Voting for Trump: Permissible or Obligatory?
It is important to note that Dr. Grudem is not simply arguing that it is moral permissible to vote for Donald Trump. Rather, as one reads the essay it becomes clear that Dr. Grudem is arguing that is morally obligatory to vote for Donald Trump. In the section "A good candidate with flaws" Dr. Grudem writes:
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.Notice that the first sentence in this quotation speaks to the issue of moral permissibility whereas the second sentence moves closer to moral obligation. Dr. Grudem's scriptural arguments also move in this direction. In the section "Seek the good of the nation" Dr. Grudem quotes three biblical passages. The directive of Jeremiah 29.7 to "seek the welfare of the city" is applied to modern Christians in the U.S. so that they "have a similar obligation to vote in such a way that will 'seek the welfare' of the United States. Dr. Grudem claims that failure to vote for Trump in a close election means that the individual Christian is directly helping Hillary Clinton.
Grudem's next passage is set up this way:
Under President Obama, a liberal federal government has seized more and more control over our lives. But this can change. 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. I believe that defeating that kind of liberalism would be a morally right action. Therefore I feel the force of the words of James: "Whoever knows the right thing to do and fails to do it, for him it is sin" (James 4:17).The implication seems to be that failure to vote for Trump is sin--thus voting for Trump is morally obligated.
Dr. Grudem argues against not voting for Trump in the following manner:
Some may feel it is easier just to stay away from this messy Trump-Clinton election, and perhaps not even vote. But the teachings of Scripture do not allow us to escape moral responsibility by saying that we decided to do nothing. The prophet Obadiah rebuked the people of the Edom for standing by and doing nothing to help when the Babylonians conquered Jerusalem: "On the day you stood aloof, on the day that ... foreigners entered his gates and cast lots for Jerusalem, you were like one of them" (Obadiah 1:11).The argument seems to be that failure to exercise one's "moral responsibility" to vote for Trump renders one like the evil nation of Edom who was compared to the vicious and cruel Babylonians.
Further evidence that Dr. Grudem is arguing for moral obligation in voting for Trump is how he ends the essay.
But the most likely result of not voting for Trump is that you will be abandoning thousands of unborn babies who will be put to death under Hillary Clinton's Supreme Court, thousands of Christians who will be excluded from their lifelong occupations, thousands of the poor who will never again be able to find high-paying jobs in an economy crushed by government hostility toward business, thousands of inner-city children who will never be able to get a good education, thousands of the sick and elderly who will never get adequate medical treatment when the government is the nation's only healthcare provider, thousands of people who will be killed by an unchecked ISIS, and millions of Jews in Israel who will find themselves alone and surrounded by hostile enemies. And you will be contributing to a permanent loss of the American system of government due to a final victory of unaccountable judicial tyranny. (Bold-face added)The guilt is piled high against those who dare to vote any other way except for Trump! Here we are a long way away from the beginning of Dr. Grudem's essay where he called for "patience" and "respect" as "thoughtful citizens" "calmly and patiently dialog about the reasons for their differences." With such a long litany of evils--all the death and destruction--that one will be committing for failing to vote for Trump how could one come to any other conclusion except that voting for Trump is morally obligatory.
So what's the point? Simply this: If Dr. Grudem is going to lay the moral obligation of voting for Donald Trump upon all Christians he is going to have to provide a sufficient biblical theological rationale for so doing. Failure to do this will mean that Dr. Grudem is coming dangerously close to "teaching as doctrines the precepts of men" (Matthew 15.9).
The Use of Scripture
Dr. Grudem has been a strong and tireless supporter of the authority, inspiration, and inerrancy of Scripture in his various writings. It is no surprise, then, that he would seek the wisdom of the Word of God to be applied to the political decision-making process. As noted above Dr. Grudem appeals to Jeremiah 29.7; James 4.17; and Obadiah 11 to anchor his reasoning and exhortations in the sacred text.
Regarding the first two passages, I agree that Christians should "seek the welfare of the city" and that it is sin when one fails to do the thing which one knows he or she ought to do. My concern is not with the meaning of the texts but in their application. For Dr. Grudem it appears that only voting for Trump is a path of seeking the welfare of the city. Also, failure to vote for Trump is to know the right thing to do but refuse to do it. Now this reasoning only works if, at a minimum, Dr. Grudem's analysis of Trump's character as a politician and Trump's policies are what Dr. Grudem believes them to be. As will be seen below there are reasons to be skeptical of this.
But is it true that only be voting for Trump an evangelical Christian can seek the welfare of the city? Might there not be other avenues available in this election for Christians to seek the welfare of the city? A failure to vote for Trump does not automatically entail that one is violating Jeremiah 29.7. Furthermore, a failure to vote for Trump is a violation of James 4.17 only if Dr. Grudem's analysis of Trump is correct. Other intelligent Christians have come to differing conclusions about Trump's character and potential policies. Are they really sinning against the knowledge that they have of the right thing to do?
We need to remember the importance of humility in our applications of Scripture. One of Dr. Grudem's professors and a fellow-theologian, John Frame, has written:
It is also the case, as we mentioned before, that many issues of the modern day are not specifically discussed in scripture. If we cannot fax the apostles to learn their view of baptism, much less can we determine directly what they would say about nuclear weaponry, the government role in welfare, the medical use of life-support equipment. Here too, there are biblical principles which apply; but the argument can be complicated. It is not as if the apostles were readily available for interviews.
In facing our epistemological disadvantages, the first thing to be said is that God understands. He is the Lord of history. His providence has planned and controlled it. It is no accident that we are in the present epistemological situation. That situation, uncomfortable as it may be at times, suits God’s purposes perfectly, and we must be thankful for it. We should not murmur or complain, as Israel in the wilderness. When someone calls and asks me a hard question, say, about whether they should remove life support systems from a dying relative, I usually begin by saying that these are, after all, hard questions, and that God understands how hard they are for us. We cannot fax the apostles, but He doesn’t expect us to. He has left us with Scripture and the Spirit’s illumination, and He has determined that that is enough. We may fumble around in searching for answers. We may make decisions which we regret later on, because we hadn’t at first considered all the relevant principles and facts. But God understands that! He doesn’t expect us to be perfect theologians. He is not waiting up in heaven with a club to hit us over the head when we make an exegetical mistake.
In such situations, it is helpful to remember that we are justified by faith, not by works, nor, therefore, by ethical accuracy. That comfort does not, of course, excuse us from hard thinking. If God has justified us, we will want to please him, and we will make intellectual and other efforts to do what he wants. But the sincerity of such efforts is not measured by the perfection of the results. We may try very hard to apply biblical principles and come up with an answer that later proves inadequate. Yet God will still honor the attempt. He knows the heart, and he takes into consideration the obstacles (including epistemological) that we must overcome. Between the Apostles and the Parousia: Bearing the Burderns of Change and Knowledge
What about Obadiah 11--is a Christian who doesn't vote for Trump either because of confusion (i.e., "I'm not sure I can in good conscience vote for this man due to his character and policies.") or because of conviction (i.e., "As a Christian who has looked at this man and his policies I will not vote him so that I might be faithful to God.") really "standing aloof" in violation of Obadiah 11? Dr. Grudem and I are agreed that any proper handling handling of the Biblical text must be contextual in nature. We ought not to pull a phrase or verse out of a larger literary context. Here is the larger context of Obadiah 11--verses 10-14:
10Because of violence to your brother Jacob, you will be covered with shame, and you will be cut off forever. 11On the day that you stood aloof, on the day that strangers carried off his wealth, and foreigners entered his gate and cast lots for Jerusalem—you too were as one of them. 12Do not gloat over your brother’s day, the day of misfortune. And do not rejoice over the sons of Judah in their destruction; yes, do not boast in the day of their distress. 13Do not enter the gate of my people in the day of their disaster. Yes, you, do not gloat over their calamity in the day of their disaster. 14Do not stand at the fork of the road to cut down their fugitives; and do not imprison their survivors in the day of their distress.
Evangelical biblical scholar Willem VanGemeren explains the meaning of this judgment oracle upon Edom:
This short prophecy is directed specifically against Edom for their pride and hatred of their "brother" Jacob (v. 10; see Amos 1:11). The Edomites boasted about the trouble that had come upon the people of Judah (vv. 11-12). They collaborated with the Babylonians by entrapping the Judeans at intersections. They openly rejoiced in Judah's trouble and encouraged the Babylonians. Great was their hatred of Judah and even greater their joy when Jerusalem was razed and desecrated by the Babylonian troops. They had no regard for the miserable lives of the Jews. The fall of Jerusalem was the fulfillment of their national dream: the end of Israel.
VanGemeren goes on to note:
The prophecy, however, should not be restricted to Edom, because Edom is representative of all nations hostile to the Lord and to the establishment of his kingdom on earth (Isa. 34:1-2, 6; Joel 3:19; Amos 9:12). Notice how Obadiah expanded the original vision concerning Edom's fall to include all nations... (here VanGemeren quotes vv. 15-16 with its mention of "all nations.") Interpreting the Prophetic Word (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 1990), 143.
In light of this contextual reading of Obadiah, is it really the case that a Christian who refuses to vote for Trump due to confusion or conviction is collaborating with anti-God forces to hinder God's kingdom? I think not. I believe that Dr. Grudem has been too hasty to pull a few phrases from Obadiah and misapply them to his Christian brothers and sisters who disagree with his political analysis.
The Use of Logic
Dr. Grudem writes in his defense of voting for Trump:
If this election is close (which seems likely), then if someone votes for a write-in candidate instead of voting for Trump, this action will directly help Hillary Clinton, because she will need one less vote to win. Therefore the question that Christians should ask is this: Can I in good conscience act in a way that helps a liberal like Hillary Clinton win the presidency?
The first to notice is Dr. Grudem's remark about "directly" helping Hillary Clinton by voting for a write-in candidate. This is false. At best this would be "indirectly" helping Clinton. To "directly" help Clinton one would need to vote for her. Now for some this may seem like a pedantic and overly subtle point. My concern is that Dr. Grudem has been teaching ethics for 39 years and surely understands the nuances of ethical analysis which involve such distinctions. Why does he overstate the case?
In terms of the logic of voting or not voting for a candidate I find the logical analysis of Reformed evangelical theologian and philosopher James Anderson much more convincing:
One of the reasons put forward by some conservatives for voting for the controversial Republican nominee is that not voting for him would be “a vote for Hillary”. It’s important to understand why this is a really bad argument.
In the first place, the claim itself is inaccurate. If there are only two candidates, A and B, and Oscar doesn’t vote for A, that could mean one of two things:
(1) Oscar votes for B rather than A.
(2) Oscar votes for neither A nor B.
Clearly these aren’t equivalent, because (1) hinders A’s chances of winning more than (2) does.
But it’s worse than that: the reasoning here is incoherent, because if a non-vote for A is a vote for B, then by parity of reasoning a non-vote for B is a vote for A, from which it follows that not voting for either candidate is voting for both candidates. On the most charitable interpretation, that simply means not voting at all would be neutral with respect to the candidates: it wouldn’t favor either of them. On a less charitable interpretation, it’s just a nonsensical conclusion.
Perhaps there are some good reasons for conservatives to cast their vote for the Republican presidential ticket in 2016, but this isn’t one of them.
Addendum: I should add that the same incoherence afflicts another popular argument, namely, that not voting would “allow Hillary to win”. If a non-vote for A would allow B to win, then equally a non-vote for B would allow A to win, in which case not voting for either candidate would allow both candidates to win, which is absurd. (Actually, the conclusion in this case could be interpreted somewhat more charitably: not voting would allow either candidate to win. But again this just highlights the neutrality of a non-vote.) A Non-Vote Is Not a Vote
Trusting Trump: Should We?
Much of Dr. Grudem's essay is taken up with comparing the potential outcomes of a Clinton and Trump presidency. Dr. Grudem seems to have a very trusting attitude toward Trump. There are indications that he may not be telling the truth. For example, Dr. Grudem speaks of Trump's "remarkable children." But Donald Trump Jr. seems to think that his father will change the way he governs from what he has stated on social issues:
“I’m totally for it,” Trump Jr. says of gay marriage. “One of my best friends growing up was gay. ... It’s never been an issue for me. ... I think there was a time in my life, probably in college, that I wished every guy was gay, because it just meant more women for me! ‘I don’t know why you guys have a problem with this thing! I think it’d be great! I wish everyone was gay!’ ... That’s always the way I thought about it. ... I have no issue with it. If I have to suffer through marriage, why shouldn’t they?”
He goes on to express his views on abortion, which diverge from those of the average conservative: “Honestly, for me, abortion, I don’t get it. I don’t even understand how it’s a political issue. I don’t understand how there is one issue for voters for that. I don’t understand how you can tell someone what they can or can’t do. And I’m sort of the same way with [gay marriage]. ... I can’t buy into the abortion argument. I wish the Republicans would drop it as part of their platform.”
It’s no secret that his father, Donald Trump, Sr., has different views on these issues. Don Jr. explains, “In terms of my father’s political views ... in the grand scheme of things, there’s probably other things he’d be concerned about first, given the state of the world and our economy, etc., etc. ... I think part of it, and perhaps the shame of being a conservative, is you almost have to have those kind of stances to win any kind of primary. And then you have to basically sell out and become a moderate in the middle, just like you have to do if you’re on the liberal side of the political spectrum.” Donald Trump, Jr. Opens Up About Gay Marriage, Women's Right, and His Love of Hunting
Why does Dr. Grudem believe Donald Trump? Steve Hays makes an interesting conjecture:
I think Grudem's problem is that he's guileless, and so he projects his guilelessness onto Trump. Some people are too good to understand evil people. Their virtue blinds them to evil people. They can't relate to evil people. They can't see past the mask. They can't work themselves into that devious mindset. Ironically, Grudem is too ingenuous to recognize what a conman Trump is. That's too alien to Grudem's own character. Unfortunately, that makes him a easy mark for imposters like Trump. Patsies for Trump
More could be said about Dr. Grudem's defense of Trump but others have done some of this heavy lifting (see below). My main concerns revolve around Dr. Grudem raising the bar too high by making voting for Donald Trump morally obligatory and heaping guilt upon those who choose otherwise. Dr. Grudem's use of Scripture and logic is faulty. Furthermore, there are reasons to be suspicious of Donald Trump's conservative claims.
Steve Hays' piece--Patsies for Trump-- is an important point by point response to Dr. Grudem's essay.
Evangelical philosopher John Mark Reynolds' essay A Good Man Justifies a Wicked Deed: Grudem on Trump
Andy Naselli has a good piece on voting one's conscience. There is also a brief response to Grudem's essay: Can You Vote for Donald Trump with a Clear Conscience?
Ashleen Menchaca-Bagnulo's essay provides an important perspective on character: The Problem of Character: Why Conservatives Must Reject Donald Trump
Matthew J. Franck has an important piece on voting one's conscience: A Vote's Consequences and a Voter's Conscience