Christian Ethics in the Trump Era

The public and private behavior of Donald Trump in the campaign of 2016 and the first four months of his presidency raise serious questions about Christian ethics as applied to politics. The two most urgent questions are: Are Trump’s ethics Christian? Why are evangelical leaders still supporting him?

At no point have evangelical Christian leaders wavered in supporting the behavior and policies of Donald Trump. They have “turned a blind eye” to extremist statements of a wide variety, a daily habit of false statements, and repeated inability to acknowledge and take responsibility for errors of judgment. Yet evangelical leaders continue to support him as the best hope for Christian values. Is this a case of “the blind leading the blind?”

Throughout the political campaign of 2016, Donald Trump’s actions were entirely self-centered. The only question that mattered was whether something helped him win. When Hillary Clinton was under FBI investigation, the man who wanted to oversee the justice system pronounced her guilty and promised to send her to jail. He attacked the FBI when they declined to bring charges and once again asserted Clinton’s guilt when the investigation resumed at the last minute. When WikiLeaks released private communications of the Clinton campaign stolen by a foreign adversary, Trump praised the law breakers and used gossipy communications fully. He also exploited the personal information shared by Clinton which was even more extensive than previous candidates while hiding his own information to an unprecedented extent. When asked after the election if perhaps he went too far, his response was that he couldn’t have been wrong because he won.

Despite expectations that normal presidential leadership would supplant excesses of campaign behavior, President Trump has taken campaign behavior to new extremes in the first six months of his term. Blatant lies are routinely issued by the White House that are never acknowledged when reliable information is discovered through government officials outside the White House or by the press. Events around the resignation of General Flynn demonstrate that the President was completely unconcerned that a key advisor was lying and under investigation for possible illegal and even treasonous actions. Public awareness of the lying forced the president to act and he still resents that he was forced to punish behavior he does not see as wrong.

Events surrounding three terminations of high officials provide the clearest evidence of Trump ethics. General Michael Flynn was reluctantly forced long after Acting Attorney General Sally Yates warned the White House of the lies – and then only because the press told the world Flynn lied about contacts with Russian officials. After the warning, Sally Yates was not consulted in developing a travel ban that violated the constitution. She was peremptorily fired when she refused to defend that order in federal court. The third firing was a sudden decision about the FBI director whose public testimony to a congressional committee refuted presidential lies and revealed a criminal investigation of the White House.

The three firings have shown the world that Donald Trump demands personal loyalty to the extent of ignoring truth and constitutional limits. His comments about a dinner with FBI Director Comey led to the revelation he demanded personal loyalty from an official set up to be politically independent who was also investigating the president’s staff.

His standard of loyalty is entirely self-centered. It neglects constitutional limits, as in honoring the independent judgments of Yates and Comey. It also doesn’t involve loyalty to his staff or the Vice President, all of whom were betrayed by presidential statements undermining what the staff said about firing the FBI director. Rather than take responsibility for misleading his own spokes persons, he said he moved too fast for them to keep up and was thinking of handling his own public relations.

Donald Trump ethics, as shown habitually, demands total loyalty to himself to the exclusion of respect for truth, honesty, or constitutional limitations.

Can this behavior possibly be represented as Christian ethics? The answer is NO if you believe the Ten Commandments should be observed and sin should be avoided.

The essence of the Judeo-Christian concept of sin is self-centeredness to the extent of putting oneself above God’s expectations. The Ten Commandments summarize God’s expectations in two categories: “loving God,” as defined in commandments 1-4; and “loving others,” as specified in commandments 5-10. It is the second category that underlies Christian ethics. Specifics of expected behaviors include honoring parents and a series of things not to do – lying, stealing, committing adultery, and coveting what doesn’t belong to you.

Donald Trump ethics violate commandments about lying and coveting every day. The prominence of self-centeredness in treatment of his staff, cabinet, congress, and the press poisons everything that his political supporters hope to achieve.

How can evangelical leaders and Republicans who call themselves Christians justify support, tolerance, or even indifference to the poison of Trump ethics? Attacks on the critics of Trump behavior are not acceptable, for they focus on the splinter in the eyes of critics while ignoring the 2×4 plank in the eyes of defenders. Evangelical leaders who tolerate or support Trump behavior are truly blind leaders who expect Christians to follow them into a chasm that anyone with normal sight would avoid.

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