A rugby-playing local pastor, himself so left-leaning that I’m surprised he doesn’t topple over, decided to tackle the issue of Donald Trump in his newsletter this week.
But what has floored me is the backing by many people in American Evangelical Churches of Donald Trump as “The morally good choice”. This came to a head over the past couple of weeks as a recording surfaced where Trump bragged about sexually abusing women. In his half-hearted apologies, he has tried to minimise it by claiming it to be locker room talk.
I have played rugby for over 35 seasons. I have sat in locker rooms, and it is true that the talk, especially regarding women can be sexually explicit and vulgar. But I can never remember anyone ever bragging about sexually abusing women. I find Trump’s behaviour and attitude incomprehensible. And while there are massive questions regarding the integrity of Hillary Clinton, I am flabbergasted by the ongoing support of Trump from within Christianity. to me, Donald Trump and Morality are opposing forces.
This week, we look at how to respond to authority (including government) even when they are corrupt. I hope we are able to apply God’s scripture to our own political worldviews.
Perhaps there are people who regard Donald Trump as “the morally good choice”, in a year of pretty unattractive choices, but I suspect (a) their numbers are pretty small, and (b) if indeed they used such words, most probably meant it largely as something about the causes they believe Trump supports/opposes. Moral issues should matter a lot to Christian voters. Leading evangelical scholar Wayne Grudem did use the “morally good” words a few momths ago, but in the wake of the revelations of the last week has now withdrawn that statement, stating a few days ago:
There is no morally good presidential candidate in this election.
I’d agree with that, even while wondering quite what “morally good” means in such a context – all, after all, have sinned and fallen short of God’s glory. I guess it must mean some combination of actions, intentions, and that amorphous – but vital – concept character.
Of course, deeply flawed characters have held the office of President of the United States in the past. John F Kennedy comes to mind, on numerous scores including the treatment of young women. I’ve read Robert Caro’s life of Lyndon Johnson – not a man whose business or personal dealings made him remotely qualified by character to be President. In office, like most Presidents, their record was a mixed bag – but to many, for all his faults and mixed motivations, Johnson was one of the great reforming Presidents.
Sadly perhaps, in decades past the media treated key political figures with much greater deference. Vital information as to the character of these men was simply kept from the public.
Perhaps this year the choice is uniquely awful? Or perhaps I just don’t know enough US history. Either way, I rather liked Janet Albrechtsen’s line in The Australian:
two deeply flawed candidates — one nutty, unpredictable and gross; the other a morally corrupt contender for House of Cards
Character counts. I’m not always sure how – there is no easy or reliable crossover from virtuous leaders to good policies, and deeply flawed leaders have at times been instruments of great good. But it counts. There are minimal standards of decency, integrity, honesty, humility that I expect from anyone who asks my vote. The United States isn’t my country – but two of my kids will be eligible to vote in the 2024 presidential election – but, each in their own ways, neither Trump nor Clinton cross that threshold. Were I American, I could not imagine voting for either of them. There are third – or tenth – party candidates whom I might vote for, knowing all the limitations of any human leader.
There are still things I wish I knew about Trump. Whatever his actual wealth, he has had some sort of business success. For all the questions about his temperament, there must be something there – if only, perhaps, the ability to identify and retain key executives. In someone seeking to be President, that is not an irrelevant quality. And some of his instincts – around the problems which afflict the US – are probably sound, if often uttered in an untutored, at times even boorish, way.
But the issue here is character. A succession of three wives, the boastfulness around sexual conquests, the lack of any sense of humility about anything, a business that once included large scale casino holdings were all among the factors that disqualified him in my mind from an early stage of the campaign. And yet, this was scarcely a pariah figure in American society – but instead someone who exemplified much of what was popular, but worst, about modern depraved Western society. Did anyone suppose that he “respected” women? I’d have thought not. But then, was there any evidence that he respected anyone much? Relationships seemed transactional – all that matters is what is in it for me, and what I can get away with. It is deplorable, but scarcely news.
And so I’ve been a bit surprised at quite how much attention last week’s tapes got. What sort of things did anyone with half a brain suppose that someone like Trump would have been saying in a environment like that? City Journal’s Heather McDonald sums it up well. Did he actually sexually assault a woman? Perhaps, and there is form. But had he done no more than talk, it would hardly meet a standard I would look for from a national leader. Consent is not unimportant, especially in the criminal law, but something approximating virtue might be more what we should look for. Modesty, chastity, a respect for his own marriage vows, a recognition of words of Jesus
27You have heard that it was said, ‘Do not commit adultery.’ 28 But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman to lust after her has already committed adultery with her in his heart.
God offers forgiveness, and restoration, to penitent sinners. But Trump is on record as suggesting that he had never asked God for forgiveness.
But then modesty, self-control, chastity and virtue don’t seem to rate highly in today’s America (or New Zealand).
What of Clinton? To take only the last few years, responding to a Congressional subpoena by wiping tens of thousands of emails (many no doubt innocuous) must rank with some of the more brazen acts of politicians in the West in recent decades. Missing segments in Richard Nixon’s tapes anyone? Whatever the legalities of the situation, it is hardly the character of someone I’d want leading my country. Benghazi was a muddled mess, but the refusal to acknowledge any mistakes, is similarly disqualifying.
But we could go back further, and think about the large profits made trading cattle futures, the White House travel office scandal, Whitewater. And then there is her husband – recall this was the couple who in 1992 were advertised as “two for the price of one”. Whatever the details of the individual allegations by various woman against Bill Clinton, no one seriously questions his record of abusing positions of trust, and abusing women. That was Bill, not Hillary. And I’m not going to criticize anyone for not leaving a marriage. But sticking to your marriage vows is not the same as slandering the accusers. Sticking by your marriage vows is not the same as using your deeply flawed husband to campaign for you in election after election. And sticking by your marriage vows is not the same as seeking to bring that same flawed, unrepentant, individual back to the White House as First Man. Retirement to Westchester for a low key life of doing good, rather than doing well, would have commanded my respect. Her record – hand in hand with her husband – simply doesn’t. A recent piece 200 Reasons Why Hillary Clinton Should not be President is a mixed bag – some about character, some about policy, some ringing true, and some not – but it captures many reasons, different in nature from those for Trump, why Clinton is not fit to be President, and would debase the office if she were elected.
And all this is before taking account of some of Clinton’s policy positions. As a strongly pro-abortion candidate (“rare” has disappeared from the old “safe, legal and rare” formulation from the earlier Clinton administration) now championing the use of public money to finance the murder of the most vulnerable, as a (belated) champion of same-sex marriage, and as someone who poses a direct threat to the religious liberty of Christian believers (in respect of their freedom to openly teach and practice traditional Christian morality) I struggle to see how any orthodox Christian could positively endorse Clinton. And yet some d0 – a recently-resigned board member of the National Association of Evangelicals did so just recently, making her case here. She comes very close to calling Hillary Clinton a “morally good choice”. That astonishes me.
I can’t see how any Christian leader could enthusiastically endorse either candidate – and no religious leaders need to endorse either candidate if it isn’t with enthusiasm. Almost certainly, one of the two of them will be President – although if there really were enough moral revulsion there are alternatives on the ballot.
But, although I could not imagine voting for either of them, I can more easily understand how Christians could vote, albeit reluctantly, for either candidate. I don’t suppose for a moment that Donald Trump really cares about anti-abortion issues, or even religious liberty for that matter. And yet I can see why some orthodox Christians might nonetheless vote for him. There is no hope that the Clinton administration would do anything against abortion or for religious freedom – the situation is only likely to worsen. There is perhaps little hope that a Trump administration would, but some have taken hope from his possible list of Supreme Court nominees. It is harder to imagine good reasons why a Christian might choose to vote for Clinton. but perhaps, thinking prudentially, stability (even around flawed causes by flawed people) might win favour over the sheer unpredictability (perhaps especially in foreign affairs) of a Trump administration.
Perhaps individual policy planks of either side might matter enough. The economist in me finds the gist of Trump’s corporate tax policy appealing, and likely to be in the wider public interest. Perhaps there are such policies on the other side. Each voter must make his or her own choice – to opt out, staying home is an option, a third party vote is an option, but so must be a careful prayerful reflection on possibility of a lesser of two evils. Perhaps it is a bit like participation in or association with any evil regime – touched on in my previous post.The Hitler regime was objectively and foreseeably evil, and yet was the only option for a Christian to resign any position in the German public sector on the first day of the new regime? I suspect not, and yet not to do so then makes it very hard later to identify any defining issue that is finally too much. Participation can make us complicit with evil, but is total withdrawal the only Christian option? Rod Dreher argues persuasively for something along those lines – with more a focus on strengthening the church, than reforming the world (essentially a lost cause now he argues).
Ideally, the United States would not be in this position, facing a choice (mostly) between two such deeply flawed characters. But it is, and in fact they became the respective nominees through a drawn out, democratic, process, with extensive public participation. Perhaps it tells us about western democracy and society, that none of the minor party candidates is scoring in double figures, despite the apparent awfulness of the two main candidates: on current polling, Gary Johnson will be lucky to beat John Anderson’s vote share in 1980, and will fall far short of Ross Perot’s vote in 1992. The debauchery of our societies must be far gone – and sadly the political leaders we get are often more or less a reflection of what societies now accept as tolerable (or even embrace).
As Matthew Lee Anderson, at the excellent Mere Orthodoxy site recently put it (and his article on evangelicals and the Clinton/Trump choice is well worth reading)
It is a cruel feature of this election that we must choose between a degradation that is swift, obvious and painful and that which is silent but still lethal.
So yes, we need to let the Scriptures shine in and help shape our individual political judgements, but it is by no means obvious to me that doing so puts either or the two main candidates in a better light than the other. Neither, for me, remotely come close to an acceptable standard, or character, for a national leader. Then again, Christianity in the West is in steep decline – levelling out towards total irrelevance in countries like New Zealand – so while we lament the choices the US voters face, why should we be very surprised?