Below is Part 2 of my critique of Why Evangelicals Are Divided Over Donald Trump written by Joe Carter, a staff member at the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention (ERLC).
As we argued in Part 1, to suggest as Carter does that come November 9, evangelicals can just shake hands and go back to being co-belligerents in a worthy cause is too naïve for words. Russell Moore and the ERLC (which obviously includes Joe Carter) have been too verbally offensive to just forget about it and move on. To implicate evangelicals who decided to vote for a candidate they judged unworthy as forfeiting everything they’ve ever believed crosses the threshold from differences of political opinion to denying the faith.
Nonetheless, let’s examine Carter’s attempt at “explain[ing] the reasoning of both sides” judging both strengths and weaknesses to “propose a way forward” after the presidential election on November 8.
Carter begins by creating two labels— “Justice Side” and “Witness Side.” The former label is pinned to evangelicals voting for Trump; the latter identifies those who are not.
Per Carter, the “Justice Side” easily reduces to two words— “Supreme Court”—which makes the strength for Trump voters its “clarity and simplicity.” Apparently, if Clinton and Trump were a dead-heat in every other area of governance besides the Supreme Court, we’d be better off since the court would be preserved. Thus, the timeline for Trump voters is neither a four nor eight-year presidential cycle but “timeline we should be thinking on is decades.” The weakness of the “Justice” position is the dismissal of the “character issue” for all future elections. Robert Jeffress is a well-known advocate of this group.
On the “Witness Side,” while they share the same concern for nominations to the Supreme Court as do Trump voters, they insist “the damage done to our gospel witness in choosing Trump outweighs the potential devastation caused by a liberal Court.” Rejecting the “lesser of two evils” approach presumably so often cited by the “Justice Side,” the “Witness Side” insists Scripture “calls us to reject all evil.” Hence, the strength of the “Witness Side” is its “integrity and faithfulness.” It’s wrong, they contend, to “sacrifice our witness as ambassadors of Christ…to choose evil on the chance it will lead to a good outcome.” In short, “turning a blind eye to Trump’s character for the sake of political expediency is a betrayal of our calling as Christians.”
Finally, and contrarily to “Justice Side” advocates who look at mere temporal timelines (i.e. “decades”) while “Witness Side” supporters view their perspective from eternity, “Witness Side” proponents insist the “greater concern is for the souls that may be lost because people associate the gospel with pragmatic power politics.” Though Carter didn’t explicitly mention Russell Moore was a prime example of the “Witness Side” presumably Carter has his boss in mind.
Assuming I’ve been somewhat fair to Joe Carter’s explanation of the division between Trump voters (represented by Robert Jeffress) and anti-Trump/Clinton voters (represented by Russell Moore), let’s look a little closer at Carter’s explanation to determine whether we may proceed forward as co-belligerents in a worthy cause come November 9th, basing our reconciliation on the analysis he’s offered us.
First, while the Supreme Court is huge in the eyes of most Trump voters of whom I am aware, it’s not the only reason evangelicals are voting for Trump. Other reasons include the sanctity of human life (which to many supersedes their concern for SCOTUS); preservation of the 2nd amendment; a real reform of immigration laws; dealing with our unprotected borders; the war on terror; and the devastating implementation of Obamacare. Thus, while “Justice Side” advocates appreciate Carter’s claim that they have been both clear and simple, they probably would object to his oversimplification of their choice in Donald Trump.
Second, Carter creates a false dichotomy of timelines between those on the “Justice Side” and those on the “Witness Side.” According to Carter, “Justice Side” advocates apparently only look to the now, the temporal, the things of this world while “Witness Side” advocates have “eternity” in mind. One is a human-ward standpoint; the other is a God-ward standpoint. One focuses on culture and preserving it; that is, the kingdoms of this age. The other focuses on eternity and, consequently, the Kingdom of God. Thus, implied is, one is fleshly and focuses on the world, while the other is spiritual and focuses on God. Also, the “Justice Side” hoping to win the court can only assist in preserving human life while the “Witness Side” sees the greater good as caring for lost souls.
If I am correct in my reading of Carter, what evangelical in his or her right mind would so much as give the “Justice Side” half a thought? It’s obviously not of God! What’s tragic is, if Carter both believes and practices what he’s written, he’s just made the case not only against “Justice Side” advocates but any involvement in cultural engagement. Being “salt and light” in this world can always be viewed as looking at the temporal rather than the eternal. “Witness Side” advocates have themselves reasoned how it’s only a temporary setback if the White House is lost for a season. It’s entirely possible that if we took Carter’s words seriously, he just made the perfect case for shutting down the ERLC.
Third, Carter wrongly insists that “Justice Side” advocates completely dismiss the “character issue” from consideration when looking at Donald Trump. Hence, in all future elections character can play no role for considering a candidate.
In response, first, Carter wrongly claims Trump voters dismiss character issues from consideration. No evangelical I know to date has summarily dismissed some of the despicable character issues of Donald Trump. Even Carter’s representative of the “Justice Side,” Robert Jeffress, did not dismiss Trump’s behavior but, per Carter’s own words, described it as “lewd, offensive, and indefensible.” Hence, it was not at all dismissed. Rather it was weighed and judged as less significant than other factors in deciding for whom to vote (more on this below).
What is more, Carter apparently rejects any type of hierarchical scheme in viewing candidates for public office. But in doing so he flat contradicts himself. For him, voting for a candidate who has questionable moral scruples is, in and of itself, evil. “[The Witness Side] rejects the concept of the “lesser of two evils” as being unbiblical since Scripture calls us to reject all evil.” But if Scripture calls us to reject all evil as Carter maintains, how can he vote for any candidate with any questionable scruples? Is lying evil? Then Carter is bound by Scripture to resist voting for any candidate for any lie he or she has told since the Bible calls us to reject all evil. Has the candidate gone through what Carter would view as an “unbiblical divorce”? Then Carter could not vote for him or her since the Bible calls us to reject all evil. Indeed it would be evil to vote for a liar or a divorcee if Carter followed his interpretation of Scripture that calls us to reject all evil.
From my perspective, there remains no consistent way to apply the “character issue” to candidates for public office apart from some form of a hierarchical scheme of moral values. The simple question is, “What weighs most in any particular election?” Carter can’t be consistent while he’s hopelessly holding on to the unbiblical notion that only public officials who pass the moral muster of conservative Christianity may get a Christian’s vote. To vote for people with ethical issues—whether more serious or less serious —is prima facie committing evil. And, for Carter, the Bible prohibits us from doing so. This view reduces to Christians doing evil every time they step into the polling booth. Who supports such a view?
Contrary to Carter and the ERLC, a much better approach would be to look at the present election as what might produce the most good. Given the only two electable candidates are obviously morally deficient in so many ways, it seems best to weigh both candidates’ moral scruples in the balance along with their stated policies and what they bring to America’s table in determining for whom to vote. Contrary to Carter, moral scruples are considered; but moral scruples are not all that is considered. When the weighing is over, those who’ve determined to vote Trump says, all things equal, I’d not vote Trump. But given the evidence before me, a Trump presidency would be a greater good for our country than a Clinton presidency. Carter implicates this conclusion as evil. I think it’s looking for the greater good.
Fourth, Carter assumes voting for Trump will sacrifice “souls that may be lost” because people “associate the gospel with pragmatic power politics.” Aside from Carter’s offering not a scintilla of proof for his assertion, the truth remains that arguing “souls may be lost” could be used contrary to virtually any notion one would desire to overturn. “Souls may be lost” if we don’t stop arguing against evolution. The last thing we need is the scientific community turning away from us. “Souls may be lost” if we don’t stop our rejection of gay marriage since our culture has overwhelmingly accepted it. “Souls may be lost” if we keep contending for the absolute truthfulness of the Bible when nobody accepts that anymore. “Souls may be lost” if we keep telling people Jesus is the only Savior. “Souls may be lost” if we tell teens no sex outside or before marriage. Ad nauseum Ad infinitum.
Moore and the ERLC has rightly remined us of the sovereignty of God over our culture at times. Thus, even if Trump loses and Clinton wins, God has not abandoned His throne. I offer an unequivocal AMEN! It seems to me, however, that if God remains sovereign over “souls that may be lost” as Moore and Carter’s Calvinistic theology dictates, then a vote for Trump could hardly be employed as a serious objection to irresistible grace necessary to save a lost soul. In other words, if souls are lost, it’s not because of a vote for Trump but because God chose not to find them. Carter’s Calvinism makes the objection of “souls that may be lost” entirely moot.
Finally, Carter speaks about the hypothetical possibility of Hugh Hefner and Larry Flynt ‘credibly claim[ing] to be the candidates for evangelical “Values Voters,” so long as they promised to appoint conservative judges.’ In response, I find it ironic that Carter should bring up ‘evangelical “Values Voters”’ when that particular voting block is a leftover of the old “Religious Right,” the decimated “Bible-belt” culture of which that Russell Moore has personally celebrated its demise. Indeed Moore has suggested it’s a very good thing for “cultural Christianity” to be a part of the bygone days of American culture since it did more harm than good for the gospel. Now, however, we find both Carter and Moore publicly complaining because presidential candidates reflect neither the “Religious Right” nor cultural Christianity. What kind of candidate did they expect would be nominated for president from a culture absent Christian values or even cultural Christianity?
Even so, while I find hard to stomach his reductio ad absurdum of a possible Hefner-Flynt presidential ticket, I find Carter’s position even more problematic implying that no matter which candidate we choose, we are de facto committing evil itself to vote for the candidate since, according to Carter, the immoral scruples of a candidate cannot be morally distinguished from the voting public.
Because according to Carter, Scripture calls us to reject all evil. Hence, voting for a person who commits any evil of any stripe—all evil—is supporting, receiving, and committing evil oneself.
Given Carter’s perspective, I feel the need to buy a horse and buggy and join the Amish.