I want to respond to a conservative Christian theologian who has an enormous influence in evangelical politics, someone who is in some respects friendly to limited government – Wayne Grudem. Most of you have never heard of him, but he has the ears of probably hundreds of thousands of evangelicals.
Grudem has argued that Christians should vote for Trump for several reasons. First, he thinks we are morally required to vote for the lesser of two evils when the lesser evil isn’t too bad, he then argues Trump isn’t too bad, and he then argues that from a Christian perspective, on a number of issues, Trump is better than Hillary. For a harsh reply, see this, which I somewhat agree with. I want to try to be a bit more careful and compelling.
Here’s the summary of my reply: if you are a single-issue abortion voter, and you think you’re obligated to vote, and think you’re obligated to choose between Hillary and Trump, you should probably vote for Trump, but with enormous regret and concern. Otherwise not.
Trump’s Character and Trump on the Supreme Court
I’d like to take Grudem’s points one by one and then discuss some issues that I think he has ignored. Grudem takes for granted that Trump seems to have poor character but he doesn’t think these flaws disqualify him. He denies that Trump is a racist or a misogynist on the grounds that the press is simply “exaggerating some careless statements he made.” He also claims that “I think he is deeply patriotic and sincerely wants the best for the country.” I don’t see any reason to think that Trump’s attitude towards women is anything but beneath contempt given his long history of treating women as objects, so I don’t understand that point. And I have no idea whether Trump wants what is best for the country. Christians believe that humans are rife with sin, and that power corrupts. The people who seek the greatest power in the world – the US presidency – are almost certainly going to be bad people, whether we can perceive it or not. We should therefore tend to view the character of presidential candidates with skepticism. And Trump’s behavior isn’t incompatible with that skepticism.
Grudem then attempts to argue on the basis of the Old Testament that Christians have a duty to enter politics in order to seek the welfare of the people. And then he thinks Christians should ask themselves the following question: “Can I in good conscience act in a way that helps a liberal like Hillary Clinton win the presidency?” My own view is that our individual votes make such a tiny contribution to outcomes that we have no reason to think that our individual vote has any effect in favoring Trump over Hillary. That’s why I think people should, in general, vote their informed conscience. But Grudem thinks that we should vote for Trump based on Christian conscience, so let me address those arguments.
Grudem’s main argument is that Trump is going to make better Supreme Court appointments than Hillary. For evangelicals, that means justices that will overturn Roe v. Wade. I don’t really know if Trump will appoint the people he says he will appoint, but if he does, then yes, they are more likely to overturn Roe than Hillary’s justices, since Hillary is virtually guaranteed to nominate pro-Roe justices. She has been more consistent on being pro-choice than basically any other issue throughout her career. So on this point, I think Grudem is right that Trump will probably be better than Hillary, just because Hillary is about as pro-choice as possible.
He also claims that Trump will be better on religious liberty issues since Hillary’s court appointments and legislation will undermine the preservation of religious exemptions that many Christians think are incredibly important. From an evangelical perspective, I think he is right. However, while I have defended religious liberty on this blog, I don’t think the loss of liberty we’ve seen so far and can expect to see will progress very far to make these issues more important than other considerations like foreign policy, abortion, healthcare, immigration, criminal justice reform, and so on. So while I agree with Grudem that Trump will probably be better than Hillary on religious liberty, I don’t think this issue should decide your vote this election, as I think other issues are of greater importance, as we’ll see below. Abortion is an entirely different story. It makes a lot of sense to be a single issue abortion voter.
I think it’s really important, though, to recognize that Trump is remarkably unpredictable for a presidential candidate. Grudem admits that Trump could easily change his mind, but his response is basically to assure us that Trump is likely to do what he says, and suggests, somehow, that Trump keeps moving “in a more conservative direction,” which I don’t really understand. Trump has shown no interest in principled conservatism at all. He has openly ridiculed the priorities of basically all conservatives.
Other Policy Differences
From here, my(partial) agreement with Grudem ends. Let’s go through the other issues one by one.
I do not think Hillary is going to criminalize dissent or undermine free speech. I don’t see any evidence of that. Hillary is a center-leftist on these issues and has shown no sympathy to progressive attitudes on these matters. Further, Trump has actually, literally threatened the free speech of papers that criticize him.
While Trump wants to cut taxes, and that can help economic growth, he doesn’t want to reduce spending, and so we’ll just rack up even greater deficits.
Yes, Trump has paid lip service to school choice and Hillary is likely to oppose it, but that’s mostly sorted itself out at the state level and I see no reason to think Hillary is going to be any more hostile to it than Obama has been.
Grudem claims that Trump will rebuild our “depleted” military forces, but our military forces aren’t depleted, not even a little bit. We have the largest military in the world several times over and we have troops and bases all over the world. If anything, we should cut military spending and give that money back to people in the form of tax cuts and effective social services.
Grudem then argues that Trump will “finally secure our borders” and that “Clinton will not do this but will continue to allow in what she thinks will be thousands of future Democratic voters.” I think this is unmoored from the reality that Obama has deported huge numbers of illegal immigrants, such that our borders are already “secure.” Trump’s policy of building a wall and deporting vulnerable immigrants who want to make a better life for themselves is, in my view, in deep tension with the spirit of Christianity, not to mention the Old Testament requirements of hospitality and welcoming the stranger. Consider Leviticus 19:34: “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.”
If there are passages in the Old Testament that apply to policy issues today (and I don’t think there are many, surely none that are direct), then this one is relevant to immigration. Christians should be friendly to large-scale immigration out of a sense of mercy and social justice. Immigration is incredibly valuable for immigrants, and benefits everyone in the end. Economists repeatedly find very little downside to immigration. Here I think Grudem is completely wrong about how Christians should think about immigration and Trump. Trump has a decidedly anti-Christian position on immigration.
Terrorism and ISIS
Grudem also thinks that Trump will be better on terrorism and ISIS because Trump will actually launch a ground war. Clinton “will continue the anemic Obama policy of periodic bombing runs and drone attacks.” That’s selling Hillary short. She’s a hawk, and I think she is more likely to put troops on the ground in Syria and Iraq than Trump, who has emphasized his non-interventionism repeatedly. If anything, Grudem has this backwards.
Also, let’s not forget that Trump supports torture and Hillary doesn’t. Christians must oppose torture; I think that’s obvious.
China and Russia
Grudem says “Trump will not let China and Russia and Iran push us around anymore, as Obama has done.” This seems to me confused. Russia does not push us around. China does not push us around. Iran certainly does not push us around. I don’t understand why Grudem thinks this is true. 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. Are all three countries dangerously authoritarian? Absolutely. But are they threatening us? That is doubtful.
Trump is apparently more pro-Israel than Clinton, who Grudem thinks will be like Obama. This is also strange. Clinton is extremely “pro-Israel” and has, again, never given us reason to think otherwise. Sure, Trump will be more bellicose, but if he’s as non-interventionist as he says, we can expect Hillary to side with Israel more than Trump does.
And, while Grudem speaks for many extremely pro-Israel evangelicals, Trump has shown no recognition whatsoever than anything that the Israeli government does is unfair or unjust to Palestinians. And that strikes me as a major failing in anyone’s approach to the Middle East. Christians should care about the plight of the weak and the poor, and that includes Palestinians.
Grudem likes Trump on these issues because Trump will be more pro-oil. He completely ignores all environmental issues raised by our use of fossil fuels. God has charged us to be good stewards of the earth, and that probably means not supporting unrestricted carbon emissions that are causing climate change that will damage the entire world, and the weakest and poorest equatorial countries the most. 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. The science isn’t “settled,” but it is strong enough that any Christian should take the case for a carbon mitigation very, very seriously to protect human welfare. I say more about this below, but here, Hillary is likely to be better than Trump.
Grudem says that Trump will try to repeal Obamacare which “is ruining the nation’s healthcare system, and replace it with an affordable free market system …” This is also confused. Obamacare has its problems, but it’s not been an unmitigated disaster so far, in large part because it appeals to imperfect but nonetheless real market mechanisms through the exchanges. We just don’t know enough to say that it is “ruining the nation’s healthcare system.”
Moreover, we have absolutely no reason to think that Trump will try to give us a free market in healthcare. Trump just never talks about market freedom. He doesn’t believe in it. That’s one of his consistent commitments, actually. Trump has also supported universal healthcare in the primary. His views aren’t that different from Hillary. We also have no clue what Trump will replace Obamacare with.
Also, while I’m very friendly to the market, Grudem expresses no concern that repealing Obamacare will deprive a lot of people of health insurance and undermine the ban of higher costs for pre-existing conditions. There are harmful ways to repeal Obamacare and Trump has shown no understanding of these subtleties at all. If Christians are concerned about the poor and the weak, we cannot ignore this.
Grudem then claims that Trump is likely to protect the weak and forgotten Americans very effectively, and to keep them from being belittled by progressives. I don’t really know where to begin here, since Grudem’s only discussion of minorities is in giving them school choice. Christians should be worried about whether Trump’s “law and order” views will lead to marginalization and violence against poor Hispanics and blacks. More on this below. So even assuming Trump will “protect” the “unprotected,” it is hard to see how Hispanics and blacks are fully included in that group.
I also don’t really know what Trump is going to do to help poor whites, at least not with respect to policy.
Unaddressed Christian Issues
Now I’d like to talk about a variety of issues that Grudem omits.
Grudem says nothing about reforming anti-poverty policy in the US, save a few words about school vouchers (which are great, by the way). Many Christians believe that the state has a duty to provide effective social services to the poor, and these programs will probably be more effective under Hillary than Trump. But if Jesus is a guide to politics at all (and He says so little), He gives us powerful reason to care about the poor and weak among us. A lot of people rely on social services, and taking them away without simultaneous reforms to give the poor the ability to help themselves and to give civic society the tools to replace the welfare state is to throw the poor to the curb. Christians can’t support the destruction of social services that so many poor people rely on without a steadfast, rock-solid commitment to alternative policies that we have good reason to think will also help. For what it’s worth, Trump loves the welfare state, so that’s not really a mark in favor of Hillary and against Trump. But I expect Hillary will be a better overseer of the social welfare programs we have and are very likely to have for the foreseeable future.
Justice for Women and Minorities
Grudem says precious little about how to compare Trump and Hillary when it comes to combating racism, sexism, and cruelty to gays and lesbians. Trump stokes the flames of white resentment and totally ignores the horrors that blacks in this country often suffer at the hands of police. I think he might actually care more about women’s issues than it appears, given Ivanka’s speech and her influence on him, but it can’t be much. We’ve heard nothing about this from Trump himself. Hillary will probably be better on these issues.
Criminal Justice Reform
Christians across the political spectrum have been getting more and more concerned about our problem with over-incarceration. We are commanded repeatedly to visit the prisoner and to care for him (Matthew 25:36). That gives us reason to worry that our prison-industrial complex is totally out of control. Hillary will at least pay lip service to criminal justice reform; Trump doesn’t care. Hillary is likely to be sensitive to criticism from the left, particularly given her past terrible record on crime bills. I think we’re more likely to get criminal justice reform from her than from Trump. Trump has also defended police actions no matter what they do, and that’s a failure to take the welfare of African Americans seriously with respect to criminal justice.
If, like me, you take Jesus’ hostility to violence very seriously, then you have to take the just war tradition seriously, and perhaps even have questions about whether the just war tradition justifies war too easily. That means we should be extremely wary of foreign intervention and always ask whether our interventions do more harm than good. Grudem likes Trump because he falsely thinks that Trump is likely to be more interventionist than Hillary, but insofar as he is predictable on this issue (and he isn’t), he looks like he’ll be more restrained than Hillary, who has never met a war she didn’t like. So that might actually be a Christian reason to slightly favor Trump, oddly enough.
Grudem also shows insufficient sensitivity to worries about the environment. As I’ve discussed above, I think Christians have a strong duty to care about being good environmental stewards. I think that has lots of implications, like that Christians should oppose factory farming. But I want to stress that Grudem is too indifferent to the very serious threat of climate change. Even if climate change is likely to be mild and have some benefits, there is a non-trivially low risk of very, very bad things happening. That, to me, is enough to justify some kind of carbon control policy. As a libertarian, I’m pretty confident that after a few years, a carbon tax will dissipate as companies innovate their way around it. So while it will be a burden, it won’t be very long, and it could save the planet in the meanwhile. Hillary will do more to combat climate change than Trump.
Despite disagreeing about many things, economists do agree that free trade improves the welfare of just about everyone over the long-run. Since Christians should care about the global poor, and since free trade helps the global poor, I think Christians should be free traders. Trump hates free trade and will be worse on this issue than Hillary. Hillary will probably support the TPP, and that’s going to be good for human welfare.
The Rule of Law
Trump has displayed no understanding of the constitution and does not respect the rule of law at all. He has repeatedly proposed to engage in flagrantly unconstitutional violations of the powers of the presidency by threatening companies who send jobs overseas and even threatening the press, like the Washington Post. Hillary is a statist, but even she will probably be better on these issues than Trump. Sometimes Trump seems like a tyrant in waiting. Grudem shows no sensitivity to these issues. But since Christians recognize the depravity of man and the tendency of power to corrupt, we should celebrate and protect the rule of law. Trump cares for it not one bit.
Conclusion: Hillary, Trump, or Someone Else?
If Christians must choose between Hillary and Trump. I say good luck. From my perspective, they’re both outrageously unacceptable. Grudem is right that Hillary’s justices will not protect the unborn and they will probably be at least somewhat less friendly to religious liberty.And abortion is a hugely important issue for Christians, and evangelicals in particular. That’s a good reason not to vote for Hillary. She’s also likely to get us in an unjust war, which is another reason not to vote for her.
But Trump is also terrible. He doesn’t care about the environment, we have no idea how he will approach healthcare or anti-poverty policy. He will be incredibly cruel to poor, defenseless immigrants and will not attempt to reform policing to protect racial minorities. On all those issues, Hillary is likely to be better.
But I think Christians have a better third choice – Gary Johnson, the Libertarian candidate. Let me begin with Johnson’s flaws. While Johnson is pro-life personally, he is pro-choice legally before viability. That’s not good. However, his Supreme Court nominees are likely to be originalists/textualists, and they will be more likely to overturn Roe than not. Johnson has said in the past that he supports returning abortion law to the states, which is the most pro-lifers can reasonably hope for. He also supports appointing originalists, though Weld seems to prefer moderates, which I admit is worrisome. However, Steven Kopp has argued for this conclusion about Johnson: “Ironically, though he is not strictly pro-life, he might be the most pro-life candidate on the ballot.”
Johnson has also been wishy-washy on religious liberty, but I don’t think he’ll be especially hostile to it in office.
But even if he’s bad on religious liberty, and not great on abortion, he’s better than Trump on every other issue and more trustworthy in terms of who he will nominate. He’s better on war, trade, criminal justice reform, police reform, healthcare, and foreign policy. He’s better than Hillary on almost every issue as well. My only other reservation is that Johnson is not great on climate change. On that one issue, I think Hillary will be better.
So while I don’t think Christians should be really excited about Johnson, I think he’s obviously superior from a Christian perspective, on the whole, than Trump or Hillary. And I don’t think you’re throwing your vote away by voting for him, since our individual votes don’t really matter, so, again we might as well vote our conscience. And even if our votes did matter, Trump and Hillary are both really, really bad choices for Christians. Maybe some Christians will have to sit this election out. But this Christian will be voting for Johnson with only mild reservations.
In sum, I don’t think Trump is a good choice for Christians because he is bad on basically every issue, save maybe foreign policy and religious liberty, and he is probably better than Hillary on abortion from an evangelical perspective.