(Gage Skidmore October 4, 2016)
I’m a political pessimist, but I really feel for those conservatives, Republicans, and alienated Americans who have made up their minds to vote for Trump this election.
Having made the difficult decision to support a tarnished and disreputable candidate, the only consolation was that they were doing so with their eyes wide open. But even if you “hold your nose and vote”, Trump’s notorious video from 2005 has just demonstrated that your wide-open eyes might start to sting in his noxious atmosphere.
Watching the video, the most surreal element is that Trump’s language and tone sound so similar to his interviews and media appearances. It’s as if he’s just switched topics from immigration, free trade and Clinton’s emails to groping women and extolling the modern droit du seigneur of rich and famous men.
Nonetheless, many of Trump’s reluctant supporters argue that nothing has changed. They knew voting for Trump was going to be a bad deal, but like an urgent sale when you’re desperate for cash, they’ll take the best offer they can get.
Trump’s saving grace amongst conservative and religious voters is their fear of a Clinton presidency deciding future Supreme Court nominees, because in many ways the Supreme Court is more powerful than the government on issues that count in the culture war. In the second Presidential debate, Clinton herself stated that she wants a Supreme Court that will protect Roe v Wade and same-sex marriage, whereas Trump said he would nominate a judge in the mould of the late Justice Scalia.
Some have argued that Christians might view Trump as a new Constantine – an imperfect leader who should nonetheless be welcomed thanks to his more sympathetic stance toward Christianity, and religious and political freedom generally. From this point of view, the alternative is Hillary as a new Diocletian, ready to demand allegiance to the central moral tenets of contemporary liberalism, including abortion and same-sex marriage.
But a complicating factor in the comparison with Constantine is the political mechanism and culture of modern democracy and its moral and spiritual ramifications for Christians hoping to discern God’s political will.
Christians in the Roman Empire could have no illusion of control over Imperial politics. The rise of Constantine must have seemed truly providential in part because it was entirely out of their hands. Christians may have enjoyed the benefits of the new Emperor’s patronage, but in a non-democratic regime the religious inclinations and attitudes of the ruler are as remote as the weather.
Democracy changes everything. It implicates us ordinary citizens in the collective choice of ruler and presents us with a sense of moral culpability in otherwise distant political outcomes. Notwithstanding the enormous benefits of democracy, Christians grapple with the new problem of whom to support and whether we can in good conscience support anyone. Pretending that Trump is a new Constantine is one way of trying to resolve the cognitive dissonance inherent in supporting a candidate who increasingly falls short of one’s political, religious, or moral ideals.
At face value the pressure to “get behind” and rally in support of one’s chosen candidate makes it hard to simultaneously disavow their shortcomings. It is psychologically difficult to say “candidate X is truly terrible, and I support him totally.” We naturally insert justifications and caveats that help resolve this implicit conflict.
Focusing on Bill Clinton’s alleged sexual assaults and abuses, and Hillary’s alleged complicity or guilt by association helps to rationalise Trump’s appalling comments. It’s a little like observing that while Constantine had his wife and son executed, those acts were nothing compared to the crimes and perversions of many other Roman Emperors.
So although Trump’s Christian supporters have naturally found his comments in the 2005 video deeply challenging, as one Evangelical leader explained:
“my support for Donald Trump in the general election was never based upon shared values rather it was built upon shared concerns…we are left with a choice of voting for the one who will do the least damage to our freedoms.”
The trouble is that predicting “who will do the least damage” is simply not possible. We have no idea who will do the least damage in the short, medium, or long term. Nor, I suspect, are most people actually serious about predicting the future. Rather, they are using the idea of “who will do the least damage” as a rule of thumb to guide and rationalise a difficult and unpalatable decision.
In our state of deep ignorance over the long-term consequences of any action, such attempts to rationalise a vote for a morally and politically distasteful option are more of a cognitive strategy than a political one. It’s about reassuring oneself in the face of internal and external doubts and avoiding regrets.
In Germany in the early 1930s many Christians voted in support of the Nazi party and conservative nationalist groups against socialist and Communist parties. Without the benefit of hindsight the Nazi party would have at that stage seemed far more palatable than the atheistic, Stalinist KPD. Even with the benefit of hindsight one could still argue that the Communists’ abrogation of freedom would have had a deeper and more far-reaching impact on most Germans than the Nazi regime ever did.
This is not to say that voting for the Nazis was a better choice than voting for the Communists, but to illustrate the absurdity brought about by the “lesser of two evils” approach when applied to democratic participation by people of faith.
At what point would it be better to surrender political power than to continue to wield it in increasingly debased contests, where victory means having reason to hope that your chosen candidate is a little less terrible than their opponent?
Many of Trump’s reluctant Christian supporters think it is too idealistic to eschew political power altogether. Perhaps it is worth asking in return if there is a point at which the political options become so inimical to religious faith that the responsibilities and opportunities afforded by the democratic right to vote become morally inaccessible or at least inadvisable to religious believers.
Maybe this is easier for an Australian to accept. Americans have long imbibed an exceptionalism, an optimism, and an overt religiosity that risks conflating politics and religion. The American perspective seems dominated by the idea that Providence has delivered this great nation to the American people, but at the same time handed over responsibility for its upkeep. It’s as though Americans are unwilling to admit that their political system might be so flawed as to render participation impossible.
By contrast Australia was first and foremost an offshore dumping ground for convicts. Expectations were low from the outset.
Reading the accounts of Trump’s Christian supporters gives the impression that democracy has set Providence at a distance, that the power of the vote forces religious people to elevate pragmatism and politics alongside, if not ahead of, faith.
It is true that the future character of American law and society may depend heavily on future Supreme Court decisions, which will in turn depend on the perspective of its judicial members. The next President will likely influence the make-up of the court, and the identity of the next President will in turn be decided by the American people. If we stop there, then indeed the future character of American law and society depends on the voting choice of individual Americans, Christians as much as anyone.
But not ultimately. Ultimately everything is dependent on God, and either trusting or fearing politicians and judges is an error.
The real problem, common to us all, is fear: the fear we will be blameworthy if we do not vote for the less terrible candidate, or against the more terrible candidate. We fear we will be held accountable if we do not exercise our limited power to influence this remote yet significant political event. We fear that terrible things will happen if we do not do everything in our power to forestall them.
But Christianity has never promised that terrible things will stop happening. Christianity only makes one promise, a promise that was enough to let martyrs endure persecution and death without fear.
Of course, the martyrs never faced the difficult decision of choosing how to vote, so take all of this with a grain of salt.
Zac Alstin is associate editor of MercatorNet. He also blogs at zacalstin.com.