January 30, 2020
Contributing writer at The Atlantic and senior fellow at EPPC
photo above: Eva Marie Uzcategui / Reuters
WN: There are multiple reasons for critiquing “Christian” behaviour in America. Especially egregious is white Evangelical embrace of Trump.
In this case, rightly, noted Evangelical ethicist Wayne Grudem is taken to task for his seeming blanket embrace of Trump. In such affirmation, he situates himself with the “Deplorables” of Hilary Clinton designation. I have two close relatives who do the same; though at a less sophisticated level than Grudem.
The article’s author indicates
. . . how easy it is to see [confirmation bias] in others, and how difficult it is to see in ourselves. To be sure, confirmation bias is more acute in some than it is in others. Still, we all need help in that effort: to widen the aperture of our understanding, to have our views held up to scrutiny and reason, and to have people with standing in our lives identify our blind spots.
Then I wonder about possibly the most glaring blind spot for most committed American Christians: the unbridled violence worldwide of brutal American Empire. (Then in self-remonstrance: What am I not seeing?!)
An editorial last month in the evangelical world’s flagship publication, Christianity Today, argued that Donald Trump should be removed from office.
The editorial, the last one written by the editor in chief Mark Galli before his planned retirement, heartened those evangelicals who have been unsettled by their co-religionists’ enthusiastic support for Trump. But the editorial upset many others, since white evangelicals constitute arguably the strongest base of support for the president.
Among those who fired back was Wayne Grudem, a distinguished research professor of theology and biblical studies at Phoenix Seminary, in Scottsdale, Arizona. Grudem is hardly a household name, but he is a significant theologian within evangelicalism. A dedicated Calvinist, he has been at the center of many recent theological debates. Grudem, who served as the general editor of the English Standard Version Study Bible, has taught ethics courses in higher education for more than 40 years. He’s the author of several major books.In a lengthy rebuttal to the Christianity Today editorial, Grudem offers an impassioned defense of Trump, something he also did in 2016, in a column titled “Why Voting for Donald Trump Is a Morally Good Choice.” Because Grudem carries considerable weight in certain evangelical quarters—to many, he’s an authoritative figure when it comes to biblical ethics—and because his position is representative of the views of many white evangelicals, it’s worth explaining why his case is ultimately unpersuasive.
It turns out that Grudem, a professor of Christian ethics, is actually a relativist. Principles are malleable, depending on who’s in power.
It’s probably worth pointing out here that in 1998, Grudem, the author of Christian Ethics, believed that integrity and character in our political leaders was an urgent matter. For example, Grudem signed onto a “declaration concerning religion, ethics, and the crisis in the Clinton presidency.” Among other things, it stated, “We believe that serious misunderstandings of repentance and forgiveness are being exploited for political advantage.” It went to say, “We are aware that certain moral qualities are central to the survival of our political system, among which are truthfulness, integrity, respect for the law, respect for the dignity of others, adherence to the constitutional process, and a willingness to avoid the abuse of power. We reject the premise that violations of these ethical standards should be excused so long as a leader remains loyal to a particular political agenda and the nation is blessed by a strong economy.” It turns out that Grudem, a professor of Christian ethics, is actually a relativist. Principles are malleable, depending on who’s in power.
Jerry Falwell Jr., the president of Liberty University, one of the largest Christian universities in the world, put it this way: “Conservatives & Christians need to stop electing ‘nice guys.’ They might make great Christian leaders but the United States needs street fighters like @realDonaldTrump at every level of government b/c the liberal fascists Dems are playing for keeps & many Repub leaders are a bunch of wimps!” When asked in an interview if there was anything Trump could do that would endanger that support from him or other evangelical leaders, Falwell replied, “No … I can’t imagine him doing anything that’s not good for the country.”
And Grudem himself says of Trump, “Far from being ‘morally lost and confused,’ Trump seems to me to have a strong sense of justice and fair play, and he is (I think rightfully) upset that the impeachment process in the House was anything but just and fair.”
And then there is this statement by Grudem:
Do I think that Trump has ever intentionally told a lie? I don’t know. Perhaps. I admit that he often exaggerates and boasts that something is the “biggest” or “best,” a habit that probably comes from his years in promoting his Manhattan real estate deals. In some cases, I think he has made incorrect claims not because he was intentionally lying but because he was given misleading information (as in his claim that the crowd at his inauguration was the biggest ever), and I think that the White House should correct any such inaccurate statements. But do I believe that he intentionally and habitually tells lies?
Absolutely not.This claim is untethered from reality. The idea that Trump’s lies, including on the size of his inaugural crowd, are simply the result of being given misleading information isn’t credible. One example: When Trump denied knowledge of hush-money payments to Stormy Daniels, a claim he had to reverse within a month when it was revealed that several personal checks had been made out to his then-lawyer Michael Cohen to reimburse Cohen for the payments, are we supposed to pretend that Trump wasn’t dissembling?1
“No … I can’t imagine [Trump] doing anything that’s not good for the country.”–Jerry Falwell
What most stands out to me about Grudem’s case on behalf of Trump is that he is a near-perfect embodiment of an individual fully in the grip of confirmation bias and motivated reasoning. And in that sense, he is a near-perfect embodiment of some of the president’s most committed evangelical supporters.
In Grudem and those who think like him, you see astonishing intellectual, theological, and ethical contortions, all in the service of making Trump appear far better than he is. I have a hunch as to why: His supporters don’t want to struggle with the cognitive dissonance created by supporting a man who, if he were a liberal Democrat, they would savage on moral and ethical grounds.
What’s most interesting to me in all this is the psychology at play. From what I can tell, in many cases Trump’s most devoted evangelical supporters are blind to what they’re doing, so in a sense they’re not acting cynically or in bad faith, even as they are distorting reality.I have observed firsthand that if you point out facts that run counter to their narrative, some significant number of the president’s supporters will eventually respond with indignation, feeling they have been wounded, disrespected, or unheard. The stronger the empirical case against what they believe, the more emotional energy they bring to their response. Underlying this is a deep sense of fear and the belief that they are facing an existential threat and, therefore, can’t concede any ground, lest they strengthen those they consider to be their enemies. This broader phenomenon I’m describing is not true of all Trump supporters, of course, and it is hardly confined to Trump supporters. But I would say that in our time, it is most pronounced among them.
In Grudem and those who think like him, you see astonishing intellectual, theological, and ethical contortions, all in the service of making Trump appear far better than he is.
I wish it were otherwise. When I started my Christian journey, at the end of high school, I never assumed that Christians would escape human foibles and human frailties. But I thought that faith would have more power, including more transformative power, than I have often witnessed, and that followers of Jesus would (imperfectly) allow a faith ethic to shape their understanding of things. That more than most, they would speak truth to power. Too often, they have denied truth in order to gain and keep power.
Faith is an instrumentality, something to be weaponized. That’s bad for politics; it’s worse for the Christian witness.
That isn’t to say I haven’t witnessed many lives that have been transformed by faith, including lives that have deeply touched and shaped my own. But neither can I deny what I have seen, which is that, especially in politics, the Christian faith is far too often subordinated to ideology, to tribalism, to dehumanizing those in the other tribe. Faith is an instrumentality, something to be weaponized. That’s bad for politics; it’s worse for the Christian witness.
Please click on: No Christian Case for TrumpFootnotes
- This is mild remonstrance, But see: Final tally of lies: Analysts say Trump told 30,000 mistruths – that’s 21 a day – during presidency. One wonders what planet Grudem inhabits, then realizes: it is White American Evangelicalandia (WAE)–far removed from any sense of “reality;” not unlike the social media landscape where all reality is relativized, manipulated and sold to the highest bidder. See for instance Netflix’s: The Social Dilemma. The writer of this highlighted article writes: What most stands out about Grudem’s defense of Trump isn’t how misinformed and uninformed it is—though that is notable, particularly for a person who, as an academic and theologian, ought to prize precision in argument and facts. (One gets the sense that Grudem’s epistemological universe [i. e. WAE], at least in the political sphere, has been shaped by right-wing talk radio and Fox News, where affect often triumphs over reason.) [↩]