A recent debate on evangelical support for Trump between Eric Metaxas and Jim Wallis was mostly characterized by absurd arguments from both sides.
The episode, aired Saturday on Al Jazeera's "UpFront" and moderated by Mehdi Hasan, demonstrated the impoverishment of our political debates, both nationally and among evangelicals.
On the plus side, they both made some important points that often get overlooked in debates over evangelical support for Trump. Metaxas pointed out that picking a candidate is complicated, lots of different factors go into the decision, and many were unenthusiastic about their options. Wallis pointed out that the racial divide between white and non-white evangelicals in voting for Trump was significant and shouldn't be overlooked as a factor.
After the moderator cited exit polls showing 81 percent of self-identified white evangelical voters voted for Trump, Wallis argued it was because their whiteness was more important to them than their faith.
"Evangelicals — black evangelicals, Hispanic evangelicals, Asian-American evangelicals — did not vote for Donald Trump. So, white evangelicals did, I think, because they were more white than evangelical. There has never been a racial divide like this in the churches. Black evangelicals said to white evangelicals — 'So, you are saying you didn't vote for Donald Trump because of his racial bigotry, but his racial bigotry wasn't a deal breaker, a disqualifier for you?' That's why there is such a gap here," he said.
But the "gap" works both ways. The gap exists both because white evangelicals voted for Trump in high numbers and non-white evangelicals voted for Hillary Clinton in high numbers.
Trump mobilized racist sentiments, but Clinton is stridently pro-abortion. Why don't I hear Wallis, who says he is pro-life, criticize the large proportion of non-white evangelicals who voted for Clinton? By Wallis' logic, the strong support Democrats receive from non-white evangelicals would make those voters more non-white than evangelical. Wallis only applies that reasoning to Republicans, not Democrats.
But then Metaxas makes the same mistake in the opposite direction, implying that the evangelical race gap in vote choice in simply the fault of non-white evangelicals.
"Liberals seem to be obsessed with dividing people up into racial categories, which I find wrong, to be honest, and un-Christian, first of all. But secondly, I would say that the Democratic Party has taken African-Americans and Hispanics for granted. They have not served them well. They have served them incredibly poorly over the last 40 or 50 years," Metaxas said.
Metaxas correctly notes that Democrats use race-based arguments to mobilize voters but is blind to the fact that Republicans do it to. More specifically, Trump, the candidate he's defending, used racist sentiments, especially anti-Mexican sentiments, to mobilize voters. This is why white nationalist groups have been such strong supporters of him.
That wasn't the only inconsistent argument Metaxas made.
"One of the good things that has happened in the world of ... conservative Christians over the last 20–30 years is we finally understood that even in public life the Christian faith is about grace and forgiveness, more than it is about moralism, morality ...," Metaxas said in explaining his support for Trump.
If that is the standard, grace over morality, then why did Metaxas and other conservative evangelicals oppose Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama and Bill Clinton? Plus, does offering someone grace and forgiveness require that you vote for them? If your argument can't explain why you supported Trump over Clinton, it's not an effective argument for supporting Trump.
I appreciated Metaxas saying that his support for Trump was "tepid." I don't hear liberal evangelicals claim their support for Clinton, if that's who they voted for, was "tepid," though it certainly should've been.
Wallis claimed the debate was "not about Hillary Clinton," which is absurd. The election wasn't a referendum, a simple up or down vote, on Trump. Voters had to choose among candidates.
Wallis claimed he "voted against Trump." But the voting booth doesn't have a "not Trump" option. You vote for candidates, not against candidates. Wallis avoids naming the person he voted for, and the moderator never asks.
Why is Metaxas expected to defend his vote choice but Wallis is not? The media rightly asks, "how could evangelicals vote for Trump?" But they never ask, "how could evangelicals vote for Clinton?" Clinton is so extreme on abortion, she wouldn't even defend the life of an unborn baby on the day of its birth. Doesn't a vote for a person like that also deserve an explanation?
By the end of the debate, it's clear than neither Metaxas nor Wallis understand each other's position any better, and I doubt listeners fared any better. What was the point of this exercise to begin with?
You can watch and weep below: