President Donald Trump is, how shall we say, controversial.
As theologian Wayne Grudem puts it:
“[Trump] is egotistical, bombastic, and brash. He often lacks nuance in his statements. Sometimes he blurts out mistaken ideas … that he later must abandon. He insults people. He can be vindictive when people attack him … He has been married three times and claims to have been unfaithful in his marriages.”
Yes, other Presidents have had their flaws, some worse than Trump (e.g. Richard Nixon). But Trump’s loud abrasive character — epitomised by his prolific tweeting — has made American politics into a reality TV show.
And so many Christians find his character difficult to handle, even if they sympathise with some (much?) of his political views (e.g. on religious freedom and abortion). My wife, like many other educated western women, can’t stand him, and shakes her head at the thought of Trump being President, not to mention the leader of the free world.
Of course, Australians like me don’t get to vote for Trump. But as former Deputy PM John Anderson points out, what happens politically in America has massive implications for the rest of the world, including Australia. Thus, with only some exaggeration, Trump is (almost) as much our President as America’s president. Which is why the rest of the world takes such a keen interest in US politics — especially around election time.
Furthermore, thinking about how American Christians might vote will help us Australian Christians think through our voting, and indeed our political views. Not because we have an equivalent of Trump (neither Morrison nor Albanese are comparable to Trump), but because many Christians find themselves torn between the policies and leaders of various political parties. And so, sometimes tough decisions have to be made at election time. Decisions that American Christians are in the process of making as they head to the polls.
Before we begin…
If you’re like many readers, you’ll come to this post with your mind made up. On the one hand, you may be curious to know how any Christian could conceivably vote for the current President. Or you might want to know how any Christian could not vote for him, given the alternatives.
Either way, when we explore an issue like politics — where strong views abound — we do well to remember the words of James 1:19-20,
Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry, because human anger does not produce the righteousness that God desires.’
(Wise words of counsel before you head to the comments section!)
Or as theologian David Bentley Hart put it:
An honest and honourable critic of any idea will always seek out and try to understand the strongest possible formulations of that idea, as well as the most persuasive arguments in its favour, before attempting its refutation.
Whilst I’m not attempting to refute any particular view in this post (I’ll leave that to my readers in the comment section), we do well to understand each side fairly, with minimal anger, before critiquing it.
So then, let’s begin.
1) A Christian Argument for Trump
While there are many different Christian arguments for (and against!) Trump, one of the most articulate defenders of Trump that I’ve come across is theologian Wayne Grudem (yes, the same person who wrote the above character assessment of Trump).
In his recent piece, Letter to an Anti-Trump Christian Friend, Grudem outlines why he thinks voting for Trump is the right thing to do. Here are his basic reasons:
a. Trump has good policies
In every column that I’ve published in support of Trump, I have explicitly registered my disapproval of his character flaws and previous immoral behavior. I support him because of the policies he has enacted and will enact, and in spite of his character flaws (which I don’t think rise to a level that would disqualify him from being president).
Grudem lists 30 good things Trump has done for America in his first term, including:
Restricting Federal government funding for Abortion.
Economically, Trump cut regulation and tax, which boosted the economy and brought unemployment (pre-COVID) to the lowest it’s been in 50 years, with unemployment among African-American and Hispanic workers being the lowest in history.
Appointing Supreme Court Judges that uphold the US constitution, including the right to religious freedom.
Many, if not most, Christians will see these as good policy outcomes.
But while many Christians might be ok with his policies, they’re concerned about his character. If anything, that’s what holds them back from voting for Trump. Grudem’s response to this concern is as follows:
b. Trump’s character might not be exemplary, but it’s not bad enough to disqualify him from being President
I am not saying that assessment of a candidate’s character is irrelevant. There is a minimal standard of behavior which, if a candidate falls below it, would disqualify a candidate from governmental office. You may think that Trump has fallen beneath such a standard. I do not. But this is a judgment call that each person has to make — about every candidate.’
In other words, yes, Trump’s character is a little dodgy, but is that enough to disqualify him from the role of President? In Grudem’s eyes, the answer is ‘no’.
And so, the decision making process comes down to the evaluation of two very different political packages:
c. The choice in this election is between two whole ‘packages’.
Not merely between two people.
This is the crux of Grudem’s argument.
The question now facing the nation is not, “Does Donald Trump have an exemplary moral character?” or, “Does Donald Trump have flaws?” or even, “Do I like Donald Trump?” The question is, “Which of two package deals is better for the nation?”
(a) Donald Trump and Republican policies or
(b) Joe Biden and Democratic policies?
There are no other choices. The nation will either have the option (a) or option (b) as a whole package for at least the next four years, and probably longer. If I withhold support from Trump, that makes it easier for Biden to win, and thereby for Democratic policies to bring (in my opinion) great destructiveness to the nation…’
In making a choice between package (a) and package (b), questions about a candidate’s character of course are relevant. But, to my mind, the question is not, “Does Donald Trump have flaws?” but rather, “Is Donald Trump so clearly unsuited to be president that our only valid choice is to accept package (b) and the great damage to the nation that (in my opinion) will flow from Joe Biden and Democratic policies?” When I ask the question in that way, the answer is clearly No, and it isn’t even close. Package (a) is far preferable.’
In other words, although Trump’s character is less than stellar, given the alternative ‘package’ on offer, Trump is a better choice.
But what about voting for a third party candidate? Wouldn’t that be the preferable alternative?
d. Voting For neither Biden nor Trump still gives America either Biden or Trump
Grudem doesn’t see voting for a third party candidate as a politically responsible option:
Voting for a third party candidate… would not change the fact that the nation will have either package (a) or package (b).
Therefore, a third party vote would be throwing away your opportunity to influence the government of this nation for good in the laws and policies it enacts.
“Do not withhold good from those to whom it is due, when it is in your power to do it.”
[Voting for Trump helps] protect the nation from great harm that would come from the Democratic party policies…and to help the nation by promoting the great good that would come from Republican party policies.
These laws and policies will set the course of the nation for years to come in ways that will far outweigh any harm that might come from Donald Trump’s abrasive behavior.’
To sum up (Grudem’s) pro-Trump position (as I understand it):
Trump’s character may not be exemplary, but it’s not bad enough to disqualify him from the role. And his abrasive character is far outweighed by his good policies (as already seen in his first term), and the potential harm from Democratic policies.
That’s the pro-Trump argument from a Christian.
So, what might be a Christian argument against Trump?
2) A Christian Argument Against Trump
Again, while there are many reasons why Christians wouldn’t want to vote for Trump, one of the most articulate critics is white Christian conservative writer David French. His arguments for not voting for Trump are as follows:
a. Both policies and character matter in politicians
French outlines his voting philosophy as follows:
In each race, I impose a two-part test on candidates. First, they must possess a personal character that is worthy of the office they seek. Second, they must broadly share my political values. If a candidate fails either prong of that test, he or she doesn’t receive my vote.’
At this point, pro-Trumpers like Grudem would be in agreement.
But French’s evaluation of Trump’s character is different to Grudem’s:
b. Trump fails the Character Test (even though he may have noteworthy policies)
Even if I do like some of the things Trump has done, he lacks the character to be president.’
In particular, French highlights the harsh way Trump attacks his opponents:
This year’s national prayer breakfast was a study in contrasts. Washington Post columnist and former American Enterprise Institute President Arthur Brooks spoke before Donald Trump. He delivered a theologically true and moving address about a profound and difficult biblical command — loving our enemies.’
Then, Trump spoke. At the outset he said, “Arthur, I don’t know if I agree with you” and proceeded to do exactly what Trump does — hate on his enemies. He aired his grievances against political opponents in personally insulting terms, at length… This is what the president does, day after day, on Twitter, during rallies, and to the press. It’s been a core theme of his presidency and, before that, his candidacy.’
French was also a critical of Trump’s handling of the coronavirus, including his lies about the seriousness of it:
We will debate for years why the world’s wealthiest and most powerful nation, a nation chock-full of many of the best doctors and hospitals in the world, experienced such a disproportionately staggering death toll. But here’s one reason: A man [i.e. President Trump] who millions of people trust and who sets the tone for communications from massive right-wing news outlets and for massive right-wing celebrities told a series of lies. Those lies were transmitted and believed. People acted on those lies.’
According to French, Trump lied in a way that led to a mishandling of COVID, costing tens of thousands of lives. Again, for French, that’s more than a political ‘foul’: it’s a political disqualification. And so when it comes to voting, American Chrisitans shouldn’t turn to Trump, according to French. Trump’s character is well below the acceptable level for political office, let alone the powerful office of the US President.
But French doesn’t advocate turning to Biden. Rather, he says a third alternative that Christians should pursue:
c. Christians in America should use their (massive) influence to improve politics, rather than accept the binary status quo.
Our nation’s two political parties do not dictate to the church how it must use its vast cultural and political power. The church must instead communicate its standards to our parties.’
And so, when it comes to the culture of lies and deceit that’s now considered normal for politics, the church fails when it supports a liar and deceiver as President:
Yet the church does not treat those maladies [i.e. the culture of lies and deceit] when it uses its truly immense political power to place a dishonest, vengeful adulterer at the heights of American political and cultural influence.’
One does not cure cultural moral cancer with more cancer. We preserve nothing. Instead, we hasten the decay.’
d. Trusting in God requires Christians to play the long game of cultural change, rather than strive for short term political gain
This is French at his most provocative: what does it say about our trust in God if we give in to the binary choice of US politics?
If the world’s wealthiest and and most powerful collection of Christians are supine before their political masters in the United States, marching to the beat of secular drummers (even if allegedly “holding their noses” all the while) then I fear the message that sends is that we do not have faith that God’s providence governs the nations. We cannot and must not “put our trust in princes.” There is no such thing as a “binary choice.” We can choose not to yield to the spirit of the times.
And this may well have an impact over time:
Theological truth can also create a pragmatic reality. Over time, perhaps the best method of cleansing our political class of the low, narcissistic characters who all too often occupy public office is to stop voting for them.’
To sum up French’s view, then:
You need both good policies and good character in a President. Trump may have some good policies, but he doesn’t have good character. Thus Christians should not support him, but should use trust God by playing the long game of improving political and general culture.
3) Weighing up the Argument: The Different Principles at Play
So how do we weigh up these different arguments as Christians? Who’s right about Trump? His supporters (like Grudem), or his critics (like French)?
Here are some thoughts:
Deciding who to vote for is (usually) a ‘jagged line issue’, not a ‘straight line issue’.
It’s a matter of individual conscience, not biblical commands.
The Bible doesn’t give us a clear command on whether to vote for Trump or not. Making that decision requires Christians to understand and weigh up different (and times competing) factors. It’s complex. It’s arguable. And so it’s disputable. Yes, biblical principles will be brought to the table, but in the end, different Christians (like Grudem and French, above) will weigh these factors differently. There’s no ‘straight line’ from the biblical text to the voting decision; rather, there’s a ‘jagged line’, which makes any decision contestable.
And that’s ok: it’s what the Bible would describe as a ‘disputable matter’ (Rom 14), over which Christians can and should be free to disagree (agreeably!).
Not all issues have the same moral weight.
In weighing up the different issues, it’s important to remember that not all issues have the same moral weight. This adds a level of complexity to the decision-making process.
So, for example, you might not like Trump’s welfare policies. You see that as lacking the necessary compassion of a civilised society. Whereas you’re uncomfortable with Biden’s pro-abortion policy. How do you weigh up these differences?
From a biblical perspective, not all sins have the same moral weight. Governmental support for the murder of the unborn is a greater evil than a lack of government welfare.
For the anti-Trump David French, this means he cannot vote Democrat:
I cannot join some of my Never Trump friends in backing the Democratic nominee…I cannot vote for a person who would put in place policies I believe are harmful and potentially destructive—especially to unborn life.’
How much does character matter in a President?
Both French and Grudem agree that policy and character matter.
But they disagree on how much character matters – or at least, what’s the acceptable level of character required for the (secular) President of the United States.
Different Christians will weigh this issue differently. At the very least, I can’t see the Bible speaking in a ‘straight line’ way to this issue, apart from saying character does have an impact on a ruler (e.g. see Proverbs 29:2).
But where exactly does a secular ruler move from an acceptable level of character, to an unacceptable level, which Christians shouldn’t support with their vote?
That’s an open question.
What does it look like to trust God with two less than stellar alternatives?
Finally, it seems another principle at play is the issue of trusting God: what does it look like to trust God when there are problems with both candidates?
Are we responsible to vote for the one we see as the lesser evil?
Or does trusting God mean withdrawing from a binary view of politics (Trump or Biden), knowing that God is sovereign, and go for a third alternative — even if it most likely means either Trump or Biden will win?
Again, the Bible doesn’t give a straight line answer to this issue, and different Christians will assess this differently.
Could a Christian Vote for Trump in Good Conscience?
Could a Christian vote for Trump in good conscience?
The answer is ‘yes’. But that doesn’t mean that all Christians should vote for Trump. It’s not a simple yes/no answer that the Bible speaks to directly. As such, it’s an area of Christian freedom: some Christians could well vote for Trump in good conscience. Other’s couldn’t.
Either way, the outcome is ultimately in God’s hands — and for that all Christians — where pro-Trump or anti-Trump — can be thankful.