Thursday, August 4, 2016

A Roundup of Evangelical Responses to Wayne Grudem

Evangelical theologian Wayne Grudem raised quite a clamor this week with his inflammatorily titled article, Why Voting for Donald Trump is a Morally Good Choice. In it, Grudem argues that Christians should vote for him, despite his obvious flaws, because not doing so would be helping Hillary win and bring about disastrous consequences for our nation, whereas Trump promises to help fight abortion, protect religious liberty, and produce positive results for a number of other issues Grudem holds dear. I disagree with him, vehemently. I haven't been keeping up with the evangel-o-sphere much since my conversion to Orthodoxy, but I felt called back to at least dip my feet in by the audacity of the very existence of a Christian case for voting for Trump. There is no need for me to comment personally, though, since numerous and better-informed evangelical teachers and thinkers have already written some excellent responses to Grudem's essay from a number of different angles. I will link to and summarize them here.

Character matters

John Mark M. Reynolds delivers a scathing rebuttal to Grudem's character assessment of Trump as a "good candidate with flaws". Reynolds argues that Grudem attempts to brush aside Trump's flaws, which so overwhelmingly awful as to render him unfit for the presidency.
Donald J. Trump is uniquely unsuited for the most powerful job on the planet. He is morally unfit, unqualified, and advocating for him stains any person who does so. 
Just as saying a kind word for Mussolini is a perpetual shame to GK Chesterton, so in the same way, advocating for Trump will tar Grudem. I beg him to retract it or he will lose the moral authority to comment on politics for the rest of his life. Trump is that bad.
Of course supporting a flawed candidate is acceptable in principle; even Lincoln had his flaws. But Trump is much words. "We must vote for flawed men, but not for men who glory in their flaws," Reynolds reminds us. "Donald J. Trump is the least qualified, least fit nominee of a major party in the history of the Republic." Reynolds spends the rest of his time expanding and supporting this assertion; I will summarize his points.
  • Trump continues to endorse many hoaxes and conspiracy theories: that Obama is not a natural-born American citizen, that vaccines cause autism, that climate change is a hoax engineered by China, that Ted Cruz's father had a hand in the JFK assassination. "It is ignorance combined with pride that does not care about the ignorance."
  • Trump has not abandoned his support for torture.
  • Trump makes openly racist and sexist statements, and refuses to apologize for them. he has called Mexican immigrants "racists" and called for a ban on all Muslims in the US. (Despite employing numerous illegal immigrants)
  • Trump owns a strip club.
  • Trump has done nothing to rebuke or distance himself from the support he has received from white supremacists and members of other hate groups. He repeatedly re-tweets anti-semites and racists. "To call such hideous evil “angry fringe supporters” is to look at the worst evil in the face and blink."
  • "Trump has repeatedly had kind words to say for dictators including the butcher of Ankara and KGB Colonel Putin."
  • Trump is in legal trouble in New York for calling his unaccredited school a "university". (A federal judge recently allowed a suit against Trump by former students to go to trial, after the election)
  • "Trump lies like most of us breath[e]. ... This is not normal political behavior, but continuous lying so grand that Professor Grudem seems to forget one lie for the next."
  • Trump was uninvolved in the rearing of his children, contrary to a point Grudem makes.
  • Trump is indisputably a lover of money.
  • Trump has promised to release his taxes, and has not.
  • Trump has brashly asserted that he, and he alone, can save America. (And, more recently, that Clinton is the devil)
  • Trump has induced a minor international crisis by stating, without precedent, that he would make America's defense of other NATO countries conditional on their putting in their fair share of military expenditures.
  • Trump is the first presidential candidate to brag about his "manhood" in a debate.
  • Trump "confuses Clinton’s Vice-Presidential nominee with a Republican governor of New Jersey. The man is ignorant of even the most basic facts about government and has no interest in learning."
Warren Throckmorton recalls a statement signed by 150 Christian leaders—including Wayne Grudem—in 1998, in the wake of the Monica Lewinski scandal. Part of the statement says:
We are aware that certain moral qualities are central to the survival of our political system, among which are truthfulness, integrity, respect for the law, respect for the dignity of others, adherence to the constitutional process, and a willingness to avoid the abuse of power. We reject the premise that violations of these ethical standards should be excused so long as a leader remains loyal to a particular political agenda and the nation is blessed by a strong economy. Elected leaders are accountable to the Constitution and to the people who elected them. By his own admission the President has departed from ethical standards by abusing his presidential office, by his ill use of women, and by his knowing manipulation of truth for indefensible ends. We are particularly troubled about the debasing of the language of public discourse with the aim of avoiding responsibility for one’s actions.
"To my eye," Throckmorton continues, "a vote for Trump contradicts every paragraph in this statement." The statement continues:
But we maintain that in general there is a reasonable threshold of behavior beneath which our public leaders should not fall, because the moral character of a people is more important than the tenure of a particular politician or the protection of a particular political agenda. Political and religious history indicate that violations and misunderstandings of such moral issues may have grave consequences.
I would agree with this statement's sentiment. Throckmorton does as well, and says, "I see a shift from then to now in the willingness to tolerate character problems for political expediency. ... People like James Dobson, Eric Metaxas and now Wayne Grudem are telling us that it is our duty to throw this reasoning aside and lower or abandon the threshold." Jonathan Merritt offers another commentary on this flip from Clinton to Trump, concluding that "Conservative Christians were unwilling to extend mercy to a Democrat who asked for it but have offered it freely to a Republican who doesn’t want it. ... Trump-loving evangelical leaders should either apologize to Bill Clinton or admit, after all these years, that they, too, have a character issue."

On the issues

Another post by Throckmorton reiterates this contrast to the statement Grudem signed in 1998 and his support for Trump based solely on the political consequences, agreeing with the former against the latter. He argues Grudem's critique of Trumps character doesn't go far enough, making several of the same points Reynolds did, then moves to examine Grudem's overriding question: "Which vote is most likely to bring the best results for the nation?" Throckmorton examines Trumps's policy plans, issue-by-issue, to show that Grudem's assessment is highly optimistic. I will briefly list his conclusions on these (all of which cite at least some research):
  • Immigration: Trump's promised deportation of 11 million(!) illegal immigrants is expected to cost the economy $400 billion, and lower the GDP by at least $1 trillion. Trump's promised wall is expected to cost at least $25 billion (unless, of course, Mexico pays for it).
  • Taxes: Trump's promise to cut taxes with no real plan for lowering costs (except the standard promise to "cut waste, fraud and abuse") will massively increase the national debt.
  • Trade, Jobs, and the Poor: Trump's proposed tariffs would greatly increase the cost of imported goods. The conservative National Chamber of Commerce believes his economic policies would lead to a recession, with millions of lost jobs. Trump himself dismissed the risk of a trade war, but it would be a great hardship for the poor.
  • Healthcare: The Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget believes Trump's proposed healthcare solution would cost more and lead to more uninsured. Strangely, he has also expressed support for a single-payer system, which Grudem probably doesn't want.
  • Debt: Trump is expected to add $11.5 trillion to the national debt. Clinton is only expected to add $250 billion.
  • Foreign Policy: Trump's stance toward Russia is highly ambiguous; he has both praised Putin and claimed not to know him. It's hard to believe he would be tougher on the threat posed by Russia than Clinton. He has also said he might not intervene if Russia invaded a NATO ally and might recognize Russia's invasion of the Crimea.
  • Supreme Court and Religious Liberty: Supreme court justices are unelected and subject to checks and balances regardless of who is president. Few conservative legal scholars think the possibility of conservative justices outweighs Trump's numerous flaws; Roger Pilion states that "Hillary Clinton is a deeply flawed candidate, to be sure, but the election of Donald Trump would so defile the party of Lincoln and America itself that it must be resisted. He is an aberration that we must get past, and quickly."
Throckmorton concludes:
If a vote for Trump is a moral choice, then I can’t see how a vote for Clinton is not one also. It probably comes down to which vision of the future each individual believes to be accurate. As I look at the evidence, I think Grudem sugar coated Trump and cast Clinton in the worst possible light. In any case, given how inadequate his analysis of Trump’s positions and character is, I think it is an abuse of his position as an evangelical leader to imply that there is a choice that good Christians should choose. If his standard no longer elevates moral qualities, then he needs to do a better job researching Trump’s proposals and what they portend.
Matthew Boedy (guest-posting on Throckmorton's blog) argues that "Grudem’s essay fails to live up to his own positive qualities for Christian influence on government." He refers here to a book Grudem wrote in 2010 arguing that Christians should have "significant influence" on government, namely "winsome, kind, thoughtful, loving, persuasive influence that is suitable to each circumstance and that always protects the other person’s right to disagree, but that is also uncompromising about the truthfulness and moral goodness of the teachings of God’s Word." (55) As a preliminary note, Boedy suggests that Grudem does not attempt to persuade so much as he dictates, arguing that voting for Trump is a moral obligation for Christians.

He then examines the core of Grudem's argument, the fact that Trump is more likely to nominate conservative Supreme Court justices than Clinton. His calling these justices "unelected" is highly misleading since, as Throckmorton also said, Supreme Court justices have always been unelected; they are selected by the executive and legislative branches, as part of the separation of powers. This fact will not change under Clinton or Trump. Obviously there is something in our system of government that can stop them: the election of a president who will appoint different justices (or the election of a senate that will refuse to confirm them). Grudem also follows a double standard in his description of the Supreme Court's activity: decisions he disagrees with are the work of "activist judges", but decisions he agrees with are perfectly fine. "He blatantly strips the court of any authority all the while saying his judges would rule in the opposite way but by the same manner." (Emphasis the author's)

Grudem's warning that Clinton could criminalize dissent rings hollow as he endorses a candidate who has already cracked down on reporters at his rallies, cultivates a hostile relationship with the media, and belittles and insults those who disagree with him.

Grudem argues that disqualifying Trump on the basis of his character constitutes reductionism, "the mistake of reducing every argument to only one factor, when the situation requires that multiple factors be considered." But Boedy responds that "to many in the church, character is not “an” element – it is the umbrella concern. It is not a “single issue” – it is the issue." This is why Grudem himself highlights character so much in his definition of "significant influence". It seems he is not holding Trump to the same standard to which he holds Christians seeking to participate in politics.

Kevin Vallier, writing for Bleeding Heart Libertarians, agrees with Grudem that Trump will probably be better than Hillary on the issues of abortion (by not being certain to appoint pro-Roe justices) and religious liberty, but argues that the latter is not as pressing or important as many other issues, and the former case is built not on certainty but on hope that Trump will follow through on his promises and keep moving "in a more conservative direction."

He then examines the other issues Grudem comments on, one by one:
  • Free Speech: There is little evidence that Hillary will criminalize dissent or free speech. Like Throckmorton, he points out  that there seems to be much more risk of this with Trump, who has already threatened the free speech of those who criticize him.
  • Taxes: Trump wants to cut taxes without a real plan to reduce spending, which will just increase our deficit.
  • Education: Again, not as clear-cut as Grudem makes it sound; there is no indication Clinton is more hostile to school choice than Trump.
  • Military: Our armed forces are far from "depleted", as Grudem says; we have the strongest military in the world with bases all over the world.
  • Immigration: Obama has deported "huge numbers of illegal immigrants", and so it's misleading to talk about needing to "secure" our borders. Vallier also argues that Trump's attitude towards immigrants is deeply un-Christian; as Leviticus 19:34 commands, "The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God."
  • Terrorism: Trump is more non-interventionist, and Hillary is "a hawk"; it's hard to argue that Trump will deploy more force against ISIS or terrorists elsewhere. Also, Trump supports torture and Hillary doesn't.
  • China and Russia: They don't "push us around", as Grudem says. "We’re the ones with military bases near their countries, and we’re the ones who have repeatedly interfered with Iran’s political institutions over the last several decades."
  • Israel: Again, Hillary is, if anything, likely to be more pro-Israel than Trump, given his preference for non-interventionism. Trump has also shown no recognition of Israeli mistreatment of Palestinians; "Christians should care about the plight of the weak and the poor, and that includes Palestinians."
  • Energy: "If we want to be good stewards and to care for the global poor, we should be deeply concerned about our use of fossil fuels." Hillary is much better on this issue than Trump, who believes climate change is a Chinese hoax.
  • Healthcare: It is an exaggeration to say that the ACA is "ruining the nation’s healthcare system"; it has indeed helped people afford insurance and treatment who couldn't before. There is also no reason to believe Trump will give us more free market-based healthcare; he isn't very concerned with market freedom.
Vallier moves on to some other issues which Grudem doesn't mention, but which he considers important: anti-poverty policy, justice for women and minorities, criminal justice reform, trade, and the rule of law. He generally thinks Hillary is to be preferred on these points as well (especially rule of law, for which Trump seems to show no concern). Vallier concludes that for the Christian, both Hillary and Trump are unacceptable choices, and proceeds to make a pretty good case for voting for Johnson instead. Johnson is far from a pro-life crusader, but he supports appointing originalists to the Supreme Court and returning abortion law to the states, two of the main measures Grudem hopes Trump will take against abortion, without the glaring (and honestly terrifying) character flaws.

Matthew Lee Anderson criticizes the pro-life case for Trump. He actually wrote this post before the RNC, but it is especially relevant now. After going over the reasons why he thinks Hillary is an unacceptable choices, Anderson says he remains convinced that "there are no grounds on which it is permissible or morally licit for a conservative Christian to lend their support to Trump by voting for him." He goes on to examine one of Grudem's central points, the argument that Trump is more likely to appoint conservative, pro-life justices to the Supreme Court.

This argument, he argues, is based on blind faith that there is a chance Trump will do as conservatives are hoping. Trump has consistently opposed himself to the Republican establishment, even after being nominated by them, and combined with his well-known tendency to contradict himself, his appointing pro-life justices as president is hardly a sure thing.

The argument also treats conservative justices as important enough to "trump" every other consideration. This attitude ironically plays into the trend toward judicial supremacy that gave us Roe vs. Wade, Obergefell vs. Hodges, and other such landmark cases. (This is similar to the point Boedy made) Supporting Trump solely for this reason will also tremendously devalue the pro-life vote; "every Republican candidate going forward need only offer the thinnest of overtures to pro-lifers to win their support, and that there will be nothing conservatives can do if such candidates do not deliver. ... By supporting Trump, pro-lifers make it astoundingly clear what kind of price the party has to pay to win their votes."

Anderson goes on to argue that Trump "has not merely lived in, but reveled in the moral atmosphere and commitments that stand beneath our abortion culture." (emphasis the author's) As Reynolds mentioned, he owns a strip club. He is, at best, a serial monogamist. He has bragged about the number of his sexual partners. When asked in an interview whether he had paid for an abortion, he dodged the question. Of course, Trump has not apologized or repented of any of these things, as he has not done for anything else. And Grudem thinks this man is the best hope of the pro-life movement?

Treating Trump's myriad flaws as the worthwhile cost of getting conservative justices, as Grudem does, degrades the pro-life movement. "It indicates that pro-lifers are willing to accept personal and cultural decay of our leaders for the sake of conservative judges and legal opinions. ... The pro-life movement can justify supporting Trump only by viewing his character, his known sexual vices, his unrepentant history of supporting abortion, etc. as acceptable side-effects that, in this case, are the cost of their hope for conservative justices." It separates the legal goals of the movement from "the broader cultural conditions pro-lifers are trying to establish to end abortion." Simply striking down Roe vs. Wade in today's culture and political climate would engender a massive backlash, in many ways of the reverse of what Roe itself did when the decision was passed. "But," Anderson points out, "if the recent history of morals legislation in this country is any indication, such a strategy does not work well over the long term. Judicial myopia leads to, in this case, cutting off the pro-life movements cultural nose on the slimmest of hopes of saving its political face."

He concludes his argument by saying, "as I see it, the choice pro-lifers face is whether they are willing to sacrifice their political lives in order to save their cultural and moral soul. I wish I had more confidence that they would choose wisely."

A more excellent way

Scot McKnight wrote my favorite response. He focuses not so much on examining Trump's character or taking Grudem's arguments to task, but rather on the significance of Grudem's endorsement (phrased as a moral obligation, as Boedy points out). He strongly warns against Christians aligning themselves (as Christians per se) with "the powers", or "the gods of this age", i.e. parts of the American political establishment. He continues with the wise and extremely quotable line:
The best way to seek the good of our nation is to be the church in the nation, not confuse the church and the nation. Evangelical leaders would be more evangelical if they refused to endorse political candidates.
In the rest of the short post, McKnight laments how strongly correlated conservative Christians have become with the Republican party. "What I care about is the dilution of the gospel and the alignment of Christians with a political party." His sentiments here are worth remembering for me, for Grudem, and probably for the other commentators I have linked to.

Finally, Amy Gannett describes the effect of Grudem's endorsement, and the aforementioned alignment of Christianity with Republican politics, on millennials. She again notes that Grudem does not give an endorsement so much as a moral imperative, and that he sets up a "hierarchy of morality" in which some moral values (such as religious liberty and the rights of the unborn) are to be valued and set above others (such as the equality of races and genders). By ordering his values thus and making this hierarchy so integral to his vision of Christian ethics, Gannett argues, he is "losing" millennials who feel strongly about social and racial justice and cannot simply weigh the scales and call Trump "good" as Grudem manages to.
We cannot call a candidate “good,” as Grudem does with Trump, who has made racist remarks. We will not call a candidate “good” who has demoralized and dehumanized women on national television. We will not buy into the hierarchy of Grudem’s proposed morals over others. Because Grudem (and others) are making this hierarchy of morality intrinsically related to the Christian life and theology, we will not stand with them.
Gannett concludes by warning against equating evangelicalism and American nationalism, in the same vein as McKnight. By and large, millennials do not consider America a "Christian nation", and we aren't able to look back on the "good old days" Trump promises to restore. "We don’t have a lot of national pride because we are waking up to the immense on-going racism that exists in our nation’s systems, the horrors of early American history, and the tragedies around the world that happen because every country has nationalists. So when you equate nationalism with Christian virtue, we’re out." Gannett concludes by asking evangelical leaders to reflect on where they have drawn their lines in the sand, to speak out against the evils Trump proudly stands for and not accept them.

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