This is my last Sunday French Press, and I confess that I have profoundly mixed feelings. I’m grateful and honored by the chance to join the New York Times, but my community of Sunday readers here at The Dispatch is like nothing else I’ve ever experienced in my career. From the heartfelt comments to the often moving personal emails, it’s plain to me that there simply haven’t been enough open, transparent discussions and explorations of faith within American media. People are hungry for conversations about the role of religion in our lives.
I’d long been frustrated with the failure of much of the media to understand faith communities, but that frustration built to a boil during the post-9/11 era, culminating with the rise of ISIS. In the constant search to understand jihadism, there was a frustrating tendency to overlook the religious argument that the jihadists were making—constantly and loudly—to find the “true” cause of their militaristic rage, whether it was the legacy of colonialism, poverty, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, or political repression.
That’s not to say that those factors were irrelevant. Many of them rendered the soil fertile for the seeds of apocalyptic religion. But when jihadists told us their motivations, we should have believed them, and if we didn’t believe them, then we didn’t truly understand them.
But understanding religious motivations and religious culture is far from the only reason to do deep dives into faith and people of faith. As I’ve argued at length, for years, religious arguments often connect with human nature in a deep and profound way. Through faith we can often understand the world (and ourselves) better than we can through a purely secular analysis.
And that brings me to the power of leadership, the Southern Baptist Convention of 1998, and to George Santos—the almost purely fraudulent man who represents the culmination of the post-truth, post-character right.
One of the great cultural and religious challenges of politics (especially in a polarized nation) is that our intense and emotional rooting interest in our partisan tribe has a tendency to thoroughly pollute our moral analysis. Basic truths that are treated as pure common sense in every other arena of life suddenly become controversial and contested in politics.
Let’s take, for example, a proposition that’s uncontested everywhere but politics—leaders comprehensively influence the course and culture of institutions they control. They’re not the only influence, of course, but their influence is often decisive. I’ve experienced this reality in every institution I’ve belonged to in my life.
It’s not that they simply set policy or define tactics, but they also set an example. Their place at the pinnacle makes them a living, breathing model of success and influence. They’re not culturally omnipotent; a person can operate differently from the leader in any given organization. But the more they differ from the leader, the more countercultural they are, and when you’re countercultural, living your daily life is like swimming against the current of a river. It’s hard. It’s exhausting. And there is a constant temptation to just drift with the stream.
None of this represents a groundbreaking insight. We see this reality whether we work at a Walmart, a law firm, a McDonald’s, or serve in the military. But what about politics?
This brings me back to 1998. If you’re too young to remember the battles over Bill Clinton, it’s hard to truly convey their intensity. On the one hand it’s absolutely the case that Clinton drove some Republicans truly crazy. Some of the conspiracies that circulated on the right made Obama-era birtherism look benign. To this day, there are many Republicans who believe in a conspiracy called the “Clinton Body Count”—the idea that Bill and Hillary ordered the murders of dozens of political opponents.
One can reject all those conspiracies and still know that Bill Clinton faced multiple, corroborated accounts of sexual harassment and even sexual assault. You can know that he was a serial adulterer who exploited a White House intern and lied about his affair with her under oath. You can know there was substantial evidence that he obstructed justice to try to keep the affair secret.
And yet vast numbers of Americans—including the vast majority of Democrats—stood by Clinton and never wavered. Clinton engaged in misconduct that would end the career of virtually any CEO in America, and Americans shrugged. The nation was at peace. The Cold War was over. The economy was booming. A question reverberated across the land, “Why did this all matter?”
In the summer of 1998, the Southern Baptist Convention gathered in Salt Lake City and made its argument to America. It crafted a resolution on moral character in public officials that tried to make a succinct case that character matters. And it even matters when peace and prosperity prevail. A nation will ultimately suffer if it abandons virtue.
The resolution briefly walked through scriptural admonitions against unlawful or immoral conduct and made this startling declaration, one that I’ve quoted many, many times since the political rise of Donald Trump: “Tolerance of serious wrong by leaders sears the conscience of the culture, spawns unrestrained immorality and lawlessness in the society, and surely results in God’s judgment.”
To the extent that anyone read the SBC resolution outside of conservative evangelicalism, they often responded with mockery and whataboutism. What about corrupt Christian leaders? What about Newt Gingrich and his affairs? I don’t remember as many people grappling with the most important question of all—is that statement true? Is it reflecting a valid understanding of human behavior?
In one of the great, sad ironies of life, conservative Christians inadvertently set about demonstrating the truth of their own moral and spiritual critique through their own behavior. During the age of Trump, the GOP’s white Evangelical base won the Olympic gold medal for “tolerance of serious wrong by leaders.” It elevated to the pinnacle of American politics one of the most thoroughly corrupt and cruel people ever to occupy the Oval Office and applauded itself for its victory.
We’ve been living with the consequences ever since.
Let’s go back to my river analogy. Every leader directs the course of his or her own river, but the size and strength of that river depends on their position and the force of their will. The combination of the natural power of the presidency with the sheer, constant force of Trump’s personality, meant that contradicting him—either in the substance of his policies or in the nature of your political ethics—was hard, exhausting, and often dangerous.
But what if you went along? What if you imitated the leader? Power and prosperity were yours for the taking. On any given week, a tour of the culture and controversies of the new right can be depressing indeed. Let’s just scan through the news.
Lauren Boebert, Paul Gosar, and Marjorie Taylor Greene are receiving plum new committee assignments on powerful House committees.
Here in Nashville, the horrific ReAwaken America tour made its latest appearance, where a coalition of cranks, conspiracy theorists, and election deniers spoke to yet another packed house, combining Christian worship with an avalanche of political lies to whip their Chrsitian crowd into a frenzy.
Right-wing media is roiled by a strange fight between the Daily Wire and a popular shock-jock YouTuber named Steven Crowder. How popular is his schtick in the American right? Popular enough to receive a $50 million four-year offer to join the Daily Wire. And what did Crowder do in response? He not only publicly attacked the Daily Wire, he secretly recorded a conversation with its co-founder, his longtime friend Jeremy Boreing and released its contents to the public.
At the same time, a number of right-wing media outlets fell for a false claim that Hunter Biden was renting his father’s residence—the same house where classified documents were found—for the whopping sum of $49,910 per month. In reality, that was the amount Hunter paid every quarter for office space located near the Swedish embassy in Washington.
This brings us to George Santos. Over at Mediaite, Sarah Rumpf has put together a “complete-ish” ranking of his extraordinary lies. Among many other things, there’s overwhelming evidence he’s lied about his education, lied about his drag queen past, lied about the death of his mother, lied about his career, lied about his ethnic heritage, and lied about his family escaping the Holocaust.
And why not? Our political culture has always had trouble with the truth, but is there a single moment since Donald Trump clinched the nomination in 2016 that “telling the truth” has been a cardinal Republican virtue? Or even a virtue at all? Indeed, if you want graphical evidence of the sheer cultural power of Donald Trump’s Mississippi River of corruption, I’ll remind you of this chart:
Donald Trump instigated a violent insurrection, and the people who were condemned the most in Republican eyes were the Republican leaders who resisted the violence and followed the law. Ask Mike Pence if it was exhausting, hard, and dangerous to row against the Trump stream for a single crucial day—even after going with the flow for four long years. Ask any Republican who tried to hold Trump accountable for his lies.
I completely reject the argument I’ve heard from critics on the left who claim that this is what Republicans have truly been all along—or at least since Goldwater. I freely admit that I was wrong about the strength of the reactionary right. A healthy political movement does not produce a Donald Trump. But the Republican river flowed differently when Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, George W. Bush, John McCain, and Mitt Romney were its leaders. The social, cultural, and moral pressures pushed in different directions.
Let’s put it this way: No one is writing a book called When Character Was King about Trump.
The great challenge for the GOP isn’t beating Democrats. That it can often do. The Democratic Party’s own inadequacies are responsible for many of its electoral weaknesses. A party that nominates Hillary Clinton is not a party that puts character at the center of its own political project.
No, the great challenge for the GOP is reversing the course of its river. To the extent that a person influences a party and a nation, the direction of that influence should flow towards truth, towards courage, towards competence. Make lies exhausting. Make incompetence countercultural. Make cowardice shameful again.
How do we know the conservative Christians of 1998 were correct? The evidence was right in front of our eyes then. Clinton corruption degraded our political culture in plain view. But if there was any remaining doubt at all, conservative American Christianity proved its own thesis. It tolerated serious wrong, its conscience was seared, and now unrestrained lawlessness and moral corruption rots the movement.
George Santos was inevitable. The American right rendered him inevitable. And now it lives with the consequences.
But I don’t want to end on a dark note. In many ways the wider world is actually a brighter place than it was in 2016, in 2020, or even in 2022. One reason why is that the immense power of negative character has become so blindingly obvious that it’s creating a backlash. Across this nation there is a hunger for a better day. Across this nation I encounter leaders who want to make sure their own river flows along the right course, in the right direction to foster and preserve the virtues that are vital to our civilization.
I know this in part because I know many of you, the readers in positions large and small who understand, in the words of the SBC in 1998, that “character does count”—and not just in public office. As you’ve shared your stories with me, I’ve learned from you. In particular I’m inspired by those of you who have done the exhausting work of paddling upstream, living faithful countercultural lives.
Acting together, across partisan lines, you’ve blunted an insurrection, exposed profound injustice even in the most powerful secular and religious organizations, defended civil liberties for all Americans, maintained the rule of law when a president put it under siege, and then, this last election, systematically blocked the ascent of a wave of the most dangerously dishonest politicians in the nation.
Leaders are shifting the streams. They’re doing what Americans have done since the great documents of the founding placed the ideals of the American promise at odds with the injustice of the American present. They’re courageously seeking to revive and restore the “better angels of our nature.” There is life left in this country and culture yet.
One more thing …
I hope to have an announcement about the future of the Good Faith podcast soon, but in the meantime, I think you’ll enjoy our most recent episode. Curtis and I hosted an “Ask Me Anything” podcast, and we responded to questions about how to find a good church; how to interact with family and friends who are lost in the right wing media bubble; how to consume pop culture; and we discussed all the ways in which Curtis is an apostate from progressive orthodoxy. It was a fun conversation. Please give it a listen.
One last thing …
When I thought about the last song for the Sunday French Press, only one name came to my mind—Rich Mullins. No musician has influenced me more, and this is one of my favorite Rich Mullins songs, marvelously performed. Enjoy: