In recent weeks, as the reality of Donald Trump’s nomination has continued to settle, op-eds have begun to circulate on social media claiming to make a “moral” case for his candidacy. These are addressed to an evangelical readership, and built to appeal to traditional evangelical beliefs. But they do not make for compelling reading. Rather, these columns exemplify the resilience of an evangelical-Republican alliance that has for decades subordinated faith to politics, with detrimental effects on both.
Consider, for instance, the essay by seminary professor Wayne Grudem that appeared last week at Townhall, and which has been shared on Facebook over 80,000 times. In it, Grudem notes that he initially opposed and “even spoke against” Trump on moral grounds, but has since found reason to offer his support. He explains:
[Trump’s] many years of business conduct show that he is not racist or anti-(legal) immigrant or anti-Semitic or misogynistic – I think these are unjust magnifications by a hostile press exaggerating some careless statements he has made. I think he is deeply patriotic and sincerely wants the best for the country. He has been an unusually successful problem solver in business. He has raised remarkable children. Many who have known him personally speak highly of his kindness, thoughtfulness, and generosity.
For Grudem, Trump’s success in business is a testament to his character. It “shows” that he isn’t actually racist, anti-immigrant, anti-Semitic or misogynistic—though exactly how it shows this is anyone’s guess. Grudem “thinks” Trump is a sincere patriot, but never says why. He touts Trump’s “problem solving” in business, but without noting the sleaziness that has often accompanied the “solutions.” He is impressed by Trump’s “remarkable” children, but does not see fit to credit the three separate mothers who had a hand in their raising. And fear not, Grudem declares, Trump’s (unnamed) personal friends attest to his “kindness, thoughtfulness, and generosity”—all public evidence to the contrary.
Grudem’s piece is pretty long, but the brief quotation above includes exactly everything that he is prepared to say in defense of Donald Trump the man. Having said it, he immediately dissolves his moral case for Trump into a servile endorsement of the Republican Party.
“Now that Trump has won the GOP nomination,” Grudem writes, “I think voting for Trump is a morally good choice.”
Indeed, from here Grudem rests the entirety of his case on the GOP platform rather than on the candidate, a move that serves only to obscure Trump’s well-documented lifetime of flamboyant immorality. It bypasses the entire critique that Trump’s evangelical critics have leveled against him, diverting them instead to a predictable list of conservative bugbears and the need for Republican leadership to see them addressed. This is not argument so much as evasion and rationalization.
If Wayne Grudem says very little in favor of Donald Trump’s morality, it’s only because—let’s be honest—there is very little to say.
Indeed, by Grudem’s standard, it’s difficult to imagine who wouldn’t qualify as a moral candidate, as long as he had been nominated by the GOP.
This is a real problem for white evangelicals in the U.S. After four decades of positioning themselves as a moral force in politics, they are in the awkward position of supporting—by wide margins—a profoundly immoral candidate.
If Trump had been nominated by the Democrats, those evangelicals supporting him today would be howling at his glaring unfitness for office—and they would be absolutely correct to do so.
But Trump is the Republican nominee, and white evangelicals have long dutifully supported the Republican Party. They have done so largely because of their concerns about the Supreme Court, and the GOP’s stated intention to nominate conservative justices. In Grudem’s essay and others, the “moral” case for Trump rests very tenuously upon this one matter, and on the candidate’s very lately acquired and opportunistic views.
But Presidents have a lot of important responsibilities other than nominating justices, all of which have serious moral dimensions. They concern our relationships to allies, to enemies, and to a diverse population of citizens at home; they are matters of peace and war, prosperity and poverty, life and death; they demand competence, patience, temperament, and skill; and they require, at minimum, experience.
In this strange election cycle, the choice is about considerations much more basic than ideology, than the standard antagonism between parties. Old loyalties have been challenged by new circumstances, and these demand careful and conscientious scrutiny.
Those who choose to cast single-issue votes for Donald Trump, ignoring the vast majority of the Presidential job description, are within their rights to do so.
But they shouldn’t kid themselves about the morality of that choice.