William Lane Craig on Evangelical Christian Support for Donald Trump

By ReasonableFaith.org – Reasonable Faith Press Kit, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=31585492

On May 31, 2020, Christian philosopher and theologian William Lane Craig talked on his podcast about evangelical Christian support for Donald Trump. The topic of the podcast, posed by interviewer Kevin Harris, was as follows, “Is there a possibility of a backlash against evangelical Christians because of their support of Trump because we are so divided in the country?”

Craig’s Advice to American Evangelicals

As I read him, Craig made the following points:

  • As a result of their disappointment with President Carter and their subsequent satisfaction with President Reagan, evangelical Christians learned that a President’s policies are much more important than a President’s beliefs.
  • Regarding Trump’s policies, Craig praised Trump on three points: (i) pro-life causes, (ii) religious liberty, and (iii) religious persecution. He also mentioned Trump’s appointment of two conservative justices to the Supreme Court as obviously helpful in advancing those policies.
  • Turning to Trump’s beliefs, Craig and Harris said nothing about his beliefs per se and instead identified numerous defects in Trump’s character. They explicitly identified Trump’s use of profanity in the Oval Office, his “colorful playboy past and things like that,” his narcissism, and his supporting “gambling interests and meat-market beauty Contests.”
  • As a public figure, Craig believes he has to “remain a-political” and cannot endorse “a particular political candidate or party,” but he can speak to “ethical and spiritual issues” such as “pro-life issues or sanctity of marriage.” His advice to Christians is “to be measured in supporting certain policies but then in dissenting or denouncing certain behaviors or character flaws that we discern.”

Why a President’s Dispositions Matters

I understand the distinction Craig makes between a President’s policies and a President’s beliefs; I think it makes a lot of sense and even agree with him. At the same time, I think Craig’s distinction is incomplete. Although Craig and Harris listed some of Trump’s dispositional flaws in the context of discussing Trump’s beliefs, it seems to me that a President’s dispositions is a third category alongside a president’s deeds (what they call policy) and beliefs.

Allow me to explain. It makes perfect sense to me for an evangelical Christian to say, “I’m going to vote for Candidate X, who happens to be Jewish or Mormon or Hindu or …, because they are pro-life, supportive of religious liberty, and a fierce opponent of religious persecution,” when X’s dispositions meets some minimal standards. Someone who doesn’t share an evangelical’s beliefs might still have solid moral dispositions and promote policies an evangelical likes. But what happens if you have a candidate (or an incumbent President) who promotes policies you like, but doesn’t share your beliefs and has flawed dispositions which are directly relevant to the individual’s effectiveness as President? So far as I can tell, Craig and Harris never say.

Evangelical support for Trump is precisely why, on this blog, I took the time to very deliberately focus on shared values in order to identify nonpartisan, prerequisite fundamental objectives for an effective POTUS. This should be very important to American evangelical voters. Consider:

  • Maximize Principled Leadership:
    • Minimize Impulsive Behaviors: the POTUS is uniquely able to directly increase or decrease risk to the lives, health, and safety of millions of Americans based in part on the decisions he (or she) makes. It is beyond reasonable doubt that Trump speaks and acts impulsively. Craig and Harris didn’t identify this in their “dissent or denouncement” of Trump’s character.
    • Demonstrate Comfort with Ambiguity: Again, because of the unique power held by the POTUS, it is essential that the POTUS make the best decisions possible. Part of good leadership is being open-minded enough to really consider dissenting points of view. Again, it is beyond reasonable doubt that Trump is uncomfortable with that. Craig and Harris didn’t identify this, either.
    • Values Transparency: Because evangelical Christians, like many others, believe that humans have a sinful nature, they should recognize the potential for all human beings to perpetrate evil. The potential for all of us to perpetrate evil is a compelling argument for a rigorous system of checks-and-balances. Checks-and-balances aren’t maximally effective, however, without reasonable government transparency, so that those who can do the “checking” are aware of what they need to “check and balance.” For this reason, evangelicals should desire transparency from our government, including the POTUS, to the maximum extent possible with obvious limitations due to national security and privacy. Again, it is beyond reasonable doubt that Trump has actively taken steps to make his administration less transparent. Again, Craig and Harris say nothing about this.
    • Takes Blame: Effective leaders know that the buck stops with them. They take accountability for the actions of their organization, even if they did not personally approve (or know of) the action, because they know that they are responsible for “setting the tone at the top.” Leaders understand that “the buck stops here.” It is beyond reasonable doubt that Trump’s narcissism makes him incapable of admitting failure, which in turn prevents him from taking blame, ownership, or accountability for anything which happens in his administration. This undermines his personal credibility, which in turn creates an unnecessary obstacle to achieving his policies. Again, Craig and Harris say nothing about this.
    • Acts Consistently with Our Heritage: American evangelicals, like all other Americans, should agree that a POTUS should not make statements or take actions which are directly counter to the founding principles of the country. It is beyond reasonable doubt that Trump has done this at an alarming level. Again, Craig and Harris say nothing about this.
  • Maintains Executive Branch Trustworthiness:
    • Lack of Criminal Record. While Trump himself has not been convicted (or plead guilty) to any crime, many people in his campaign and administration have. Again, it is beyond reasonable doubt that the Trump administration has not only had an alarming number of criminal investigations, indictments, guilty pleas, and convictions. Indeed, the Trump administration’s numbers are the highest in recent U.S. history, if not all of U.S. history, and even above that of the Nixon administration. What does it say about Trump’s character — to say nothing of his managerial skills — that he has hired so many people who have committed felonies, especially those involving matters of trust or loyalty to the United States? My answer: where’s there’s smoke, there’s fire. Either Trump is a terrible people manager who doesn’t know how to properly vet employees or, as I believe to be more likely, the corruption starts at the very top (Trump). Neither of these options make Trump look good. Yet, like most American evangelicals generally, Craig and Harris do not even mention, much less “denounce” this.
    • No History of Sexual Misconduct. This objective does not refer to what evangelicals call “sexual immorality,” which includes sex outside of (heterosexual) marriage, masturbation, etc. Nor does this refer to Trump’s creepy and cringeworthy sexualization of his daughters. Rather, this objective refers to sexual behavior which is either a crime or actionable under civil law. Even taking a conservative approach to vetting the numerous allegations of sexual misconduct against Trump, it is clear that there are many (8, by my count) which are initially credible. If true, these are serious violations of the Ten Commandments, far more serious than using profanity in the Oval Office, but, again, Craig and Harris are completely silent on this matter.
  • Health and Fitness.
    • Lack of Qualifying Psychological Disabilities. It is beyond reasonable doubt that Trump is a narcissist; even Craig and Harris recognize this. I don’t know if they would go further and endorse the view that Trump has Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) or is a malignant narcissist, but there is extremely good reason to believe both. (For an important dissenting view, see here.) Even if Trump has neither, however, Craig and Harris recognize Trump’s pride. Why should this be of special importance to evangelicals? Well, consider what C.S. Lewis wrote (in Mere Christianity) about Christian teaching on pride and humility.
      • “The Christians are right: it is Pride which has been the chief cause of misery in every nation and every family since the world began. Other vices may sometimes bring people together: you may find good fellowship and jokes and friendliness among drunken people or unchaste people. But pride always means enmity—it is enmity. And not only enmity between man and man, but enmity to God.” (LINK)
    • Narcissists value their ego above all else, which makes them very easy to manipulate or provoke. That, in turn, makes a narcissistic President (like Trump) severely damaging to national security, which in the long run poses a direct threat to evangelical policies on abortion, religious liberty, and religious persecution. There is very strong evidence that multiple nations, hostile to the U.S., have used Trump’s ego to manipulate him. Craig and Harris say nothing about that.

In addition to the above listed prerequisites, there are other factors related to Trump’s dispositions which fall under the category of leadership effectiveness. Allow me to explain.

  • Leadership Effectiveness
    • External Events. Part of what we mean by leadership effectiveness is this. A president’s success is partially determined by how well a president responds to the external situations and events a president faces while in office. Again, there is very strong evidence that Trump has handled a variety of external events very poorly. Allow me to briefly summarize and explain why this should be of special interest to American evangelicals.
      • Unite the Right Rally (Charlottesville, VA). On multiple occasions, Trump falsely suggested there is some sort of moral equivalence between those who fight for racial justice and those who are white supremacists. One would have to perform mental gymnastics worthy of an Olympic gold meal to reconcile that claim with the teachings of Christ and, again, this seems far more serious than using profanity. Craig and Harris are inexplicably silent.
      • North Korea’s Detonation of the Hydrogen Bomb. Trump boasts about his “love letters” with mass murderer and brutal dictator Kim Jong Un, but when North Korea successfully tests a hydrogen bomb, Trump attacks South Korea’s policy of appeasement. Kim plays Trump and scores a major PR victory by becoming the first NK leader to meet with a sitting U.S. President. Meanwhile, Trump accomplishes nothing to reduce the risk of nuclear war between the U.S. and North Korea. While the risk of North Korea launching a nuclear attack on the U.S. remains low, why allow that risk to increase? Again, Craig and Harris are silent.
      • COVID-19. While the virus is not Trump’s fault, the deception and mismanagement of the federal government’s response to the virus is Trump’s fault. As I write this, roughly 200,000 Americans have died from COVID-19. Trump admits, on tape, to Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward that he deliberately “downplayed” the virus to avoid a panic. This entails that numerous public statements by Trump about the virus were lies, which in turn makes it virtually certain that at least some of those 200,000 American deaths could have been avoided. As the saying goes, “Trump lied; people died.”
      • 2020 Protests (Sparked by George Floyd’s Murder). A white police officer murdered George Floyd, an evangelical African American, in broad daylight, sparking nationwide outrage and protests. Soon numerous other videos emerge of police brutality, against people of all races but disproportionately against minorities. Again, the murder of George Floyd is not Trump’s fault, but Trump’s handling of the fallout is his fault. Not only did Trump fail to unite or soothe the country, but during one protest in the nation’s capitol, he sanctioned the use of tear gas by secret police in riot gear to clear people from the church yard of the Episcopal Church in Washington, D.C. Why did he do this? The Episcopal Bishop of Washington explains what he did not do: “The President did not pray when he came to St. John’s; nor did he acknowledge the agony and sacred worth of people of color in our nation who rightfully demand an end to 400 years of systemic racism and white supremacy in our country.” What he did, instead, was use the church for a photo op. He apparently thinks Christians are so stupid that all he has to do is hold (upside down) a Bible he’s never read, in front of a church he’s never attended, and you will think he’s one of you. These are not the actions of a devout follower of Christ. This should remind evangelicals that, like the people of Puerto Rico, Trump only cares about evangelicals when he can use them to get something in return.

Trump apparently thinks Christians are so stupid that all he has to do is hold (upside down) a Bible he’s never read, in front of a church he’s never attended, and you will think he’s one of you. 

Trump’s Policy Failures

I believe the dispositional failures listed in the previous section to be disqualifying and I think evangelical voters should consider them disqualifying, too. But the evangelical case against voting for Trump doesn’t stop there. There are also policy reasons for evangelicals to vote against Trump. But first let me acknowledge a point of agreement with Craig and Harris: Trump has been generally effective at implementing the policies he wants and he has appointed solidly conservative justices to the Supreme Court. Those two Trump accomplishments represent a very one-sided summary of Trump’s policies, however. Some of Trump’s policies seem to outright contradict an evangelical perspective; Craig and Harris say nothing about this.

  • Immigration: Trump ran and was elected on a xenophobic platform. While fellow xenophobes might delight in Trump’s efforts to implement his xenophobic campaign promises, logically consistent evangelicals should denounce Trump’s policies towards immigrants. The Bible holds up treatment of immigrants as a demonstration of righteousness (Deut. 10:19; Lev. 19:34; Lev. 27:19; Ps. 146:9; Jer. 7:5-7; Ezek 47:22; Zech. 7:9-10; Mt. 25:35; Rom. 12:13; Heb. 13:1-3, etc.).  In fact, I could be wrong, but I think the Bible says more about this one issue than it says about homosexuality. Then there is what Jesus called the second most important commandment, “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Mk. 12:31). So what do Craig and Harris say about this? Nothing. They commend Trump for defending the religious freedom related to gay wedding cakes, but they do not denounce Trump’s policies on immigration. In fact, they don’t even mention the topic of immigration or specific immigration issues, like family separations and DACA recipients. Perhaps, like many evangelicals, Craig and Harris have decided that evangelical-friendly policies on pro-life issues and religious freedom outweigh evangelical-hostile policies on immigration. Even if that were or is the case, however, this is a significant omission in what is supposed to be guidance to American evangelical voters on voting for president. I also think that Trump’s policies are less effective than Biden’s policies when it comes to reducing the total number of abortions. More on that in a moment.

The Bible says more about the treatment of immigrants than it says about homosexuality. Jesus said that “Love your neighbor as yourself” is the second most important commandment. Evangelical voters must consider Trump’s anti-evangelical policies on the treatment of immigrants.

  • National Security: While the Bible does not speak as directly on national security as it does on immigration, I think it is safe to say that the Bible does not support national security policies which recklessly endanger the health and safety of Americans. And yet Trump’s policies (along with his dispositions) have done precisely that.
    • Risk Analysis. Part of national security is the continuous process of identifying, analyzing, and estimating threats to national security. COVID-19 is a threat to national security. In order to have an effective response, it is crucial that scientists at the CDC have access to the latest, most accurate information. Yet the Trump administration instructed hospitals to bypass the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in reporting their COVID-19 data to the government each day.
    • Risk Treatment. Another part of national security is taking action to handle national security threats. Yet Trump’s own statements and actions have made U.S. national security worse in at least five major areas: China, COVID-19, Iran, North Korea, and Russia.
    • Risk Acceptance. Eliminating risks is impossible and so sometimes a decision maker has to accept some risks in order to focus on other, more pressing risks. One good indicator of how effectively a president is doing in this regard is to measure how many national security professionals have publicly expressed concern about how the POTUS has impacted national security. In an unprecedented move, more than 300 national security professionals have publicly expressed alarm at the President’s conduct. Again, Craig and Harris don’t mention this.
    • Risk Communication. A crucial part of national security, like all other branches of risk management, is risk communication, the ongoing exchange of information between the decision maker (in this case, the POTUS) and other stakeholders (the military, the intelligence community, and so forth). The idea is that decision makers make better risk management decisions when they actually listen to what their risk analysts tell them. Yet Trump has openly attacked his risk analysts (the intelligence community) for years. There is good reason to believe he rarely, if ever, read his intelligence briefings (reports). Indeed, there is now good reason to believe he has virtually stopped even listening to oral presentations of the material. Trump cannot make good national security decisions if he refuses to listen to what American intelligence agencies tell him.

Contrary to what Craig and Harris suggest, voting for a Trump is not a simple matter of prioritizing a president’s policies over a president’s beliefs (and, presumably, dispositions). One must also weigh Trump’s pro-evangelical policies (such as abortion and religious freedom) with his anti-evangelical policies (such as immigration and national security).

Yeah, But What About Abortion?

I’d like to offer two points.

(1) Evangelicals, like anyone else opposed to abortion rights, should focus on the set of policies most likely to achieve the greatest reduction in the number of abortions.

According to the Guttmacher Institute, there were 862,000 abortions in the United States in the year 2017, the most recent year for which data is available. From an evangelical perspective, it is clear that the “optimal” or “acceptable” number of abortions is zero, just as the “optimal” or “acceptable” number of post-birth murders is zero. Because the annual number of abortions will never be zero, just as the annual number of post-birth murders will never be zero, evangelicals need to focus on the suite of mechanisms most likely to achieve the greatest reduction in abortions.

One obvious option to reduce abortions is to make it illegal to get or perform one, which would require that the Supreme Court overturn Roe v. Wade. Yet it is unclear how much of an effect appointing more conservative justices to the Supreme Court is likely to have. Consider the words of Christian philosopher Victor Reppert, a contributor to one of Craig’s anthologies, on the prospects for overturning Roe.

I’ve also found it somewhat puzzling that since 1980, most of the Supreme Court Justices have been nominated by Republican Presidents who have been pro-life, and yet Roe is still going strong, supported in many cases by the decisions of those justices put there by Reagan, the Bushes, and Trump. Even Brett Kavanaugh, who did vote with the dissenters in the Louisiana case, tried to send it back to the lower courts to avoid having to rule on it, which is not the actions of someone eager to overturn Roe. And Roberts, well, he didn’t even want to overturn precedent on a ruling he opposed a few months earlier, because of stare decisis. What chance is there that he would overturn Roe? I conclude that maybe if Roe had not happened, fetuses might have been saved, but overturning it now would save two fetuses in the State of Mississippi. The horse is out of the barn and not coming back.

But suppose that the Supreme Court did overturn Roe, opening the door to outlawing all abortion. There is no doubt that if abortion is made illegal, that would prevent some abortions which would have otherwise happened. At the same time, it is equally clear that that would not prevent all abortions, just as the illegality of post-birth murder does not prevent all murder. If abortion were suddenly made illegal in all 50 states tomorrow, some women would still get abortions, either illegally in the U.S. or legally in another country. So the question which needs to be asked is this: what is the expected number of abortions during a Trump administration vs. a possible Biden administration?

The question pro-life voters need to ask is this: what is the expected number of abortions during a Trump administration vs. a possible Biden administration?

In order to answer that question, you need to think about much more than appointments to the Supreme Court. You also need to consider how both Trump and Biden would support other strategies to prevent unwanted pregnancies, such as sex education and access to contraception. Here Trump (and Republican) attempts to repeal Obamacare generally, rollback the Obamacare birth control mandate, and the like have an unwanted consequence: they increase the number of unwanted pregnancies. That, in turn, increases the number of abortions. Perhaps this is why, during the last 30 years, abortion rates have not increased under Democratic administrations since the 1980s peak in abortions. In fact, the abortion rate has decreased under both Republican and Democratic administrations.

(2) Because no candidate perfectly aligns with evangelical values, American evangelicals need to consider the impact of a candidate’s policies on all evangelical values, not just abortion.

Evangelicals cannot focus just on abortion, religious freedom, and religious persecution. They need to also weigh the impact of a candidate’s policies on immigration, healthcare, the COVID-19 pandemic (which, again, all by itself has killed over 200,000 Americans), stewardship of God’s creation (the Earth), and even national security. Again, once these other evangelical values are taken into account, it is far from obvious that Trump is a better choice than Biden, from an evangelical perspective.

Conclusion

Sorting out the proper role of values in choosing a presidential candidate is a complex and sometimes difficult task for any thoughtful voter. Because the mythical “perfect candidate” is just that — mythical — trade-offs between competing values are all but inevitable. If evangelicals are going to vote based on their values, which they should, they should do the following. First, for all of the reasons stated above, they must consider more than a candidate’s policies and beliefs. Evangelicals must also consider a candidate’s dispositions. Evangelicals, like all Americans, should especially consider a candidate’s disposition towards impulsive behavior which can recklessly endanger the health and safety of Americans. Third, they should at least consider all of their values, not just the popular trinity of evangelical political issues (abortion, religious freedom, and religious persecution). Treatment of immigrants, in particular, cannot be ignored. Fourth, they should really consider which policies are most likely to achieve the desired results. In the case of abortion, while chastity outside of (heterosexual) marriage will remain the standard, evangelicals should seriously consider how increasing access to contraception could decrease the number of abortions. Finally, fifth, evangelicals need to stop merely giving lip service to the idea of denouncing the things they dislike about their preferred candidates. They need to consistently and unequivocally denounce their preferred candidate whenever the candidate deviates from their values, including after their candidate becomes the nominee, after their candidate is elected, and after their candidate assumes office. Failure to do so does, indeed, create a real risk of backlash against the gospel because of real or perceived hypocrisy on the part of evangelicals.

Acknowledgments

I am grateful to Victor Reppert and two other reviewers who provided feedback which improved this essay. They will be identified in an update to this post if and when I receive their permission to identify them by name. Responsibility for any remaining errors in this article remains mine.

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