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Loving ‘the right things’: Peter Wehner on opposing Trump as an evangelical conservative

Podcast & Video

This episode of Hub Dialogues features host Sean Speer in conversation with Peter Wehner, a senior fellow at the Trinity Forum and contributing writer for The Atlantic and the New York Times. They dig into his book, The Death of Politics: How to Heal Our Frayed Republic After Trump, and discuss the sense of agitation and grievance among some Evangelicals in the United States and elsewhere in the Western world.

You can listen to this episode of Hub Dialogues on Acast, Amazon, Apple, Google, Spotify, or YouTube. A transcript of the episode is available below.

SEAN SPEER: Welcome to Hub Dialogues. I’m your host, Sean Speer, editor-at-large at The Hub. I’m honoured to be joined today by Peter Wehner, who’s a senior fellow at the Trinity Forum, a contributing writer for The Atlantic, The New York Times, the author of the excellent book The Death of Politics, and a veteran of several Republican administrations. It’s fair to say he’s one of the most important conservative Christian intellectuals in America. His columns at Christmas and Easter in particular are always beautiful and profound. Yet these days he finds himself on the wrong side of a lot of the political energy in the evangelical world. I’m grateful to speak with him about the growing political agitation on the Christian Right, including its causes and manifestations and how to get back to what he describes as a more God-centered movement.

Let me just say this conversation is not just for Christians or people of faith. The cultural and political developments that Peter has so aptly and eloquently defined in his writing are important for anyone who aspires to greater cohesion and tolerance in our society. Peter, thanks for joining us at Hub Dialogues.

PETER WEHNER: It’s a pleasure to be with you, Sean. I’m looking forward to the conversation, and thanks for the kind words.

SEAN SPEER: Let’s start by establishing your bonafides on these questions. You have two relevant identities for this conversation. First, you’re an evangelical Christian. You didn’t grow up in a particular evangelical home, but over time as an adult you came to faith and it’s been a big part of you ever since. Second, you’re what I’d describe as a pretty conventional down-the-line conservative. You’ve served in different Republican administrations, worked for different centre-right think tanks, and published articles and books with various centre-right scholars. Why don’t you start, Peter, by talking a bit about your Christian faith and your conservative politics and what, if any, interrelationship you see between the two?

PETER WEHNER: Yes, it’s a good question. I’ll start with faith. You’re right, I didn’t grow up in a particularly Christian home and I don’t have any real memory of being a person of faith through elementary or junior high. I started my journey really in high school, between my junior and senior year, and it was an intellectual journey. I really started at about the same time as my best friend. It just really involved a lot of questions, a lot of searching, the historical case for faith or lack thereof, things like the pros and cons of the resurrection, did it really happen? The manuscript copies, and then certain philosophical questions, some of the ancient ones. How can a good God allow suffering and so forth and so on?

My sister who is five years older than I had become a Christian. She’d gone to the University of Washington—I grew up in Washington State—and she had come back for that summer. I remember peppering her with questions on a notepad from my dad’s work. That began the journey. Then I ended up in a bible study with a fellow named Karel Coppock, who was a youth pastor, I think at West Side Church at that time. That started it.

It wasn’t an easy journey, it wasn’t a quick journey for me. I remember telling my sister a couple of years in that for me faith was really a lot of sand in the gears, didn’t come easy or naturally to me, but over time, it became increasingly central to my life.

I met key figures, Karel among them, obviously my sister, Steve Hayner, who was a youth pastor at University of Washington, at University Presbyterian Church. He later became president of InterVarsity and then Columbia Theological Seminary. Since then, many, many other pastors and theologians. My younger of the two sisters, Jackie, is a person of faith and we’re very close too. That’s been the journey.

I moved, I would say, from the intellect more to the heart as that journey went on. That is, I would say, probably the most important element of who I am. Certainly one of them, and pretty core, I would say, to who I am. I’m not sure how I would think of myself if I were to remove faith from my life, how much would change, how much would remain the same.

In terms of the conservatism, my parents were Republican-leaning—I would say conservative-leaning, they were not ideological. My formative years were in the ’70s, so that was, well, during the end of and in the aftermath of the Vietnam War. I remember my favourite classes in high school were social studies. My teachers were liberal, I was not. I wasn’t a conservative because I really thought things through for myself. Like a lot of people, it was derivative of my parents’ belief. Over time I became a conservative.

I’d say that the late ’70s or early ’80s were formative for me in that period. I do remember in the ’80s being struck by the intellectual rigour of conservatism, which I think is very much lost now. At that time, some really important books, Richard John Neuhaus on The Naked Public Square, which is on faith and politics. Antonin Scalia was a beautiful articulator of certain judicial philosophy originalism. Charles Murray had written a book on welfare, arguing that the welfare system was hurting the poor. Allan Bloom and Closing of the American Mind, which is on the relativism that was spreading on college campuses.

That really attracted me. There was a sense in which I thought that conservatism, while it didn’t control the commanding heights of culture, had the better of the arguments. In my estimation it conformed more to human realities and did the best in terms of the outworking of that philosophy to help human beings. Obviously, there are very smart liberals and progressives who have a different view, but that was mine.

I am to this day a Christian and a conservative, but I don’t consider myself an evangelical or a Republican because I think both of those movements have moved away from—well, as Ronald Reagan said about being a Democrat, he said that, “The party left me, I didn’t leave it.” I have the feeling that those two movements have left.

I’ll just say one other thing. Evangelicalism is complicated because some people use the term and they have a theological construct in mind. Others use the term and it has some theological construct in mind but it also is very much associated, as you know, with American politics and American culture. For a variety of reasons, I don’t consider myself all that comfortable with the evangelical movement, though, so many of my friends are in it, and I certainly have a history with it.

SEAN SPEER: That’s a great segue, Peter, to my next question. You’ve made the case, including in a brilliant essay for The Atlantic in October 2021, that a lot of evangelical Christians have come to subordinate their faith to politics. What do you mean and why do you think that this has happened?

PETER WEHNER: What I meant by it is that I think a lot of people in the white evangelical movement—not all of them by any means, but an awful lot of them—I think that their core identity is actually not faith, I think it’s something else. I think it’s sometimes political, sometimes partisan, sometimes sociological, sometimes cultural. And that sort of core, that’s the starting point, and they’re almost incidentally people have faith, or that they are people of faith, but it’s secondary. What happens is that you take faith, you take Bible, you proof-text the Bible and you conform it to your pre-existing ideology worldview biases. 

But I don’t think that an awful lot of people who are Christians, some do, but I would say most of them don’t believe that. If you gave them Sodium Pentothal and asked them, they would say, “No, no, faith is central to who I am.” They believe that their cultural views or their political views or their partisan views are a natural outworking of what it means to be, in a case of a Christian, a follower of Jesus.

I don’t think most of them are being cynical about it, I think it’s part of the complications of being human. I think all of us struggle with that and all of us are formed by dozens and dozens of factors that we’re not really fully aware of until somebody points them out to us, and that has to do with some of the things I mentioned: our families of origin; our own dispositions; the country in which we live in; the era in which we live in; our race, our gender.

If you and I were women who lived in the 14th century on a different continent and we were given the Bible to read, we would bring with it certain worldviews, a certain prism through which we read it that we couldn’t possibly escape. I think part of it is that, and so I think for a lot of people on the Christian Right, the core identity is cultural and political. Why that happens, partly, as I said, I think it’s human nature.

I do think in the case of a lot of evangelical Christians, there’s a whole series of currents that were in motion prior to Donald Trump but in a sense came together, climaxed with Donald Trump and have since been amplified. One is, I would say, a deep sense of grievance and resentment that’s been brewing on the Christian Right for many decades. Some of that is understandable, I think some of it is vastly overstated, but it is a sense that the cultural elite looked down on them, dishonoured them, looked on them with patronizing attitudes. That certainly has been, I think, the case. It’s this sense of boiling anger at being treated in a way that was condescending.

I think that’s one. Second, is a sense of real fear. If you talk to people on the Christian Right, it’s a feeling that we’re in existential struggle, that it’s the children of light against children of darkness. That in this country, in the United States, that we’re on the edge of a cliff and that the progressives want to destroy them and their children and their country and almost everything that they hold dear.

Flight 93 is the term that’s used; the sense that we have to storm the cockpit because if nothing changes, we’re going to be destroyed. If you read, for example, Rod Dreher of The American Conservative, his tweets and his articles, it’s just a constant drumbeat of tremendous fear and this overwhelming enemy.

Siloed information, I think has been huge, particularly since the internet and social media, and that’s true of all sides of the political debate, but since we’re talking here about evangelicals and the American Right, there’s a huge media ecosystem. People listen to that and they can listen to it 15, 20, 30 hours a week and get their information from there.

Another thing that’s happened, and you really saw this in the American Right, it was a shift, I would say between the ’90s and the 2000s. If you listened, say, to Rush Limbaugh, Mark Levin, and conservative talk radio, the polarity was liberal-conservative for the ’80s and the ’90s, but you could see how it began to shift from liberal-conservative to establishment-anti-establishment. If you listened to Mark Levin or Rush Limbaugh by the end of the 2000s or early 2010s, they were almost as likely to be critical of John Boehner and Mitch McConnell as Barack Obama.

That created this feeling of anti-establishment, anti-authority, and then anti-institutional, which has always been lurking out there for evangelicals as well. I’d say that there’s also psychic satisfaction that Donald Trump brought to a lot of Christians on the Right, a feeling that he would bring a gun to a cultural knife fight and that he would use methods that they themselves in the past wouldn’t be comfortable with, but that the anger and the hate for the Left was so great that there was a psychic satisfaction in saying, “Well, this guy is going to give them what they deserve,” that there’s a feeling of vengeance.

Then finally, there were just key figures, I think, throughout the decades that you can look to, everyone from an Ollie North in the ’80s to a Newt Gingrich in the ’90s, to a Sarah Palin in the 2000s who came to represent, and they were rock stars in the American Right. There’s always a tendency within evangelicalism and the American Right to be drawn to these elements: anti-intellectualism; anti-establishment. Some dark tendencies on the American Right.

Fortunately, for most of my lifetime, there were leaders who kept that in check and kept those fringe movements on the fringe. Of course, because with Donald Trump, he not only welcomed them but as I said earlier he amplified them. It’s a complicated story. I don’t think it’s fair to say that this is just a product of Donald Trump. Something allowed Donald Trump to win the nomination and for Trumpism and MAGA mentality to take root.

SEAN SPEER: That’s a comprehensive answer, Peter. There are some lines I want to come back to, but if we can just stay on the track with regards to the relationship between faith and politics, one criticism that you often hear from secular voices or even progressive Christians is that there’s nothing inherently conservative about the Christian faith. In fact, for a big part of the 20th century, Christians engaged in politics tended be on the Left. I’m thinking, for instance, of the social gospel movement in both of our countries. Do you want to address this issue head-on? How has Christianity, particularly in your country, come to be so interconnected with conservative politics?

PETER WEHNER: It’s an interesting question. The first thing I’d say is that the relationship, the interaction, the intersection, between faith and politics is a complicated one. I would say that I’m one who’s probably somewhere in the middle, which is, I don’t believe faith and politics should be entirely separated because I think politics has at its core justice and so does faith and they intersect. There are obviously different domains and justice can be pursued in the non-political realm, but politics at its best is about justice and Christian faith cares about justice.

I’ve never felt like Christianity can be reduced to any political ideology. I’ve always thought that Christianity stands in judgment of all political ideologies. It’s very hard and very dicey to try and connect biblical principles to practical policies. I don’t think it’s impossible. We could all come up with examples, the abolition movement and segregation would be two obvious ones. There are a lot of others, where you would say, “Look, the outworking of faith has to finally attach itself to some specific policies and positions.”

I think it’s a really high bar to cross and I think honourable and honest people can disagree about it. You’re quite right, for much of the 20th century, the manifestation of Christian faith was in the social gospel movement and liberal figures. Then it moved to the Right. I would say part of that is because of the demographics of the people who were people of faith, they tended to be conservative, particularly culturally conservative in their views, and so when they went there, their faith went with them.

I’d say in their defence, there is an argument, I would say a Christian argument of certain teleology and human order, that people on the Right have argued for, including on issues of human sexuality and the issue of abortion. I’m pro-life, but I’m complicated pro-life. I’ve written about that. I find myself in an almost impossibly morally complicated issue to sort through. The abortion issue was important. Unfortunately, quite honestly, I think there’s enough evidence that there were ugly elements of racism that were attached with some people of faith, including in the American South that drove them there.

On top of that, in the United States today, this is just an empirical statement, not necessarily a statement of judgment, the Democratic Party and the American Left, certainly American progressives, have become increasingly secular. If you’re a person of faith, you don’t really particularly feel welcome there, or you least feel a little bit that you’re an alien force. That’s just what’s happened.

People who pronounce that they’re believers of God, certainly Christians, tended to move toward the Right and the Republican Party. People who are atheists or agnostics, not particularly believers, have tended to move more toward the Democratic Party and the progressive movement. That doesn’t mean, obviously, there isn’t some overlap; there is, but generally speaking, that’s been a trend that we’ve undergone for several decades now. People tend to spend time and congregate and create community with people who see the world more or less like they do, so I think that’s part of the explanation as well.

SEAN SPEER: You talked earlier, Peter, about the growing tendency on the part of Christian conservatives to align themselves with un-Christian leaders like Donald Trump. In a lot of these cases, they’ve made a bad bargain. But it’d be wrong to dismiss their view that parts of the culture, particularly elite institutions, as you say, are averse or even hostile to their lifestyles and beliefs. 

This probably applies more to Canada than the U.S., but I often joke that the so-called culture war doesn’t feel like a war at all. It feels like a one-sided shellacking in which secular progressives don’t seem to have a lot of grace or empathy for the other side. They keep pushing and pushing and pushing. Although our audience probably tilts Right, it’s a pretty ecumenical listenership, including some progressives. Peter, what would you say to our progressive listeners about the role that progressive politics has played in contributing to these feelings of embattlement and anger present on the modern Right, including among some Christians?

PETER WEHNER: Yes, I think progressives have things to answer for just like, I think, people on the Right have things to answer for. I suppose I would say that human nature has a lot to answer for because no movement or no ideology is immune to this. It’s understandable because for a lot of people politics involves issues of real importance, and people feel passionate about it and they feel they’re in battles and fights and debates of real consequence. Often it’s core to who they are.

When you get in a debate over issues that are core to who you are, you bring a lot of energy and a lot of passion and often a lot of anger with it. There’s no question in my mind if you look over the history of the progressive movement as it relates to people on the Right, there has been some aggression. There’s been aggression rhetorically, there’s been aggression even in terms of the policies. Roe v. Wade would be an example. Prior to that decision in ’73, it was a state-by-state decision and the view was that each state could work out what its own politics was on that issue. That was actually what was happening.

The Supreme Court came in, but progressives were happy about that, and declared this was a fundamental right. It swept aside the views of some very large segment of the country that held a different view. Then the view was not respected. It wasn’t said, “Look, I understand your view, I just have a difference with it.” It was framed as if you are a misogynist or patriarchal or you hate women.

There was no empathy or no understanding that from the perspective of a person who’s pro-life, they weren’t being anti-women necessarily. Many of them, obviously, in my estimation, were not. They just felt like that there was an unborn child that had to be taken care of. Now, that’s a real debate about, is it an unborn child and at what point does it become, and when do the rights of the woman and the child adhere, if at all? One could at least understand, I think, what the position of the pro-life movement is.

Also, in this country, you had a real revolution of cultural and social mores, sexual mores from the late ’60s and early ’70s and the so-called sexual revolution. Then you had gay marriage, which happened in a very short period of time. Look, in the gay marriage debate, it was people like Andrew Sullivan and Jonathan Rauch who made the conservative argument for same-sex marriage, and they were huge figures in shifting public opinions. Right now a majority of Republicans are in favour of same-sex marriage.

Now in this country, and not only in this country, you have the debate about transgenderism, and what are the rights of parents, and at what point do you use puberty blockers for kids who are 8, 9, 10, 12 years old? The Left is pushing that pretty hard. Gavin Newsom, the governor of California, is pushing it. A lot of others are doing it.

I’m certainly sympathetic to people who are saying, “Wait a second, hold on here, are these kids really in a position to know this? Should this be something that’s being peddled, an ideology that’s essentially being advocated from schools? What about the rights of parents when it comes to this? You can’t give kids aspirin without parental consent, but what are we supposed to do? Pretend that puberty blocker and more is beyond the realm?”

There have been efforts of cultural aggression on the Left, there have been efforts of cultural aggression on the Right. The two worlds really don’t seem to understand each other. It’s very, very hard to ask somebody on either side to say, “Can you, before refuting the arguments of the other side, state in good faith what those arguments are?” We find that very hard to do. It’s just much easier to put people into cartoon images and to make them moral monsters. Through that process, we view ourselves as righteous and warriors in a just cause. It’s tricky stuff.

SEAN SPEER: Let me follow up with a question directly to you. I should preface this, Peter, by saying that I’m personally drawn to your temperament and approach, but I think your critics on the Right would probably say that you’re not mad enough or you’re not prepared enough to fight on cultural or political trends that you almost certainly oppose. What would you say to them? What are they missing?

PETER WEHNER: They could be right. It may be that I’m wrong and that my threat assessment is wrong. I’ve been wrong before, I’ll be wrong again and I could be wrong in this moment, so I don’t pretend for a moment that I’m the repository of wisdom and truth on this. I would say, obviously, I think I’m right otherwise I’d change my views. So in any given moment in time, all of us believe that the positions we hold are roughly correct.

I’d say a couple of things. The first thing is, I want to make one clarification about even my own criticisms of evangelicals and Republicans when it comes to Donald Trump. I’ve always said that I understood their argument of why they voted for him, particularly in 2016.

I think 2020 was harder because it was so clear what kind of person he was, but I heard these arguments at the time in 2016 and it went something like this, “Look, Donald Trump isn’t a perfect person. Morally speaking, I might prefer Reagan or Bush or Romney to Trump, but the choices between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, and we believe Trump’s policies will do more to advance the moral causes and the causes more broadly that we believe in, so for the good of the country, I’m going to vote for the person who implements the policy. We’re voting for a president, not a pastor.”

Now, I understood that argument. I didn’t agree with it and I think that events have validated my own concerns that I raised as early actually as 2015 about Donald Trump, but I get that argument. Where I think that the evangelical Right, the Christian Right, is very vulnerable is on these grounds: which is what they will not do almost to a person, there are some exceptions, but almost to a person, is that they will not speak critically of Donald Trump. That is, they will not say, “On the one hand, I agree with Trump’s court appointments,” or “I agree with his tax cuts,” or “I agree with his positions on abortion, but at the same time, he’s a moral and ethical wreck. He’s transgressing all sorts of norms that we once believed in, that he himself is a man of borderless corruptions, and that there’s a cruelty and crudity to his politics, and that he’s a malignant force in our culture.”

To say those things at the same time, which is, “I agree with his policies, but I’m willing to speak out and criticize him out of moral and intellectual integrity,” that doesn’t happen almost at all. Most of them, having thrown their hat over the Trump wall, simply will not criticize him, certainly not publicly. I’ve heard private criticisms about him, but publicly, they won’t do it.

When they do it publicly, it’s extremely muted. That’s for a variety of reasons. Some of it is fear, some of it is for ratings and clicks, some of it is just a sense of tribalism, “He’s a leader of our tribe and the other tribe is much worse and much more dangerous. They destroy our country. He’s a quarterback and we’re the offensive line and we’re there to protect him. There are enough liberals who are criticizing him, so we’re not going to criticize him as a Republican or an evangelical or conservative.”

To me, that is ultimately indefensible. I think that is a sign of intellectual and moral failure that they won’t use the same standard on Trump that they certainly use on Bill Clinton and any number of Democrats. Having said that, Jon Rauch, who I mentioned earlier is a friend of mine, he and I wrote a piece in the New York Times several months ago that people can read and look up. We did basically a threat assessment and we pointed out what we believe were the very real threats from the Left, which has elements of a totalitarian movement. You see it in the so-called woke culture and that can be an imprecise term, but most people know what we’re talking about.

If you talk to academics on college campuses, but also increasingly newsroom reporters, there is an intolerance of dissenting opinion which I think is anti-pluralistic and dangerous to the country. I’m happy to say so. Earlier I talked about some of my concerns with the transgender movement, but my threat assessment is simply different.

I would say at this particular moment, the American Right, the MAGA movement, the Republican Party is the main threat to the republic, to its ideals, and even to the Christian faith because I think that the wedding of the American evangelical movement to this version of politics is doing enormous, even catastrophic, damage to the Christian witness, particularly among younger people who look at these people who proclaim to be followers of Jesus and have given themselves so completely to this corrupt man in this corrupt movement, that they look at it and say, “This is a moral freak show. You want me to become part of this? Who are you kidding?”

I also think the American Right is much more inclined toward political violence today than the American Left. We know from the events of January 6th and since that this is—some of us saw this coming and could see the elements throughout the entire Trump presidency, but they are at war with truth in reality in a very deep sense. The American Right essentially rallied around a person who attempted an insurrection, a coup, a violent assault on a capital to overturn a free and fair election. To this day, that is the point of entry for the Republican party. If you criticize Donald Trump and speak honestly that this is a series of lies, you see what happens.

Liz Cheney is the person who’s the obvious example, a test case. She’s as conservative as can be. Her credentials as a conservative and a Republican are much stronger than Donald Trump’s has been. She’s been a lifelong conservative, part of a family of conservatives that’s been very influential in the Republican party. She’s persona non grata. She was kicked out of leadership, she was targeted in her primary, and the former speaker of the house, Kevin McCarthy, actually went to Wyoming to campaign against her.

Why? Because of her philosophy? No. Because of her position on public policy? No. One reason: she told the truth about Donald Trump and the lies of the election and the threat he posed. That shows you where the heart and soul and energy of the American right is, and it’s not just political, again, I think it’s an assault on truth and reality. We’ve seen it with masks and vaccines during the pandemic, we’ve seen it in the denial of global warming and in a lot of other areas.

I think it’s now a nihilistic movement. I think that is a huge danger to this country. I’m sure as a person who was part of the Republican party and in the conservative movement for a lot of years, seeing that nihilism take root and find a home in a party that I was a part of makes it even more urgent, in my estimation, for me to speak out against it.

SEAN SPEER: Let me pick up something you said about the corrupting effect on Christian institutions. Do you want to talk a bit more, Peter, about the consequences of this growing schism within the Christian world over politics? What has it meant for ministers and churches and an institution that, as you said earlier, isn’t necessarily inherently political?

PETER WEHNER: Yes, in my conversations with pastors, and I’ve had a lot of them, I’ve got a lot of friends who are pastors that I’ve made over the years and other acquaintances and people I’ve interviewed for my essays, and from what they tell me and I think from what the evidence shows, the empirical evidence, ministers and churches are having a very difficult time, they’re splitting over politics.

There are some ministers who are certainly high profile, political, pro-Trump, pro-MAGA, like Robert Jeffress, and Franklin Graham is a minister, but he’s head of—well, he’s obviously part of the Graham family which is an important place in the American evangelical move in history, but also a figure of Samaritan’s Purse and elsewhere. These people are reflexive pro-trump cheerleaders who will never criticize him and always defend him.

For the most part, though, I think that ministers, including evangelical churches, are less political than many of the people in their congregation. They don’t want the church to be obsessed with or focused on politics at all. They feel like they didn’t get into the ministry to preach politics. They don’t feel like they have a particular expertise or command of politics. They know that if they weigh into political waters, it’s going to divide some number of people in their congregation.

If you take a position on immigration, say, on one Sunday, then when you speak on Philippians 3 the next Sunday, some number of people just may tune you out, say, “Look, this person is a liberal,” or “This person’s a right winger and they don’t have anything to teach me when it comes to the gospel as well.” There’s no question that churches are fracturing. This is just in the air and the water in America. I don’t know how it is exactly in Canada, but I’m pretty confident it’s worse in this country. It’s a distemper, it’s an antipathy for others, and it’s broad and it’s wide and it’s deep, and it’s found its home in all sorts of places.

Families have certainly experienced this, which are intense divisions based on the views of Donald Trump and the Republican and Democratic parties. We see it in churches, we see it in clubs, we see it all over. The church has really gotten pulled into it, unfortunately, and pastors are just worn out. An awful lot of pastors are thinking about leaving the ministry, and the ones that aren’t, that are still there, often find themselves tired and discouraged.

Pastors say to me, which I think squares with reality, is it doesn’t take anything like a majority of congregants to be politicized to cause problems in one’s church. It just requires a couple of energized, activated, animated people who can cause a lot of trouble, a lot of discord in a church. That has a cause. Ultimately, from a Christian perspective, the church is there to create community, to help people who are suffering and grieving in life, but also to share people’s joys, to be part of that journey that we experience in life, to be faithful to the witness of Christ, and help people’s affections of their heart to be won over to Christ if you’re a person of Christian faith.

Increasingly, a lot of people on the Right think that their job is to promote a political agenda and a culture war and to prosecute that culture war through the church. I think it’s not been particularly effective in winning the culture wars, witnessing their own testimonies of how bad things are, and in the process, as I said earlier, they’re embracing certain means to their ends that are disqualifying. When you make your inner peace with a figure like Donald Trump and you claim to be a follower of Jesus, that, in the end, is not going to work out very well, that’s not going to settle very well, and the rest of the world knows it. I wish more Christians were able to see what’s before their eyes.

SEAN SPEER: I just have a few more questions, Peter. I’m grateful for the generosity of your time. You mentioned COVID politics earlier. Let me raise that subject now. I listened to a podcast episode not that long ago with Dr. Francis Collins, who up until recently was the longest-serving director of the National Institute of Health and a major figure in the race for a COVID-19 vaccine. He’s also a leading Christian voice in American culture.

It was quite a moving conversation in which Dr. Collins broke down in tears when he talked about his surprise and disappointment that many of his fellow Christians had among the lowest rates of vaccination in American society. Let me just ask, what do you think is behind that? What’s the relationship between faith adherence and vaccine skepticism? Was it inevitable? What am I missing?

PETER WEHNER: I don’t know what you’re missing. I don’t think it was inevitable, but I do think that there were elements that help explain this very discouraging and depressing moment. I should say that Francis Collins is a friend of mine. There are a couple of profiles on him in The Atlantic.

I think he’s an extraordinary human being, one of the most brilliant scientists in our history, and a person with an unbelievably generous heart. And because of that, that’s undoubtedly why Francis brought to that podcast the emotions that he did, because he has seen, in a way, the rest of us have not the human catastrophe, the hundreds of thousands of deaths that could have been avoided in this country if not for believing this misinformation and disinformation about the pandemic. He’s committed his life to saving people, and to see so many people die and to die unnecessarily is just a very, very difficult thing.

Why is that? Why are the vaccination rates lower among evangelical Christians than the rest of the population? Why are conspiracy theories so much more widespread? I’d say part of it is just the history of the unfortunate tension between science and faith. You go back to the early part of the 20th century and the Scopes Monkey trial and the feelings of hostility toward Darwinism and evolution, the Old Earth theory, and so forth.

Unfortunately, for many years—for more than many years, for centuries—there’s been a deep hostility to faith and science. You can go back to Galileo and Copernicus and that’s been destructive, not ultimately, I think particularly to science, which has gone on, but I think to faith, as people have made certain claims about the Bible as being true and science being false, and then science showing, no, actually that science is true, and ultimately, in many cases, people have reconciled the faith.

For example, the heliocentric-geocentric debate. The Christian Church believes from scripture verses they cited that the sun revolved around the earth, and when it was turned out that the earth revolved around the sun, there was a real hostility to that view, but eventually, it became so obvious that people came to understand, “Oh, well, these verses that we thought argued for the sun revolving around the earth were actually hyperbolic. They were not literal.” That the Bible itself is not a science book. The same thing about the age of the earth, that the earth was created in six days. They weren’t literal six days.

I think that’s part of it, which is that hostility toward science. And then I think part of it is that a lot of people who are of the Christian faith and the evangelical movement, because of where they line up culturally and politically there has been a lack of trust. They wouldn’t say that they’re denying truth. I don’t think the problem is the truth per se. if you argue with an evangelical who didn’t believe in the vaccines or believed hydroxychloroquine was a cure for COVID, they wouldn’t be moved by the argument that they’re not believing in truth. They would just simply say, “I believe a different truth than you do,” so the problem is trust, not truth.

They have come to believe that these certain elite institutions and authorities are part of a liberal progressive worldview and that they’ve been peddling lies, and as I referred to earlier, they then have access to all sorts of websites and misinformation and disinformation to confirm what they already believe. If you have a discussion with somebody of the Christian faith who believes in hydroxychloroquine as a cure for COVID, or believes the vaccines were not effective, or that they were part of a gigantic conspiracy theory, they could send you websites, links to websites that would justify what they believe.

I think some of it is the history of science and faith. I think some of it is just how Christians have aligned themselves culturally and sociologically and politically. That group tends to be more skeptical of institutions like NIH, which happens to be one of the great institutions in the world.

SEAN SPEER: My penultimate question is about you. What has this experience been like for you? We started talking about how you’re a conservative who spent a big part of his life in a conservative movement in which your values, preferences, and even your temperament were pretty orthodox. You’re now, like many others, on the outside looking in more than you used to be. Have you lost friends? Have you lost professional opportunities? What have been the pressures to sign on to the program, so to speak, over the past several years?

PETER WEHNER: They’ve existed. There have been pressures, but life has its pressures and life has its challenges. I don’t consider them overwhelming. Nothing that I and my family haven’t been able to handle. Friendships, I haven’t really lost too many. I’ve tried to stay quite intentional about maintaining friendships in this era.

It’s been tougher with some than others because of the emotions that are brought to it. Some really close friends of mine over the years are really hurt by my position, disappointed in me, believe that I’m an advocate for causes that they think are tremendous threats to their worldview and their belief system. They believe that I’m blind to the real threats, that I’m disloyal to the party. I understand that. I obviously disagree with it, but I understand it.

For the most part, I try to stay connected. In some cases, there are people who I’ve established friendships with and those friendships are pretty deep, so that allows conversations in which there are differences with Trump, but that has to be, honestly, carefully monitored, because if it gets too stuck on politics, it can become too inflamed. You have to be careful about that.

For the most part, I really haven’t lost too many friendships. As I said, there have been some costs to it, but not ones that are worth going into. I’d say as a general matter, Sean, though, that this was just not a hard call for me. This was actually one of the easier calls that I’ve ever made in my life. To me, it was so obvious almost instantaneously what a threat Trump was to the things that I cared about and things I believed in, including the Republican Party, the conservative movement, and the Christian faith. I just feel that those concerns have been validated over time.

To see where the party and the evangelical movement have gone as every transgression, as every assault on truth, and every smashing of a norm, and yet they’ve stayed with him and stayed with him and stayed with him, I think it’s had a tremendous cost. 

I also think if you would’ve asked, say, the 20 or 25 people that knew me best and loved me most pre-Trump where I would end up given these set of circumstances politically in this moment, I would say the ones that do know me best and love me most would have been disappointed if I have come out in a position anywhere different than I have. The people that I have admired most in my life, not all of them, but most of them, I think share my concerns about Trump.

My siblings, who have all been Republicans in their life, have been extremely encouraging, and so have the people of faith that are most important in my life, and my wife, Cindy, has been there every step of the way. My kids are now older and not usually involved in politics. I think if there were a situation in which if the people with greatest standing in my life felt like I was making a mistake and that I was a traitor to the cause and that I was advancing on the wrong things, that would make it harder. It would necessarily end the discussion because I’d have to be convinced by my own lights that what I was doing was wrong, but far and away enough of them have been there. I think that’s been helpful to me.

Most of all, if I would’ve ended up in any place other than where I have been, I would have been disappointed in myself. I can’t believe that a person who has said the things I’ve said and believed the things that I’ve believed throughout my Christian life, throughout my conservative life, could turn into a cheerleader for Donald Trump or MAGA world, or be a defender who refused to publicly call him out, or privately criticize him but publicly be in favour of him. That’s just not how I’m wired, it’s not how I operate, and it’s not how I want to operate, and I don’t think it’s how I’ve operated.

I’m pretty comfortable or at peace with my position. As I say, I just think the facts that have unfolded have come out more, I would say, on my side than on the side of my critics and I think that my critics have a harder time defending their position now in light of events.

SEAN SPEER: The natural concluding question I guess is, where do we go from here? How do we get Christians and churches to eschew politics and renew their commitment to the transcendental? What is it going to take? Is it a new generation of Christian leaders? Is there reason to think that the Dobbs decision may over time lead to a democratic settlement on abortion and that can have a positive effect on Christian political engagement? What, Peter, does a path forward look like?

PETER WEHNER: Yes, I’ve had a lot of conversations with pastors and theologians on exactly that question, and there’s nothing that’s obvious. In my experience, it’s much easier to diagnose the problem than to come up with a solution to it. Then you can come up with certain solutions, public policy solutions, political reforms, reforms to social media that can help, but sometimes one is still left with the feeling that this is just an overwhelming problem.

I would say that one of the things that you mentioned, probably works to the favour of the Christian faith over time, which is I think a new generation of leaders, younger people—I don’t see a lot of younger Christians who look at Robert Jeffress or Al Mohler and say, “There’s a principle that I really want to use as a role model.” Some of them exist. Probably within the Southern Baptist Convention, a lot of them, but I’d say for the most part that that isn’t there. I think this is partly a generational thing, mindsets that over time will change. I think that younger Christians just have a lot of different views on this matter.

I think the church has to get back to catechesis, that is the training of the sensibilities of the hearts and the minds, and I think that the church actually has to name what’s going on. I think there’s a tendency sometimes because the divisions of politics to think, “If we don’t name it, it’s not going to exist,” but it’s like the human relationship, a family relationship. If there are strains, if there is anger, if there are issues, the fact that you don’t name them doesn’t mean they don’t exist. Indeed, if you don’t name them things can get much worse.

I think we have to name them. I think that the church has to be intentional. It shouldn’t get involved in certainly partisan politics, politics generally, but I think the issues of justice and the common good and the moral good need to be discussed, and I think we have to name where things have gone wrong also in Christian history, not just in the here and now. To be alert.

I found in my conversations with Christians that they’re often blind to the very mixed history of the Christian faith and the church throughout history. It’s been an engine of justice in many cases, for sure, but it’s also been an engine for injustice and benighted views as well. I think we have to name it. I think part of it is that so many of the pastors who are aware of these concerns that we’ve been talking about the need to be in community, they have to find support among themselves because if they feel like they’re just isolated and going through this alone, that just is discouraging and leaves them vulnerable and they might give up.

I know that there are organizations and institutions that are trying to create this sense of community. Some of it may simply be that we can’t continue at this rate, that’s just too exhausting, that there’s an exhausted majority. I think if the church lives up to what the church is at its best, that it’s a place of grace and of joy, that that will offer an alternative to this kind of division.

In my experience, when Christians and when the Christian church embodies grace, that more than anything else cuts through the day. It’s when people see embodiments of grace in institutions or individuals, that even those who aren’t believers see it and say, “Well, there’s something to that,” or even in some cases, friends of mine who are atheists, who have said, “When I see embodiments of grace, those are the times in which I wish I could believe.”

Then the last thing I’ll say, Sean, is that I think it’s just important for people of faith to be faithful, not to set up not necessarily to be successful. If you set up the standard for yourself to be a success, that may not work.

Whether we’re successful or not is often beyond our control. What we do have control over is whether we’re faithful and if we’re faithful to our beliefs and to what is good and right and honourable in life. You just take it a day at a time and a circumstance at a time and a season at a time and you hope that over time, that has the power to win hearts, minds, and souls.

There’s a lovely line that Wordsworth used in “The Prelude”, and it’s a very long poem, but he said, “What we have loved, others will love and we will teach them how.” I think if the Christian church and people of Christian faith can love the right things, then they will, in turn, teach others and show others how to love those things too. If one person does it, it’s not going to make much of a difference, but if a lot of people do it, you create a culture, and a culture ultimately can determine the course in the life of a country.

SEAN SPEER: There’s a ton of insight there, Peter, as there has been throughout this conversation. I want to thank you for joining us at Hub Dialogues. Peter Wehner from the Trinity Forum, contributing editor at The Atlantic, The New York Times, author of the must-read book, The Death of Politics, and as listeners have heard today, such an important voice in a moment of fracture and dysfunction. Peter, thank you for joining us at Hub Dialogues.

PETER WEHNER: Thanks. It was a real pleasure talking to you, Sean.