You Gotta Serve Somebody

The Christian right’s Machiavellian morals

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In times of tribulation, Christian leaders will often turn to Bible verses that proclaim God raises up leaders to carry forth His plan. Divine purposes are mysterious, of course. It is not for us to know why despots would be called to lead. Nor can good believers ever confidently explain why, in American politics, a president such as born-again Jimmy Carter would not be blessed with success, or why Bill Clinton would be raised up at all.

But even so, it’s safe to say that nothing in recent years could have prepared American evangelicals for the test of faith known as Campaign 2016. The Republican Party presidential standard-bearer—and by definition, heir to the array of pet conservative evangelical cultural crusades, from turning back the “war on Christmas” to overturning Roe v. Wade—was as crass, worldly, and cheerfully counter-virtuous as any national political leader could possibly be. The party that two decades ago inveighed against the adulterous amours of President Clinton was naming a confessed serial sexual abuser to the top of its ticket—a man who botched the basic names of New Testament scripture, and while campaigning in Iowa answered an interviewer’s question, “Have you ever asked God for forgiveness?” by saying, “I’m not sure I have . . . I don’t think so . . . I don’t bring God into that picture. I don’t.”

It became clear in the evangelical encounter with Trumpism that character was no longer king. Evangelicals turned out to support Trump last November in unprecedented droves. This twice-divorced avaricious sybarite commanded more than 80 percent of the evangelical vote—a greater share than the tallies registered by Mormon bishop Mitt Romney in 2012 and the revered born-again movement leader George W. Bush in 2004.

Yes, the Bible teems with stories of souls with unsavory personal histories cast into the role of spiritual leadership—from Joseph in Egypt to King David to the Apostle Paul. Still, the Bible also tells us it’s easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of Heaven, and offers no intelligible defense of the serial lying and flagrant racism that have propelled Donald Trump to the center of national life. Shouldn’t true-believing Christians be rising up in prophetic, righteous anger against such a pharaonic figure? Or are they merely hypocritical worshipers of power for power’s sake?

Believers Beclowned

Hard as it may be to recall, there was a spirited debate on the evangelical right over just such questions at the height of last year’s election season. Conservative talk radio host Erick Erickson wrote two months before the election that seeing fellow evangelists—he named Phoenix Seminary theologian and author Wayne Grudem, among others—“beclown themselves trying to justify support of a man like Trump makes me weep for the shallow faith of a church more wrapped up in its Americanness than its Godliness.” Then, weeks after Trump was inaugurated, Erickson made this startling accusation: “If Donald Trump said tomorrow that God is bad and the Devil is his hero, a sizable portion of the Christian population in this country and many others would be lining up to join the Church of Satan.”

Grudem, for his part, rescinded his endorsement of Trump a month before the election, writing: “I have now read transcripts of some of his obscene interviews with Howard Stern, and they turned my stomach. His conduct was hateful in God’s eyes and I urge him to repent and call out to God for forgiveness, and to seek forgiveness from those he harmed.” He also called on Trump to “withdraw from the election.” Ten days later, in another column, he concluded he had no choice but to vote for Trump: “Again and again, Trump supports the policies I advocated in my 2010 book Politics According to the Bible.”

Seasoned evangelical camp followers in Washington experienced similar torment. Michael Gerson, a born-again Bush speechwriter, wrote three days after the inauguration that Christians allied with Trump “are in grave spiritual danger.” Gerson and his fellow Bush wordsmith Peter Wehner have kept up a volley of philippics against Trump; Gerson with a column in the Washington Post and Wehner as a contributing writer for the New York Times op-ed page.

Shouldn’t true-believing Christians be rising up in prophetic, righteous anger against the pharaonic figure that is Trump?

Other evangelical consciences were not especially troubled by Trump; some extended ready forgiveness for the sins he wasn’t sure he needed to be forgiven for. It took no stretch of the imagination to see why, for example, Florida televangelist Paula White-Cain made her way to Washington, D.C., for the inauguration of the 45th president. She had been visiting Trump Tower ever since the Great Man saw her on television some years ago and asked her “Are you ever up in New York?” White often gets credit for having led Trump to Christ. She says she “prayed over him” for “about six hours” with several other ministers in 2011 when he was considering a run for the presidency. “I’ve laid out the Gospel very clearly and I know that Donald is saved,” she told NBC News early this year.

There are genuine theological affinities that Trump shares with White. He came of spiritual age in the pews of the echt-capitalist, positive-thinking guru Norman Vincent Peale’s Marble Collegiate Church, while White is an enthusiastic preacher of the latter-day prosperity gospel, which holds, much as Peale did, that God visits health and riches upon those who intone the right success incantations wrenched out of Holy Scripture. Paula White Ministries, operating out of the New Destiny Christian Center in Apopka, Florida, peddles the prosperity message in the debt-ravaged Sunshine state, while on his own bully pulpit, Trump preaches the allied political wish-fulfillment fantasy of making America great again.

And chosen success homilies aside, the two have other reasons to feel a personal bond: both enjoy luxurious Florida living and television celebrity, and both had seen the ways ethics meddlers in government and the judiciary can complicate the free exercise of wealth-building. White’s previous megachurch, Without Walls International Church, was under investigation from 2007 to 2011 by the Senate Finance Committee after reports in the Tampa Tribune suggested that she and her then-husband and co-pastor, Randy White, were using church finances to support their lavish lifestyle. (Until their divorce in 2007, the Whites owned a $2.6 million waterfront home on Tampa Bay and, according to a staff report of the Senate committee, a $3.5 million condo in Trump Tower in New York City.) Ultimately, the Whites faced no legal consequences other than their church’s default on multimillion-dollar loans and a bankruptcy restructuring. Meanwhile, the latest entry in Trump’s own checkered dealings with the civil authorities was the $25 million settlement of fraud claims filed by aggrieved former students of his success-shilling for-profit Trump University boondoggle.

Another Brick in the Wall

Somewhere between the alarms raised by Gerson and Wehner and the enthusiastic prosperity preachments of a Paula White we encounter the mainstream-evangelical figure of Robert Jeffress, pastor at First Baptist Church in Dallas. Back in 2011, Jeffress had warned the Republican Party against nominating Mitt Romney, who as a Mormon was a leader in what Jeffress calls a “theological cult”—a widespread dismissal of Mormonism in evangelical circles, going back to the initial founding of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in the 1830s. Still, it’s hard to overlook the plank-in-the-eye contradictions that dogged Jeffress’s early and enthusiastic support for the eventual 2016 GOP nominee: Romney was not upright enough but Trump was? Nor does Jeffress approve of the prosperity preachers, fearing they stray into “heresy” when they teach that blessings equate with wealth.

Yet there was Jeffress on inauguration morning 2017, delivering a guest sermon at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Washington, with Trump and family in attendance. From the pulpit, he said:

When I think of you, president-elect Trump, I am reminded of another great leader God chose thousands of years ago in Israel. The nation had been in bondage for decades, the infrastructure of the country was in shambles, and God raised up a powerful leader to restore the nation. And the man God chose was neither a politician nor a priest. Instead, God chose a builder whose name was Nehemiah.

And the first step of rebuilding the nation was the building of a great wall. God instructed Nehemiah to build a wall around Jerusalem to protect its citizens from enemy attack. You see, God is not against building walls!

Later that day, Trump placed his hand on a Bible and swore to uphold the Constitution and then delivered his magisterial address vowing to end “this American carnage.” The skies drizzled and former President George W. Bush squirmed around under a rain poncho—and was reported to have commented as the brief address came to a merciful end: “That was some weird shit.”

Blow Them Away in the Name of the Lord

Had Bush’s brother Jeb been the one up there on the stand with his hand on the Bible, the scene would have been less jarring, at least to the Washington establishment. Perhaps Jeb would have given a high-minded exhortation after huddling with Michael Gerson, and perhaps a respected Episcopalian or Catholic priest would have prayed with Jeb that morning. Nehemiah and his wall would have been left out of it, and Paula White, in all likelihood, would not have made the trip from Florida.

Would all have been harmonious in Christendom? No. You only need to think back to George W. Bush’s own difficulties in governing the godly republic to see the perils of mixing religion and politics. Bush campaigned as a “compassionate conservative” and alarmed liberals by setting up an office for “faith-based initiatives,” staffed with believers who dreamed of powerful collaborations between ministers, missionaries, and the United States government. Before long, the believers were grumbling. The air went out of their balloons after John DiIulio, who’d briefly captained the faith-based project, told New York Times Magazine writer Ron Suskind that political considerations always trumped policy concerns, especially where Bush’s powerful strategist Karl Rove was concerned. “What you’ve got is everything—and I mean everything—being run by the political arm,” DiIulio said. “It’s the reign of the Mayberry Machiavellis.”

Under evangelical conservatism’s modern activist phase, the precepts of honorable Christian living have intermingled with the raw imperatives of getting, holding, and exercising worldly power.

Indeed, the faith-based initiatives that stood out in the Bush era turned out to be the ones with a decidedly Crusades-like profile, most notoriously the American wars of choice in Iraq and Afghanistan. And like the original Crusades, these imperial missions didn’t exactly salve longstanding hostilities between the Christian and Muslim worlds. Recall that soon after the attacks of September 11, 2001, Bush had to be instructed not to continue to use the word “crusade” in his explanation of the battle against evildoers; recall also that the planners of the first raids into Afghanistan were forced to scrap their working title for the project, “Operation Infinite Justice”—trans-temporal justice being, for Muslim believers, the sole concern of Allah.

On the more militant wing of the Christian evangelical world, meanwhile, there was no shortage of bloodlust in the steadily advancing clash of civilizations. “You’ve got to kill the terrorists before the killing stops,” said Jerry Falwell on CNN in 2004. “And I’m for the president to chase them all over the world. If it takes ten years, blow them all away in the name of the Lord.”

In other words, the Bush years had seen plenty of weird shit tolerated, and indeed fomented, on the Christian right. Soon after 9/11, Falwell appeared on Pat Robertson’s television show The 700 Club and he started naming culprits. “Throwing God out successfully with the help of the federal court system, throwing God out of the public square, out of the schools,” he began. “The abortionists have got to bear some burden for this because God will not be mocked. And when we destroy forty million little innocent babies, we make God mad.” He continued: “The pagans and the abortionists and the feminists and the gays and the lesbians who are actively trying to make that an alternative lifestyle, the ACLU, People for the American Way—all of them who have tried to secularize America.” Falwell continued, “I point the finger in their face and say ‘you helped this happen.’”

“Well, I totally concur,” responded Robertson—at least until the ensuing public outcry forced both Falwell and Robertson to retract their remarks.

The Wound That Never Healed

It was during those Bush years that I first came across Isaiah Berlin’s essay “The Originality of Machiavelli.” Reading it then, I felt I’d been knocked upside the head by something obvious about the kind of crusading that Falwell, Robertson, and the rest of the religious right had embraced going back to the 1970s and 1980s. The lust for worldly power and influence that these apostles of Christian political redemption preached in a shared political argot over the past four-plus decades indeed has produced, in Gerson’s phrase, a mounting “grave spiritual danger” in the houses of evangelical worship. Under evangelical conservatism’s modern activist phase, the precepts of honorable Christian living have freely intermingled with, and have often been overtaken by, the raw imperatives of getting, holding, and exercising worldly power.

This peril stems not merely from the well-chronicled temptations and other-than-strictly moral excesses of political life. Rather, it arises from a simple fact of life: national political rule always runs afoul of the “What would Jesus do?” test. The politicized, warmongering, nationalistic Christians jockeying for maximum political influence in the American republic were always quoting the Bible, but they seemed inspired, wittingly or otherwise, by the restive spirit of Niccolo Machiavelli.

This requires filling in some background, going back five centuries or so. The incompatibility between Christian teachings and Machiavelli’s advice to rulers was amply clear from the moment his worldly counsels appeared. The Prince was published five years after Machiavelli’s death in 1532. By 1559, Pope Paul IV placed the work on the Index of Prohibited Books—the severest category of Pope-forbidden reading. The Jesuits considered Machiavelli “the devil’s partner in crime,” and, as Berlin notes, there are four-hundred-odd references to the murderous or conniving “Machiavel” or “Old Nick” in Elizabethan literature.

So Berlin’s starting place was not unusual: Machiavelli’s best-known work clearly divorced politics from ethics. Christian morality, specifically, was not just impractical in the political world but potentially harmful, in that if a ruler attempted to take Christ’s message literally, it would be impossible to hold power. As Berlin explained:

The ideals of Christianity are charity, mercy, sacrifice, love of God, forgiveness of enemies, contempt for the goods of this world, faith in the life hereafter, belief in the salvation of the individual soul as being of incomparable value—higher than, indeed wholly incommensurable with, any social or political or other terrestrial goal, any economic or military or aesthetic consideration.

And it’s not just the unattainability of Christian ideals that make it, for Machiavelli,

impracticable to establish, even seek after, the good Christian state. It is the very opposite: Machiavelli is convinced that what are commonly thought of as the central Christian virtues, whatever their intrinsic value, are insuperable obstacles to the building of the kind of society that he wishes to see.

There is, after five hundred years, a vast library of scholarship on Machiavelli, and some scholars interpret his wider output (relying on his longer, more nuanced work The Discourses) to be primarily concerned with how to create a virtuous republic, not a lawless or demonic one. But it’s The Prince that has always found an avid readership and that has thrilled political operatives with its brash advice to the aspiring prince to practice secrecy, deception, and force in order to fend off pretenders to the throne and other wolf-like competitors. In Chapter 18, where he makes his famous pronouncement that a prince must be able to imitate both the fox and the lion, Machiavelli writes: “And, therefore, he must have a mind disposed to adapt itself according to the wind, and as the variations of fortune dictate, and, as I said before, not deviate from what is good, if possible, but to be able to do evil if constrained.”

For a certain kind of Christian warrior, the question really is as stark as this: Are you following Machiavelli or Christ?

The originality that Berlin pinpoints about Machiavelli’s famous writings, though, is not quite that. Old Nick was not the first to understand that good purposes sometimes involve not-so-good means. Aristotle asserted in his Politics that being a good person may not mean the same thing as being a good citizen. And what was the development of Augustine’s “just war theory” other than the recognition that certain ends could justify less-than-apparently-just means?

What Machiavelli accomplished, Berlin says, struck deeper. He wasn’t proposing that morality was one choice and politics another, or that evil wins the day; he was recognizing two distinct moralities. One was found in Christ’s teaching in the New Testament. The one he preferred was a pagan morality that looked back to the halcyon moments of the Roman empire. “The choice is painful because it is a choice between two entire worlds,” Berlin writes. “In choosing the life of a statesman, or even the life of a citizen with enough civic sense to want his State to be as successful and as splendid as possible, you commit yourself to rejection of Christian behavior.”

In Machiavelli’s eyes, moral actors must choose between a Roman (pagan) idea of how to achieve a strong and virtuous republic and a Christian ethic of kindness, meekness, and suffering in order to join the Kingdom of God. In our own time, the available choices, for the citizen at least, seem not quite that binary. One could attempt an end run around Machiavelli by following Gandhi. One could attempt to subvert the brunt of Machiavelli’s counsel, as James Madison et al. did, and envision a multiply constrained executive leader, bound by constitutional law and separation of powers. One could move back to the land, get off the grid, and ignore the teachings of Machiavelli, Christ, Gandhi, and Madison. You could do that in the suburbs, too.

But for a certain kind of Christian warrior, the question really is as stark as this: Are you following Machiavelli or Christ?

The Little Princes

As a young reporter in Texas, I watched the rise of a cunning Austin-based political consultant named Karl Rove. He had gained a reputation for dirty trickstering harking back to his days as national chairman of the College Republicans—the school for conservative electoral backbiting that also incubated Grover Norquist, Jack Abramoff, and Ralph Reed, among others. Even in this company, Rove stood out: he modeled himself after Lee Atwater, who had helped George H. W. Bush become president in 1988 by savaging Michael Dukakis. Atwater had memorably said of Dukakis that he would “strip the bark off the little bastard,” and would “make Willie Horton his running mate.” (Suffering from a fatal brain tumor at age forty, Atwater delivered a well-publicized death-bed confession, apologizing to Dukakis for the “naked cruelty” of those statements.)

Atwater liked to say that he had read The Prince twenty-three times, though his biographer John Brady says he wasn’t that kind of diligent reader. At Atwater’s funeral in April 1991, former secretary of state James Baker said, “He referred to himself as Machiavellian, and he was, in the very best sense of that term.” Rove had the same reputation as a fan of The Prince, though he wisely stopped short of characterizing himself as a full-blown Machiavellian. Asked about The Prince by the New York Post in 2009, he said, “Oh yeah. It’s supposed to be my favorite. It was Lee Atwater’s favorite, but I reread it occasionally. I have a wonderful old copy, but it would not be in my top 10.”

I was thinking about Rove and Atwater when I first read the Isaiah Berlin essay, knowing that they didn’t mind destroying the careers of political opponents—and about Bush’s vice president Dick Cheney, who embodied the dark side, defending a kind of Kissingerian realpolitik that involved a deceptively sold war and even torture, which sounded better when referred to as “enhanced interrogation.”

Machiavelli would no doubt affirm that those who take New Testament teachings literally are in no position to lead the political march for nationalistic glory.

But what of it? They didn’t seem to make a show of following the Bible. Their president did, and was a Christian candidate from the start, telling televangelist James Robison, “I feel like God wants me to run for president.” And once he took office, his wars received the blessings of preachers like Falwell and Robertson. Highly placed evangelicals in the Bush White House such as Gerson and Wehner helped Bush find the moral language that would sound high-minded to less religious audiences while including key phrases that had special meaning to evangelical supporters.

Now, in the early presidency of Donald Trump, the hardball techniques of Atwater and Rove seem mild compared to the bitter white nationalism encouraged by Trump’s malevolent strategist Steve Bannon and advisers such as Steven Miller, Julia Hahn, and Sebastian Gorka. On the other hand, Trump himself seems less Machiavellian than Dick Cheney, only because he lacks the ruthless bureaucratic in-fighting skills Cheney had honed over the years.

Meanwhile, there’s been no shortage of pious certitude among Trump-aligned preachers—which has, in turn, triggered a telling outpouring of Machiavellian candor in right-leaning evangelical pulpits. Robert Jeffress was among the earliest pastoral backers of the Trump insurgency, signing on to make America great again just weeks after the Caligulan real-estate baron had announced his candidacy. Peter Wehner had written a column in the New York Times on “The Theology of Donald Trump” arguing that the “fulsome embrace” of Jeffress and other pastors was deeply misguided because Trump “embodies a worldview that is incompatible with Christianity.”

Wehner was then invited onto the popular talk radio show of Mike Gallagher (who calls himself “the happy conservative warrior”) to debate Jeffress. The disagreement took the usual course, with Jeffress nailing Wehner to the Hillary cross. When Wehner suggested he could not in good conscience vote for either candidate, Jeffress asked how a Christian could possibly justify a non-vote that might give the race to Clinton. But the telling moment was when Jeffress explained his confidence in Trump:

You know, I was debating an evangelical professor on NPR, and this professor said, “Pastor, don’t you want a candidate who embodies the teaching of Jesus and would govern this country according to the principles found in the Sermon on the Mount?” I said, “Heck no.” I would run from that candidate as far as possible, because the Sermon on the Mount was not given as a governing principle for this nation. . . . Government is to be a strongman to protect its citizens against evildoers. When I’m looking for somebody who’s going to deal with ISIS and exterminate ISIS, I don’t care about that candidate’s tone or vocabulary, I want the meanest, toughest, son of a you-know-what I can find—and I believe that’s biblical.

Biblical, yes, in the Old Testament sense of “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” But when you hear the call for a “strongman” whose chief role is to protect the nation against enemies, do you hear the voice of Jesus or of Machiavelli?

Strong Motion

For the longest time, I’ve wanted to put that question to true-believing politicized Christians. Jeffress is a busy man with a twelve-thousand-member congregation and a regular schedule of pro-Trump appearances on Fox News and elsewhere. He did not respond to requests for an interview. But Peter Wehner is out of power and safely ensconced in a think tank called the Ethics and Public Policy Center. So I asked Wehner to talk. He agreed, and one morning in March we had a searching and illuminating phone conversation about Christian ethics and politics.

I reminded Wehner of the moment in his debate with Jeffress when the pastor stated his preference for a strongman who would protect against evildoers. That sounded to me like a Machiavellian declaration, I said. Did you think so?

“Yeah, I think so,” he responded. “I thought about it in terms of Nietzsche and the will to power, and that power trumps all, and that morality is defined by the strong not the weak. And indeed the weak and the vulnerable and the dispossessed are less worthy of protection and they have less value inherently than the strong. But Machiavelli made that point, too.”

From there, of course, we needed to reel backward into his experiences in the Bush administration. Weren’t there Machiavellian moments in those years too? Isn’t it impossible for any president to follow the path of Christ?

In politics and national security, the higher good means victory, never defeat.

“There can be tension but I don’t think it’s an irreconcilable tension,” Wehner said. This is the message that comes through in the book that Wehner wrote with his former colleague Michael Gerson, City of Man: Religion and Politics in a New Era (2010). Politics is full of “tensions” and “temptations” and there are no easy answers.

But my question, I told Wehner, wasn’t whether there are difficulties for political leaders in following the Christian gospel—my question was, “Is it impossible?”

“No, I don’t think so,” he said. He said he had never found himself in a political predicament where he felt he had to act “contrary to my Christian faith.”

But you were part of an administration that slipped into war and then even sought justifications for the torture of prisoners of war, I reminded him.

True, he noted, but suppose an administration does not resort to war and torture. It is obviously possible to escape those particular conundrums, so the ideals are not disproved by the failings. But then Wehner, who had written a column for National Review Online in 2007 saying that torture “is surely wrong in almost every instance,” could not help taking what seemed like a devil’s advocate position.

“Would you use waterboarding on Khalid Shaikh Mohammed for sixty-eight seconds if it elicited information that would save 1.2 million lives?”

I suggested a follower of Machiavelli would say yes—and that a follower of Jesus would say no.

“I don’t think the choice is between Christ and Machiavelli,” he said. “I think there are prudential moral decisions that you have to make at any moment in time in which you have to weigh the consequences and the actions. I just don’t think there is a nice neat recipe book that tells you, you can never do this. I think there are some forms of torture that would be off limits at some point.”

So there it was: the ends can sometimes justify the means. All of us who live in the real, practical political world know in our bones that in some circumstances we would choose the lesser evil for the higher good. And in politics and national security, the higher good means victory, never defeat.

The Power and the Glory

About eight out of ten white evangelical voters supported Trump. The choice can be explained simply enough by Alan Wolfe’s neat phrase that white Christian voters may care more about the Supreme Court than the Supreme Being. But they also were going with a candidate who had made “winning” his true religion.

A couple months before the election, Matthew Schmitz, writing in First Things, noted the disconnect between Trump’s win-at-all-costs mentality and the teachings of Jesus. He wrote:

Christianity is a religion of losers. To the weak and humble, it offers a stripped and humiliated Lord. To those without reason for optimism, it holds up the cross as a sign of hope. To anyone who does not win at life, it promises that whoever loses his life for Christ’s sake shall find it. At its center stands a truth that we are prone to forget. There are people who cannot be made into winners, no matter how positive their thinking. They need something more paradoxical and cruciform.

This is one reason why some Christians are so leery of politics. Toward the end of the Bush administration, when disenchantment had spread in evangelical circles, a New York Times reporter quoted one pastor’s resigned plaint: “When you mix politics and religion, you get politics.”

It’s possible to waste time thinking about how this applies to Christians on the left, who advocate for “the social gospel” or liberation theology. But the Christian left is tiny in the United States and seems in no danger of being seduced by dreams of ultimate victory.

Yet there are radical Christians, it must be acknowledged, who manage to wholeheartedly reject the counsels of Machiavelli. The theologian Stanley Hauerwas, a pacifist who spoke out against Bush’s “war on terror” in the aftermath of 9/11 is one. Gregory Boyd, pastor of Woodland Hills Church in St. Paul, Minnesota, is another. In Boyd’s 2005 book, The Myth of a Christian Nation, you find the voice of a Christian who warned, well before Trump’s “America First” rantings, that “I believe a significant segment of American evangelism is guilty of nationalistic and political idolatry.”

No version of the kingdom of the world, however comparatively good it may be can protect its self-interests while loving its enemies, turning the other cheek, going the extra mile, or blessing those who persecute it. Yet loving our enemies and blessing those who persecute us is precisely what kingdom-of-God citizens are called to do. It’s what it means to be Christian. By definition, therefore, you can no more have a Christian worldly government than you can have a Christian petunia or aardvark. A nation may have noble ideals and be committed to just principles, but it’s not for this reason Christian.

Machiavelli would shake his head sadly to see that Boyd was not won over by The Prince, but he would also no doubt agree wholeheartedly with Boyd’s point: that those who take New Testament teachings literally are in no position to lead the political march for nationalistic glory. All of which leaves the leaders of today’s Christian right unable to justify their nationalism in anything other than Machiavellian terms. Perhaps they might regain some desperately needed critical detachment by revisiting the testimony of Frank Schaeffer, the liberal son of Francis Schaeffer, the great movement theorist whose eighties preachments against the secular ethos roused the modern religious right into being. As his father neared the end of his life, the young Schaeffer recounts, he grew disenchanted with the evangelical insurgency’s cynical leadership; Focus on the Family impresario James Dobson and his fellow Christian right leaders, in the elder Schaeffer’s view, were “idiots” and “plastic” figureheads who only worshiped power. And sure enough, come 2016, Dobson was championing Trump as a recent evangelical convert—calling him a “baby Christian,” in point of fact. Somewhere, one can only assume, Old Nick is smiling broadly over his progeny.

Dave Denison is an associate editor at The Baffler.

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