A nation on trial: What should Christians think as a former president faces criminal charges?

R. Albert Mohler, Jr.
May 5, 2023

The arraignment of a former president of the United States, now officially charged with criminal offenses, marks a day that will weigh heavily on the American mind, heart, and history. There was no live feed from inside the New York courtroom, but there were images, and those arresting images have now been seen by untold millions around the world. A former U.S. president, sitting as a defendant in a criminal courtroom.

It is not as if such charges against a current or former president had been unthinkable. There is no doubt that Richard M. Nixon was implicated in crimes ranging from the obstruction of justice to tampering with evidence. Most historians believe those charges might be only the starting point of prosecuting Nixon’s crimes. We will never know. His pardon by President Gerald R. Ford circumvented the process. Ford believed the pardon was necessary for the nation’s healing and also for America’s stature in world opinion. He paid a heavy price for that decision, losing the 1976 election to Jimmy Carter, who promised, “I will never tell a lie.” That turns out to be an unsustainable promise for a president to make.

A generation later, it would be President Bill Clinton who, by his own misbehavior, made himself central to a massive criminal investigation. If he did not commit the crime of perjury, it was simply by using his considerable legal skills to twist the truth: “I did not have sexual relations with that woman.” He did, of course, and later had to admit it.

One of the famous lessons of Watergate is that, for those in high office, the coverup is often worse than the crime—at least in terms of making a criminal case. And those coverups go way back in presidential history, from Warren Harding’s Teapot Dome to John F. Kennedy’s sexual trysts.

Christians are often hard pressed as we try to think faithfully through these issues. But there are clear lessons that believers have learned through the long unfolding of history. Here are some of those lessons:

First, character does matter. It is not the only consideration, but it is a primary consideration. Christians begin with the clear biblical truth that no sinful human being has a perfect character, but even as we grade presidents on something of a curve, some stand out as particularly lacking in character. Donald J. Trump is certainly one of those presidents, but stop for a moment and do this thought experiment: Ask yourself who among the 45 men who have served as president might be (or have been) indicted for paying a woman “hush money” to keep silent about a sexual tryst? We have to admit that list would be rather long. Recent revelations about Warren Harding and his mistress are too explicit to detail here. Kennedy, Clinton, Franklin D. Roosevelt … the list goes on.

The Augustinian tradition in Christian theology underlines the fact that sin corrupts, blinds, deceives, and drives history. Lord Acton delivered a very Augustinian thought when he summarized one of the key conservative lessons of history: “Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” That observation is absolutely true.

Character is not limited to the so-called “pelvic issues,” but they certainly matter. And one revelation of how much they matter is the lengths to which those involved in sexual sin will go to cover and camouflage their sin. That is what got Donald Trump to that Manhattan courtroom today.

But, second, moral responsibility applies everywhere we look, and that means that the New York district attorney now bears the responsibility of bringing a criminal prosecution against a former American president. Alvin Bragg promised to indict Trump, and now he has. But he now has two great burdens to bear: First, to prove his criminal case, and then to prove that his actions make sense in the view of history. Frankly, both challenges are formidable.

Third, in our political system—especially with Donald Trump already a declared candidate for the Republican nomination in 2024—everything is political, everywhere, and all the time. I will put my cards on the table. I do not want Donald J. Trump to be the 2024 Republican nominee. There is simply too much baggage and too much Donald J. Trump. A statesman would realize that fact and make way for someone else to lead. That does not appear likely. There may be any number of other challenges (and maybe even charges) that Trump will face, but Alvin Bragg did not play a strong hand in New York yesterday, and even Trump’s enemies know it. Still, it is all a national embarrassment.

Fourth, and most importantly, this is a time for Christians to think deeply and honestly about the moral issues presented to us in these days. We must pray for our nation and for all who are entrusted with responsibility to lead, judge, and serve in the midst of this maelstrom. May God give wisdom to know how, when, and what to speak. May He guide parents to explain these events to their children. May God grant us wisdom and mercy as we seek to do right, speak wisely, and live faithfully through these days.

May God bless America and protect us from our enemies, foreign and domestic. And Lord, please save us from ourselves.

R. Albert Mohler, Jr.

I am always glad to hear from readers. Write me using the contact form. Follow regular updates on Twitter at @albertmohler.

Subscribe via email for daily Briefings and more (unsubscribe at any time).