An influential conservative evangelical preacher has criticized Christians who are voting for President Donald Trump because he enacts conservative policies, insisting that a politician’s character matters, too.
Piper said he is baffled and bewildered over the fact that some Christians think they are “saving human lives and freedoms” by downplaying the destructive effects of a “self-absorbed, self-exalting” leader. Christians’ biggest priority shouldn’t be “saving America” but “exalting Christ with or without America,” he said.
“I think it is a drastic mistake to think that the deadly influences of a leader come only through his policies and not also through his person,” he wrote. “This is true not only because flagrant boastfulness, vulgarity, immorality, and factiousness are self-incriminating, but also because they are nation-corrupting. They move out from centers of influence to infect whole cultures.”
“The last five years bear vivid witness to this infection at almost every level of society.”
Piper also suggested that Christians’ support for Trump is doing a great disservice to one of the core goals of evangelism: bringing new believers into the fold.
“Christians communicate a falsehood to unbelievers (who are also baffled!) when we act as if policies and laws that protect life and freedom are more precious than being a certain kind of person,” he wrote. “The church is paying dearly, and will continue to pay, for our communicating this falsehood year after year.”
Piper didn’t refer to Trump or Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden by name in the blog post. He said he’s willing to vote for a “non-Christian” if he sees there to be enough overlap between the “visible outworking of his character and convictions” and biblical teachings. But Piper also didn’t endorse Biden, writing that there is “devastation” in both choices.
According to the Pew Research Center, Trump is white Christians’ top choice in the upcoming presidential election. White evangelical Protestants, long a reliable base for the president, are the religious group most likely to support him, with 78% saying they intended to vote for Trump next month.
As the election draws closer, leaders in that minority of white evangelicals who don’t intend to vote for Trump have been speaking out. Piper stands apart because he is a prominent voice in conservative reformed Christian circles who has not only expressed disapproval of Trump but has also been open about how those views impact his voting plans.
Piper was the pastor of Bethlehem Baptist Church in Minneapolis for almost 33 years. He’s still the chancellor of a church-affiliated Christian college. Piper holds solidly conservative ― and sometimes controversial ― views on feminism, abortion, gender identity and same-sex relationships.
He has also been a critic of Trump for a long time. In 2016, Piper reportedly refused to vote for either major party candidate and told his followers that Christians aren’t biblically required to vote. He called Trump immoral and “unqualified” to lead the country before and after the 2016 election.
Piper’s calls for Christians to consider Trump’s character are reminiscent of the way evangelicals responded when allegations about President Bill Clinton’s infidelity emerged in the 1990s. Back then, the rallying cry among conservative evangelicals was that “character counts.”
But white evangelicals’ concern about politicians’ personal morality has dropped dramatically over the years, according to data analyzed by political scientists David Campbell and Geoffrey Layman. In 2011, 60% of white evangelicals said a public official who “commits an immoral act in their personal life” cannot still “behave ethically and fulfill their duties in their public and professional life.” That number dropped to 16.5% in late 2018.
In his blog post, Piper said he believes a leader’s character shapes the character of his followers.
“When a leader models self-absorbed, self-exalting boastfulness, he models the most deadly behavior in the world,” he wrote. “He points his nation to destruction. Destruction of more kinds than we can imagine.”
This article originally appeared on HuffPost and has been updated.