My early October birthday allowed me to register to vote in the presidential election of 1976, when Jimmy Carter ran against incumbent, but appointed, Gerald Ford. I voted for Carter, who won a close election, though he didn’t carry my home state of Arizona. Part of the reason for my support was Carter’s Southern Baptist faith, and the way it seemed to permeate his life. He was an honest man, and a genuine one, and I think a lot of people who normally wouldn’t consider themselves Democrats supported him because of his honesty, and because, in the wake of Watergate and Nixon, Ford represented the corrupt past of the GOP, regardless of his lack of connection to it.
Since becoming involved in politics in relatively large numbers, the character and faith of the candidate has always been at the core of the argument for supporting their election. Particularly in Presidential politics, Evangelical Christian leaders have gone to great lengths to convince their followers to vote for a particular candidate because they were “one of us.” Of course, the social agenda, particularly opposition to abortion, and then as it became more prevalent, opposition to same-gender marriage, are bottom line deal breakers. But the evidence is overwhelming when it comes to the character issue. So Wayne Grudem’s recent post, which makes the rounds on social media, laying out a moral argument for supporting Donald Trump, is a complete and total departure from where Evangelicals have been in politics at almost any point in the past.
Attempting to turn candidates into born-again Bible thumpers has been, in fact, a key component of Evangelical involvement in the GOP. While none of the last three Republican presidents would ever actually use the term “born again” to describe their faith experience, it was not for lack of trying to tag them that way on the part of Evangelical leaders like Jerry Falwell and Ralph Reed. In fact, it was the election cycles in 1992, 1996 and 2000 that made this component of Evangelical involvement in right wing politics virtually dependent on the candidate’s religious beliefs, because the opposition party nominated Bill Clinton, a genuine, water-baptized, born again Southern Baptist who sang in the choir of Little Rock’s largest and most influential Southern Baptist Congregation during his term as governor, and then Al Gore, another born-again Southern Baptist from Tennessee who even attended seminary for a while.
The Republicans have even managed to nominate at least one Evangelical Christian during this long stretch of talking about it. John McCain was raised Episcopalian, but when he was nominated, was regular in his attendance at the Southern Baptist church where his wife was a member. He chose another active Evangelical, Sarah Palin, as his running mate. During the campaign, Evangelical leaders in particular did their part to support him by attempting to tear down the relationship between Barack Obama and his UCC pastor at Chicago’s largest United Church of Christ congregation.
Things have changed.
The nomination of Mitt Romney in 2012 forced Evangelicals to decide if they were going to abandon their “born again” criteria as a qualification for presidential candidates, or at least abandon attempts to convince people that the Republican nominee was born again, or support Romney. Turns out, it wasn’t all that difficult a choice for them. After some noise at the outset of the nomination, Evangelicals turned out for Romney in a way that they never had for candidates of their own faith family. Neither Mike Huckabee nor Ted Cruz, both Southern Baptists and prominent Evangelical leaders, got the kind of support that Romney, a Mormon, did. Evangelicals lost a lot of credibility with that move. If the faith of the candidate really does matter in an election, citing James 4:17 as scripture support as they have for years, then supporting Romney was a clear departure from that position.
And that’s when all the self-justifying responses started. “We’re not electing a pastor, we’re electing a President.” That was one of them. “I certainly wouldn’t want Romney to serve in my church, but being President is different.” It paved the way for the kind of pitiful justification for voting for Donald Trump that has been put out by Wayne Grudem, and others.
Evil is evil, and the Bible doesn’t measure it by degrees, it measures it for what it is. If it is wrong to vote for Hillary Clinton, and you list moral character as a reason for it being wrong, then Donald Trump is certainly not a “lesser” of two evils. Evil is what it is, and if you believe it is morally wrong to vote for Hillary, then you are a hypocrite if you turn around and vote for Trump.