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Between Despotism and DemocracyBetween Despotism and Democracy

Between Despotism and Democracy

Contributor Sean Ghormley wades into the debate over Christian responses to Donald Trump and sides with those who are calling for a more critical look at his presidency. 

Sean Ghormley
4 minute read

Is there a difference between democratically electing a president and constitutionally removing one? According to Peter Leithart, there is, and the distinction is so great it should prevent Christians from actively participating in the civic process pursuant of a just and moral society.

In late December, Leithart responded to an article in Christianity Today, written by Editor Mark Galli. In his article, Galli carefully and thoughtfully rejected the Trump presidency as morally repugnant to the Christian conscience and as in violation of the U.S. Constitution. Galli’s article, while well-argued and carefully considered, has resulted in a further divide within Christian culture over the polarizing Trump presidency.

Leithart, in his response published in First Things, alternatively asserts that the Christian tradition demands a more cautious and subdued approach to any kind of moral or legal wrongdoing on the part of the president.  Leithart says Christians owe rulers ‘honor and tribute,’ loosely citing Romans 13. 

Furthermore, appealing to medieval Christian philosopher Peter Abelard, he attempts to defend Trump, claiming that in the face of injustice, Christians ought simply to “bear with wicked rulers” and “suffer with patience.” Leithart further claims it obvious that Christians should be politically cautious, and implies that to seek impeachment would unduly cause civil unrest. Apparently, preference for caution and supposed civil tranquility quash a legal recourse to justice, at least from Leithart’s reading of the Christian tradition. 

This partisan representation of the Christian political tradition is poorly applied, limited in scope, and subverts the Christian political tradition’s essential purpose to cultivate a just society out of love for God and neighbour.

Firstly, the honour and tribute owed by a Christian to a democratically elected government differs from the honour and tribute owed to an imperial dictatorial government referenced in Paul’s letter to the Romans. In a democratic government, honour and tribute belong to the rule of law established by the citizens in pursuit of the common good. Leithart seems to confusingly conflate the office of the president with a dictatorial role, unduly attributing a sort of rex est lex to the president, rather than requiring him to submit to the rule of law. 

Alexander Hamilton, and other Founding Fathers in the Federalist Papers, rebuke this understanding of the office of the president. Hamilton clearly identifies the president with a chief magistrate in stark contrast to a king. This misapplication of a Biblical text muddles the Christian political tradition and sacrifices a governing principle that stands between despotism and a democracy.

Secondly, Leithart’s use of Abelard to endorse a passivity in the face of ‘wicked rulers,’ again fails to represent Christian political thought as he claims. Leithart neglects to consult medieval Christendom’s most prominent and influential thinker, the Angelic Doctor. Thomas Aquinas, in his venerable Summa, negates Abelard, as Leithart uses him, and posits that all are subject to the law. This includes rulers as well.

It follows, then, that Leithart’s appeal to passivity in the face of injustice, rather than advocating the rule of law, is inconsistent with the Christian tradition. Rather, it would seem he is attempting to drape Trump in indiscriminately woven threads of Christian tradition in an attempt to protect the president from the cogent criticisms of Christian thinkers such as Galli. 

Forgetting the questionable exegesis of Scripture and a debatable application of Christian political commentary, Leithart’s assertion to be cautious and passive, rather than allow legitimate inquiry into the truth of President Trump’s activities, not only seems incongruent with the principles of a healthy democratic society, but more importantly, is inconsistent with the Christian political tradition in the pursuit of the common good. 

Caution is laudable and can be virtuous. As a society, we tend to be impetuous in our moral outrage and increasingly demand outlandish reprisal. If Leithart is reacting against this too-common response in our culture, it is understandable and even laudable to urge cautious discernment on the part of Christians, especially when politicians seem to follow this disturbing trend. 

Any legitimate inquiry into immorality or wrongdoing necessitates a measure of caution and impartiality from both Democrats and Republicans. However, Christians have been largely uncritical of President Trump’s immorality and apathetic about alleged wrongdoing for more than three years now.  It becomes difficult to see Leithart’s criticism of Galli, and the call to caution, as anything more than disguising apathy and partisan politics through virtue signaling.   

The urge to be cautious in the face of injustice is not new. In January, we remember a leader of Christian political tradition, Martin Luther King Jr. When the Reverend King addressed the injustices of his time, fellow Christian leaders urged caution for years. In his famous Letter from a Birmingham Jail, written on scraps of paper in his cell, King rejected the call to wait, to be cautious, and to endure wicked rulers before seeking justice. 

From his jail cell, King pointedly wrote to the Christian leaders who were urging caution: This ‘wait' has almost always meant ‘never.' We must come to see…that ‘justice too long delayed is justice denied.’” Leaders in King’s own time also paired their urge for caution with a desire to avoid public tension and preserve peace, but King responded strongly.

“But I must confess that I am not afraid of the word ‘tension.’ I have earnestly opposed violent tension, but there is a type of constructive, nonviolent tension which is necessary for growth,” he wrote. 

In a society, both dismayed and disenchanted by the hypocrisy and injustice seemingly rampant in Christian culture, Christians should not be afraid of this tension.  

To remain silent to avoid tension emboldens our critics and undermines the Christian witness for a just and moral society. A unified pursuit of the rule of law in pursuit of justice can and should transcend denominational divisions and display the deep-rooted veneration for Christian and civic virtues, such as justice, rather than continue division through partisanship.

Based on Christian tradition, and Christian leaders such as King, lauded by conservatives and liberals alike, Leithart’s condemnation of Galli because of a singular Christian political tradition is simply unfounded. Caution cannot impede the Christian conscience in pursuit of justice, especially when marred by partisan politics. 

When examining our conscience to consider a path forward, we would do well to remember the words of Pope Pius VI, echoed by the late Pope St. John Paul II, “If you want peace, work for justice.”

Sean Ghormley

Sean Ghormley is from Portland, Oregon, but is currently based in Ottawa, Canada. He is currently researching areas concerning historical theology, Christianity & culture, and Christian humanism.

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