Wayne Grudem, the theologian and ethicist whose writings have provided the intellectual grounding for a generation of highly conservative evangelicals, came out last week with a startling endorsement of Donald Trump. Startling, because while Trump has garned the backed of some senior evangelical leaders – certainly more than Hillary Clinton – they have not been falling over themselves with enthusiasm for him. One the contrary, one of their most respected figures, Russell Moore, has been resolute in maintaining his utter scorn for Trump's candidacy.
What's galvanised comment about Grudem's position, however, is his statement that voting for Trump is "a morally good choice" for evangelicals. And he says this in spite of also listing his flaws: he is egotistical, bombastic, and brash, often lacks nuance in his statements, is insulting, vindictive and unfaithful and wants to bomb the families of terrorists. "These are certainly flaws, but I don't think they are disqualifying flaws in this election," says Grudem.
And for the avoidance of doubt, it isn't just because he's not Clinton: "In fact, it is the morally right thing to do."
The US evangelical perception of Hillary Clinton as untrustworthy to the point of being demonic is rather strange, given her relatively high rating by the Politifact checker (most of what Trump says is false, on the other hand). On the other hand, for pro-lifers, her position on abortion is more genuinely problematic. She is unwaveringly pro-choice, and has argued against restrictions on late-term abortions. Furthermore, she's opposed to the longstanding Hyde Amendment, that prevents Medicaid healthcare covering abortions. A widely-shared social media post claiming she and Bernie Sanders wanted to extend abortion rights to 36 weeks has been shown to be false, but she is still a long way to the left of most evangelicals on a key issue.
But it's Grudem's reasoning about Trump that's interesting – and particularly the way he turns a political contest into a moral one. In doing this he is arguably contributing, to a significant degree, to a process of evangelical degradation that has got many observers seriously worried.
The problem is not that Grudem is a Republican. Almost half of Americans are, just as almost half are Democrats. The problem is the way he takes complex and nuanced situations and turns them into simplistic, good-or-evil positions in which one is clearly Godly and the other clearly isn't. Grudem uses religious language to back up positions that don't derive from religion at at all. And in doing so he prostitutes theology in the service of a party.
His methodology is to describe Clinton's position as "liberal" and Trump's as "conservative". "This year we have an unusual opportunity to defeat Hillary Clinton and the pro-abortion, pro-gender-confusion, anti-religious liberty, tax-and-spend, big government liberalism that she champions," he says. "I believe that defeating that kind of liberalism would be a morally right action."
Grudem then spends around 5,000 words comparing "the results we could expect from a Clinton presidency with what we could expect from a Trump presidency". Much of it is based on his predictions about what would happen if either liberal or conservative justices were appointed to the Supreme Court. It's fair to say his forecasts for a Clinton-appointed court are fairly apocalyptic, whereas pretty much everything in the garden is rosy for a Trump-appointed one.
However, it's also fair to say he makes some very large assumptions, both about their respective picks and the lines the court would take in consequence. It's not unreasonable to point out that Grudem, while he may know quite a bit about theology, is no expert on the law. And when he writes: "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," he is not writing fact but opinion – and opinion based on very shallow foundations.
Liberal judicial takeover
He's raising the spectre of a judicial takeover by "liberals" who are fundamentally anti-Christian and opposed to what right-thinking people believe. Abortion, religious liberty, freedom of speech, same-sex marriage and transgender rights – Grudem's vision of a Clinton presidency is of a totalitarian state where dissent is crushed and Christians face persecution for daring to hold traditional Christian beliefs. There's no acknowledgment that in a modern democracy – in which people believe all sorts of different things and Christians don't get to make the rules – rights compete and everyone has to give a little. There's no understanding that in order to make society work, to give everyone a stake and voice, there needs to be negotiation and compromise. There's just a terrible simplification: either you are with God, or you are with Hillary Clinton. He's too canny to say it straight out, but that's the implication of everything in his piece.
However, it's after he finishes with his Supreme Court predictions that his argument really tears loose from its moorings in morality. From the big picture he descends to specifics.
Trumps wins over Clinton because he'd lower taxes more than her. He's promised to solve the problems of poverty among minority groups, whereas she'd "strangle businesses with high taxes". Trump would expand the military, while Clinton would cut it – no evidence cited. Trump would "finally secure our borders" (presumably the wall with Mexico) while Clinton will "continue to allow in what she thinks will be thousands of future Democratic voters".
Trump will destroy ISIS, Clinton will not – no mention of Trump's repeated failure to say how he would do so. Trump is pro Israel, Clinton is not. Trump is pro oil, Clinton is green. Trump will end the "compulsory moral degradation forced on us by a liberal agenda" including letting transgender people use their bathroom of choice; Clinton will "perpetuate and expand" these policies.
And on healthcare, Trump will repeal Obamacare, which is "ruining the nation's health care system", while Clinton will "continue to work relentlessly toward federal government control of our entire health care industry". (According to Forbes, by last year Obamacare had resulted in the number of uninsured Americans falling below 10 per cent for the first time ever; it has helped an estimated 16 million previously uninsured citizens get cover.) Finally, Trump will protect the "unprotected" – lower-income people who face insecurity and poverty.
Voting for evil?
There are three interesting things about all this. First is the way Grudem buys uncritically into the Republican political programme in words that could have come straight from a paid GOP speechwriter. He lends his considerable moral authority as a senior evangelical leader to validate a particular suite of policies. But there's no argument, just assertion.
Second is the way Grudem assumes both that Trump means what he says and that he has the ability to deliver on his promises. It's fair enough to believe he means what he says, at least at the time, but the practically universal judgment among those who have worked at the top levels of government – including most of the Republican establishment – is that he is simply not qualified to devise or carry out any of these programmes.
More interesting is how Grudem conflates this line-by-line analysis of specific Trump policies with his earlier analysis of the impact of a "liberal" government on the US. So these policies – around issues that are hugely complex, involving years of research into social, economic, geopolitical and legal questions – are again reduced to a simple binary: either you are with Trump, or you are wrong – and not just technically wrong, but morally wrong. Voting against Trump is voting for evil.
In a swingeing attack on Clinton, he says the most likely result of not voting for Trump is thousands of dead unborn babies, poverty, inner-city children denied a good education, sick and elderly denied medical treatment, ISIS on the rampage, and millions of Jews "alone and surrounded by hostile enemies". And, he says, "you will be contributing to a permanent loss of the American system of government due to a final victory of unaccountable judicial tyranny".
He concludes: "When I look at it this way, my conscience, and my considered moral judgment tell me that I must vote for Donald Trump as the candidate who is most likely to do the most good for the United States of America." The drily factual sentence is the purest irony: Grudem is a true believer, who knows exactly how to whip up an audience. The vision he has outlined, for a very specific readership, is nothing short of apocalyptic: and, he says, "Of course you want to avoid that, don't you?"
Grudem is "aligned with the powers"
Grudem's critics have been numerous, and their criticism have been interesting too. The respected theologian Scot McKnight says Grudem "affirmed the unaffirmable and defended the indefensible about Trump" when he says he is a "morally good choice". "Grudem has time and time aligned evangelicalism with the powers. This endorsement of Trump is another instance. Evangelicalism's status in American society is at an all time low because of this alignment, and Grudem is one of the primary voices of the alignment. Evangelicalism has sold itself to the gods of this age; it is either going to die out or change course." In a telling line that rings absolutely true, he says: "The best way to seek the good of our nation is to be the church in the nation, not confuse the church and the nation. Evangelical leaders would be more evangelical if they refused to endorse political candidates."
Matt Emerson recounts Trump's various questionable statements, including advocating torture, killing terrorists' families and making threatening comments to and about the press. "This is not democracy, it is authoritarianism," says Emerson. Is it just hyperbole? "The problem is that, even if that were true, when we peel back the rhetoric to the points being made we still get the same character issues and immaturity in the face of opposition, the same race-baiting, and the same strong-man style of leadership."
And an article by Thomas Kidd for The Gospel Coalition – Grudem's natural home – is equally severe, though more respectful. He says: "I don't think it is overstating the matter that this election represents a hinge moment for evangelicals in America. Will we show that we are willing to break with the GOP over matters of conscience, or that we are just errand boys for the Republican Party?" He concludes: "As a presidential candidate, [Trump] falls well below an acceptable moral and prudential threshold." Like Throckmorton, he can't bring himself to vote for Clinton either.
Has Grudem weaponised Christianity?
At the heart of any Christian critique of Grudem's argument, however, has to be this. Leaving aside his pro-Trump arguments, most of which are naive and fanciful, and his anti-Clinton arguments, most of which have to be marked "unproven", there's a bigger problem. That is, the way Grudem has weaponised Christianity in his desire to realise a particular kind of conservative vision for his country.
In his article, he quotes the prophet Jeremiah, who's told to "Seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile." So, he says: "Therefore the one overriding question to ask is this: Which vote is most likely to bring the best results for the nation?" This is not an unreasonable question to ask, and every voter in every election, if they are responsible, will ask it.
Where Grudem crosses a line is his absolute refusal – in spite of some perfunctory remarks about patience and dialogue at the beginning of his article – to concede any goodness or righteousness in his opponents whatsoever. This is not a dialogue, it is a war between good and evil, and the result will usher in either Armageddon or the Millenium. Orthodox Christianity is completely identified with a political programme.
The most obvious thing to say about this is that it isn't true. But another is to reflect – as McKnight has done – on the sheer damage this attitude will do to the Church, and especially the evangelical wing of it. In conscripting faith to fight a political battle, encouraging Christians to see their fellow-citizens as agents of darkness, Grudem is contributing to a profoundly dysfunctional religious and political culture.
It's hard to know which, in the long term, will do more harm, a defeat or a victory. Either way, a Church that sees its dreams and visions for the future embodied in Donald Trump is going nowhere.
Follow Mark Woods on Twitter: @RevMarkWoods