaucracy, who never need to make a sale, who never need to appear confident, because they get paid every day, whether they do anything useful or not. Donald has to convince people a skyscraper is worth building, folks. You are mistaking confidence, faith even, for arrogance, because you’ve never had to really make a sale.” – Again, Riley is very comfortable assigning motives to people. I think most of us are perfectly capable of spotting arrogance. I resent the idea that I’m mistaking “confidence, faith even, for arrogance”. I know plenty of confident people. I know plenty of arrogant people. It’s troubling when Trump supporters, attempting to explain how he isn’t actually arrogant, can’t do so without attacking others. Are you against Trump? That’s just because you “spend all day in some corner of the bureaucracy” and “get paid every day whether you do anything useful or not.”

“Strip clubs and philandering. I won’t make any defense for that, but I would ask you to look to yourselves. Do you buy television cable services from a company that also offers pornography?” – It’s nice that we’ve finally arrived at some behavior Riley doesn’t just want to justify, but is he seriously comparing building a strip club to watching pornography? Neither is excusable but they’re hardly comparable. And how is any of this a defense of Trump? If someone were to object to Trump on this issue alone would Riley persist in calling them a Pharisee? It sounds as if Trump could commit nearly any sin he likes. So long as he pays lip service to the prolife movement we can’t so much as raise a reasonable objection to unreasonable behavior without being labelled by Riley as being “just like the people who killed Christ.”

“And I would ask you to look to your Bibles again. God uses some pretty gritty characters to work His glorious and sovereign will.” – Great. So…should we vote for Hillary Clinton then? Under this logic, why support any candidate over any other? Why even bother arguing the merits or logic or reason of it all if God’s just going to rig the whole thing anyhow? Riley is confusing Biblical descriptions of how God operates throughout human governments with the Christian’s imperative to support decent governance.

“You actually know all about that, but when you see a flawed man, in the flesh, you act just like a stoning torch mob, and you won’t even admit it.” – Again, it sounds as if Riley should have no objection to any flaws in any candidate so long as they adopt his pet issue of being anti-abortion (no matter whether they actually have the capacity to bring it about).

“Donald Trump is more righteous than you think. He wants to protect you from Islamic zealots. He wants to protect your right to defend your families with firearms. He even wants to exempt your pulpits from IRS tyranny. He wants to end the death tax, so you can pass on your farms and your family business to your children. He wants to lower your taxes. He wants to protect the lives of unborn children and appoint Constitutional judges.” – No, he’s advocating specific policies to do those things that may or may not accomplish their stated goals. This is pure foolishness. Trump wants to protect us from Islamic zealots. Does that imply Clinton wants us to die at the hands of Islamic zealots? One may object (as I do) to her stated policies for addressing Islamic zealots, but that doesn’t mean she desires us to die.

What’s interesting here is, having held the prolife agenda up as the central most important issue in this election, Riley has now snuck a whole host of Republican talking points into the argument. If we’re going to bring other policy arguments into the last couple of paragraphs of the post, why only pick the ones that sound as if they came from a Republican mailing piece? I don’t see Riley defending Trump’s threats to make it easier to sue Americans who say things he doesn’t like, or forcing companies to stop building overseas, or killing relatives of suspected terrorists, or defaulting on the national debt, or abandoning our NATO allies to an aggressively expanding Russia.

“But you and Max Lucado don’t like his style. Your priorities are all mixed up, just like the people who killed Christ.” – Riley concludes that all objections to Trump couldn’t possibly be based on reason, so they must be a self-righteous objection to his style. He would do well to educate himself on the real objections to Trump and learn how to argue with others without implying they’re no better than the people who murdered Christ.

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