Donald Trump, the Christianity Today Editorial, and Its Fallout

How should Christians judge politics if it isn't on the basis of the sanctity of the politician and we cannot avoid morally compromised candidates?

“The only principle that makes sense is this: A candidate’s moral qualities are relevant only in how they relate to the achievement of a preponderance of good civil outcomes. Civil leaders, after all, are good civil leaders only to the extent that they produce good civil outcomes, so voting is for good civil outcomes. The ethics of voting is not about a timeless moral standard, but about how particular moral qualities relate to complex particular circumstances.”

 

One of the things that has always baffled non-Americans about American politics (even those who are Christians) is how the language of evangelical Christianity so badly distorts almost all discussions of political and civic life today – amongst both Democrats and Republicans.

The usual ‘solutions’ to the problem are bad as the phenomenon itself.

It seems to me that the problem is not a failure to ‘separate church and state’, as if the validity of religious matters were restricted to what happens inside a church building or the confines of one’s own private convictions. That would banish Christians from public life altogether and remove the kingdom of God from this world.

Nor does it stem from Christian language (or Christian categories of judgement). They are necessary and true. It resides in the *conflation* of Christian language with the worldview of romanticism, complete with its account of a state of primal human innocence, the postulate of a basic native human goodness in everyone that is lost through experience in the world but can be recovered through the imagination, etc.

Americans are accordingly always judging politicians on the basis of how ‘sincere’ they are, judging professions of sincerity as a true reflection of the inner nature of the professor, no matter glaring the hypocrisy is when the professions are compared with their policies. Those who feign sincerity particularly well, like the grandmaster of sincerity Bill Clinton and, to a lesser extent, Barack Obama, are much beloved, because they ‘mean well.’

So long as a politician employs the trope of sincerity, of artlessness, the wolves are held at bay, however greatly they are morally compromised. This is what makes people recoil at the current President. Donald Trump uses the trope of sincerity, and even a Christian vocabulary, but he employs it badly, almost artfully (rather than naturally). He uses it like the bombastic language of the wrestlers in WWE. He is ‘acting’, his critics allege. Can’t his voters see that? [Of course they can. They simply prefer that he wears it on his sleeve]

Here is how I see it. It isn’t a debate about whether we prefer method acting to classical acting, whether we prefer Heath Ledger or Sir Laurence Olivier:

As the inimitable Samwise Gamgee put it, in politics, ‘handsome is as handsome does.’

We need to start with some basics. *All* politicians in all parties are morally compromised because they are *all* sinners. [That also goes for the secular saints like Greta Thunberg.]

Furthermore, this general human malady of sin is exacerbated in politicians because, in a democracy (or, as the case in point is in the United States, a republican system of governance) a politician is also required to appease the desires of diverse groups. So in addition to the politician’s own sinful inclinations and actions, he also compromises to appease those of his voters.

For me, this means that a democracy is almost doomed to an ever-more putrid state of corruption. What is interesting about the American Constitutional order is that the founding Fathers designed it to ameliorate this problem of a sinful human nature. It is a republic, full of ‘checks and balances’. As John Adams put it, it is a ‘government of laws, not of men.’ It doesn’t need angels in office.

So how then should a Christian judge politics if it isn’t on the basis of the sanctity of the politician and we cannot avoid morally compromised candidates?

There are different ways of looking at it. One obvious way would be in looking at their policies’ conformity to the 10 commandments; another would be in relation to their Christian principles, and how the expression thereof works itself out in relation to the Sermon on the Mount.

Granted that the politician will be compromised, voting for someone does not endorse their sin. Otherwise, we could never vote in good conscience.

What then is the principle to distinguish which level and type of sin is relevant to voting?

Is it better to vote for a Mitt Romney, who manifestly violates the first and second commandments, or someone who has violated the seventh, like Trump?

Here is how Stephen Wolfe put it:

“The only principle that makes sense is this: A candidate’s moral qualities are relevant only in how they relate to the achievement of a preponderance of good civil outcomes.

Civil leaders, after all, are good civil leaders only to the extent that they produce good civil outcomes, so voting is for good civil outcomes. The ethics of voting is not about a timeless moral standard, but about how particular moral qualities relate to complex particular circumstances.” ~ Stephen Wolfe

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