Who is Wayne Grudem? If you’ve hung out with me, especially if it was during my dissertation writing, you might remember this name from the huge blue book I would sometimes slug around. Wayne Grudem, author of Systematic Theology and former president of the Evangelical Theological Society, is what you might call a big deal in Conservative Christian thought. His books are widely read, his ideas are fairly representative of what are typically thought of as fundamentalists or the religious right, and he has serious academic credentials. This has made it all surprising that he spent the past several months engaged in a pretty public effort to maintain his credibility among conservative evangelicals.
On July 28th 2016, Grudem wrote an article entitled Why Voting for Donald Trump Is a Morally Good Choice for Town Hall. In this post, Grudem made two key arguments. First, Grudem argued that Trump was a flawed but not disqualified candidate. Grudem cited Trump’s three marriages, his disturbing comments about killing the families of terrorists, and his unwillingness to distance himself from radical groups like the KKK as evidence why he’s not the most moral person. Grudem does not defend these actions. Grudem does, however, argue that trump is “a good candidate with with flaws”. Citing his family, his business record, and his patriotism, Grudem argued that Trump has redeeming characteristics. Secondly, and more importantly for his argument, Grudem spends the majority of the article explaining that even if Christians don’t like Trump they should still vote for him because a Clinton administration would be antithetical to their values. Of critical focus to Grudem is the US Supreme Court: the bulk of his discussion focuses on the judges Trump has proposed to nominate and the impact the court has on issues such as religious liberty and abortion.Essentially, Grudem argues that Trump is good enough. Not what the evangelical community was hoping for (Grudem endorsed Marco Rubio in the primary), but a good enough vehicle for getting their preferred policies.
Then came the infamous tape. The tape featuring comments that suggested Trump was sexually assaulting women became a huge headline in early Oct 2016, and people began fleeing or condemning Trump. Speaker of the House Paul Ryan condemned and uninvited Trump from a joint appearance. Republicans did their best to distance themselves from their candidate. The nation reacted primarily with disgust.
This put Grudem in a bit of a bind; he had called Trump the moral choice for Christians only to find out the candidate was pretty clearly an immoral person by most standards and certainly by a Christian one. Grudem withdrew his support for Trump and penned another article, “Trump’s Moral Character and the Election“, again for Town Hall. In this article, Grudem apologized for not investigating Trump’s character more and addressed his critics’ suggestion that his consequentialist reasoning was unchristian.
“Wait, consequentialist reasoning?” Sorry for the jargon. As I’ve discussed previously (shameless self-reference) consquentialist reasoning is a term used in moral philosophy and moral psychology to describe morality that focuses on outcomes. For example, is it wrong to lie in order to hide someone from a murderer? If you think so, is it because you think lying is morally good? Of course not! You’re using a lie to protect someone; the consequence of your action makes the action good, not the means.
“So why would that type of thinking be considered unchristian by Grudem’s critics?” In Christian theology, especially American Conservative Christian theology, sin is deontological. Yes, I know, more jargon. Deontology is the idea in moral philosophy and psychology that morality comes from a central tenant or rule, and that breaking that rule regardless of consequence is morally wrong. Let’s return to our example. If you believe that lying is wrong from a deontological rule then lying to save someone is still wrong even if the outcome is good. This is what makes the lying example so interesting; it pits deontology against consequentialism.
The deontological/consequential divide is a tricky one for anyone, and the Christian community is no different. Well, they’re a little different which is why they’re intersting. Let’s look at Grudem’s Systematic Theology, “Sin is any failure to conform to the moral law of God in act, attitude, or nature (pg. 490).” (Grudem, 2000). From a Christian perspective, there is a system of laws set by God, and breaking any of those laws is wrong regardless of why you do it. This is not to saw these laws are strictly written rules like law in courts (see arguments against Christian legalism), but rather a spirit of devotion to God’s intentions and designs. When Grudem’s critiques claim he is using unchristian reasoning, what they are saying is that Grudem is using an immoral means (voting Trump) to get a moral end (a conservative court) which is against the spirit of the view of sin Grudem holds.
Grudem addresses this by essentially saying “Yes, I’m being consequentialist, but look at the consequences!” While calling for Trump to withdraw on Oct 18, Grudem makes clear that he sees a Clinton administration as near apocalyptic to the enterprise of Christian witness. For Grudem, the cost of preserving moral authority to opposing Trump is losing the chance to ever express moral authority again.
This brings us to the psychological interest in this saga. What we’re seeing is a very public debate about moral reasoning among a community with a pretty specific meaning of morality. American evangelicals are one of the most solid voting blocks for republicans. Historically, this has been driven by social issues such as abortion and gay-marriage, two issues in which deontological reasoning plays a big role. Indeed, my own dissertation research found evidence that on those issues (and other issues important to the evangelical community) that deontological reasoning about God’s design was overwhelmingly the primary reasoning utilized by participants. The debate among evangelicals about what to do with Trump is presenting a rare event; a very public fight about which deontological values matter, and whether defending one deontological position by forgoing another is ever morally acceptable. Is opposing abortion in all circumstances, even at the cost of voting for a man who confesses to sexual assault, still moral? At this moment, it’s not clear what the evangelical community thinks. While there are very notable and public evangelical dissent to Trump, there seems to be a trend among white evangelicals to prioritize a given policy view over the personal morality of a candidate. Indeed, as I’ll discuss in part 2, Wayne Grudem re-endorsed Trump and called on Christians to vote for him.
Clearly there is a lot to investigate here, and this story is unfolding. What we can take away from this post is that there is a debate going on in America that does not reflect the general public. The amount of context needed to follow the saga of Grudem’s endorsement, unendorsement, and re-endorsement of the Republican nominee for President demonstrates that evangelical moral reasoning follows rules and assumptions that are unique to it and not immediately accessible to those outside of it. Stated another way, there are interesting cultural differences that distinguish this group from other Americans that may not be obvious. A universal view of morality does not do justice to the moral diversity within conservative evangelicalism, much less between it and other cultural views.
Look forward to part 2, where I discuss the new endorsement and discuss motivated reasoning and morality.