Commentary
By Courtney Friesen 8-29-2018

“[O]ne reason the people of the United States — from both parties — felt such profound disappointment in [the] sexual misconduct...[of the President] was the poor example it set for adolescent children and, indeed, for the rest of society.” This brief extract is from a book published in July by Wayne Grudem titled Christian Ethics: An Introduction to Biblical Moral Reasoning. One might justifiably imagine that this sentence concerns Donald Trump. Not so.

In fact, throughout all 1,296 pages of this ethics textbook, Trump appears exclusively as an upright model of virtue. Rather, Grudem here refers to Bill Clinton, whose transgressions have, for good reason, received renewed attention in the context of the recent #MeToo movement. Still, many fair-minded readers will find Grudem’s selective moral disappointment to be surprising, if not outrageous. But his seemingly one-sided assessment is not a mere oversight.

Contorting the Bible to Trumpism

Although he initially endorsed Marco Rubio in the GOP primaries, after Trump secured the party’s nomination, Grudem argued that voting for Trump was “a morally good choice.” Then, two days after the revelation of the now-infamous Access Hollywood tape that exposed Trump boasting about sexual assault, on Oct. 9, Grudem retracted this opinion, calling on Trump to withdraw. A mere 10 days later, by which time it was clear that Trump would not exit the race, Grudem retracted his retraction, insisting that it was still preferable to vote for Trump on the basis of his “good” policies, even if one could not support him as a person.

Grudem’s confusing U-turns are significant for several reasons. First, he is widely influential among conservative evangelicals, and by contrast to some of Trump’s other outspoken supporters, such as Paula White, Jerry Falwell Jr., and Franklin Graham, Grudem has premier academic credentials in biblical and theological studies.

As a seminary professor with a doctoral degree in the New Testament from the University of Cambridge, he has published numerous books, most notably his Systematic Theology which boasts over 400,000 copies in print. He has been president of the Evangelical Theological Society and is general editor of the English Standard Version Study Bible.

Grudem’s embrace of Trump is also symptomatic of evangelicalism at large. As it’s been often repeated, 81 percent of white evangelicals voted for Trump. While some of this support has since eroded — not least due to the president’s unceasing dishonesty, steady revelations of sexual scandals, and the recent child separation immigration policy — many, like Grudem, have persisted in their loyalty. Yet, attaching oneself to Trump inevitably entails stark ethical compromises. In the case of Grudem, whose primary vocation involves writing and teaching on Christian Scripture, this effect is clearly apparent in the ways he presses the Bible into the service of a distinctly Trumpian ideological agenda.

Proof-Texting Harmful Policies

Consider Trump’s environmental policy. In keeping his past assertions that climate change is a “hoax,” Trump withdrew the United States’ participation from the Paris Climate Agreement. Grudem, a fellow climate change denier, argues at length in Christian Ethics against the scientific consensus. He maintains that the “warnings about dangerous man-made global warming...conflict with the Bible’s teachings about the nature of the earth and man’s purpose on the earth.” Several verses are mustered in support: in Genesis, God declares the creation “very good”; after Noah’s flood, he promises that there would always be seasons and that never again would a deluge destroy the earth; and in a similar vein, according to the Book of Jeremiah, God asserts that he has set a perpetual boundary for the sea. Consequently, Grudem insists that it cannot be the case that God “designed the earth to be this fragile in response to human activity.”

Anyone with even a cursory familiarity with Genesis, however, can readily recognize how Grudem’s selective reading skews the creation story. By the third chapter, humans had failed to protect and care for the earth as God directed them. As a result of their negligence and disobedience, the creation was cursed, and, as the Apostle Paul later remarked, it has been groaning under this subjugation continually ever since. In view of this, it is difficult to comprehend Grudem’s assumption that God would not have created the earth in such a way that humans could rapidly destroy it.

A similar phenomenon is evident with the Trump administration’s zero-tolerance immigration policy. Earlier this summer, Jeff Sessions announced the intention to detain all children separately from their parents as a means of deterring illegal border crossings. In the face of widespread outcry, he defended the policy by citing “the Apostle Paul and his clear and wise command in Romans 13 to obey the laws of the government.”

Grudem’s Christian Ethics was on its way to print too late for him to directly address the morality of separating families at the border and Sessions’ use of the Bible to justify it. Nevertheless, his deployment of Romans 13 in relation to other ethical issues closely resembles that of Sessions.

As Grudem notes, the Apostle Paul emphasizes that Christians at Rome should submit to the authorities because they had been appointed by God in order to promote good and punish evil. For this reason, they “bear the sword,” a point that Grudem takes as a divine mandate supporting capital punishment. What both Grudem and Sessions overlook, however, is that Paul’s instructions are not addressed to the authorities, but to the followers of Christ, an often-persecuted religious minority living under oppressive governments. Indeed, Paul himself had been frequently imprisoned for his missionary activities, and Jesus had been executed under Roman jurisdiction with the charge of being “king of the Jews.”

To appropriate Romans 13 while advocating for policies of oppression and violent punishment, as Sessions and Grudem have done, elides this historical context. Yet, such applications have a strong precedent in the United States, most notoriously among defenders of slavery for whom this was a favorite text.

Although he was unable to address family separation in his textbook, Grudem went on record in July with an article titled “Why Building a Border Wall Is a Morally Good Action.” His central argument is that throughout the Hebrew Bible, the city of Jerusalem required a wall for its security, and its construction was regarded as a blessing from God. Setting aside the dubious nature of applying the practices of ancient Near Eastern city fortification to a twenty first-century nation state, something more insidious emerges in this column. Grudem connects Trump’s proposed border wall with family separation: “[a]n effective border wall would also be the best way to keep children together with their parents.” If a wall was in place, “[w]e would never have to detain either parents or children on US soil in the first place.”

Strategy of Distraction

While Grudem’s effort to link family separation with the necessity of a border wall may seem arbitrary, it has a clear and unmistakable origin. On May 26, Trump tweeted, “Put pressure on the Democrats to end the horrible law that separates children from there [sic] parents [...] we MUST continue building the WALL!” Whereas Sessions had stated the policy was intended to deter people from crossing unlawfully, Trump exposes the larger strategy: to inflict harm on children in the hope that Democrats might finally give in and provide him with his long-sought wall. Trump’s capacity for such a cynical play should not surprise us. But that Grudem, a Christian seminary professor, would parrot him is much more disturbing.

At the presidential debate of Oct. 9, 2016, Trump sought to redirect the nation’s attention away from his own actions revealed in the Access Hollywood tape by parading Bill Clinton’s past victims into the gallery. Judging by his 2018 textbook on biblical ethics, Grudem adopts a similar strategy of distraction. Moreover, he marshals dubious biblical arguments in support of the president’s policies. This Trumpian trajectory is a cautionary tale, illustrating the consequences of jettisoning the prophetic voice of Scripture in deference to a powerful man and his ideological agenda.

Courtney Friesen is an Assistant Professor of Religious Studies and Classics at University of Arizona. 

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