Donald Trump is the Republican nominee for President of the United States. We all know that this is true, and yet many of us still wonder how it happened. That Trump, a man with no political experience and not much in the way of credentials, has beaten a Republican field that included high-profile politicians, including current and former senators and governors, is shocking. That the other candidates were, with one possible exception, also terrible only slightly diminishes the shock of Trump’s triumph.
What is less – in fact, not at all – surprising is that the conservative base of the Republican Party is now backpedaling from their former criticisms of Trump. On cue, conservative leaders have rushed to their soapboxes to publicly endorse the latest putrid candidate the Republicans have trotted out.
Most conspicuous have been vocal members of the Religious Right like Dr. James Dobson, who recently assured American Christians that Trump, having recently gone through a conversion experience, is one of them. Now on the one hand, as a Christian I hope that this is true – for Trump’s sake. But on the other hand, the timing of Trump’s conversion, coming just as he needs to convince millions of Christians to vote for him, seems suspicious. It’s kind of like a prisoner who, desperate to convince a parole board that he’s a changed man, suddenly reveals himself to have “found Jesus.”
It’s the kind of situation in which Christians might remind themselves of the Biblical advice to “know them by their fruits.” With Trump, the jury on those fruits is still very much out.
A vote for Trump as “a morally good choice”
Other Christian leaders are also defending Trump, not on the basis of his conversion to the faith, but on the basis of his policies as contrasted with those of his opponent. To this end, prominent theologian Wayne Grudem wrote an article this week suggesting that a Christian vote for Trump is “a morally good choice.”
Grudem’s arguments in favor of his position, which we will get to in a moment, are flawed, but I will say at the outset that I understand why people might choose to vote for Trump. As I explained in 2012, given the choice between a weak Republican candidate and a bad Democrat, I can understand why conservatives would vote for the Republican, especially if they believe that he will be the “less bad” president of the two. Grudem himself seems to take this position when he explains that a vote for Trump is not immoral because “there is nothing morally wrong with voting for a flawed candidate if you think he will do more good for the nation than his opponent.”
But it is silly to cast, as Grudem then proceeds to do, a vote for Trump as a more moral choice than either abstaining from voting or voting for a third party candidate. He attempts to tweak the consciences of Christians by appealing to the Biblical warning that, “Whoever knows the right thing to do and fails to do it, for him it is sin.”
However, leaving aside the questionable application of this Scripture to the act of voting, Grudem errs in his assumption that casting a vote for Donald Trump is obviously “the right thing to do.” The reasons to not vote or to vote third party in the 2016 presidential election are legion, and probably deserve a separate article. But for Americans increasingly disaffected by the performance of both parties, who increasingly appear to be more similar than not, a vote for a third party may be the more obvious moral choice.
In other words, for Americans who are skeptical of Trump’s conservative credentials (which, unbelievably, are even weaker than Mitt Romney’s) or of his character or of his interest in securing rights rather than attacking them, it may be considerably more obvious that not voting for Trump is “the right thing to do.”
Since Grudem believes that a non-vote or a vote for a third-party candidate like Gary Johnson makes the election of Hillary Clinton more likely, he encourages Christians to ask themselves, “Can I in good conscience act in a way that helps a liberal like Hillary Clinton win the presidency?”
To which one familiar with Trump’s history might be tempted to respond, “Can I in good conscience act in a way that helps a liberal like Donald Trump win the presidency?”
Grudem’s attempt to cast not voting for Trump as “not doing anything” is similarly off the mark, and reflects a larger problem in American politics: the belief that the only action required to secure freedom is voting. But in reality, voting is not only the most ineffective way to secure freedom, it is also the laziest.
Put differently, were conservative Christians to put as much effort into changing hearts and minds as they did changing the names on government office doors, the country would be much better off. Were they to act strategically at the state and local levels rather than accept the left’s top-down theory of government, they would actually see a change in the direction of American politics.
Grudem, even while correctly diagnosing the disease of big government, offers as a solution a second-hand sales pitch for the snake oil cure that Republicans have been peddling for decades – that electing them will fix everything. He then tries to tie this failed and tired strategy to Biblical morality, rejecting along the way nagging questions about its effectiveness and whitewashing concerns over Donald Trump’s character and abilities
The Supreme Court argument
The crux of Grudem’s pro-Trump argument is that the next president will likely appoint several Supreme Court Justices. Grudem views with horror a Court dominated by Hillary Clinton’s appointees, envisioning that “The nation would no longer be ruled by the people and their elected representatives, but by unelected, unacountable, activist judges…”
“And there would be nothing in our system of government that anyone could do to stop them,” he warns.
The first part of this statement is, of course, not wrong. Under liberal appointees, the Supreme Court would be full of unelected, unaccountable, activist judges. That is, it would continue in the same manner it has been operating for the better part of a century. And while it has been liberal judges that have been most notably “activist,” Republican-appointed judges haven’t exactly acquitted themselves with honor.
For instance, Justice Anthony Kennedy, a Ronald Reagan appointee, swung the recent Obergfell v. Hodges decision that overrode state laws on gay marriage, a decision that Grudem himself laments in the article. Kennedy’s interpretation of the Fourteenth Amendment is the epitome of leftist judicial activism.
And it was George W. Bush’s appointee John Roberts who, when given the opportunity to correctly rule the Affordable Care Act unconstitutional, instead decided to classify that act’s penalties as a tax, thereby allowing the law to proceed to enactment.
Yes, two of the Obama era’s greatest liberal triumphs could have been halted by Republican Supreme Court appointees. That these justices didn’t throw up roadblocks throws cold water all over the Supreme Court argument for Donald Trump. While it may be true that a Trump appointee may hold a greater chance of being a constitutional “originalist” than a Clinton appointee, that’s only because that chance is greater than zero.
Such a weak argument can only be a convincing case for Trump if Grudem’s second point – that “there would be nothing in our system of government to stop” a Court filled with Clinton appointees – is true. But it’s not. The writers and ratifiers of the Constitution did not grant the interpretation of constitutional limits solely to the Supreme Court. Indeed, it did not fully vest that power in any branch of the federal government, nor in any combination of those branches.
The founding generation agreed that the states held the power to judge whether the actions of the federal government were constitutional and that, if they weren’t, those actions were, as Thomas Jefferson said, “unauthoratative, void and of no force.” In other words, Congress could pass a law, the President could sign it and the Supreme Court could verify its constitutionality, but if a state didn’t agree with that judgment, it could nullify the law.
Such an understanding of the Constitution, if enforced today, would drastically alter the power of the federal government, particularly the Supreme Court. Court opinions would be just that – opinions, valid only to the degree to which the state governments agreed to comply with them. But conservatives, those self-proclaimed defenders of the Constitution, are either completely ignorant of the constitutional powers of the states or, like the Heritage Foundation, actively oppose them.
Faced with the reality of an activist Court making laws, conservatives have the choice of either denying the Court’s authority to make such decisions or trying to elect weak Republican candidates in the hopes that they will appoint enough Justices who are devoted enough to the Constitution that their decisions will stand a high enough chance of reversing the trajectory that the Court is not only currently on, but has been on for many decades.
Conservatives, given these two options, repeatedly choose door number two, apparently never realizing that every time it’s opened a spring-loaded boxing mitt punches them in the face.
While I don’t wish to see the nonsense that a Court full of liberal law school graduates would unleash on America, if such an event would cause the conservative half of the country to abandon the idea of submission to the Court’s claims to arbitrary power, I might consider it a long-term win.
At any rate, the weakness in Grudem’s Supreme Court argument for Trump is that it’s been proved to be ineffective and detracts energy and attention away from more promising options. It certainly does not logically lead to a positive moral case for Donald Trump.
The abortion treadmill
It has been said that the only sureties in life are death and taxes. To this list I would add that conservatives will invariably propose the election of Republicans as the only way to end abortion. This is another key feature of Grudem’s argument, that electing Trump is necessary for gaining Republican control of the Supreme Court, which is in turn necessary to stop abortion.
This is, however, not true, as decentralizing the abortion issue, as Ron Paul suggested in 2012, would prove more effective than waiting for the federal government to fix the issue it created in the first place. But here again, conservatives seem intent on pursing a strategy that never pays off rather than considering an alternative that could actually work.
For decades conservatives have been arguing that, if we can just elect a Republican, we could make some real progress on abortion. The results of their efforts, however, don’t seem to justify their continued belief in that strategy. If Republicans were truly serious about ending abortion, wouldn’t they have made an effort to do so when they had control of the White House and both houses of Congress – not to mention a majority of appointees on the Supreme Court – after the 2004 election? Does the fact that they didn’t tell us anything?
I think what it tells us is that the idea that any Republican, much less one with the shaky pro-life credentials of Donald Trump, is going expend the political capital that will be required to end abortion is a conservative fairy tale. A cynic might even observe that it’s not in the Republican Party’s interest to end abortion, not as long as they have such an effective vote-getting lever to pull. The party surely knows that it can count on millions of votes every election cycle, just by promising that they’re really going to try this time.
Conservatives, rather stopping to question if they’re being played, instead just keep trying to run down the wilted carrot at the end of that stick.
Another path to religious freedom
Outside of abortion, the topic that Grudem devotes most of his time to is religious freedom. He is correct to condemn the demands made by Social Justice Warriors upon all Americans to approve of and participate in alternative lifestyles that go against traditional standards of morality. He laments that the state-level work done to legally define marriage as the union of one man and one woman was (unconstitutionally) undone by the Obergfell decision. Under a Clinton presidency, Grudem envisions a world in which Christians are locked up and Christian businesses and universities shut down if they fail to go along with the moral decline of American society.
But, as I said over a year ago, these examples show exactly why Christians should not be attempting to find legal solutions to social problems, and Grudem’s own examples of fired CEOs, fire chiefs and college professors show that these are problems of a morally weak society, not of a uniquely evil government.
Unfortunately, over the past two decades Christians have appealed to all levels of government to legally enforce upon everybody else their idea of what marriage should be. They cannot act surprised when the opposite side, now culturally ascendant, is attempting to use that same power to enforce the alternative definition on them.
What Christians should have been working for all this time is the removal from government of the role of defining marriage at all. But while Christians should have been seeking to enhance freedom of association, they were working to undermine it, thereby strengthening the government that is now being turned against them.
Voting for Donald Trump, he of three marriages and multiple affairs, to reverse the downward cycle of American morality is not likely to be successful. Furthermore, it continues the error of relying on government to fix social problems. Vesting government with more power isn’t going to work, and the unintended consequences of doing so will bear the bitter fruits of oppression.
Trump’s foreign policy
Interestingly, the one area where I think Donald Trump might actually be better than most of the other 2016 candidates is the area of foreign policy, but not for the reasons that Grudem raises. Grudem believes that Trump will continue the conservative pet projects of increasing both military spending and American belligerence in the world.
But Trump, inconsistent though he may be, has signaled that he might not buy into the foreign policy consensus. While Grudem believes that Trump will take the fight simultaneously to ISIS, Russia and China (because, seriously, who doesn’t want World War III?) Trump himself has indicated reticence to become further entangled in military adventurism. He even dared to say, in a Republican debate no less, that the Bush Administration lied Americans into the Iraq War.
Ultimately, I don’t expect Trump to depart widely from the Republicans’ foreign policy playbook, but it’s interesting that Grudem downplays Trump’s full views on the matter, leading to the question of whether or not Grudem is projecting his own policy preferences onto Trump.
Grudem concludes his piece by acknowledging that there’s no way to be sure that Donald Trump will govern in a righteous manner, although he seems to believe that there is a significant chance that he will. And that’s all good as far as it goes. Maybe Trump would govern as the conservative that Grudem hopes he will be. There’s no way to know for sure, but Trump has certainly given voters enough reasons to doubt that this would be the case.
And that’s the trouble with Grudem’s article. While allegedly making the moral case for Donald Trump, he’s offered only pragmatism and hypotheticals. Saying that Trump is likely to be better than Clinton may be true, but it is a far cry from proving that Trump is the most moral choice that Christians can make in the 2016 election.
There is no reason to attempt to bind the consciences of Christians who are conflicted in this election cycle. There’s also no defense for doing so. It’s troubling when Christian leaders cast their own political beliefs in a moral light, and cast aspersions on the morality of the beliefs of others.
If Christians feel that they cannot in good conscience vote for someone with the shaky personal character and political resume of Donald Trump, they should not be made to believe that they are making an immoral decision. If Christians believe that the choice that is in the most accordance with their religious and political values is to either abstain from voting or vote for someone other than a major party candidate, they should feel free to do so.
And if they feel that a vote for Trump is the best choice they can make, they should feel free to do that as well. Voting for Trump may turn out to be the pragmatic choice. That doesn’t make it the moral one.