Thursday, August 4, 2016

On Trump and Conscience-Voting

Andy Naselli wrote a widely-circulated article about Trump a few months ago. Reading through it sparked a lot of thoughts and responses in my mind, so I figured I would put them down in writing.
“If Donald Trump is the Republican nominee for President of the United States, can you vote for him with a clear conscience?”
Yes. In fact, it’s the only thing I can do this November with a clear conscience.
“Here’s how I am currently thinking through that question as an evangelical theology professor who just coauthored a book on the conscience and the Christian.”
Not to make mountains out of molehills, but I find it really funny when people feel the need to introduce their arguments in this way. Grudem does the same kind of thing in his article: “As a professor who has taught Christian ethics for 39 years, I think their analysis is incorrect.” So I guess I’ll follow suit, just for fun: As a seminary graduate, supply preacher, and substitute school teacher, here’s my take on the matter.
“Trump publicly brags about committing adultery.”
That’s true, and there’s absolutely no excuse for it. This is easily the most regrettable thing about Trump for me. It’s depraved and shameful.

But we still have to ask the question: Does a president need to be a faithful one-woman-man in order to enact policies that are going to be good for the country? Why? What’s the logical connection there? Take Jack Kennedy for example. He was by all accounts a serial adulterer, but most people would still affirm that he was the right man for the job, and that he was good for the country. Does Kennedy’s adultery somehow nullify the ways in which he was able to better the country as president? Do we now have to pretend like he didn’t do good things? Why?

Again, this isn’t about whether or not adultery is morally excusable. It isn’t, and it ought to be denounced in the strongest terms. But the question here is to what degree something like adultery should impact our assessment of a man’s ability to be an effective president. Which job that Trump would have as president requires him to be a faithful one-woman man?
“Trump mocks and disrespects people—women, the disabled, even prisoners of war.”
Does Trump disrespect women? Naselli makes it seem like Trump has a unique animosity toward women in general, but there’s no real reason to think that. Trump has certainly attacked particular women (Rosie O’Donnell, Lena Dunham, Hillary, etc). But he’s attacked plenty of men just as fiercely. Trump doesn’t attack women any more than he attacks men.

Does Trump mock the disabled? Personally, I think this one is difficult to buy. I assume that Naselli’s referring to the moment in a South Carolina rally speech where Trump waves and shakes his arms in imitation of Serge Kovaleski, a reporter who had been trying to back-peddle something he wrote years ago. But consider a few things:

(1) Trump later said that he had never seen the reporter about which he was speaking. Obviously that could have just been a lie to cover up his mistake, but it’s at least worth noting that he claimed to have no knowledge of what Kovaleski looks like. It’s true that just before Trump made the arm motions, he said, “You gotta see this guy.” But I think in context that can reasonably be taken to mean, “You gotta see what this guy is saying now.”

(2) And when you think about it, doesn’t it honestly seem likely that Trump wouldn’t have known what Kovaleski looks like? Of all the news articles you’ve ever read, how many were authored by people whose physical appearance you would recognize? I would venture to say not many. Kovaleski does claim to have been personally acquainted with Trump back in the 80s, but given the number of reporters that Trump deals with on a daily basis, you can’t seriously expect him to remember one guy from 30+ years ago.

(3) Trump was waving and shaking his arms erratically, but from what I can tell, Kovaleski doesn’t move his arms at all. A freeze-framed photo was circulated that shows Trump’s arm positioned in a way that looks similar to Kovaleski’s. But that’s just a cheap media trick.

(4) Moreover, the motions that Trump was making are a typical way of representing someone who’s nervously trying to explain themselves after being cornered. And Trump has done the same sort of thing on other occasions as well. This video shows some examples.

The third example in that video (when he’s mimicking Cruz) is taken from a rally that happened a few months after the rally where Trump had allegedly mocked Kovaleski. So that particular instance could have been a tactical move on Trump’s part. But I think it at least shows that those same arm motions can naturally be used to imitate anyone who’s nervously trying to defend themselves.

All of this to say, I don’t think Naselli is warranted in stating that Trump mocks the disabled, as if that were an indisputable fact or something.

Does Trump disrespect prisoners of war? This is in reference to Trump’s feud with John McCain, during which Trump apparently said, “I like people who weren’t captured.” There isn’t really an excuse for this. It was a moment of poor judgment on Trump’s part. I think he let the heat of the feud get to him and resorted to a cheap shot.

I will say that I think it’s a bit naive to expect a politician to flatly admit to his mistakes and beg for forgiveness. So of course Trump tried to paper over his comments and make it seem like he never said what he said. That’s not admirable, but it’s standard fare in the world of politics. It’s certainly not a flaw that’s unique to Trump.
“Trump lacks a pro-life record.”
Naselli doesn’t elaborate on this statement himself, but he links to a National Review article by Lisa Smiley that lists out several reasons for thinking that Trump is not really pro-life. Here are some of the points made in that article:
Smiley: “In 1999, Trump described himself as ‘very pro-choice.’”
Okay? So you can’t be pro-life in 2016 if you were pro-choice in 1999? What kind of sense does that make?
Smiley: “Yet Trump has said his extremist, pro-abortion sister, Maryanne Trump Barry, would make a ‘phenomenal’ justice. . . . Of course, he said a few months later that he’d have to rule her out now.”
Actually, he said both of those things in the very same interview, and in basically the same sentence. You can watch it here, around the 16:30 mark. Every time Trump has even mentioned this idea of his sister being a Supreme Court nominee, he has unequivocally dismissed it. This past February, he said, “My sister . . . also happens to have a little bit different views than me, but I said that in a very joking manner. But my sister obviously would not be the right person. It’s a conflict of interest for me.”
Smiley: “During this year’s March for Life, [Trump] was the only Republican candidate who said nothing about abortion.”
Assuming that’s true, it’s certainly something I would have liked to see from him. And perhaps it shows that he’s less enthusiastic about the pro-life cause than he ought to be. Trump admittedly focuses most of his energy on things other than abortion, and I think he probably cares more about his presidency being remembered for things like economic growth and military success. But that doesn’t mean he’s not pro-life, and won’t appoint pro-life justices. He’s already picked an unquestionably pro-life vice president in Mike Pence.
Smiley: “[Trump] has also gone on record saying he is for the status quo of funding Planned Parenthood as it is currently funded. Yet when he was forced to clarify his stance, he finally said he would sign a bill to defund it if he became president.”
That’s a wildly inaccurate representation of the facts. He didn’t praise Planned Parenthood one day and then “finally” agree later to defund it. At about the 3:40 mark of this interview, from all the way back in July of last year, Trump said that Planned Parenthood should “absolutely” be defunded, giving no qualifications. Later, in an interview with Sean Hannity, Trump said this: “There’s two Planned Parenthood’s in a way. You have it as an abortion clinic — now that’s actually a fairly small part of what they do, but it’s a brutal part. . . . I’m totally against the abortion aspect of Planned Parenthood.”

Do I agree with Trump’s assessment of Planned Parenthood? No, of course not, and I wish he were a lot harder on the organization than he is. But I’m at least sensible enough to recognize that every time he does speak to this issue, he clearly repudiates Planned Parenthood’s practice of abortion and supports defunding that “aspect” of the organization. Now compare his outlook to Hillary’s.

Now I’m switching back to quoting Naselli’s article.
“[Trump] is no pro-lifer.”
Again, Naselli doesn’t elaborate. But he links to an article by Robert George, who argues that Trump gave himself away as a phony pro-lifer whenever he said that women who have illegal abortions should be punished. I’ve already responded to this incident here on the blog, and I think it was an extremely silly criticism of Trump that frankly shed light on the desperation of many within the never-Trump cause.

As a side note, consider that Robert George argues that Mitt Romney similarly gave himself away as a phony conservative whenever he described himself as “severely” conservative, because “no conservative would ever describe conservatism (or his own conservatism) as severe.” Talk about superficial.
“[Trump] can’t even defend the pro-life position.”
Here, Naselli links to a post by Denny Burk, who comments on a video of a Face the Nation interview with Trump. Here are my thoughts on that video, and the comments Trump made in it.

I’ll probably get laughed out of court for this first remark, but for what it’s worth, it’s really hard for me to bank very much on a video interview that shows so many obvious signs of having been edited. I’m not even trying to say that it was maliciously edited necessarily, but in order to accurately follow conversations like these, you really need to be sure that you’re hearing all that was said, and in the exact order that it was said. And this video gives me multiple reasons to doubt that that’s what we’re getting. But even if you think I’m grasping with this point, there are still other points to consider.

It’s important to keep in mind that in this interview, Trump was trying to clarify his earlier comments about illegal abortions being punishable. That’s why he was emphasizing the fact that the question he had been asked on that occasion (by Chris Matthews) pertained to a hypothetical scenario in which abortion is illegal. And it’s in that context that Trump clarifies his stance by saying, “The laws are set now on abortion, and that’s the way they’re going to remain until they’re changed.” What he’s doing is clarifying that he doesn’t believe women should be punished for abortions in the here and now, with the laws currently as they are.

Eventually, the interviewer asks Trump if there were any specific things about abortion law that he would like to change, to which Trump responded: “At this moment, the laws are set and I think we have to leave it that way.” Now, assuming this was precisely the way the Q&A transpired, I think Trump’s actually just dodging the interviewer’s real question and repeating the same line from earlier.  I think that for Trump, this whole interview was about defending himself against criticisms of his earlier remarks.

I do think it was a sloppy answer on Trump’s part, and he should have done better. But I don’t think that this by any means exposes him as a phony pro-lifer who won’t do anything to help the pro-life cause. Give me a break. He has repeatedly denounced abortion, repeatedly supported defunding Planned Parenthood, repeatedly affirmed that he would appoint pro-life justices, and has already picked a pro-life VP. Now compare that with Hillary.

Is Trump pro-life? I think he is, although he’s far more timid about it than I would like him to be. Yet in November, when I’m faced with a choice between someone who’s timidly pro-life and someone who’s radically pro-abortion, who should I choose? The question answers itself. It’s not even a little bit difficult for me.
“Trump is a demagogue. He appeals to popular desires and prejudices rather than by using rational argument.”
Aside from the fact that this is an extreme generalization, we’re talking about the world of politics here. What presidential candidate doesn’t seek to appeal to popular desires and prejudices? How often do you hear a rational argument come from any presidential candidate? It’s really surprising that Naselli and others find this to be a characteristic that’s unique to Trump.
“We cannot trust what [Trump] says because of his character.”
There is an internal tension in the never-Trump mindset. They insist that we can’t trust what Trump says. Unless of course, he says something damning – then we can trust what he says unquestionably. They go back-and-forth between “His word means nothing” and “Look, he said it himself!”
“He lacks sound principles and judgment. The only principle that Trump seems to follow is self-interest. Like the dwarves in The Last Battle, Trump is for Trump.”
That’s a completely subjective assessment that has no persuasive power.
“But what if the two most viable candidates are Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton? . . . Can the most viable candidates be so bad that you cannot dignify either of them with your vote?”
I think the disagreement between Christians over Trump has a lot to do with different understandings of what voting means. Here, Naselli describes a vote as a way of “dignifying” a candidate. But in November, I won’t be viewing my vote as a way of ascribing dignity to Trump as an individual. My vote is simply an indication of which candidate, given the options, I believe will do better things for the country. That’s all.
“If the two most viable candidates were Hitler and Stalin, would you feel obligated to vote for the lesser evil?”
Potentially, yes, assuming it was clearly discernible which one was a lesser evil. Although I find it completely ludicrous to compare Trump with Hitler or Stalin. On the other hand, I don’t think that’s a ludicrous comparison when it comes to Hillary.

Frankly, it puzzles me that a lot of evangelicals find it tacky to compare Hillary with Hitler. The Holocaust was obviously horrific, resulting in the deaths of somewhere between six and eleven million Jews. But how does that compare with the abortion industry, which is responsible for the deaths of 60 million babies since Roe vs. Wade? And this is something that Hillary and the Democrats celebrate. They would have that number continue to rise. When people find it tacky to compare Hillary with Hitler, it’s hard for me not to assume that they simply don’t think abortion is as horrendous as it actually is.

Furthermore, it’s odd that there are people who would be fine with comparing abortion to the Holocaust, but not comfortable with comparing someone like Hillary to Hitler. That doesn’t add up to me.
“The strategy to vote for the lesser of two evils breaks down at some point. You must draw the line somewhere.”
These are just empty assertions. The strategy itself assumes that there is a clearly discernible lesser of two evils. So why does the strategy break down at some point? Naselli is assuming what he needs to prove.
“Southern Baptist leader Russell Moore argues, ‘If a Christian doctor were forced to choose between performing abortions or assisting suicides, she could not choose the lesser of these two evils but must conscientiously object.’”
That analogy is patently ridiculous. Voting for Trump is nowhere near tantamount to performing abortions or assisting suicides. This goes back to what I said earlier about how the debate hinges on our different understandings of what a vote means. Your vote does not amount to complicity in anything evil that your candidate might do. This is why if Thabiti Anyabwile ends up voting for Hillary (heaven forbid), I would describe it as foolish, but not as complicity in abortion.
“But remember: It is a sin to violate your conscience—even if your conscience is mistaken. If your conscience tells you that it is wrong to vote for Donald Trump and you vote for him anyway, then you sinned. So unless you can vote for Donald Trump without your conscience condemning you, then you should not vote for him.”
To be honest, I find a lot of this talk about “conscience” to be supremely unhelpful. Naselli himself affirms that “conscience” can lead people in different directions. The Christians who are choosing to vote for Trump are doing so because they believe voting for Trump is the right thing to do in this situation. On the other hand, the Christians who are choosing not to vote for Trump are doing so because they believe voting for Trump is the wrong thing to do in this situation.

So how is it helpful to say, “Vote your conscience”? It’s tantamount to saying, “Just do what you feel is right.” But that isn’t consistent at all with the first part of Naselli’s article, where he was vigorously trying to persuade everyone that it’s wrong to vote for Donald Trump. Don’t say “vote your conscience” unless you truly mean it, because come November, that’s exactly what I and many other Christians will be doing when we go out and vote for Trump.

Now if I may speak candidly, I find that it’s the never-Trump camp who talks the most about “conscience,” and it often feels like they’re just trying to stake the moral high ground in the debate. I frequently get the impression that they’re employing the idea of conscience not as a sincere and friendly equalizer, but as a way of trying to underhandedly prick the consciences of Trump voters.

As a case in point, notice how Naselli only applies his conscience principle in the direction of those who would vote for Trump. He says, “If your conscience tells you that it is wrong to vote for Donald Trump and you vote for him anyway, then you sinned.” But if Naselli were consistent, he should be just as willing to affirm the reverse by saying, “If your conscience tells you that it is wrong to vote for anyone but Donald Trump, and you don’t vote for him, then you sinned.” But Naselli doesn’t apply his principle in that direction. His conscience rhetoric is only employed against Trump voters.
“It’s also worth thinking about how your conscience has worked in the past. Many conservatives argued in 1998 that the Lewinsky scandal disqualified Bill Clinton as president, but some of those same people are planning to vote for Trump. What changed?”
First off, see how Naselli keeps aiming his conscience rhetoric at Trump voters?

Second, the only thing that changed is the whole entire situation. Imagine that the situation back in 1998 had been that if Clinton were to resign, then another president would take over who was manifestly worse than Clinton on all the issues that Christians care about (abortion, religious liberty, etc). Don’t you think this might have changed the way Christians thought through Clinton’s resignation? And rightly so? And if that had been the situation, would people like Naselli have argued that Clinton should resign nevertheless? If not, then I think they should stop trying to castigate Trump voters with this shallow comparison.

Even Naselli himself admits to altering his own principles whenever a new situation presents new challenges. Earlier in the article, he said that he had always consistently voted according to Buckley’s rule (lesser of two evils) until this election, which has caused him to question Buckley’s rule. So we might ask Naselli, what changed? Well, the situation changed, of course.

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