Last week, theology professor Wayne Grudem created quite a stir with an essay declaring his belief that “voting for Trump is a morally good choice.” In this rebuttal, I argue in opposition to his position.
It is important to note at the beginning that Grudem has opined on moral issues surrounding presidential behavior in the past. In 1998 along with over 150 Christian scholars, Grudem signed the “Declaration concerning religion, ethics, and the crisis in the Clinton presidency.” In that document, the signers stopped short of support for impeachment but expressed doubt about Clinton’s expressions of remorse. As a rebuke to Clinton, the signers took a strong position in favor of moral behavior on the part of elected officials. In 1998, Grudem agreed with the following statement:
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. (emphasis mine)
Acknowledging that Trump is flawed, Grudem has now carved out a more pragmatic ethic to justify his endorsement:
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.
In 1998, Grudem was not as pragmatic with Bill Clinton. Now he says about Trump:
But the main reason I call him “a good candidate with flaws” is that I think most of the policies he supports are those that will do the most good for the nation.
So now according to Grudem, Christians should vote in a way that seeks the welfare of the nation concluding:
Therefore the one overriding question to ask is this: Which vote is most likely to bring the best results for the nation?
In my view, Grudem was closer to correct in 1998. The moral qualities of “truthfulness, integrity, respect for the law, respect for the dignity of others, adherence to constitutional process, and a willingness to avoid the abuse of power” are critical to the survival of our system of government. It is not hard to make a case that Donald Trump has disqualified himself on each one of those principles. In fact, Grudem seems to agree when he writes:
He 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.
I don’t think Grudem goes far enough. Trump has not been truthful (e.g., he said he knew Putin, then he said he didn’t), there is evidence he has not treated his subcontractors with integrity, he surely has not treated others with dignity (e.g., constant name-calling and ridicule of people’s flaws) and he has shown a willingness to overreach his power (e.g., suppressing the press, saying he would order the military to commit war crimes). We haven’t even scratched the surface of his nod to white supremacists (e.g., granting press credentials to white supremacists). However, in my response here, I won’t fully chronicle the ways Trump has disqualified himself according to the moral qualities which Grudem affirmed in 1998. I think when confronted with the overwhelming evidence, he would stipulate that.
Grudem in 2016 is using a different standard to come to an ethical decision. Thus, I want to address what Grudem says is his overriding question: “Which vote is most likely to bring the best results for the nation?”
On that question, I can see no justification for a vote for Trump given what Trump has said he wants to do as president.
Grudem’s essay purports to provide specifics about Trump’s positions on various topics. In general, I think he has presented the most optimistic slant on those policy statements. He also provides no citations or evidence. While I haven’t provided an exhaustive analysis either, my purpose is to demonstrate that credible evidence exists that Trump is not the best choice for the nation and that compromising moral qualities is not required given the risk involved in a Trump administration.
Costs of Immigration Promises
In his essay, Grudem talks about the tax and economic policies of Trump and Clinton. However, it appears he has not studied them or consulted with experts about the effects of those policies. Let’s start with Trump’s promise to deport over 11 million undocumented immigrants. In addition to the human rights catastrophes (raids, family separation and instability, etc.) which would occur, the economic impact would be a disaster.
According to a Wall Street Journal analysis, that promise would hit the economy hard, costing at least $400 billion. In addition, the loss of workers would cause a $1 trillion drain on the gross domestic product. This does not include the cost of building a wall along the Mexican border which has been estimated at another $25 billion. Not surprisingly, Trump disagrees with these estimates, but has provided no numbers of his own.
Can we afford this? Is this best for the nation?
As with other policy matters, Grudem’s discussion of Trump’s tax plan seems to be little more than his opinion. Trump has promised a tax cut but he has also promised to leave social security alone. In general, he promises to cut taxes while increasing government services (e.g., veteran’s benefits). His method of paying for his increases in government spending (e.g., increases services, deportation force, building a wall, etc.) is to cut waste, fraud and abuse. Certainly, Grudem knows that every presidential candidate promises to do that. Furthermore, there isn’t enough waste to cut to get the budget balanced with Trump’s tax cuts while increasing government spending. According to the Tax Policy Center, Trump’s tax plan will reduce federal revenues by $9.5 trillion over a decade and increase the national debt by 80% of the gross domestic product.
Is this best for the nation?
Trade, Jobs and the Poor
Grudem believes in a straight line between lower taxes and more jobs. However, one must also consider the impact of Trump’s threatened trade wars. According to a National Foundation for American Policy study of Trump’s proposed tariffs, American families would have to pay between $11,000 and $30,000 more for imported goods over five years depending on how widely the tariffs would be applied.
Higher costs hurt the poor. Of course, since he’s rich, Trump doesn’t care about costs. According to Market Watch, Trump brushed off concerns about higher costs:
“Who the hell cares if there’s a trade war?” Trump scoffed at a New Jersey event this month. I suppose when you’re super wealthy like he is, it doesn’t matter if the price of a TV or pair of sneakers or even a car goes up 35% to 45%. But when you’re just about anyone else, it matters. A lot.
The conservative National Chamber of Commerce agrees that Trump’s policies would lead to recession. They cite a non-partisan Moody’s analysis which shows Trump’s proposals leading to dire economic consequences. According to Moody’s analysis, unemployment would rise to 7 percent with 3.5 million jobs lost. They predict a lengthy recession.
Is this best for the nation?
Trump promises to replace Obamacare with something else. The Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget projects that Trump’s healthcare proposals would cost between $330-500 billion, and lead to 21 million more uninsured. These estimates are based on his current proposals which contradict other promises and preferences he has expressed about healthcare. Trump has expressed support for a single payer plan where the government control Grudem fears would be front and center.
Is this best for the nation?
According to the CRFB, Trump’s campaign proposals in total are much more costly that Clinton’s. Over a decade, Trump’s plans would add $11.5 trillion to the national debt, whereas Clinton’s would add only $250 billion.
Is adding $11.5 trillion to the national debt best for the nation?
Grudem seems to like Trump’s tough talk. He writes:
Trump will not let China and Russia and Iran push us around anymore, as Obama has done, with Hillary Clinton’s support when she was secretary of state. If Trump is anything, he is tough as nails, and he won’t be bullied.
Does Grudem not read the news? Trump melts when Vladimir Putin expresses the faintest positive sentiment. Trump said Putin called him a “genius,” however that’s not true. He said on at least two occasions that he had a good relationship with Putin only to say later that he didn’t know Putin and had never met him.
Worse is Trump’s vacillation on NATO and what he would do if Russia invaded a NATO ally. He said we might not intervene. Trump said he would look at recognizing Russia’s occupation of Crimea. There are possible conflicts of interest when it comes to Russia which have not been fully explored by the press.
For these and numerous other reasons, over 120 Republican foreign policy experts and advisors signed a letter opposing Trump’s candidacy. Former national security adviser to Presidents Ford and Bush Brent Scowcroft and former George W. Bush deputy secretary of state Richard Armitage have come out in favor of Clinton. For me on foreign policy, these experts carry more influence than theology professor Grudem.
I don’t believe Trump is best for the nation when it comes our relations with other nations.
Supreme Court Justices and Religious Liberty
Grudem paints the worst imaginable scenario in his discussion of Supreme Court justices and uses some less than honest rhetoric to do it. He says under Clinton “the nation would no longer be ruled by the people and their elected representatives, but by unelected, unaccountable, activist judges who would dictate from the bench about whatever they were pleased to decree. And there would be nothing in our system of government that anyone could do to stop them.”
There is a lot wrong with these statements. Currently, federal judges are unelected. Nothing would change there. That is our constitutional system. If judicial power is abused, there are checks and balances which are available. That would be true under Trump or Clinton.
If Clinton’s judicial appointments are viewed as too liberal, the Senate can stall the process, as they are doing now. The current situation with Obama’s Supreme Court nominee Merrick Garland demonstrates how Congress can exert influence. Surely, Grudem recalls the negative vote on Reagan appointee Robert Bork. Congress has held up numerous federal appointments over the years and they will not lose any abilities under Clinton.
Although Supreme Court appointments is a popular fall back position for evangelical Trump supporters, not all conservative legal scholars agree. For instance, the libertarian publication Reason polled 10 conservative scholars and found very little support for Trump. Readers should consider what all of them said but here is a modest sample:
Director of Constitutional Studies at the Cato Institute
Assuming Trump were to follow through on his list of possible Supreme Court nominees, that would be a reason to support him, but there are countervailing reasons to oppose him that are, I believe, far more important. The Court will correct itself in time, I hope, but it is the character of the Republican Party and, more broadly and crucially, of our very nation that is at stake in this election. Hillary Clinton is a deeply flawed candidate, to be sure, but the election of Donald Trump would so defile the party of Lincoln and America itself that it must be resisted. He is an aberration that we must get past, and quickly.
The other conservative legal scholars took similar positions, some more vehemently, some more timidly. However, a clear consensus was that the clear potential for damage to the Republican party and the nation outweighs the potential benefit of Supreme Court appointments.
On religious liberty, not all of Grudem’s scenarios are accurate and so it is difficult to respond to this concern. For instance, Grudem claims
some churches in Iowa have now been told that they have to make their bathrooms open to people on the basis of their “gender identity” if the churches are going to be open to the public at all.
This is simply not true. No church in Iowa has been told this as a condition of being “open to the public.” It is true that the Iowa Commission on Civil Rights issued poorly worded guidance eight years ago which caused confusion but no church has ever been forced to comply with Iowa non-discrimination law in ministry activities.
There is always a need to be vigilant when it comes to constitutional rights. Whether Trump or Clinton is elected, there will be places in the country where religious and other rights conflict. These issues must be handled on a case by case basis in light of the First and Fourteenth Amendments. However, concern about religious liberty is not the only issue of importance. Consequently, it doesn’t seem best for the nation to focus exclusively on getting more originalists on the Supreme Court.
Who is Best for the Nation?
For some Christian voters, deciding who gets their vote might come down to a decision that the potential for higher national debt, job killing trade wars, a chaotic and potentially dangerous foreign policy, draconian deportation practices, more racial division, and more people without health insurance are worth the possibility of additional conservative appointments to the Supreme Court. However, others will not. If we are selecting a candidate based on what is best for the nation, Trump is not as clear cut a choice as Grudem makes it seem. In fact, his essay is an insult to the intelligence of those who believe both candidates have disqualified themselves.
If a vote for Trump is a moral choice, then I can’t see how a vote for Clinton is not one also. It probably comes down to which vision of the future each individual believes to be accurate. As I look at the evidence, I think Grudem sugar coated Trump and cast Clinton in the worst possible light. In any case, given how inadequate his analysis of Trump’s positions and character is, I think it is an abuse of his position as an evangelical leader to imply that there is a choice that good Christians should choose. If his standard no longer elevates moral qualities, then he needs to do a better job researching Trump’s proposals and what they portend.
For me, I will either vote for a person to be named later (e.g., betterforamerica.com), write someone in, or not vote for president. For me, this is the moral choice.