Recently, Christian ethics professor Dr. Wayne Grudem penned an op-ed explaining why voting for Donald Trump would be a “morally good choice” for Christians, prompting a rebuke and rebuttal by another Christian philosopher positing the opposite theory.
The pieces pit head-to-head a utilitarian argument (e.g., Trump’s presidency would create more good for the nation than Clinton’s by Christian standards) and a deontological argument (e.g., Christians have a duty to center decisions on love, and accordingly cannot vote for Trump). Both take into account Christian scriptures, speak of the influence of Jesus Christ, and apparently rely on the assumption that a full, operational ethic can be lifted from Christian canon and theology.
And, in the end, the two experts of Christian ethics reach opposite conclusions on a consequential topic. So what went wrong?
This is not an inconsequential sub-theme of the election cycle. In a country that is over 70% Christian, a sizable majority will be reading such arguments and making similar ones in support of one candidate or the other. A discernible trend has already emerged. Nearly four-fifths of the powerful white, Evangelical voter base have backed Trump in the polls, while the representative of the party of Kennedy has garnered more support among Catholics and “nones.” Some in the conservative Evangelical camp – traditionally stalwart Republicans – have questioned Trump’s faith or even his basic decency. Still, overwhelmingly, the remnants of the “moral majority” have fallen behind Trump in anticipation of a battle for the nation’s proverbial soul.
Accordingly, many will be crafting and reading these Christian ethical accounts between now and November 27th. But mass amounts of people embarking on a fool’s errand makes it no less foolish, and this is precisely the context that has arisen.
A first dilemma arising here is that no consensus exists on just what constitutes Christian morality. For decades in U.S. history, the so-called Moral Majority claimed to carry the banner for Christian ethics while stumping for the Republican party. As the movement has dried up and characters like Franklin Graham have been rightfully relegated to the dusty corners of cultural thought, a “Christian left” has emerged with nearly the opposite political positions. Opposition to abortion and marriage equality on the basis of ethical rules has come head-to-head with categorical care for the poor and downtrodden and opposition to the “privileged” on the basis of the idea that to be a moral Christian is to imitate the life and teachings of Christ himself.
Thus, we get sets of contradictory examples. The conservative Christian may support policies that bolster the position of the rich and powerful despite Jesus’ claims against them, and the liberal Christian may support Obergefell v. Hodges despite Levitical rules. Now, intellectuals belonging to either camp may quibble with these examples and certainly will offer conflicting interpretations based on translations and various instances of historical context and hermeneutics and the like, but that is precisely the point.
There may very well be a most accurate interpretation of any given verse or passage based on certain criteria, and there could just as easily be a correct answer regarding what the “historical” Jesus would have supported politically (setting aside questions of his divinity). But if 70 percent of the nation is bitterly divided on what that is and each has ample “evidence” of one sort or another, how useful is this conversation?
Without direct means of verification and falsification, any question of “who would Jesus vote for?” or “which candidate is most ‘right’ before God?” requires the suspension of reason in favor of faith. The voter has short-circuited any attempts to discern objective, moral truth from the nature of humankind and the world in favor of the whims of some thinker or writer of days passed from any number of past centuries.
Either that, or a person will bend any religious “answer” to fit his preconceived moral ideas. Jon Stewart recently highlighted this by demonstrating Sean Hannity’s hypocrisy in invalidating President Obama’s faith while subsequently claiming that a person has no right or ability to invalidate Donald Trump’s. Are these consistent positions? Absolutely not – but as a believer, Hannity forged arbitrary criteria that fit what he already believed.
Thus, in making political decisions based on what is right by God, one either relies on an ethical belief reached through invalid processes or on something other than his religion. If the former is the case, the believer’s ethical process collapses into subjectivism. If the latter is the case, an appeal to religion was never needed (or, perhaps, appropriate) in the first place.
Long-term, this debate highlights the need for a nonreligious, rational ethical code. In the short-term, despite their best efforts and obvious qualifications, both Dr. Stark and Dr. Grudem have been left empty-handed and the conscientious voter is still left with no answer other than that which he may have reached himself by way of a rational process.
Christopher Machold is a recent graduate from Cornell College with a passion for research and writing. He is a Young Voices Advocate.