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What Would Thomas More Do?

The attack on David French once again sheds light on Christian hypocrisy.
May 14, 2019
What Would Thomas More Do?
WASHINGTON, DC - FEBRUARY 28: (AFP-OUT) Franklin Graham (R) talks with President Donald Trump. (Photo by Ron Sachs-Pool/Getty Images)

More than 60,000 people have signed a petition denouncing National Review’s David French for criticizing Franklin Graham’s moral surrender to Trumpism. “This character assassination by David French is unconscionable and should not go unchallenged,” declares the petition on the website of the American Family Association.

It is the latest shot fired in the cultural civil war being fought among Christians who are wrestling with the contradictions of the Trump era.

Along with Jerry Falwell Jr., Graham is perhaps the most prominent evangelical figure to embrace a purely transactional approach to politics in which moral values are subordinated to power.

French’s heresy was to point out (once again) the hypocrisy of Graham constantly defending Trump while simultaneously denouncing the morals of Democrats like South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg and Bill Clinton. “It’s hard to think of a single prominent American Christian who better illustrates the collapsing Evangelical public witness than Franklin Graham, Billy Graham’s son,” he wrote at National Review. “His commitment to the Christian character of American public officials seems to depend largely on their partisan political identity.”

The petition urges the faithful to stand behind Graham as “a godly man of impeccable integrity” and reject French’s “attack.” Students of theology, psychology, and politics alike will undoubtedly study the document for years as an artifact of our times.

Responding to the petition, David French’s wife, Nancy, wrote an op-ed piece in the Washington Post, highlighting the moral inversion that had taken place within evangelical Christianity. Having habituated themselves to defending the “lesser of two evils,” she wrote, the rationalizers have over time morphed into “attacking good people who question the president.”

Indeed, good people pose a nagging problem for the rationalizers, because they are witnesses to the hypocrisy. They prick the conscience and so have to be denounced.

Which brings us to Thomas More, courtesy of the uber-Trumpian publication American Greatness.

Responding to both Frenches, Chris Buskirk last week offered up a turgid 2,600-word Trump-as-King-David manifesto, insisting that there was no problem with Christians bending the knee to Trump. The Right Reverend Buskirk plunders the Old Testament and history for examples of moral compromises in the service of less-than-ideal princes.

Was David disqualified from leading Israel because he murdered Uriah in order to take Bathsheba as his wife? Certainly not….

Did Joseph undermine his public witness as a prophet of God by serving Pharaoh even as he held the Israelites in captivity? What about Daniel, who served the fantastically pagan Nebuchadnezzar? Or Esther, who married the murderous, libertine emperor Xerxes? Again, the answer is plainly no.

This sort of thing has become boilerplate among Trumpist Christians, but in his zeal to persuade Christians to lay down their principles in the service of bad kings, Buskirk makes an interesting turn.  

He cites Henry VIII as an example of a king that Christians could serve in good conscience.

Henry VIII was impetuous, vengeful, and adulterous. He was also a great king who secured England’s finances and her role as a great European power.

He was also the king who beheaded St. Thomas More, for refusing to surrender his moral principles.

Perhaps inadvertently, Buskirk has raised an interesting question: What would Thomas More do now?

We know what, in fact, he did: Thomas More did not think that Making England Great Again was more important than upholding the law. He did not decide that Henry VIII’s judicial appointments trumped his defiance of the church. He did not believe that power was more important than defending his faith.

And More did not go along with the collective surrender of the church to the imperious whims of the monarch. He understood the price of the bargain he was being asked to make. In Robert Bolt’s play, A Man for All Seasons, More says to a 15th-century version of Matt Schlapp: “It profits a man nothing to give his soul for the whole world, but for Wales?”

All of this seems timely, especially with the publication of the late Justice Antonin Scalia’s new book, On Faith, which deals at some length with More’s conscience and his ultimate martyrdom. (I discuss this on today’s Bulwark podcast with Christopher Scalia, the justice’s son and co-editor of the new book.)

Scalia so admired Thomas More that he wore a replica of his hat to President Obama’s second inauguration, and he spoke frequently about the man he described as “one of the great men of his age: lawyer, scholar, humanist, philosopher, statesman — a towering figure not just in his own country of England but throughout Renaissance Europe.”

Today, More is best remembered for standing up against royal power. But in one of Scalia’s best-known speeches, the justice pointed out that to understand the “deep significance of More’s martyrdom,” we need to “appreciate that the reason he died was, in the view of almost everyone at the time, a silly one.”

Henry VIII wanted a divorce, but More believed that only the pope could dissolve the union. It was a position on which he could easily have compromised; and almost everyone else caved to Henry’s demands. Scalia quoted Hilaire Belloc’s account:

Most of the great bodies—all the bishops except Fisher—had yielded. They had not yielded with great reluctance but as a matter of course. Here and there had been protests, and two particular monastic bodies had burst, as it were, into flame. But that was exceptional. To the ordinary man of the day, anyone, especially a highly placed official, who stood out against the King’s policy was a crank.

Scalia noted that Bolt’s play “puts that point nicely.”

When More learns that the Convocation of Bishops has voted unanimously (except for John Fisher of Rochester) to adhere to the King’s demands that they acknowledge his divorce despite the Pope, More decides that he must resign the chancellorship, and asks his wife Alice to help him remove his chain of office. She says: “Sun and moon, Master More, you’re taken for a wise man! Is this wisdom—to betray your ability, abandon practice, forget your station and your duty to your kin and behave like a printed book!” And later along the road, his friend the Duke of Norfolk says: “You’re behaving like a fool. You’re behaving like a crank. You’re not behaving like a gentleman.” “[I]t’s disproportionate! . . . [W]e’ve all given in! Why must you stand out?” 

Sound at all familiar?

Thomas More put the integrity of his faith ahead of place, prestige, and the greatness of the king. Unlike his colleagues, Thomas More did not make a bargain with his soul.

The Franklin Grahams of his time made a different choice. And today, who remembers any of them?

Charlie Sykes

Charlie Sykes is a founder and editor-at-large of The Bulwark and the author of How the Right Lost Its Mind. He is also the host of The Bulwark Podcast and an MSNBC contributor.