Evangelical Christian Ambivalence–President Trump and the Complex Ethical Calculus

Posted: 2018/08/31 in Bible, Christianity, Ethics, Jesus Christ, Politics, Theology

Evangelical Christian support for President Donald Trump, while a political phenomenon, is also a fascinating study in Christian ethics, or, more specifically, the complexity of mixed ethical systems.  In an interview aired on NPR’s Morning Edition on August 29, the Reverend Robert Jeffress, pastor of First Baptist Dallas, a Southern Baptist megachurch, did a fine job of articulating the complex ethical calculus Evangelicals apply to President Trump.  And before getting into that calculus, we need a brief refresher on Christian ethics.

There are two major ethical systems that we use to guide our decision making.  One is Utilitarian Ethics, in which the primary question to be answered is, In a given situation requiring a decision, which will lead to an outcome expected to yield the greatest good for the most people.  On the up-side utilitarian ethics is practical.  On the down-side it easily leads to the ends justifying the means.  The other ethical system is Virtue Ethics, which asks, In a given situation requiring a decision, which is most consistent with the virtues and values that express one’s understanding of who one wants to be.  Its up-side is a consistent correspondence with one’s understanding of the ethical example of Jesus Christ and the New Testament writers.  Its down-side is a possible lack of practicality and a danger of placing principle over the needs and common good of people.

In the Morning Edition interview, Jeffress articulated his ambivalence with both ethical systems early on, when he said, “I think evangelicals understand there’s a difference between supporting a president’s policies and supporting individual behavior” — a jump from utilitarian to virtue ethics.  Pressed on which policies Trump has supported that he supports, Jeffress side-stepped a little and said of Trump, “He has been the most pro-life, pro-religious liberty, pro-conservative judiciary president of any president in history . . . that’s why these evangelicals enthusiastically support him.”  When pressed on Trump’s moral failings, vis-a-vis “sleeping with a porn star . . . paying hush money . . . mistruths the president has stated time and again,” all of which Christians generally find reprehensible, Jeffress said, “The Gospel message is all of us have sinned.  We’ve all fallen short of God’s glory.  We are all sinners.  We all need a savior.”  True, but where Jeffress exposes his ambivalence is in failing to offer the same grace in judgment to Bill and Hillary Clinton.  As the interviewer pointed out, evangelicals were critical of Bill Clinton because of his personal faults arguing that “you cannot compartmentalize someone’s morality.”  Moreover, he flatly stated that “I don’t know in what moral universe anybody could argue that Hillary Clinton is more moral than Donald Trump,” and mentions, without identifying “a litany of Hillary Clinton’s offenses.”  If I understand Jeffress correctly, then one who commits adultery, consistently deceives, and often denigrates persons is as moral as someone who does not commit adultery, has deceived, but in frequently, and does not generally denigrate others.  I have to admit that I do not know in what moral universe such an equivocation makes any sense.  Jeffress needed to simply admit that he is willing to overlook some serious and unrepentant sin in order to support someone who puts forth a policy agenda he believes is needed.  He also needs to own up to his political bias that prevents him overlooking the sin of those with whom he disagrees and does not trust (specifically the Clintons).

Another interesting bit came during a shift in the conversation when the interviewer asked Jeffress about the ways he felt that evangelical Christians are “treated as a persecuted minority in this country.”  He responded that Christians have become marginalized, rolling out the trope, in so many words, that America was once but no longer a Christian nation.  Although I want to save a discussion about this idea for another essay, I do want to answer Jeffress basic complaint that Christians are restricted in serious ways from practicing our religion.  I for one have never experienced this restriction, but then I have never insisted that everyone around me, regardless of their religious tradition (or none at all), practice the religion that I do by virtue of imposing Christian practice and symbolism on people in schools and the public square.  For me, evangelism is not a matter of public policy but relationship as the Gospel is passed from one to the next in places where we have earned the respect to be heard (especially by our moral behavior).

I think I now better understand evangelical equivocation and ambivalence.  It is hard for me to accept, coming as I do from a holiness tradition (Wesleyan Methodism) whose ethics are summed up in this question by its founder, John Wesley, “Are you going on to perfection?”

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