The Financial Seminary
Does Our House Divided Need A Humble President Lincoln or An Arrogant President Trump?
A White Paper by Gary Moore
Founder, the Financial Seminary
(May be shared, reprinted, excerpted or quoted without permission.)
“When a king is only concerned with money, he will ruin his country.”
It’s often said that politics makes for strange bed-fellows. Few have surely been stranger during recent decades than supposedly conservative politicians who are actually libertarians detesting government and Bible-believing Christians who are actually cultural regarding money. But with many evangelical Christians now flirting with Donald Trump, things are getting absolutely bizarre. As The Economist magazine marveled after a recent interview with Mr. Trump, many evangelicals are supporting him even though he is “not much of a church goer and has trouble citing a single verse from Scripture,” refers to other politicians as “dummies,” and to women as “pieces of ass.” That’s not exactly reflective of the humility of President Lincoln, much less Pope Francis.
Church leaders should have anticipated the embarrassing picture above that witnessed to readers of both The Wall Street Journal and The Economist. But very few have any interest in economics, even though we live in a money culture. Most religious leaders pretend stewardship is simply about fundraising to help our churches and ministries survive in our post-Christian age. But charitable giving in America is a drop in the bucket of the global economy. So religious leaders are as economically relevant as missionaries to China who can’t understand or speak Chinese. The few evangelical leaders, usually media celebrities like Joel Osteen, who do talk about money are as likely to teach religion as a means to financial wealth than to teach the love of money as the ancient root of all evil. If judgement on a nation begins in the house of the Lord, we might expect many church-going voters would be attracted to an “arrogant” (the word most closely associate with Mr. Trump), nominally Christian media celebrity who is quite fond of money. But now even the GOP is as divided as our country’s thinking about managing wealth.
I have many dear evangelical friends. But evangelical leaders should have seen what we would reap by sowing cynicism about the government Paul taught us to honor and respect (Romans 13). Nearly twenty years ago, popular evangelical author Philip Yancey noted the near reverence many evangelical Christians had for President Reagan, a divorced Hollywood actor who rarely attended church and gave little to charity. Yancey then noted the disdain many evangelicals had for President Carter, a humble winner of the Nobel Peace Prize long noted for teaching Sunday school in a Baptist church and building houses for the needy. Yes, I know Americans, including Christians, have long voted their wallets and the Carter administration was bedeviled by the inflation of the Vietnam years. But Reagan also enacted policies that exploded the federal debt, which Christian conservatives supposedly detest, while he launched the trend toward ever greater economic inequality, a not-so-biblical trend that has not helped most Christians.
Had evangelical leaders been reading The Economist they might have anticipated that too. Twenty years ago, it also noted Reaganomics was based on the economic teachings of new-age philosopher Ayn Rand. It was largely implemented by her close disciple Alan Greenspan, the former head of America’s Federal Reserve Board. Rand’s gospel Atlas Shrugged has been judged to be the second most influential book in America after the Bible, despite teaching opposing worldviews. She also authored The Virtue of Selfishness as she cared as little for charity as welfare. “Supply-side economics” basically meant getting more wealth into the hands of America’s producers, which were deemed to be corporations and the wealthy. Some of that might have been a good thing to stimulate the stagnate economy that bedeviled President Carter. But too much of her economically elitist ideas is likely the primary reason the 1% and our corporations are now flush while consumers, pension funds, non-profits and governments are strapped. To be clear, Rand was no conservative, which is why conservatives like Bill Buckley detested her ideas. She taught her disciples to be “radicals for capitalism.” Conservatives are never radical. But if a Republican isn’t radically opposed to most everything today, he or she is detested as a Rhino, or Republican in Name only, by witting and unwitting libertarians.
I confess that difficult reality despite having once been a life-long conservative Republican who served on the board of advisors to Jack Kemp. He was Senator Bob Dole’s choice to be the GOP’s nominee for vice-president, largely as Jack co-authored Reaganomics with economist Art Laffer. Jack and Mr. Laffer thought tax cuts could cure cancer. But Jack’s “compassionate conservatism” was shaped by his Christian beliefs. They drove him to seek a more abundant life for all Americans, including women and minorities. Rand’s elitism and anti-authoritarianism drove her political disciples to excessively enrich the already affluent, most of whom were the “rich old white men” who are the sugar-daddies of today’s GOP. Some political strategists suggest the GOP will fade as that tiny demographic dies off. I became an independent a few years ago as I doubt it. Political history tells me a few willful radicals can do a lot of damage for quite a while.
Rand talked a great deal about Aristotle and reason. But she quickly excommunicated anyone who reasoned other than as she did. She was likely as influenced by Nietzsche, who declared “God is dead.” Nietzsche’s “will to power” was to replace the Socratic dialogue of the ancient Greeks, Revealed right and wrong of Christianity and even the relative rational values of the Enlightenment. Like Mr. Trump, the hero of one of Rand’s other books built magnificent buildings. Rand had him blow one up as its owners did not want to build it exactly as he had willed. Rand even instructed her disciples to never debate anyone who disagreed with her very strange worldview. Basically, her philosophy was as dogmatic as the most fundamentalist of world religions. It was authoritarianism for those who hated both religious and governmental authority, an uncompromising approach that we’ve seen among America’s radical right recently.
Yet few Americans are confessing libertarians. Even fewer libertarians are confessing Christians. But unwitting Christian libertarians are quite numerous, particularly within evangelical Christianity, a powerful voting bloc not often noted for deep political thinking. As Richard Mouw, the president of Fuller Seminary, has confessed, the rise of the Moral Majority, which was likely neither as political historians make a solid case it was as much a response of southern whites to the civil rights movement as more cited moral issues such as abortion, moved evangelical Christians from “un-thinking non-involvement to un-thinking involvement” in the political arena. But their political will is often matched only by their religious will. So those of us who are concerned that America has been headed in the wrong direction for some time now might start thinking, and do so quickly, while they look Above rather than to the left or right.
None of my experiences in politics or on Wall Street causes me to doubt the biblical wisdom, “Don’t put your trust in human leaders; no human leader [of any party apparently] can save you (Psalm 146:3)” and “When a nation sins, it will have one leader after another (Proverbs 28:2).” Or as a Wall Street Journal editorial entitled, “The Donald and the Demagogues” just put it, “The leader isn’t the problem. The people are. It takes the demos to make the demagogue.” When I saw those pictures of Mr. Trump and the sign saying, “Thank you Lord Jesus for President Trump,” I was reminded many German clergy felt the same way about Hitler, one of the first politicians to prefer Nietzsche’s “will to power” to moral and rational debate that leads to compromise. If that sounds exaggerated, remember that Whittaker Chambers famously said Rand’s worldview reminded him of the words, “To a gas chamber go.”
Yet it was only a few years ago that John Allison, the former head of BB&T Bank and the libertarian Cato Institute, told the New York Times that Rand’s economic philosophy, which she called Objectivism, will be America’s dominant philosophy within a few short years. And only a couple of years ago, I attended a meeting of leaders of the religious right where Mr. Allison was welcomed quite warmly. I had the distinct impression few understood with whom they were yoking. For the organizations that Mr. Allison has led have tried to put as many books by Rand into our colleges as the Gideons have put Bibles into hotel rooms. While most of those Bibles collect dust, Rand’s books are diligently studied in our colleges, on Wall Street and in conservative Washington circles. Even if the assembled Christians knew about Mr. Allison’s activities, their Randian disdain for our government had obviously over-shadowed their understanding of Christ’s “render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s.”
This old political science student has feared Rand’s atheistic influence among the cultural elites of the right even more than he once feared Marx’s influence among the cultural elites of the left. During the mid-nineties, I devoted a chapter of my book Ten Golden Rules for Financial Success to contrasting Rand’s new-age libertarian thought with that of my mentor Sir John Templeton, the legendary mutual fund manager who was perhaps the most visible Christian in global finance. In 2010, I wrote a feature article for Christianity Today’s September issue about how Rand’s new-age thinking had influenced too many evangelical leaders. Only Chuck Colson, a man who’d learned far too much about the dangers of political entanglements with even Republican presidents, seemed to notice. He repeated my cautions on his radio show and had me speak several times. Other evangelical leaders ignored our concerns, just as they’d ignored my cautions that they were paranoid about the federal debt, Y2K and employing traditional ethics on Wall Street.
Theologians call our mixing pagan thought with traditional teachings “syncretism.” Biblical prophets may have railed about the syncretism of Yahweh and Baal even more than atheism. But evangelical sociologist George Barna has called syncretism America’s “preferred religion.” But America may be headed for the pure atheism of Objectivism. Fox News recently published an article entitled “Does America Need Jesus Christ or Ayn Rand?” Its authors concluded we need Rand. We may be about to find out. For I believe Donald Trump may better personify Ayn Rand’s ideal leader than any presidential candidate in history. The fact he’s being taken as seriously as he is in the GOP suggests to me that Mr. Allison’s prophecy may be coming true a few years ahead of time. At the very least, Barna’s syncretism is deepening. It causes far more cultural confusion as we’re not really sure if we worship God or Mammon. And we have it on good authority that we can’t worship both.
I therefore believe many Bible-believing Christians need to reflect more deeply on the traditional virtues our faith has prescribed for leaders, such as humility (see also Numbers 12:3 which described Moses as the most humble man on earth), rather than allow Rand’s willful disciples to confuse our thinking with contradictory values. (To nuance the difference, reflect that gluttony has long been a deadly sin rather than a Christian virtue but we over-weight Americans value our junk food. In other words, Christian virtues are eternal truths while cultural values change with the times. Nietzsche therefore consciously worked to transform virtues into values, of which even Christians speak today.) Rand desire for money had her change it from a value to a virtue, as in The Virtue of Selfishness. So Atlas Shrugged ends with her humanistic businessman John Galt, humankind’s supposed new savior, making a new sign over the world. It was the sign of the dollar, which was to replace the Cross and Star of David. So considerable politics today is simply about the willful pursuit of the almighty dollar. One party willfully demands the affluent share dollars while the other party willfully stops it. It wasn’t to have been this way.
America’s Founding Fathers understood compromise to be the art of politics in our new republic. We were, and are, a great melting pot of people and ideas. The founders therefore established a democratic republic rather than a direct democracy. In a republic, voters simply elect a few hopefully wiser and more moral leaders, whereas in a direct democracy all citizens determine policy, regardless of how little or much he or she knows about the issues. That was likely as many Founders were Christians who remembered the response to Pilate’s straw poll being, “Give us Barabbas.” The American president who has likely come closest to that moment of Christ’s moral clarity and political disdain was Abraham Lincoln. He too was detested just before he was killed, as were Gandhi and Martin Luther King. That eternal tension between giving the people what they need verses what they want is why even conservative political philosophers like Edmund Burke have said democracies would never have good governance until its people are good, in the Christian sense. That usually meant moderating the passions of the electorate.
So when the Founders drafted our Constitution, men like Jefferson working with Madison enumerated the federal government’s powers. Today’s “constitutional conservatives” believe they severely limited Washington’s power. But founders like Washington, who had to beg the states for troops and money, worked through Hamilton to also add the “general welfare provision” to both the Preamble and Taxation Clause. That gave progressives latitude to argue their cases. So for more than a century, statesmen like Speaker of the House Henry Clay, the “Great Compromiser,” made the balancing act work. But with the death of God, not only did “love thy neighbor as thy self” die but also “not my will but thine be done.” So our elites have become increasingly individualistic and willful. And today we have Mr. Trump.
Like Mr. Trump, Ms. Rand seemed to have only a surface understanding of Christianity. Yet she wanted to be remembered as the greatest enemy of Christianity in history, suggesting she sought to be the anti-Christ that is so anticipated in so many places, other than ourselves, by conservative Christians. Yet web-sites note the Reagans lived at the address 666 until Mrs. Reagan, a famous fan of astrology, changed it to 668 when Mr. Reagan entered politics. Those websites also note the three names Ronald Wilson Reagan contain six letters each. (Google “Reagan and 666.”) Even Peggy Noonan, President Reagan’s favorite speech writer who now writes for The Wall Street Journal, has observed money is becoming the new global religion. Personally, I find all human speculation about the anti-Christ to be a stretch, this one included. But the Bible does also say an awful lot of Christians will be fooled by the anti-Christ. Indeed, who among us hasn’t been tempted by the spirit of the anti-Christ, particularly in the form of Mammon? I know I am most days.
So many frustrated voters are again looking for another Washington outsider promising to save us. This despite the “checks and balances” arranged by the Founding Fathers preventing any human from having that kind of power, as President Nixon learned. Few remember that after Nixon’s “law and order” administration imploded over Watergate, even the Democratic Governor Carter spoke these words in 1976: “Our government in Washington now is a horrible bureaucratic mess. It is disorganized, wasteful, has no purpose, and its policies—when they exist—are incomprehensible or devised by special interest groups with little or no regard for the welfare of the average American citizen. The American people believe that we ought to control our government. On the other hand, we’ve seen our government controlling us.”
He was replaced by the governor of California who told us “government is the problem,” a quite libertarian statement hardly endorsed by Christ, Paul, our Founding Fathers and Lincoln. A few years later, disillusioned voters from the left elected a governor of Arkansas who promised “hope.” A backrow congressman from Georgia then became Speaker of the House by promising the “angry white man” a “revolution.” Evangelical voters were then particularly enthusiastic about a former baseball executive from Texas until the economy imploded and federal deficits exploded. The less than happy left then responded with a junior senator from Illinois who promised “change.” But when all those change-agents reached the pearly gates of power, he was judged as he had judged.
Yet many evangelical Christians are flirting with a twice-divorced television actor whose political views on crucial issues such as abortion have shifted dramatically over the years. The Economist quipped, “Pay attention to the paranoia of his worldview,” a sentence that resonates after Y2K and so on. Mr. Trump apparently gives money to any politician who can help him make a dollar. Accepting such dollars may be a sin but offering them is surely the cardinal sin of those who go to Washington. As President Washington said, “Few men have virtue to withstand the highest bidder.”
Likely embracing the values of Rand rather than Christian virtues, Mr. Trump’s fans seem to believe he can save us as he’s “really, really rich.” That’s not a new concept of salvation from the right. Former GOP presidential candidate Steve Forbes has actually authored a book entitled How Capitalism Will Save Us. And since the days of Mr. Greenspan, many on Wall Street have expected salvation from the Federal Reserve’s easy monetary policies. Yet this time the feeling seems to be that Mr. Trump being “really, really rich” also means he’s “really, really smart” in political matters, a perception Mr. Trump has not exactly battled. Yet since the Great Recession, there’s been a growing suspicion in our country that MBA simply stands for “Me before anyone.” And the financial media has reported that had he only invested his substantial inheritance back in 1980 into an S&P 500 index fund, Mr. Trump would have twice as much money as even he now estimates.
During that time, several companies associated with the Trump name have also filed for bankruptcy. Like CEO’s trying to save on pension and healthcare benefits while rationalizing excessive CEO compensation, Mr. Trump has described those bankruptcies as shrewd business strategies. He, and apparently his followers, are seemingly unaware the Bible says those who make a habit of not repaying what they’re borrowed are “wicked” (Psalms 37:21). While the Bible proclaims Good News to the disadvantaged, Mr. Trump seems to relish telling those seeking a job, “You’re fired!” The Bible says, “Don’t mistreat a foreigner; you know how it feels to be a foreigner as you were foreigners in Egypt.” But Mr. Trump’s signature strategy has been displaying a less than Kemp-like, much less God-like, compassion for America’s foreigners. That despite economists, southern bankers, Texas home builders, meat processors in Kansas, health care workers in our hospitals and even my lawn company depending upon foreigners, both legal and illegal, to fund and do the work Americans won’t fund and do. Do we really want countries like Mexico, China and so on to take their money back as they take their citizens back before Mr. Trump builds a wall similar to the one President Reagan tore down?
Despite such questions, Mr. Trump received a very warm reception when he recently addressed the Values Voters Summit, a gathering of conservative Christians in Iowa. He confessed there that he’s never felt any need to ask for God’s forgiveness, despite that being a major portion of the Lord’s Prayer that many Christians pray daily. Supposed Bible-believing Christians might therefore particularly remember that when the prophet Samuel made the humble shepherd boy David the new king of Israel, Samuel explained to the “tall and handsome” Saul who the people had chosen as king that “arrogance is as sinful as idolatry” (1 Samuel 15:23). At least most idolatry causes one to worship something other than one’s self, as the Roman emperor Caligula wanted.
Jesus saw the Pharisees sitting in the Temple as making them as holy as sitting in a garage makes one a car. But Mr. Trump soothed Summit attendees by explaining he attends the church formerly pastored by Normal Vincent Peale. Unfortunately, Mr. Trump went on to explain he does so as Peale’s message of positive thinking is an advantage in Trump’s businesses. While the evangelical ministry Focus-on-the-Family once actively resisted the spread of casino gambling, few evangelicals seem to any longer have a problem with Mr. Trump’s association with that glitzy industry. Other casino magnates are also now very major funders of the GOP. While the Bible assures a home in heaven for the poor, as did Mr. Trump’s father, Mr. Trump prefers to provide the wealthy with the most ostentatious places to live on earth. The Bible suggests shutting down all industry each seventh year so the air and water might restore themselves (Exodus 23:10). Mr. Trump’s only apparent environmental interest is in having the driving ranges of his exclusive golf clubs declared nature preserves so he can claim them as tax-deductions. While few Christians, myself included, want to walk in the sandals of the carpenter, even fewer would hopefully travel in a private 757 with gold plated seat-belt buckles and faucet handles, as Mr. Trump reportedly does, even if we could afford it.
Does all that mean Mr. Trump and his supporters could not be humbled upon entering office? No. Redemption is available for all of us. Nor does it mean Mr. Trump is more arrogant and biblically-challenged than are his supporters. It wasn’t too long ago that Christianity Today reported on the biblical ignorance of even the evangelical community by calling the Bible “The Greatest Story Never Read.” So considerable political confusion is due to Americans knowing as much about the Bible as the U.S. Constitution, and even less about Ayn Rand and Objectivism. Arrogant politics and triumphal religion are soul-mates, which is why the Bible says, “If my people…will humble themselves.”
There are also rare occasions when Mr. Trump’s tin-ear for political manners can be refreshing to even me. For example, a couple of years ago, Mr. Trump tried to help dispirited Americans count their vast economic blessings, something I’ve tried most unsuccessfully to do in churches for decades. He did so in a special for the Discovery Channel. While the White House and World Bank have estimated America’s total wealth for decades, Mr. Trump declared with characteristic humility that no one had ever done so before he did. Now a candidate, he claims America is nearing bankruptcy so we need his deal-making skills. But at that time, he estimated America’s net wealth, after all debts are paid, as being $280 trillion dollars. You can Google it.
That’s twice what President “W’s” administration estimated in its last budget. But Mr. Trump’s estimates of his own wealth have never been described as conservative, so at least he’s consistent in exaggerating wealth. But my point is that his pre-political candor laid bare the GOP’s long-time “great political myth,” the words Robert Bartley, the editor emeritus of The Wall Street Journal used in his 1992 book, that America’s $18 trillion federal debt, half of which is actually owed to American savers, is such a giant in our promised land that we need to decimate spending on the middle-class and needy while giving more tax cuts to the wealthy. When you finally understand America’s economic pie is that huge even though your piece may be small, even shrinking, you also understand America’s real problem is that the pie needs to be divided more evenly.
Hence the surprising surge in the candidacy of Senator Bernie Sanders, our first socialist candidate for the presidency and the unintended consequence of radical libertarians’ desire to simply grow the economic pie even if the growth goes to 10% of us. More equitable re-distribution could occur through the generous giving and/or increased estate taxes advocated by legendary investors Warren Buffett and my mentor Sir John Templeton. They probably knew a bit more about economics than the typical politician, as well as voter. But I can feel libertarians, both witting and unwitting, grimace at that suggestion. Yet there’s a traditional moral case to be made. Moses divided the Promised Land in an egalitarian fashion and then redistributed the land each fiftieth year so there would always be opportunity for all (Leviticus 25::10).
But now that candidate Trump has pledged to remain in the GOP, odds are very good that you’ll not hear him talk about the need for such “demand-side economics” to re-balance supply-side economics so more American consumers can afford to buy the things our corporations produce. Not only might that mean wage increases for workers, while maybe letting them take a Sabbath rest for a change, it might reduce the current threat of deflation caused by the global over-production of rampant materialism, making it a win-win situation for a true change. Still, potential trouble remains with Mr. Trump. We might even wonder if he might imperil our global economy by repudiating the federal debt simply as he still believes bankruptcy is just another brush stroke in the art of the deal. “When a king is only concerned with money…”
Gary Moore is an investment advisor in Sarasota, Florida. He has a degree in political science and over three decades of Wall Street experience. He has authored several books and many articles on Judeo-Christian economics and is currently writing a book tentatively entitled Stewardism: A Divine Alternative to Humanistic Socialism and Capitalism. His website is www.financialseminary.org.