It’s no secret that Donald Trump’s personal character and lifestyle are radically at odds with the moral values of the evangelical movement that backs him. When pressed to explain their support, evangelical leaders—most recently, folks like Wayne Grudem and James Dobson—have said, in effect, that policy trumps character. Sure, Trump isn’t all we might hope for in a leader; but, while character is important, policy matters more—especially in the short term. And the most commonly cited policy consideration has been the “protection of life.”
I’ve had more conversations than I can count with people who’ve argued that, when one considers the sheer number of “fetal lives” that would be saved by the overturning of Roe v. Wade, whatever travails Trump has imposed upon our nation pale by comparison. Whatever threats to democracy, diminishment in quality of life for the marginalized and oppressed, outright deaths of children and adults due to the mishandling of a global pandemic—all of these costs are worth it in light of the “lives that will be saved.”
There are plenty of reasons to question this rationale for voting for Trump. Some point out that abortion rates tend to rise under Republican administrations, and that it’s far from clear that a majority-Republican Supreme Court would be likely to overturn or significantly scale back the reproductive rights secured under Roe v. Wade. But what I find most baffling about the “protect life at any cost” rationale for voting for Trump is the simple fact that nobody actually believes it.
In his 1996 book Living High and Letting Die, philosopher Peter Unger offered the following “widely available thoughts about many easily preventable childhood deaths”:
- For every $3 you contribute to UNICEF, there is one child who, instead of dying painfully very soon, will go on to live a reasonably long life.
- Every year about 1 million Third World children die of measles. However, 20 cents worth of vitamin A every year will boost a child’s immune system sufficiently to give the child a good chance of surviving measles, pneumonia, and diarrhea.
- Pneumonia now claims about 3.5 million lives a year, despite the fact that all that is usually needed to save a child from pneumonia is the administration of antibiotics that cost about 25 cents.
Now, almost 25 years later, the numbers will be different; but the same basic truths obtain. And the simple fact is that if any of us actually believed the “protect life at any cost” reasoning, a lot more lives would have been saved over the past five years than in fact were. This is especially true of the many relatively wealthy Republicans who have said in private or in public that, although they “can’t stand Trump,” and recognize some of the costs his presidency has imposed upon the nation, those costs are worth it for the sake of the total lives that will be saved.
If they, or any of the rest of us, truly embraced “protect life at any cost” reasoning, we would all be much poorer thanks to having given much more of our money away to prevent easily preventable childhood deaths. Our lives would not be nearly so luxurious.
In fact, many who support Trump—in my own circles, many of the very same people who support Trump on the basis of “protect life at any cost” reasoning—have explicitly rejected that reasoning in relation to the pandemic, refusing to wear masks or to abide by any of the relatively simple measures recommended by experts. Lockdown has imposed tremendous costs; and we’ve heard repeatedly over the past several months that, although “saving lives” is important, there are some costs too heavy to bear for it. Again, we’ve heard this from some of the very same people who think that a vote for Trump is mandated by concern for life, regardless of the cost. (And this is to say nothing of the even more hypocritical fact that the treatments touted by the president were developed using fetal tissue.)
Nobody truly accepts the “protect life at any cost” rationale. Pretty much everyone—regardless of their position on abortion—can agree that “protecting life” is in some sense a tremendously important good. More importantly, as the lifestyles of the vast majority of committed “pro-life” evangelicals make clear, even those who claim to be absolutely sold on “pro-life” values at least tacitly agree that “protecting life” is a good to be pursued in balance with a variety of other tremendously important goods.
But once this is acknowledged, there’s a much more serious conversation to be had—particularly with Trump’s evangelical base—about how voting for Trump fits with other values. Concern for the poor and marginalized looms large in the Christian scriptures; so does love for neighbor, and many of our neighbors are suffering in one way or another thanks to Trump and his various policies.
Concern for oneself and one’s rights, by contrast, is supposed to take a back seat according to those same scriptures; so one has to wonder about folks like Dobson who urge voting for Trump as a way of protecting their own rights and privileges. Understandable though it might be, it would be difficult to argue that that’s a Christian rationale. And once the “protect life at any cost” rationale has been exposed as the lie that it is, one has to wonder whether there could be any distinctively Christian rationale left for casting a vote for Trump.