Tuesday, August 02, 2016

To Trump or not to Trump

I'm a NeverTrumper. I couldn't change direction without suffering internal decapitation. 

However, I've been running across bad arguments that some NeverTrumpers are using against Trumpers. By "Trumpers," I don't mean folks who voted for Trump in the primaries, but conservatives who opposed him in the primaries, yet are supporting his bid in the general election. And that was inevitable. You were bound to have some conservatives who vehemently opposed Trump in the primaries, but given a choice between him and Hillary, grudgingly support Trump. 

(I'm not saying Hillary and Trump are the only alternatives. I just mean it's a choice between them in the sense that, in all likelihood, one of them will be elected.)

This debate is becoming very acrimonious. Some NeverTrumpers treat this as a test of moral purity. And in relation to the primaries, I agree. But the general election presents a real dilemma. There are some thoughtful conservatives supporting (or considering) Trump's bid in the general election (e.g. Dennis Prager, Robert George, Robert Gagnon, Douglas Groothuis, Scott Klusendorf, Wayne Grudem). 

John Mark Reynolds penned a good critique of Grudem's article. However, Reynolds didn't merely disagree with Grudem–he was incensed by Grudem's stance. Unlike Reynolds, I'm not indignant over Grudem's stance. For Grudem, the prospect of Hillary as president is so catastrophic that he turns a blind eye to how bad Trump is. That's one-sided, but understandable. 

Conversely, some Trumpers are panicking at the prospect of Hillary, and the recriminations against NeverTrumpers is beginning before the first vote is cast. 

I did a post that was fairly critical of Wayne Grudem's case for Trump–although I generally agree with Grudem's criteria. I've also read a number of other fine critiques of Grudem's post:

But now I'd like to turn my attention to a bad critique of Grudem:

The reason I do this is because moral clarity is important in this debate. Baird's heart is in the right place (so is Grudem's), but he doesn't know how to properly evaluate the issue. The way he frames the issue is off-the-mark. 

Dr. Grudem contends that Trump is “flawed”, but not “evil”.

I've seen a number of critics misquoting Grudem. He didn't say Trump is a good person with flaws. Rather, he said Trump is a good candidate with flaws. 
Now, I think that's a considerable understatement, but there's a basic difference between saying someone is a good person and saying someone is a good candidate. To take a comparison, an individual might be an outstanding surgeon, but a terrible person. When Grudem uses the word "good", that's in specific reference to Trump in his capacity as a would-be president, and not a statement about his character in general.

Now, it's possible that Grudem is using "candidate" as a synonym for "person," but that's not what he said, and there's an important conceptual distinction. A candidate is a particular role that someone assumes. Would he do a decent job? To take another comparison, suppose you said Sherman was a good general. That's different from saying Sherman was a good person. Bad men can make great generals. In fact, given a choice, it's better to choose a bad man who's a good general than a good man who's a bad general. What's the purpose of having a general at all if not to win battles? 

Dr. Grudem, who is known for his biblical fidelity, moves quickly to a list of concerns we have as evangelicals (of which I concur) in his article. The case is made that Trump is a more pragmatic choice in seeing these concerns addressed or changed. In fact, he quotes a minor prophet concerning “seeking the welfare of a nation” and then leaps to the conclusion that any vote outside of one for Trump is helping Hillary. Therefore, a vote for Trump is morally right because we “cannot stand by and do nothing”. I have called this type of reasoning “situational pragmatism”. It is when normally consistent biblical worldview thinkers suspend their worldview in order to justify a more pragmatic approach due to what they consider “extenuating circumstances”. The colloquial phrase would be that they are trying “to help God out” or “the intention justifies the methodology”.
Pragmatism is a virtue that is difficult to prove by Scripture. Is there really a need to list the scores of stories where pragmatism was eschewed and obedience to God’s Word was implemented? Since when do we as believers default to pragmatism just because it “seems” to be the way to go? I seem to remember a verse that states, “There is a way that seems right to man, but the end thereof is death” (Proverbs 14:12). If that isn’t applicable to unbridled pragmatism, then perhaps any sin or pragmatic methodology can be baptized as permissible by God. I am confident that Dr. Grudem would reject that line of reasoning for he is a committed complimentarian [sic] and would reject suspending gender roles because of pragmatic concerns, so I can only assume that he has compartmentalized his election philosophy outside of his biblical worldview. In essence, Dr. Grudem feels it is now time to “help God out”, by suspending clear Scripture in selecting leadership because the choices we are presented demand it. That is bad theology.

That's confused on several levels:

i) It equivocates by failing to distinguish between pragmatic ethics and making pragmatic judgments. Pragmatism is actually difficult to define. It's not that unified. But there's a basic difference between "pragmatism" in the technical sense of a philosophical value system, and "pragmatism" in the informal sense of taking practical consequences into account when we make ethical decisions. It's trivially easy to illustrate the fact that there are many situations in which it would be immoral not to take practical consequences into consideration when making ethical decisions. The Biblical mandate to love our neighbor requires us to gauge the impact that our actions have on others. Are our actions likely to be beneficial or harmful to others? That's essential to social ethics. 

Put another way, in pragmatic ethics, the practical consequences are the sole factor that determines right and wrong. Practical consequences dictate the ends as well as the means. By contrast, we can distinguish between means and ends. What's the point of pursuing a goal through ineffective methods? Even if consequences don't select for the goal, it would be counterproductive to have means that work at cross-purposes with the ends. 

I can have objectives based on normative principles, but be "pragmatic" about how I achieve my objectives. 

ii) As a matter of fact, there is such a thing as "extenuating circumstances". To take a stock example, killing is prima facie wrong. There are, however, special circumstances under which killing is permissible or even obligatory. Although some actions are intrinsically right or wrong, obligatory or prohibitory, there's a class of actions where the licit or illicit character of the action is context-dependent. 

iii) Baird simply begs the question by suggesting that a vote for Trump is disobedient to God's Word. 

iv) In fact, you have some conservatives who oppose Trump for "pragmatic" reasons just as you have some conservatives who support Trump for "pragmatic" reasons. On the one hand you have conservatives who support Trump because they think Hillary is the greater evil. On the other hand, you have conservatives who oppose Trump because they think he's the greater evil. For instance:

Both sides of this debate are attempting to assess the likely results of a Trump or Hillary presidency. That's hardly confined to Trump supporters. 

We are not called as Christians to watch polling data, consider conventional political wisdom, or choose between two false choices. We are called to obey God fearlessly even at risk of ridicule. Earthly probabilities do not trump (no pun intended) Scriptural precept.

That sounds pious, but it's pious nonsense:
i) Once again, he hasn't begun to establish that voting for Trump is disobedient to God. Baird assumes what he needs to prove.

ii) It's morally irresponsible to act as if probabilities are irrelevant to ethical deliberations. Surely Baird doesn't consistently ignore probabilities when making ethical decisions. What if your child has symptoms of meningitis. Even if it's only probable that your child has meningitis, should you not take your him to the hospital? Probabilities aren't certainties. But should we just take our chances without any regard to what's likely? Isn't that what Proverbs says about the fool? 

That is the danger of situational ethics. It causes us to evaluate circumstances based on what WE think is best and not what God says is best.

i) That's another well-meaning, but callow objection. "Situation ethics" is a label popularized by the late Joseph Fletcher. The fact that he wrote a book by that title doesn't mean he owns situation ethics. Indeed, I daresay most people who use that phrase have never read his book. 

ii) Baird operates with these simplistic dichotomies, as if it's a choice between never taking circumstances into account for else making circumstances the only moral consideration. But that's a false dichotomy. Some actions involve moral absolutes. The situation makes no difference to what's permissible or impermissible. There are, however, many other cases in which circumstances are morally germane to the proper course of action. Again, take the stock example of killing.

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