This is third in a series of portraits of American evangelical Christians in the age of Donald Trump, examining the changes, tensions and challenges in this group through individual stories. The first installment, on Jemar Tisby, is here, and the second, a profile of Warren Throckmorton, is here.
The case of Eric Metaxas still remains a puzzling one to many of his fellow evangelicals.
How could the man who wrote an admiring, bestselling biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer — the German pastor martyred for his opposition to the Nazis — become one of the most prominent evangelical supporters of Donald Trump, the most authoritarian, least churchly president in recent American history?
The answers to this question go to the heart of the cultural fears that motivated a large majority of white evangelical Christians to vote for Trump, opening an enduring split among evangelical elites.
“There are not many people … who truly surprised me in the 2016 campaign,” said David French, a conservative writer for National Review who was briefly mentioned as a possible third-party presidential candidate. “Of the publicly prominent Christians [who backed Trump], the two most surprising to me were William Bennett, author of ‘The Book of Virtues,’ and Eric Metaxas, author of ‘Bonhoeffer’.”
But it wasn’t just his credentials as an intellectual that made the Yale-educated Metaxas, on the surface, an unlikely Trump backer. It was his magnetic personality, the immaculate suits, the sharp-tongued humor and his public profile in New York City, where he hosted high-minded conversations with authors and public intellectuals at the Yale Club. Malcolm Gladwell made an appearance in January 2015.
Metaxas, the son of a Greek immigrant, began his career as a writer for the successful Christian children’s TV show “VeggieTales.” His wife, Susanne, is deeply active in the antiabortion movement as president and CEO of a pregnancy support center in Manhattan. And while Metaxas’ flamboyance has crossed over into excessive self-promotion at times, he is so talented, funny and sincere that his friends just laughed it off.
You can get a sense of his quirky, dry humor from his “Socrates in the City” events, like his 2014 conversation with former talk show host Dick Cavett, including an extended riff about how the gathering is really a “UFO cult.”
Metaxas’ 2012 keynote speech at the National Prayer Breakfast was a tour de force. He mixed comedy with a bracing challenge to President Barack Obama and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi over abortion as they sat a few feet away on the dais. He even passed a copy of his book to Obama, who then held the book up for the photographers, handing Metaxas a publicity coup.
“He was seeming to position himself in this unique niche of someone who — unlike many conservative leaders — could move in elite circles and yet had a common touch and a way of communicating with everybody,” French said.
In September 2015, Metaxas published a satire piece in the New Yorker mocking Trump’s obvious lack of familiarity with the Bible. But in the process of writing that piece, Metaxas later said, he concluded that Trump was “basically a good guy — like an uncle, but he says a lot of things you don’t agree with.”
But it was not until the late spring of 2016, by which time Trump had locked up the Republican nomination, that Metaxas first voiced his support publicly. And he did not equivocate. “Not only can we vote for Trump, we must vote for Trump,” he said. “With all of his foibles, peccadilloes, and metaphorical warts, he is nonetheless the last best hope of keeping America from sliding into oblivion, the tank, the abyss, the dustbin of history, if you will.”
Conservatives sent me unsolicited emails of outrage. One email simply quoted from a passage in Metaxas’ Bonhoeffer book, where he described Hitler’s rise to power: “The German people clamored for order and leadership. But it was as though in the babble of their clamoring, they had summoned the devil himself, for there now rose up from the deep wound in the national psyche something strange and terrible and compelling.”
Personal friends of Metaxas shook their heads, asking the same question: “What happened to Eric?”
When I reached out to Metaxas via email, he responded with a 5,500-word reply (which you can read in full here) that was eloquent, over the top, full of apparent contradictions, and deeply aggrieved.
The man who in 2016 had treated electing Trump as a moral imperative now characterized his support as “tepid” and cast himself as persecuted by fanatical Trump haters who “have endeavored to flay me.” He lamented the “scorched earth policy toward anyone who hasn’t expressed utter contempt for the current president,” and accused Trump critics of losing all perspective out of their fear and desperation.
“Where have we seen such no-holds-barred behavior in the past, on the part of Christians for whom the idea of grace had previously been central? Ironically it has been when Christians have felt that the End of All Things was nigh, that we were in a bare-knuckled brawl with the scaly soldiers of hell, so that our opponents can be given no more charity than we would give a vampire about to rise from his coffin,” Metaxas wrote. “At such times we have been willing to throw all caution and charity to the wind because we have persuaded ourselves that we were truly dealing with the forces of anti-Christ, and to do less than to wage all out war without regard for any niceties would be like appeasing Hitler, or indeed, the devil himself.”
Here was Metaxas accusing his critics of the very alarmism he seemed to have been guilty of during the election, when he said if Trump lost America would slide “into oblivion, the tank, the abyss.” When National Review’s Kathryn Jean Lopez asked Metaxas “how far away is any kind of real threat of our nation’s ceasing ‘to exist in any real sense’?” Metaxas didn’t hesitate. “If Hillary is elected, less than two years,” he said. He even referred to Hillary Clinton as “Hitlery Clinton” in a tweet.
In his email to me, he went on to compare his critics to Nazis, belying his own complaint about those who reduce their opponents to the level of “Hitler or … the devil himself.” Metaxas said that demands to denounce Trump were “not very different from Germans being expected to say ‘Heil Hitler!’ sufficiently loudly and often.”
When I asked Metaxas about his “Hitlery” tweet, he shrugged it off as a “wild goofball joke.”
To read Metaxas’ email was like entering a house of mirrors. It was not Trump who had aroused and played upon xenophobia as a candidate by his endless talk of a wall between the U.S. and Mexico, and his slur of Mexican immigrants as “rapists” and his talk of banning all Muslims from entering the country. Rather, “Beltway and Manhattan elites” were engaged in a “new and accepted tribalism and xenophobia” against “white European ‘Christian’ varieties” and in favor of Islam.
I had asked Metaxas about a critique of his approach by John Inazu, a law professor at Washington University in St. Louis who is one of the foremost experts on religious liberty, a topic central to Metaxas’ worldview. Metaxas denounced the idea of extending religious liberty to Muslims in terms so extreme that it appeared he was determined to cross every red line he had set out at the beginning of the email.
“Christians know that Satan always comes as an angel of light, and need never be caught unawares, but neither must we be caught sitting our hands and allowing such ‘angels’ to have their way. Standing against the Islamization of Europe or America is an example of Christians caring for ‘the least of these,’ as caring for those enslaved in the false ideologues of Islam, and most notably the women in that culture, who are doubly enslaved,” Metaxas wrote. “That the cultural elites and progressives scorn these vital efforts as ‘demonizing Muslims’ is painful, but not as painful as standing by and allowing real people to suffer. One does what one must.”
It was a device Metaxas relied on heavily — to paint opponents with a broad brush using the most extreme or negative examples, and thus view the topic as dispatched and dismissed.
Metaxas firmly planted himself on the side of the common folk against “elites.” He protested the “patronizing” and “fundamentally un-American” attitudes of media gatekeepers, who he said believe “many Americans are too uneducated or too gullible to properly understand all that confusing news in its raw form.” But when it came to the topic of Trump’s many racially charged comments dismissing or demeaning minority groups, Metaxas didn’t hesitate to take the view of an elite who knew what was better for those communities than they did themselves.
Trump, Metaxas said, “has been perceived as wrong by certain groups, by many groups. We need to take that perception seriously, but just how seriously is the larger question. Are we not living in a time when everyone is far too easily offended, so much so that we are taking our eyes off what actually matters, off actually solving the real problems of people rather than giving politically correct lip service to those problems?”
By and large, Metaxas avoided the most substantive critiques of his support for Trump by labeling all his critics as unreasonable, or liberal, or both. He called them “vile,” “obscene,” “childish” and “impotent.” This was after beginning his email with the complaint that “one of the saddest things about the period in history through which are living is that we’ve come to a place where graciousness and empathy and trying to see the other side’s point of view has fallen by the wayside.”
The easy explanation for all this is that Metaxas started hosting a daily talk radio show in the spring of 2015 on the Salem Radio Network, a national distributor to Christian radio stations, and adapted his views to suit his audience.
But some have wondered if he had been a closet fundamentalist in an intellectual’s clothing all along. And the new spotlight on Metaxas in 2016 revealed — to those who engaged in a closer reexamination of him — that his rigor as an author and thinker had come under question years earlier. The wild success of his Bonhoeffer book had done much to obscure the fact that the book was scorched by Bonhoeffer experts.
“[Metaxas] has a very shaky grasp of the political, theological, and ecumenical history of the period. Hence he has pieced together the historical and theological backdrop for the Bonhoeffer story using examples from various works, sometimes completely out of context and often without understanding their meaning,” wroteVictoria Barnett, director of the U.S. Holocaust Museum’s Programs on Ethics, Religion, and the Holocaust, who worked for 10 years as editor of the English translation of Bonhoeffer’s complete works.
“Theologically, the book is a polemic, written to make the case that Bonhoeffer was in reality an evangelical Christian whose battle was not just against the Nazis but all the liberal Christians who enabled them,” Barnett added in her 2010 review. “The result is a terrible oversimplification and at times misinterpretation of Bonhoeffer’s thought, the theological and ecclesial world of his times, and the history of Nazi Germany.”
It may be, then, that an eagerness to embrace easily digested narratives while overlooking or dismissing nuance or complexity is what has led Metaxas and many evangelical Christians to adopt “a very dark apocalyptic view of the country,” as Peter Wehner — a conservative Christian New York Times columnist and former White House adviser to President George W. Bush — described it to me.
When Metaxas described a “tyranny or fascism imposed by cultural elites” in his email, he was deadly serious. It was a reference to the sexual revolution that began in the 1960s and is still shaping American society. It goes to the root of why Metaxas supported Trump. He sees secularism as a religion whose adherents are blind to their own fanatical dogmatism.
“The teaching of unbiblical views of gender and sex to innocent children in our public schools is effectively to have allowed a secular religion (religion being defined by a certain set of views toward the ultimate questions, such as the definitions of what constitutes a human being and what constitutes marriage) [to have] become established,” Metaxas wrote.
In a recent interview on his radio show, Metaxas spoke with German sociologist Gabriele Kuby about her book “The Global Sexual Revolution: Destruction of Freedom in the Name of Freedom.”
Metaxas opened the show by reading from Kuby’s 2015 book: “The core of the global cultural revolution is the deliberate confusion of sexual norms. It is the culmination of a metaphysical revolution as well, a shifting of the fundamental ground upon which we stand and build a culture, even a civilization. Instead of desire being subjected to natural, social, moral and transcendent orders, the identity of man and woman is dissolved and free reign given to the maximum fulfillment of polymorphous urges, with no ultimate purpose or meaning.”
Metaxas finished reading the quote and gushed to Kuby, “You’re saying everything.”
“It’s a worldview dealing with ultimate things. But it’s not labeled a religion. It’s labeled a kind of freedom from religion, but in fact it is itself a religion,” he said.
For Metaxas, as for many evangelicals, Trump’s promises to appoint conservative judges to the Supreme Court was key to halting the steady imposition of liberal “fascism.”
But French, who is just as conservative about sexuality and gay marriage as Metaxas, said he found the Metaxas view of the Supreme Court so “shockingly ill-informed” that it “betrayed a degree of ignorance that was surprising to me.”
“You just can’t predict how many appointments are gonna be made,” said French, a Harvard law graduate who has focused on constitutional law. “If you have a one-term Clinton presidency and it goes poorly, and then you have a two-term Ben Sasse presidency, well then we’re gonna have the courts. If you have a one-term Trump presidency that goes badly, and then a two-term Kamala Harris presidency, well then they’re gonna have the courts.”
“And number two, we don’t necessarily know how the Court will rule. So for example, the most important religious liberty case of arguably the last two decades was Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran School versus EEOC, and that was the Obama administration effort to bring federal anti-discrimination law into the pastoral hiring process. Incredibly intrusive. And it lost nine to zero. Nine to zero,” French said. “A lot of the hot-button culture issues that are decided five-four, with the exception of gay marriage, which was already decided … many of the five-four cases are on the edges of free speech law.”
Inazu, whose book “Confident Pluralism” argues for a public square in which conservative views on sexuality can coexist with progressive views, said that the election of Trump has been a hollow victory for conservatives who care about religious liberty.
“It’s important to emphasize that most of the policy shifts are happening by executive order or executive branch policy. Unless the tone of the Democratic Party changes significantly, these changes will be undone (or worse) the next time we have a Democrat in the White House,” Inazu told me by email.
“Religious conservatives who think they have Trump’s ear and think they are winning long-term protections for their religious liberty interests are fooling themselves,” Inazu said. “The backlash, when it comes, is going to be ‘yuge.’”
“The only way for ‘white evangelicals’ to pursue meaningful, long-term cultural and legal support for religious liberty is by partnering effectively and authentically with non-white Christians and non-Christians (including Muslims). In ordinary times, that would be a tremendous challenge,” Inazu said. “Trump’s rhetoric makes it almost impossible, especially when celebrity evangelicals like Metaxas back him so enthusiastically and ignore the real harm and damage of the President’s words.”
In the landmark 1994 book “The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind,” historian Mark Noll began by writing that “the scandal … is that there is not much of an evangelical mind.” Noll quoted from Charles Malik, a Lebanese diplomat and Eastern Orthodox Christian, who criticized the evangelical’s preoccupation for winning souls without giving much care to the life of the mind.
“The problem,” Malik said, “is not only to win souls but to save minds. If you win the whole world and lose the mind of the world, you will soon discover you have not won the world. Indeed, it may turn out that you have actually lost the world.”
Beyond pragmatic and strategic considerations, there is another Christian critique of the Metaxas view of Trump that gets to the heart of what it means to be a follower of Christ.
Justin Giboney is a 37-year-old African-American in Atlanta who is from the world of Democratic politics — he worked in senior positions for former mayor Kasim Reed — who holds conservative Christian views on abortion and sexuality. He co-founded an organization, The & Campaign, to advocate for “social justice” issues of criminal justice reform, while retaining “classic values” that have long been traditional in the African-American religious community.
But while Giboney feels strongly about social issues, African-American Christians like him are much less bothered than white conservative Christians such as Metaxas about becoming a cultural minority or one of the politically disadvantaged.
Many white Christians, Giboney said, have had “an addiction to power.”
“We’re seeing how after having that power for years, some people got dependent on that power,” Giboney said. “African-Americans don’t have the luxury to have that addiction. We haven’t had it.”
Christians who voted for Trump suffered “a huge loss of credibility,” Giboney said.
“It’s hard for me to believe that God wants us to get this Christian-centered agenda through by any means necessary. It’s hard for me to believe is that it’s all about just getting it done and not to worry about the details and how we got there,” Giboney said. “It’s better to think about, ‘Am I reflecting what God would want?’ Of course there’s strategy involved and you want to get wins. But I don’t think wins are the priority. It’s witness. Where Metaxas and them went wrong is that wins and power became the priority.”
“It’s a faithless point of view,” he said.
This was a common thread among those evangelicals and Christians who might share Metaxas’ views on social issues but who believed voting for Trump was a violation of what they stood for. Where was the role of actual faith in voting for Trump? they asked.
Many conservative white evangelicals who supported Trump have defined the role of faith in the 2016 election this way: They bought into the narrative that Trump was an answer to their prayers for deliverance from the liberal agenda, and that Trump is just evidence that God works in mysterious ways.
The counterargument is that far more faith in God was required of a conservative Christian to reject Trump’s promise of protection, but that this was the proper course, because a vote for Trump amounted to polluting the public good while engaging in what Giboney called “the politics of Christian self-interest.”
French added: “The broader evangelical community showed a lack of faith. Many people were genuinely afraid that they were going to see the church face real persecution if they did not vote for Donald Trump. It was, in the words of a friend of mine, a vote cast in self-defense.”
“But you know that’s the kind of thinking that writes God out of the equation,” French said. “I think that was writing the role of God in maintaining and preserving and upholding and building his own church — it was writing that role down — and writing up of more importance the role of politicians, and I think that just gets it exactly backwards.”
In a follow-up email exchange, Metaxas left no doubt that he viewed the stakes in 2016 as all or nothing.
“Christians who think the Church in America might have survived a Hillary Clinton presidency are something like the devout Christian Germans who seriously and prayerfully thought it unChristian to be involved in opposing Hitler because to do so would have dirtied their hands with politics,” he wrote.
He added: “Nor do I mean to compare Hillary to Hitler, but the principle at issue is the same nonetheless.”
But a few lines later, he seemed to imply that a Clinton presidency would have brought America closer to state-sponsored mass murder.
“Bonhoeffer dramatically tried to wake the church up to its role many years before the Nazis were murdering millions, precisely because he saw where their ideology was leading. And of course he failed. Shall we too stand by because things aren’t ‘bad enough’ yet?” he wrote.
The issues of sexuality, marriage, family and personhood fundamentally shape how Metaxas interprets everything.
A month before the 2016 election, Metaxas wrote an op-ed for the Wall Street Journal that hinted at how he saw a vote for Trump as a vote on behalf of other Americans.
“For many of us, this is very painful, pulling the lever for someone many think odious. But please consider this: A vote for Donald Trump is not necessarily a vote for Donald Trump himself. It is a vote for those who will be affected by the results of this election,” Metaxas wrote.
Where many saw a vote for Trump as supporting the demonization of minority groups and the destabilization of the world, Metaxas believed he was looking out for vulnerable people in lower-income communities by standing up for nuclear families and traditional sexual values.
Yet while deploring that his critics make no effort to understand his point of view, Metaxas showed little inclination to reexamine his own assumptions. A sense of victimhood dominated his responses to my questions.
“I think of all the other men and women I admire who have expressed their support for this president, and who have all been insulted daily by those cultural mandarins who treat them as beneath contempt, as though their votes are dirtied with ‘self-interest’ and tribalist nationalistic impulses,” Metaxas wrote. He spoke of his own 90-year-old father, who voted for Trump, and bristled at the notion that anyone would call his father a racist.
It is still hard to view Metaxas, who spoke at the 2012 National Prayer Breakfast and described Martin Luther King Jr. as a role model, as a poster boy for culture warrior politics.
“Martin Luther King told the people on the buses that you must not fight back; you must be willing to turn the other cheek or get off the bus. Branch Rickey told Jackie Robinson: If you want to win the battle, you need to do as Jesus did and be strong enough to not fight back so your enemies will know that there is someone — capital S — standing behind you; that it’s not just you,” Metaxas said.
All of this has left several friends of Metaxas befuddled and crestfallen.
“Eric is dear friend (also, among his many gifts, one of the funniest people I have ever known),” wrote John Wilson, who edited a literary Christian magazine called “Books and Culture” its closure in 2016. “His support for Trump, even more his doubling down on that support, dismays me greatly.”
“At the same time, I am sad and troubled when I see so many people (including some others who are also my friends) consigning him to outer darkness — with relish too.”
There is something strange about this moment in history, something unprecedented that is evident in the words of friends like Wilson. In normal times, friends of Metaxas who disagreed with him politically would consider it barely more than a nuisance — easily overlooked in light of their many shared beliefs, and even more so because of Metaxas’ ebullient and mirthful personality.
The human instinct, often, is to find a way to make peace. But Trump is so disturbing to many that they cannot bring themselves to simply shrug it off and move on, as much as they’d like to. Some, in fact, told me privately that they find their friendship with him frayed and maybe even broken.
Wilson didn’t want to discuss his thoughts about Metaxas at length. It was too hard to put it all into words. It’s a common feeling these days.