From its beginning, the 2016 Republican presidential primary has been steeped in irony. Indeed, one can’t discuss the absurdities of 2016 without mentioning evangelicals’ backing of Trump as a “pro-life candidate.” Putting aside his self-description as “very pro-choice” as recently as 2000, Trump has openly advocated the killing of terrorists’ family members as a national security strategy.
Yet, none of what we’ve seen thus far compares to Eric Metaxas’ recent endorsement of Trump, offered during an interview with Kathryn Jean Lopez for National Review.
After Metaxas discusses the need for a reinvigorated “culture of virtue” among our nation’s political leaders Lopez asks if a commitment to this culture of virtue disqualifies Donald Trump as a presidential candidate. (Just in case there’s any lingering confusion, the correct answer to this question is an unequivocal, “yes.”)
Metaxas, however, responds:
Not only can we vote for Trump, we must vote for Trump, because with all of his foibles, peccadilloes, and metaphorical warts, he is nonetheless the last best hope of keeping America from sliding into oblivion, the tank, the abyss, the dustbin of history, if you will. If you want to know how bad things are in America, and how far we have gone, read the previous sentence aloud over and over.
Racism, xenophobia, and misogyny are shrugged off as “foibles, peccadilloes, and metaphorical warts”?
Now, if you follow Metaxas’ work, you likely saw this coming. A few weeks earlier, Metaxas used the moniker “Hitlery” in a tweet to refer to Hillary Clinton, and invited Ann Coulter to appear on his syndicated radio show. Both Metaxas and Coulter spent much of the interview speaking sympathetically of the Republican candidate.
Ironically, some of those repulsed by the prospect of Trump as their party’s nominee are anticipating a “Bonhoeffer moment” at the Republican convention, hoping delegates’ consciences will compel them to reject Trump’s brand in favor of a more winsome, compassionate conservatism.
And here we have a man who wrote the proverbial book on Bonhoeffer vociferously endorsing a proto-fascist for president. And all in the name of civic virtue, no less.
For some reason, this revelation struck me as more bizarre than anything we’ve encountered this election cycle. Frankly, the question has gnawed at me since I first heard the news. But why? What makes this absurdity particularly acute? Isn’t this the kind of thing we’ve come to expect in 2016?
Metaxas’ endorsement is especially disappointing since, despite some glaring historical inaccuracies, his biography of Bonhoeffer was compelling to many readers, including myself. It introduced me to the life and thought of one of the 20th century’s moral exemplars, an interest that I enjoy to this day. Indeed, Metaxas’ skill as a story-teller is undeniable; I finished the 600-page Bonhoeffer text in under a week.
For a while, I viewed Metaxas as he presented himself: as a public intellectual. While he may lean more conservative than I, he nonetheless seemed a model of erudition, a bona fide “man of letters.” Jacob Lupfer describes Metaxas’ public persona well: “He is a well-known and well-liked fixture of the mainstream evangelical establishment, [as well as] a smart and serious communicator.”
This man, who appeared to me and many others as an intellectual heavyweight, now seems anything but. And that’s a shame, because it seems to have tarnished his reputation both inside and outside the evangelical camp.
For all his rhetorical flare, Metaxas has resoundingly failed this election’s ethical test.
But in the end, it may well turn out that disappointment in the ethical failings of one of evangelicalism’s more eloquent public voices is the perfect portrait of the 2016 presidential election.