When faith is treated as an instrumentality, it’s bad for politics and worse for the Christian witness.
by Peter Wehner
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.
Grudem begins his defense of Trump by arguing not only that Trump didn’t violate the Constitution when he withheld hundreds of millions of dollars in security assistance to Ukraine, but also that his actions were completely appropriate.
According to Grudem, it was reasonable for American government officials to press Ukraine to investigate former Vice President Joe Biden, who was the Obama administration’s point man in removing the Ukrainian prosecutor general Viktor Shokin, and Biden’s son Hunter, who served on the board of a Ukrainian gas company. “The president is empowered to investigate allegations of illegal activity,” Grudem writes. “I know of nothing in our Constitution or laws that says there is anything wrong with seeking help from a foreign government in investigating possible corruption.” Grudem puts it this way:
I see nothing wrong with the president doing things that will bring him personal, political benefit. In fact, I expect that every president in the history of the United States has done things that bring him personal political benefit every day of his term. It is preposterous to claim that it is unconstitutional for the president to act in a way that is politically beneficial. In addition to that, when someone announces that he is running for political office, that does not mean he can no longer be investigated for prior wrongdoing. The opposite should be true.
Grudem goes on to say, “It is not immoral to investigate possible corruption—it’s what governments should do,” and adds, “In the New Testament, Peter writes that government officials are sent ‘to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good’ (1 Peter 2:14).”
Grudem ends this portion of his defense of Trump by writing:
But is it wrong to investigate possible wrongdoing by someone’s political opponent? Apparently the Democrats do not think so, because the Democrat-controlled House of Representatives has been investigating President Trump for the entire past year. I do not see how it could be “profoundly immoral” to request information about possible corruption on the part of Joe Biden. I do not even see how it could be “minimally immoral,” and certainly not “profoundly immoral.”
It is rather stunning to me that a person who has written a major textbook on Christian ethics can’t distinguish between a lawful investigation by American law-enforcement authorities or Congress and a president pressuring a foreign government, over which he has tremendous power, to announce an investigation into his political opponent—especially when the president’s team makes clear to that foreign government what the outcome of the request is supposed to be.
There is, of course, no evidence that Joe Biden did anything inappropriate in his dealings with Ukraine. He pressured Ukraine to get rid of Shokin, who was widely viewed as corrupt and ineffective by Western nations, international institutions, and Ukrainian anti-corruption activists. As for the charge that Biden fired Shokin because Shokin was investigating Burisma, the company on whose board Hunter Biden served, the investigation was dormant. It was certainly unwise for Hunter Biden to serve on Burisma’s board, but it was not illegal, and withholding vital, congressionally approved security aid to Ukraine unless it announced an investigation would be wrong under any circumstance. (Trump is also probably not in the best position to criticize children who profit financially from their relationship with their politically powerful father.)
Here’s what we know: President Trump intentionally circumvented the proper channels, choosing instead to set up a shadow foreign policy centered on his personal lawyer, and orchestrated the illegal effort to withhold both vital military aid that had been appropriated by Congress and a coveted White House meeting unless Ukraine acted in a way that would hurt the former vice president and help Trump’s reelection.
To put it another way: The president put enormous pressure on a foreign power to intervene in an American election by harming his political adversary—and Grudem is completely untroubled by that. Can you imagine the outrage of Grudem and other Trump supporters if, in 2012, Barack Obama had coerced, say, China into announcing an investigation into and digging up dirt on Mitt Romney, and then justified it by saying that a president has the power to ask any nation to undertake any investigation?
And where is this supposed to stop? Are we giving presidents and lawmakers the green light to pressure any and all countries—Pakistan, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, North Korea, Venezuela, Mexico, Russia—into acting as opposition researchers for American political campaigns? Are Grudem and other Trump supporters ready for this free-for-all? And if a foreign power is pressured into investigating a candidate a liberal president supports, on what grounds is Grudem going to object? Or is the Grudem principle that foreign interventions in American politics are fine and to be encouraged—but only when they advance the cause of politicians he supports?
Nor does Grudem make any reference to a series of other salient facts: The president’s national security adviser characterized the effort to pressure Ukraine into announcing an investigation into the president’s political rival as a “drug deal”; several people working in the Trump administration were so concerned by the phone call Trump made to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky that they reported their concerns to the National Security Council’s legal adviser; several members of the Trump administration—including a large donor to Trump—confirmed that the effort to pressure Ukraine was improper and done only to advance the narrow political and personal interests of the president; the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine at the time, Marie Yovanovitch, an outspoken critic of corruption in Ukraine, was the victim of a smear campaign orchestrated by the president’s personal attorney Rudy Giuliani, because she was not viewed as reliable when it came to advancing Trump and Guiliani’s scheme; Ukrainian officials expressed concern that they were being used as a “pawn in a U.S. reelection campaign”; the administration engaged in a cover-up by, among other things, moving the transcript of Trump’s call with Zelensky to a highly classified server despite the fact that it did not contain any highly classified information; and the president has blocked witnesses and denied Congress evidence that would further corroborate his scheme.
You might think that at least some of these facts would be relevant to Grudem and that some of what Trump did would unsettle him, but you would be wrong. (Since Grudem wrote his defense, we have learned that Trump’s former national security adviser John Bolton says the president told him he wanted to continue freezing the nearly $400 million in security assistance to Ukraine, shattering a key element of Trump’s defense against impeachment.)
Grudem writes that he expects “that every president in the history of the United States has done things that bring him personal political benefit every day of his term. It is preposterous to claim that it is unconstitutional for the president to act in a way that is politically beneficial.” But no one is arguing that a president acting in a way that is politically beneficial is per se wrong; what they are arguing is that if the president acts in an unethical way to benefit himself politically, it is a problem. Surely a Christian-ethics professor should understand that distinction.
This doesn’t mean, by the way, that convicting Trump in the impeachment trial is the wisest course of action. Reasonable people I know argue that, on prudential grounds, it’s better to let voters decide the matter in the election, that removing Trump from office at this point would cause more harm than good. But to pretend that Trump did nothing wrong and everything right is simply not credible.
In his op-ed, Grudem writes, “Another reason to remove Trump from office, according to Galli, is that he hired and fired people who later became ‘convicted criminals.’”
That’s not quite right. What Galli wrote is that “the reason many are not shocked about [the president acting inappropriately in the Ukraine episode] is that this president has dumbed down the idea of morality in his administration. He has hired and fired a number of people who are now convicted criminals. He himself has admitted to immoral actions in business and his relationship with women, about which he remains proud. His Twitter feed alone—with its habitual string of mischaracterizations, lies, and slanders—is a near perfect example of a human being who is morally lost and confused.”
In other words, Galli is not arguing that Trump having surrounded himself with corrupt people is a violation of the Constitution that requires him to be removed from office. He is saying that Trump has a pattern of unethical behavior, which is true, and that when Trump is on the ballot later this year, that is one thing voters should take into account.
But where things really get weird is when Grudem declares, “This is the unjust principle of ‘guilt by association.’ I’m glad that God did not hold Jesus to that same standard (remember Judas, who served as treasurer for the 12 disciples and Jesus; see John 12:6; 13:29).”
This is not “guilt by association”; it’s saying that if a president chooses to surround himself with shady characters, several of whom turn out to be criminals, that may reflect on his own morality and judgment. Those who have been convicted of or pleaded guilty to crimes include, but are not limited to, Trump’s former campaign chair Paul Manafort and Manafort’s deputy, Rick Gates; his former personal lawyer Michael Cohen; his longtime friend and adviser Roger Stone; and his first national security adviser, Michael Flynn. And invoking Jesus in the way Grudem does, as a way to give ethical cover to Trump, is unfortunate, though revealing.
Then there’s this, by Grudem:
Galli also wants to remove Trump from office because he has admitted to “immoral actions in business and his relationship with women.” At this point Galli must be referring to actions done before Trump was elected president, because he has not admitted to any immoral actions while in office. In addition, I am not aware of Trump admitting to any immoral actions in business, so Galli’s accusations seem overly broad.
Again, the argument made in the editorial is not that Trump’s morally problematic actions in business and in his relationships with women are grounds for impeachment; it is that Trump’s moral transgressions are borderless and, therefore, his actions toward Ukraine are not surprising. And Grudem is simply wrong when he says Trump has not admitted to any immoral actions in business. Last year, a state judge ordered Trump to pay $2 million in damages after Trump admitted to misusing funds raised by the Donald J. Trump Foundation to (among other things) pay off business debts and purchase a portrait of himself for one of his hotels. This hardly exhausts, by the way, Trump’s history of shady financial dealings.
As for Trump’s conduct with women, Grudem writes this:
Regarding “immoral actions … with women,” Galli is correct. He is apparently referring to the Access Hollywood tape released October 7, 2016 (the tape contained a recording of lewd comments made by Trump in 2005 about kissing and groping women). Trump released a videotaped statement the following day saying, “I’ve never said I’m a perfect person, nor pretended to be someone that I’m not. I’ve said and done things I regret, and the words released today on this more than a decade-old video are one of them. Anyone who knows me knows these words don’t reflect who I am. I said it, I was wrong, and I apologize … I pledge to be a better man tomorrow and will never, ever let you down.” So on what basis does Galli say that Trump “remains proud” of these things?
Actually, the Christianity Today editorial could have been referring to many things other than the Access Hollywood tape. For example, it could have been referring to Trump, during the end of the 2016 campaign, authorizing hush-money payments to a porn star. Or his misogyny. Or his predatory sexual behavior. Or the sexualization of his daughters. Or his use of tabloids to humiliate his first wife, Ivana, when he was having an affair with Marla Maples. But again, Grudem shows no interest in any of this. He provides cover for Trump by saying there’s no evidence of a sexual scandal since Trump took office, even as Grudem ignores or dramatically downplays the morally problematic actions of the president in nonsexual areas.
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.
In his article defending the President, Grudem declares that he knows of “no evangelical leader who ‘brushed off’ Trump’s words and behavior.” (He cites his criticism of Trump following the release of the Access Hollywood tape.) But since Trump has been president, the criticisms of his unethical behavior have been either ignored or dramatically minimized by much of the political leadership of the white evangelical world. They would have you believe that Trump is at worst imperfect—just as we all are, they will quickly add—perhaps a little unrefined, coarse, and rough around the edges, but then again, that’s because he’s “authentic,” “politically incorrect,” and a “fighter” who is rightly defending himself against grave injustices and unfair attacks.
Here’s how white evangelical leaders typically talk of Trump. Last year, Ralph Reed, speaking to his Faith and Freedom Coalition supporters, said, “There has never been anyone who has defended us and fought for us, who we have loved more than Donald J. Trump. No one!”
Robert Jeffress, the pastor of a Baptist megachurch in Dallas, described Trump as a “warrior” for Christian values who is “not perfect, just like none of us is perfect.” Indeed, only a week ago Jeffress declared, in another fawning interview with Fox’s Lou Dobbs, “I like [Trump’s] tweets. I like everything about him”—a comment Trump gleeful quoted in a tweet of his own. (During the 2016 campaign, Jeffress said, “I’ve said I want the meanest, toughest SOB I can find to protect this nation. And so that’s why Trump’s tone doesn’t bother me.”)
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.”
You can read how Grudem characterizes Trump’s tweets—Trump’s “impoliteness” is a “comparatively trivial matter”—and you can read them for yourself. If a President Elizabeth Warren used social media the same way Trump does, Grudem would describe it as far worse than a “comparatively trivial matter.”
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?
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?
Earlier this month, during a rally in Milwaukee, Trump said “Mexico’s paying for the wall … You know that. It’s all worked out.” That is flatly untrue. Trump has repeatedly insisted that voter fraud cost him the popular vote to Hillary Clinton; there is no truth to that claim. It was a falsehood when he claimed that Russia didn’t intervene in the 2016 election, that he won the biggest landslide since 1980, and that President Obama bugged Trump Tower. The president claimed that the policy of separating migrant children from their family was forced on him by Democrats; that is false. So is his claim that people in California were rioting over sanctuary cities. So, too, is the president’s narrative, propagated by the Kremlin, that Ukraine has a Democratic National Committee server that was hacked during the 2016 election. And don’t forget Trump’s pernicious falsehoods meant to convince people that Obama was not a natural-born American citizen, something I wrote about in 2011. The list of Trump’s mendacity goes on and on.
Even if you bend over backwards to give Trump the benefit of the doubt, you can’t watch videos or read lists of his lies and come away anything but troubled by how much violence Trump does to truth and reality. To dismiss Trump’s lies as simply manufactured by “fake news” is to perpetrate, even unknowingly, an untruth.
In saying all this, I don’t mean to suggest that no argument can be made on behalf of Trump supporters. Grudem touches on it at the end of his piece, when he lists policies that he, as a conservative, supports and believes are better for the nation than liberal policies. That’s a defensible position. (I’m one who thinks that Trump’s judicial appointments have, in general, been excellent.) But even here, Grudem weakens his case, since his references to Trump’s achievements are simplistic and one-sided, strung together like Trumpian talking points. And nowhere does he mention any less-than-perfect achievement by the president. For example, one might expect that more Christians would be troubled by the bromance between Trump and Kim Jong Un, the main persecutor of Christians in the world; by the Trump administration’s policy of separating migrant children from their parents; and by the administration’s effort to weaken America’s global fight against AIDS.
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, at least in the political sphere, has been shaped by right-wing talk radio and Fox News, where affect often triumphs over reason.)
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.
But it isn’t enough to simply remove the tension; they need to justify their decision.
It isn’t enough for many of Trump’s evangelical supporters to say that, by their lights, he is advancing policies that promote the common good even as he is acting in unethical ways that deeply trouble them. In that difficult trade-off, they could admit, they have decided that the former should take priority over the latter. Instead, they have created a cartoonish image of the president, pretending that his character flaws are trivial and inconsequential, while his policy achievements put him near the top rank of American presidents.
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.
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.
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.
For all my objections to the op-ed by Grudem—who, it’s important to say, is not guilty in his piece of dehumanizing his political opponents—the mind-set it reveals is for me a cautionary tale. I know enough about human nature and about myself to know that confirmation bias is not confined only to those who see the world differently than I do. It’s something that we all struggle with, that I struggle with. I’m struck by how easy it is to see 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. Because, to paraphrase the British philosopher and poet Owen Barfield, we should be more interested in truth than victory.
Peter Wehner is a contributing writer at The Atlantic, a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, and Egan visiting professor at Duke University. He writes widely on political, cultural, religious, and national-security issues, and he is the author of The Death of Politics: How to Heal Our Frayed Republic After Trump.