An article by John Piper criticizing Donald Trump’s moral character and the effect it will have on the United States, has reinvigorated discussion about whether it is right for Christians to vote for him. Michael Brown has already written an insightful critique of that article. A common way in which Christian Trump supporters are criticized is that they compromise their Christian values in voting for Trump, that they’ve sold their souls to the Republican Party, or something like this. And some ( leftist) Christians who oppose Trump also seem to believe that Christians who vote for Trump are morally inferior in some way or another. Piper himself is not among them and is explicit that he does not believe it is necessarily immoral for you to vote for Trump if you “weigh things differently.” The question of what role the moral character of a politician should play in whether they are supported, especially from the standpoint of Christian theology, is a difficult but interesting question. How should Christians think about politics? In what ways should Christian morality be seen as relevant to public policy? What in politics should be thought of primarily as a pragmatic/efficiency issue and what should be thought of primarily as a moral issue? I will not argue here that you should support Trump or that you shouldn’t support Biden. I’m simply going to address the question of whether Trump’s moral character means that Christians are in some way “selling their souls” or otherwise compromising their values in voting for him or supporting him.
The Babylonian Captivity of the Church
God’s judgment against Israel ushered in the Babylonian captivity or the Babylonian exile, in which Jews were transported to Babylon and lived there for a time. Jeremiah famously told the people of Israel about their exile:
Also, seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the LORD for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper.Jeremiah 29:7
One of the frequent metaphors for the Christian church in the midst of the world is that of exile and therefore the Babylonian Captivity of the Jews becomes a metaphor for the Christian Church in the world.
And if you call on him as Father who judges impartially according to each one’s deeds, conduct yourselves with fear throughout the time of your exile…1 Peter 1:17
In 1 Peter 2:11, Peter again calls his readership “foreigners and exiles”. This theme is repeated in Martin Luther’s work “On The Babylonian Captivity of the Church”, in which Luther compares the Roman Church to the biblical Babylon.
We are strangers and sojourners in the world. We are in the world but not of the world. This world is driven and dominated by evil things. We don’t belong here, but we nevertheless live here. Babylon is evil and becomes a great metaphor for evil earthly power in the New Testament and beyond. But we live in Babylon and we engage with it. We recognize that Babylon is evil but we know we cannot cloister ourselves off from it. We engage with it even knowing it is evil. If you are interviewing for a job as a Christian and you see a large statue of the Buddha at the office, do you think it might be wrong for you to work there as a Christian? Should you work for non-Christian employers who do not share your values? The answer is that as an exile you can, even though there are Christians, who are used to being surrounded by Christians, who will regard it as moral and spiritual compromise. As Daniel lived among the idolatry and divination of Babylon, aiding and helping its ruler, so you live in a different Babylon. You try to keep yourself unpolluted by its evils, but you still engage with it and commit what might appear to be compromises in the very act of engaging with it.
What is the purpose of a politician?
If I were a Christian employer, I would generally hire non-Christian employees. And mostly, I would not really inquire too much about the moral character of the people working for me. I’d hope for some baseline of moral character( especially honesty, which is important in business.) But beyond that I will expect that they mostly do not try to live according to Christian morality. The employee is there to do a particular job, and the primary determinant of whether I hire him is how well he can do that job. The purpose of a politician is primarily to implement or to lead public policy. A president in a democracy is in an important sense like an employee of the people. This doesn’t mean that the moral character of the politician is irrelevant, but that it is not primary. The primary consideration in whether to vote for the politician is whether his policies are good and the policies can be evaluated through Christian morality or other considerations. Piper’s article seems to presuppose that both sides are primarily choosing a candidate based on what is morally “deadly”, but my view is that this is fundamentally wrongheaded and if you apply this way of thinking consistently, you would never or rarely be able to vote for anyone.
This is especially the case for Christians living in Babylon, because we understand that morality does not come from political leaders. It is no doubt true that an immoral president will have some negative impact on the moral culture of a nation. It will hopefully have no impact on Christians who should know not to get their morality from the leaders of Babylon, but there are others who might be influenced by it. The Babylonian exile is a good metaphor especially for a culture that is moving further and further from Christian values. In many ways, Trump is just a product or reflection of modern culture. And in such a culture, the possibility of having viable political candidates who mostly reflect Christian values are slim. In other words, if you apply Piper’s logic consistently, you will never or rarely vote for anyone in Babylon.
But apart from this, I would happily vote for a non-Christian candidate whose policies I agree with over a Christian candidate whose policies I don’t agree with. Let’s consider a scenario. There’s a Christian candidate who is still married to his first wife, he is gentle with his words and he is polite. However, he is constantly cowed by aggressive opponents and does not protect Christian concerns, like religious freedom. Worse yet, he portrays his cowardice and disloyalty as humility and selflessness, nobly sacrificing his own concerns or the concerns of his own “tribe” for those of others. Perhaps he is a Christian sycophant who secretly admires his opponents while secretly looking down on his fellow Christians.
But then there is a blustering non-Christian candidate who is a little nasty in how he speaks, is married to his fourth wife, and is plagued by rumours of alcoholism, but who has a record of sticking to Christian concerns when he is bitterly opposed ( which no doubt makes his opponents hate him even more. They don’t hate those whom they can effectively cow).
I would have no qualms about supporting the non-Christian candidate, without needing to approve of his vices.
Is Trump Uniquely Sinful?
Politicians excel at creating an appearance of moral character and much effort is no doubt put into the construction of that appearance. They often have an almost caricaturish air of dignity. They are “above the fray”. They are extremely polite and very careful with their words. Trump makes no or little attempt to conform to this way of doing things and I think some of the perception of his immoral character comes from his refusal to play this game. Do not mistake pretension and “airs” for morality. Do not mistake non-offensiveness and non-confrontationalism for moral character. Trump has also spent a large portion of his life being a well-known celebrity, which means that his misdeeds are more likely to be public knowledge.
The last question to be addressed is whether Trump is uniquely immoral in the sphere of politics. A key phrase here is “uniquely immoral”, because it would obviously be irrational and unjust to condemn and reject Trump for sins that are common and widespread within politics. I don’t think it is firstly easy to make this judgment since we see very little of the moral character of a politician. Second, one of the principal lines of attack from Trump’s opposition has been that he is immoral. In fact, this line of attack is almost always leveled against a Republican politician. For this very reason, it is true that some of his actions have been portrayed as immoral which are not, and others have been portrayed as greatly immoral which are not greatly immoral. At least some of Trump’s supposed sins have been greatly exaggerated. For example, his opponents often seem to accuse him of lying when they believe he is wrong or mistaken. One in particular that I have a problem with is the idea that Trump is a narcissist, and Piper seems to believe something like this because he accuses Trump of “unrepentant boastfulness”. Employment candidates who apply for jobs have to master the art of “humble boasting”- talking about yourself and your achievements without coming off as arrogant. Nobody would think that an employment candidate is being culpably boastful when advertising themselves for a position. A politician is always on the chopping block and and is always auditioning for votes. Trump definitely does it differently and more directly than other politicians, but that does not mean he is being uniquely arrogant.
Another accusation that Piper makes is “unrepentant factiousness”, presumably meaning that Trump is a reviler and divisive. Many people have complained that Trump is nasty and that he speaks harshly about people. It doesn’t make sense to me to think that Trump is uniquely immoral in this respect in the world of American politics. Besides, politicians fight with their words, which means that it is inevitable that they will sometimes go overboard. An attitude that has even infected the Christian world is that speaking harshly is thought of as a very great sin. It is true that Paul warns that revilers will not inherit the kingdom of heaven ( 1 Corinthians 6:9) and gentleness is often recommended throughout the New Testament. Nevertheless, Jesus called the Pharisees “snakes” and Paul called Cretans “evil beasts” (Titus 1:12)( or at least he approvingly quoted someone else saying that) and he calls others “dogs” ( Philippians 3:2). I agree that one should not go around doing this with everyone with whom you disagree, but it does mean that you should not make the judgement of reviling lightly. The judgment of factiousness and reviling is somewhat subjective and I believe depends more on the motive ( i.e. whether it is done with malevolence) than on the actual content of what is said. If some Christians take their standard of reviling and apply it consistently, they would end up condemning Jesus, Paul and many of the prophets.
The most serious accusations against Trump are sexual assault accusations. Unless you are some person in authority who is responsible for investigating accusations, it is generally a good principle to only believe that someone is guilty of a crime when they have been convicted of it in court. The majority of the accusations were made when ( or after) he ran for president.
Let’s compare Trump to a leader who is recognized as great but nevertheless had many personal flaws: Winston Churchill. This isn’t meant to imply that Trump is as great a leader as Churchill, but that Churchill had many moral flaws, but he is nevertheless recognized as a great political leader across the board. Churchill was widely thought to be a drunkard. He was an irresponsible gambler, which is part of the reason he had financial troubles. He also had a sharp tongue. Many of his quotes that are celebrated today are actually quite nasty and he had a reputation for being harsh with people especially during his time as Prime Minister. Take this one for example:
Bessie Braddock MP: “Winston, you are drunk, and what’s more you are disgustingly drunk.”
WSC: “Bessie, my dear, you are ugly, and what’s more, you are disgustingly ugly. But tomorrow I shall be sober and you will still be disgustingly ugly.”
This quote is widely celebrated today, but it’s definitely insulting. In addition, he seems to implicitly admit that he is drunk by saying that he will be sober in the morning. (There are historians who debate back and forth about whether Churchill was actually an alcoholic.) What’s more, Churchill seemed to boast about the fact that he was able to drink a lot.
He was called a prideful warmonger by his opponents and a self-promoter. And it is not that difficult to see why people called him arrogant. He believed himself explicitly to be destined for greatness. He wrote to his mother during the Boer War that he did not believe he would die in battle because he was destined for something great. There is no doubt that he would be accused of megalomania or narcissism if he ran for office as a Republican today. Some of what he said seemed to romantically glorify war and battle, which would undoubtedly earn him a “fascist” label as well. Was it immoral or wrong for English Christians to vote for or support Churchill?
In other words, it is not always clear what people who make a big deal of Trump’s immorality are trying to argue. People who want to argue that his moral character disqualifies him from being in public office must make clear what they believe to be the the moral requirements of a president from a Christian point of view. They must justify it theologically. That is to say, they must explain why it is biblical to expect that every single political leader, whether Christian or not, has those values and why voting for a political leader implies approval of his sins( and therefore the personal immorality of the person voting for that leader). (Bear in mind that this implies that as soon as you learn of any sin in a political leader, you are approving and endorsing that sin when you support or vote for that politician. This also means that you’ll never be able to vote for a politician without endorsing some sin.) Then they must apply this standard consistently to all politicians. I don’t think any of the above has been accomplished by those who claim that supporting Trump is immoral.