Because I care about much more important things like college football (even though the Longhorns remain frustrating), I did not bother to see what kind of new stupid thing Trump said that made social media freak out. I finally got around to it yesterday, and it made me laugh out loud. Not because I think what Trump said in the video was funny itself or acceptable but because of the absurdity of what he said and of the situation.
While I may be able to laugh at the absurd, many Republicans and conservatives found no amusement in the video and started to actively withdraw support. Politicians such as John McCain formally withdrew support while Paul Ryan, who was always cautious of Trump, affirmed his position that he would not support or campaign for the Republican nominee. Theologian Wayne Grudem, whose article I criticized for presenting weak arguments for supporting Trump, also withdrew his support and admitted his error. Outrage and disgust are the typical responses for Trump’s comments, and in many ways, rightly so.
However, while I am glad many of these people see Trump more clearly now, this response is also a bit frustrating for a few reasons:
One, his “locker room talk” is not inconsistent with his known character, so it is surprising that it was, well, surprising to some people.
Two, I’m actually getting tired of recorded private conversations surfacing to make people look bad, often years later, because almost everyone would look bad if someone recorded some “locker room talk” or private joking conversation and released it to the public (and no matter how many athletes object, it’s no secret that some guys say similarly dumb things in locker rooms). Don’t get me wrong, I’ve consistently said that Trump is a buffoon, but is this really the thing that was necessary to make people see that the dude’s got some problems?
Three, let’s not pretend that many politicians do not have a history of womanizing (hello, Bill), and let’s not pretend that many parts of our culture, from movies to music, don’t encourage objectifying women in ways that are either ignored or even encouraged.
In any case, the responses aside, this situation does raise this question again for Christians: How much should ethics matter in voting, and can Christians really vote for a man with a history and character like Trump? As some conservatives have pointed out while defending him, Trump isn’t running for pope or to be a Sunday School teacher, so who cares if he says and does womanizing things? And to be sure, being the president is not the same as being a deacon, and given my low view of politicians in general, I’d be surprised if we ever got a candidate that wasn’t corrupt, egotistical, or boneheaded in some form or fashion. Still, does this mean that we don’t care about a potential president’s personal morality at all and just try to support a candidate who we think will give us the policies that we want?
Evangelical supporters of Trump have been put in a bind (or at least, more of a bind than they already were). Many blasted Hillary Clinton for being a liar, Bill Clinton for being unfaithful, and even Mitt Romney for being Mormon, though Mormon ethics at least has general similarities with Christian ethics. If they continue to back Trump without nuance, they undercut many of their own moral criticisms. They already needed to explain why they seemed to be overlooking his greed, womanizing, lying, and bluster before this mess, and now it just got worse. It seems that the personal ethics card is a hard one to play if one is also going to vote for Trump.
I’m not saying that Christians who vote for Trump are automatically hypocrites or bad Christians; however, if they are going to vote for Trump, their explanations need to be much better than what we’ve gotten so far from many evangelical leaders. Trump’s antics cannot be simply brushed under the rug because not only do they speak to his fitness as president, they also can potentially shame the Church and therefore Christ, which Christians should obviously not do. The argument needs to look something like this:
- Trump is a dang idiot, and they don’t particularly like him or feel the need to defend his stupidity (not simply stating this is where Wayne Grudem erred). They would have much preferred a different Republican candidate, but this is the one they got stuck with.
- Trump can be reasonably expected to do some things that conservatives want, if for no other reason that he can’t afford to alienate an important voting base.
- Some of those things are extremely important, such as not expanding abortion, protecting religious liberty, and appointing constitutionally conservative justices.
- Hillary can be expected to pursue the exact opposite of the above, which will cause long-term problems.
- Trump’s flaws are real and concerning, but he can be balanced out by wise advisers, and in any case they are outweighed by the prospect of Hillary winning and enacting problematic policies.
- Voting third party is not a viable option because, realistically, no third party candidate has a shot.
I do not agree with all of the above; I’ve long said that I think the long-term damage to both conservatism and evangelicalism may be too much of a price to pay by backing someone like Donald Trump, whom I don’t even consider to be a true conservative. I also do not buy the argument that someone is somehow being irresponsible, immoral, or clueless if he votes third party. Nonetheless, I can at least see the beginnings of a reasonable argument that does not try to minimize the problems Trump presents. Arguing in this manner will still cause difficulties for Christians who think morality is important and don’t want to look purely utilitarian, but at the least, it will make clearer that Christians don’t stand for Trump himself but only those things that they think they can convince Trump to do or protect.
If they had done this in the beginning, maybe so many evangelicals wouldn’t have been so embarrassed when Trump’s video was made public. This is not an election that Christians can really make about character if they’re going to stick with the Republican nominee. If you want to make this election purely about policy, that’s fine, but not only should criticism of Hillary also be restricted to policy, you should also be forthright that Trump’s character and actions do not represent conservatism and most certainly do not represent what evangelicals stand for.