On July 28, 2016 conservative evangelicalism’s most prominent ethicist threw his support behind a presidential candidate who repudiates practically every aspect of Christian faith and practice. On October 9, 2016 he rescinded his piece, published a correction, and had the original essay deleted from the publication’s archives.
The manner in which this unfolded reveals volumes about the state of evangelical politics and exposes a hypocrisy deep and insidious. The case of Wayne Grudem is not an aberration. It is representative of what much of conservative evangelicalism’s political engagement has become.
Wayne Grudem, past president of the Evangelical Theological Society and current Research Professor of Theology and Biblical Studies at Phoenix Seminary, outlined his case for “why voting for Donald Trump is a morally good choice” at townhall.com. Townhall has, at Grudem’s request, pulled this essay but you can still, as of the time of publication, read it via Google cache (just in case, we grabbed a PDF for posterity). Grudem’s argument was essentially this: Donald Trump is fundamentally a “good candidate with flaws” who has a few “mistaken ideas” but does not espouse moral evil. The implied argument running under it all is that voting for Hillary Rodham Clinton would be morally evil because Clinton supports abortion which, in Grudem’s understanding, is murder.
This is how Grudem put it: “I do not think that voting for Donald Trump is a morally evil choice because there is nothing morally wrong with voting for a flawed candidate if you think he will do more good for the nation than his opponent. In fact, it is the morally right thing to do.”
For this argument to work, Grudem must prove that there is nothing morally egregious about what Donald Trump has stated he will do. The ethical contrast between Trump and Clinton must be clear and unambiguous. Grudem creates this contrast by framing the objectionable policies that Trump has asserted as “mistaken ideas.” Here is what he says:
[Trump] is egotistical, bombastic, and brash. He often lacks nuance in his statements. Sometimes he blurts out mistaken ideas (such as bombing the families of terrorists) that he later must abandon. He insults people. He can be vindictive when people attack him. He has been slow to disown and rebuke the wrongful words and actions of some angry fringe supporters. He has been married three times and claims to have been unfaithful in his marriages. These are certainly flaws, but I don’t think they are disqualifying flaws in this election.
In the third sentence Grudem explicitly redefines war atrocities as mistaken ideas. It’s subtle and many readers likely glided over it: “Sometimes he blurts out mistaken ideas (such as bombing the families of terrorists)…” Grudem says it is a mistaken idea to purposely and self-consciously annihilate babies, children, and adults for the mere fact that they happen to share a genetic relation to someone suspected to be a terrorist.
Grudem explicitly redefines war atrocities as mistaken ideas.
I should note that Grudem’s statement that Trump later abandoned this idea is misleading. Days after saying this Trump qualified his position under intense pressure and said that he would not force American military personnel to obey an illegal order. A few days after this he qualified himself again and said that if elected he would broaden laws governing torture and other things we now consider to be war crimes. This is how Trump phrased it: “We have to play the game the way they’re playing the game. You’re not going to win if we’re soft and they’re, they have no rules.” If we connect these dots Trump is saying that all rules are off. Anything the enemy does is fair game for him to order Americans to do. Abandon his “mistaken idea” he certainly did not.
In any other context we would call a person who advocated the purposeful killing of a terrorist’s family a murderer. The international community would ship them to The Hague. But by labeling this policy a mistaken idea Grudem removed the moral dimension from the discussion. Killing families is no longer either good or bad but a simple, even trivial, mistake. It’s something a candidate can advocate and still remain morally good. This is an astonishing thing for anyone to assert much less a person who, by their own description, is “a professor who has taught Christian ethics for 39 years.”
This was not an inadvertent slip of the pen. Transforming an atrocity into a gaffe, a pure evil into a foible, was absolutely essential for Grudem’s argument to hold. Without this redefinition Grudem’s entire premise would fail. He wants to identify the candidate who will do the most overall good, but this person, in his understanding, must not advocate moral evil because that would be a disqualifying flaw.
Clinton is off the table for Grudem because he considers her pledge to keep abortion legal support of murder. If he also considered killing the families of terrorists morally wrong, then Trump would be guilty of the same crime. Both Clinton and Trump would then be advocates of murder, albeit in different forms. From here one could make a simple argument that both candidates are morally bad and that Christians must vote for the alternative that does the least harm. But Grudem doesn’t do this.
Perhaps he doesn’t want to lessen the force of his argument. His point is to compel fellow evangelicals to vote for his candidate (because judges, bathrooms, taxes, etc.) and it’s more effective to state that there is only one option on the table. He must show that Trump is morally good in spite of his outrageous rhetoric. So Grudem makes killing fungible. Terminating fetuses is categorically wrong. Destroying innocent people living in Yemen and Afghanistan? Meh.
Grudem did retract his endorsement of Trump, though. After the banter between Trump and Billy Bush became public, Grudem was quick to admit his error. The reason for his change of mind? “[Trump’s] vulgar comments in 2005 about his sexual aggression and assaults against women were morally evil and revealed pride in conduct that violates God’s command, ‘You shall not commit adultery’ (Exodus 20:14).” Apparently Grudem was unaware that Trump exhibited this same pride way back in 1997 when he bragged about committing adultery in his book, The Art of the Comeback.
This is the only rationale Grudem gives. He never brings up the fact that advocating the indiscriminate bombing of the families of terrorists would violate the commandment immediately before the one forbidding adultery, “You shalt not murder” (Exodus 20:13).
Until the moment that Trump’s interaction with Billy Bush became known Grudem endorsed a candidate who had suggested that we deliberately target innocent men, women and children and mark them for death. Grudem had a reservation about this and made it explicit. But this reservation was limited. He framed Trump’s view as merely a mistake and asserted it was not an impediment to pronouncing Trump good. It was faulty reasoning but not moral evil. This reminds me of a pronouncement of judgement in Isaiah 5:20: “Woe unto them that call evil good, and good evil; that put darkness for light, and light for darkness; that put bitter for sweet, and sweet for bitter!”
I want to interpret Grudem charitably. He thought Trump would accomplish beneficial things for our country. He wanted the best for us very badly. But sometimes when we want something so much we construct arguments to justify our choices that end up undermining the ideals we hold close. It can be difficult to see through this fog. And yet, I still have this lingering feeling that if that video had never surfaced Grudem would still be calling Trump good and providing religious cover to an aspiring war criminal.