Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign had explicitly messianic overtones, and the Left — including liberal Christians — bought into many of them.
There is little danger of Trump inspiring the same from most conservative Christians.
Erick Erickson of The Resurgent wrote a thoughtful and widely circulated column reaffirming his opposition to both Hillary and Trump. Erickson’s main objection is that if the Church in America (across denominations) supports Trump’s candidacy, it will accept or apologize for Trump’s moral failings and injure its integrity.
I understand Erickson’s concern but I think it is overblown. Certainly Erickson can point to particular instances of statements that support his worry, of Christians praising Trump too effusively and without qualification. Trump himself in recent speeches to Christians has inserted humbling statements to the effect that he doesn’t really deserve Evangelical support on a moral level but is grateful for it.
But it is easy to find marginal examples of people saying wrong things. There are 330 million people in this country and nearly all of them have a public platform on social media. Every kind of flawed position can be found and highlighted.
Nor are prominent Christian leaders immune from saying off the wall things in politics. This has been happening for years before the current presidential campaign.
The vast majority of Christians and pastors err on the side of not being politically involved enough, rather than veering towards political messianism. Moreover, the vast majority of Christians that have chosen to support Trump over Hillary are doing so with their eyes wide open about the same moral flaws Trump now alludes to. Most are “reluctant Trump” people and they say so. But they say the intense threat of Hillary and the apparent good aspects of Trump’s plans on judicial and executive appointments make it worth supporting his candidacy.
Erickson overplays his hand by using theologian Wayne Grudem as an exemplar of those who, Erickson says, “beclown themselves” and internally threaten the Church. Grudem has made the case that it can be moral to vote for Trump over Hillary because Hillary will launch a full scale attack on the Church, the family, and the unborn, especially through the Supreme Court and executive departments. He contends Trump most likely will not, but instead appears ready to appoint many positively good people on those issues.
Erickson characterizes that reluctant Trump position as “Christians looking for a strong man to protect the church instead of the strongest man who conquered death.” This description is incorrect. Nearly all Trump supporters such as Grudem aren’t seeking a strong protector, they’re simply avoiding a Diocletian persecutor. Extreme examples aside, Christians supporting Trump over Hillary are not adopting alt-right “strong man” enthusiasm. They are saying that despite some concerns, Trump is set to appoint some decent people to judgeships and executive positions, and Hillary is set to engage in full scale attacks on the Church and on what is left of the constitution.
It’s fine for Erickson to disagree with Grudem’s analysis. But Grudem is not redefining Trump into a Christian savior. Grudem says a Christian can support Trump’s candidacy despite Trump’s moral failings. He does not define those flaws as acceptable to Christian moral teaching.
There is no internal danger to the Church of supporting the Trump candidacy in this candid way. It is a defensive act against an explicit and massive threat to the Church by an opponent who will have all the actual levers of power to implement her threats–threats that are not hypothetical but are already being pursued in the current administration.
The remainder of Erickson’s objection is that “reluctant Trump” supporters are taking a weaker line than they took in the past on the unacceptability of character flaws in a candidate. But this is mostly a matter of degree. Grudem supported Romney over Guiliani in 2007 on moral character grounds, but that was in the primary, where there was still a morally praiseworthy option. And Romney himself had taken a problematic pro-abortion position in his past.
Moreover, Trump has taken positions far more favorable than the admittedly pro-abortion views Guiliani adopted. Erickson believes Trump is pro-abortion as he claimed to be in the past, not as he claims to be pro-life now. But Guiliani didn’t even claim to be pro-life, much less make concrete promises (or any at all) to appoint pro-life Supreme Court justices. Nor did he bring pro-life champion Marjorie Dannenfelser onto his campaign, or let pro-life stalwart Kellyanne Conway manage the campaign and actually yield concrete promises on the most pressing pro-life issues.
Character is an important issue, but it is not completely abstracted from policy questions. Grudem’s objection to Guiliani on character grounds cited both his personal past and his pro-abortion views.
The fact that character is important does not mean it is an absolute measuring stick. A vote for a candidate is not an endorsement of his internal moral character, or else the sinfulness of all mankind (and the particular flaws of people attracted to high office) would ban Christians from voting for anyone.
Supporting a presidential candidate is a multifaceted prudential decision. Character and outcomes are both important, as are the comparisons between two candidates in a binary race. Christian political morality has never decreed that if two presidential candidates are equally and highly morally flawed, and one but only one of them will win, Christians cannot vote for either–even if one would impose massive damage on the Church and the country while the other will likely move some important issues in a positive direction.
Christians can, morally, either support Trump over Hillary or not support either. Nearly all Christians who support Trump over Hillary do so without adopting strong-man messianism. Being clear that one is not endorsing specific moral flaws, and having one’s eyes wide open about the calculation, is not an internal threat to the Church. It’s not even a problem unique to this election cycle.
Matt Bowman is a pro-life, religious liberties and constitutional law attorney in the Washington, DC area. He graduated from Ave Maria School of Law in 2003 and clerked for several federal judges thereafter. The Bowmans are involved in homeschooling and classical Catholic education and are rabid fans of the Pittsburgh Penguins. Matt is a member of the Knights of Columbus and his local parish.