How Valuable are Your Values? – Part 4
Original artwork by Marisa Draeger
In my view, there were two—and only two—legitimate reasons for voting for Trump: 1) because you believed he’d make a good president, and/or 2) because you believed he would at least be a better president than Hillary. In the runup to the 2016 presidential election a cast of characters as eclectic as that Star Wars cantina scene emerged to quantify the unquantifiable and defend their decision to vote for Trump on purely moral or ideological grounds. Their defenses ranged from bizarre to uninformed to bizarrely uninformed.
Trump wasn’t making their task any easier with his duplicitous personal background, race-baiting stump speeches, and refusal to offer coherent, consistent policies. Nevertheless, they persisted. Wayne Grudem’s “Why Voting for Donald Trump Is a Morally Good Choice” springs to mind. Grudem, a highly respected theologian, offered up arguments so uninformed I found them challenging to refute without coming across as dismissive. Other defenders went so far as to insist that criticizing Trump was on par with murdering Christ.
Focus on the Family founder Dr. James Dobson coined the phrase “baby Christian” in reference to Trump’s conveniently timed conversion to the Christianity under the proselytizing of prosperity preacher Paula White—which is kind of like claiming Trump became a Christian after watching Monty Python’s The Life of Brian.
It would have been one thing for Dr. Dobson to have said something to the effect of, “Look, I know I’ve made a big deal about electing Christians and people of integrity to higher office in the past, but I don’t really believe that any more. I think what’s important is that we elect someone pledging to work with us on prolife matters regardless of their morality or personal beliefs.” But he didn’t. What he did was radically water-down what it meant to be a Christian to allow for a “repentance” in which the converted can’t recall if he ever asked God for forgiveness.
My point isn’t that these individuals were morally in the wrong for voting for and supporting Trump. Rather, they were morally in the wrong to reframe the core convictions of a conservative worldview in general and of the Christian faith in particular to justify their decision to vote for Trump. Trump may have been the best candidate in 2016—why was it necessary to make allowances for the things he did and said as if they’re tantamount to what conservative Christians had believed all along?
Those of us who still profess an understanding that repentance is a necessary condition of the Christian faith must have missed the memo this antiquated notion had to be scrapped to allow for political expediency. Those of us who understood conservatism to have originated from a Burkean distain for radical revolution and suspicion of idealistic authoritarianism have woken up in a world where the “conservative” thing to do is pledge unquestioning fealty to the only man who can Make America Great Again!
Black is the new white and white is the new black and heaven help you if you dare to voice your concern that things have been turned upside down. There was an era—back in the dark ages circa 2015—when conservatives supported ideas, not individuals. And even further back in ancient times circa 1997 evangelicals popularized the phrase “character counts” and called for president Bill Clinton’s impeachment when news broke of his affair with a White House intern.
The Public Religion Research Institute conducted a series of polls over five years asking if “an elected official who commits an immoral act in their personal life can still behave ethically and fulfill their duties in their public and professional life.” The results are startling:
A 42% quantum leap in the number of evangelicals willing to “forgive” indiscretions when the political perpetrator in question claims to be on their side is an indication that “winning” is of greater value than actual values. The values that they care about are policies, not character traits or decency.
In all fairness, it’s possible evangelicals had historically placed too high of a premium on their politicians’ moral fiber and not enough on their abilities, and now recent political trends have made it advantageous to realign their thinking. Politicians, after all, exist somewhere in that middle-world between a pastor and a plumber in terms of how much their personal lives matter in whether we would select them to get the job done right.
This begs the question of exactly what aspects and how much of a politician’s personal life “counts” in discerning their ability to fulfill their duties in their public and professional life. And while that is a very important question, exploring it would involve a significant digression that I won’t be taking today.
The bigger issue, I believe, isn’t what aspects or how much, but whether we’re guilty of creating a double standard for those on “our side.” Those who do so are betraying the fact that the values they claim to uphold aren’t really their values after all. They are a means to an end—an effective tool for “winning” some political tug-o-war.
If an act is virtuous, it does not matter who is performing the act. Judge Roy Moore’s sexual exploitations of underaged girls don’t somehow because “innocent” because he ran as a Republican. If a murder is committed the weight we assign that evil shouldn’t depend on whether the murderer’s name is John or Hosea or Mohammad, or whether the defendant happens to belong to our political “tribe.”
As we explored in Part 3, when your values are based on nothing more than how they can benefit you, the only value you truly possess is the value of pragmatism. To some, pragmatism may be a value. But when the Apostle Paul was listing out the Fruits of the Spirit, “pragmatism” didn’t make the list.
I have been berating those political, civic, and religious leaders who found it necessary to “adjust” their values to defend their support of Trump. I recall another “defense” piece that—while written anonymously—was at the very least refreshingly sincere in its approach. The Flight 93 Election article, posted on Claremont.org, gained notoriety when talk radio host Rush Limbaugh made a great to do over it in a September 2016 radio address. Limbaugh, who generally steers clear of intelligentsia conversations and writings, referred to the piece as a “home run” with “every paragraph.”
While the piece began with the tireless argument—“We know exactly what we’re getting with Hillary, at least with Trump there’s a chance he’ll behave”—it quickly turned to a rather lengthy, scathing diatribe of the failure of the Republican party or conservatism to win big at the ballot box and hold to suicidal tendencies, offering Trump as the last best hope for saving the Republic.
While the post was well written, I do not believe it accomplished the impossible task of advocating Trumpism as a friend to the conservative movement. The title of the piece came from the harrowing flight that crashed on September 11 when the passengers realized their hijackers were intent on crashing the plane into some building and decided to rush the cockpit in a courageous attempt at survival. The author portrayed our current political climate in the same light, advocating the cultural war calls for a do or die approach.
But this is the central error of the Trumplican: That the conservative impulse and civil society and liberties and vanquishing everything that’s “wrong with the world” is something that can be achieved by amassing enough power in political leaders dedicated to the cause. This explains, in part, why so many in the Republican party today demand unwavering loyalty and unquestioning support to Trump. Jonah Goldberg, host of The Remnant podcast, lashed out in a recent episode to those who demand he capitulate to the cause:
“I don’t see why someone who’s chosen the profession I have, which is to be a writer and to explain my views and make my arguments in as much good faith as I can and to try to persuade people by using facts, logic, reason, and maybe a little humor, that somehow I need to do more. And I’m not sure what that more is supposed to be…I don’t freak’n work for the Republican party. And it’s not my job to pretend to be a hack for the party. If they believe that if the last conservative—if me or Bill Kristol or David French, whoever it is—if we finally bend the knee too and join hands for this one final sort of Ragnarök confrontation with the libs that all will be right in the world. If your movement needs me to start acting like a hack to win, then your movement’s not going to win anyway, even if I did.”
My purpose in focusing on Trumplicans is not to hold them up as the archetype of hypocrisy. Rather, I believe 2016 and beyond has given us a rare opportunity to see out in the open what ordinarily exists hidden away in our hearts: that many of us—myself included—struggle to uphold the values we claim we believe in when push comes to shove. And while that’s not good, it is better when we recognize that for what it is and repent, rather than adjust our supposed “values” when circumstances make them no longer advantageous. Two wrongs don’t make a right, to borrow a familiar cliché.
We’ve chosen convenience over convictions, tribalism over patriotism, schadenfreude over charity, winning over dignity, and pragmatism over prudence. Desperation, impulsivity, duplicity—these are the maladies that plague those who only know how to treat “values” as a tool to score a “win.” How valuable are our values? We may soon find out.