After President Trump’s State of the Union address, an address that was resoundingly pro-life and anti-socialist, it seems relevant to answer a common question in evangelical circles, “Should evangelical Christians apologize for Donald Trump?,” or better, “Were Evangelicals who voted for Trump morally justified in doing so?”
The answer to the question is not obvious, but it likely boils down to two key points: First, when did the person decide to vote for Trump, and second, what was their motivation at that time. Before I continue, however, let me qualify my statement, because I do not actually believe any legal U.S. Citizen should apologize for voting for their preferred candidate. Voting in accordance with one’s conscience based on the evidence one has at the time does not warrant an apology in my opinion. However, as Evangelicals must also weigh their political decisions against the testimony of Scripture and Church history, an explanation of one’s motivations may at least be warranted.
THE TIMING MATTERS
Most of us agree that Donald Trump came into the presidential race as a deeply flawed candidate, perhaps the least morally respectable of all, or most, of the 17 viable Republican candidates. However, once those other 16 candidates were out, many Evangelicals saw him as the obvious choice for president. This fact raises the question of how the timing of one’s decision to vote for Trump might shed light on the moral justification for that decision.
If Evangelical voters should repent of some political sin, then it might matter at what point in the election cycle the Evangelical voter made the conscious choice that Trump would receive their vote, and not someone else.
Early on, is was obvious that Trump was loud, obnoxious, arrogant, inexperienced, and even wishy-washy with regard to his stances on important issues, even social ones. Moreover, his background as real-estate magnate, reality TV-star, and two-time divorcee, did not scream out “thoughtful, conservative, Jesus-lovin’ family man.” Therefore, I believe Evangelicals who supported Trump during the primaries are in a worse justificatory position than those who supported Trump only after his winning the primary. Moreover, the earlier in the primaries one made the conscious choice for Trump, the greater the likelihood of some kind of sub-Christian motivation.
This seems obvious, because if, at the time of decision to support a candidate, there is another candidate who is both conservative on social issues, and more admirable in their personal ethics, then that candidate is objectively the better choice than one who is socially conservative, yet despicable in their personal behavior, or vice-versa. Early on it appeared as if there were better options for Evangelical voters, since the likes of Ben Carson, Bobby Jindal, and Carly Fiorina were still viable candidates.
The second point is more complex: what were the actual grounds for casting a Trump vote at all? This is difficult to determine apart from personal interviews with Trump voters (regardless of how much we might want to ascribe motives to said voters). It could be that some Evangelicals really did think Trump was the most politically conservative and most moral of the earlier candidates, although, that is hard to believe. Thus, the motivation for casting a Trump vote does seem to correlate with the timing of the voters conscious decision to support Trump. Evangelicals who supported Trump from the outset likely had a different motivation than those who voted for Trump because he was not Clinton.
Concerning the motivation for voters who made later decisions, I think it is blatantly obvious that most Evangelicals who voted for Trump after he won the primaries did so primarily because they saw him as the only hope for the possible overturning of Roe v. Wade. Thus, Evangelicals who did not support Trump from the outset, but did at this later point, had good moral reasons to vote for him as president. While some may charge adamantly pro-life voters like this as being “one-issue” voters, I would argue that this is one awfully important issue. After all, if we cannot agree on something as fundamental as what a human person is, then I struggle to see how we will agree on much else regarding human persons, or whatever we may be talking about. Minimally, one is off to a rocky start, if one can’t agree on when life begins. Evangelicals whose motives changed when their options became limited, seem to be in a better justificatory position with regard to their political choice for Donald Trump.
Still, one motivation that might have been at play in some Evangelical’s Trump vote, and that would be suspect, concerns power. And if this motivation was present in the thinking of some, then perhaps repentance might be in order, or at least, serious theological reflection. Indeed, if an Evangelical had decided for Trump from the outset, and out of a desire that he would somehow empower the Church, bestowing some kind or degree of worldly blessing on Christians, i.e. benefit through political power plays or legal machinations Evangelicals and their institutions, over and above other kinds of communities, religious or non, then I think this kind of thinking is very misguided, and perhaps unchristian.
While I do not know what kind of privileges Evangelicals might have expected that are not also privileges that would apply to people of other religious beliefs (e.g. Mormons, Muslims, and Manichaeans alike), I am arguing that to desire political or social power through the exercise of political or social mechanisms for the sake of political and social privilege is not a Gospel mindset. It is the wrong way for a nation to be redeemed.
In sum, if there was intent by some Evangelicals to vote in a sort of Christian “strong man,” not that I think Trump is one, then that might count as a morally unjustifiable reason, and could indeed require some form of apology. To whom, I have no idea, but perhaps a quiet prayer to the Lord might suffice. On the other hand, for those who felt compelled to vote for Trump when the conditions had become such that he was the only morally justifiable candidate, let them feel no shame, and, especially in light of the recent Supreme Court nominations and the President’s affirmation of the unborn, let them now be viewed as justified.