“How can practicing Catholics and evangelical Protestants support a president as immoral as Donald Trump?” This question assumes that it is morally or intellectually inconsistent to do so — an argument that has been advanced in publications as ideologically distant as the National Review and the Atlantic.
But are Christians who support Trump inconsistent or guilty of fundamental moral errors?
To many conservative Christians, such as myself, Donald Trump offered the hope of making right what they saw as going horribly wrong in our country. Alternative candidates stood for policies that would make things worse and were beset with deep character flaws of their own.
Candidate Trump was unabashedly pro-life and willing to defend religious freedom. He stood for a stronger national defense after eight years of appeasement and neglect. He understood and stated clearly that Western Civilization is under attack from Islamic militants. He supported Israel unreservedly. He saw how excessive taxation and regulation combined to give us the worst recovery from a recession on record.
That is not to say that all Trump supporters support all of Trump’s policies. I, for one, believe the president is wrong to promote the myth that immigration and imports kill jobs and hurt Americans. No candidate has a perfect policy platform.
To be sure, Trump’s rhetoric and personal behavior — his denunciations of Hispanics, tasteless remarks about women and sex, and marital infidelities — were negatives for many of us who voted for him. But, though sometimes excessive or offensive, his brash style was effective because it showed that he understood the feelings of those alienated from mainstream politics — those who felt left behind economically and angry at a federal government that was intruding into their lives, schools that were teaching their children things they did not believe, and celebrities, the media, and mainstream politicians who ridiculed them.
In short, despite efforts to caricature him, President Trump presents a complex picture of sound and unsound policies and personal virtues and vices. Conservatives Christians felt (and continue to feel) that, on balance, the sound policies outweigh the unsound, making the vices worth putting up with — especially given the alternatives.
The President’s Policy Agenda
Start with policy. On balance, and giving the most weight to the issues of public policy with the greatest moral significance for Christians — rights to life, religious freedom, and to a decent standard of living — the choice to support him has been clear to me and many others. Here Trump has delivered considerably well.
The future of the Supreme Court was the overriding reason for many to vote for Trump. By appointing Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court, President Trump has given hope that the right of religious liberty will be preserved and the rights of the unborn and unwanted defended. His establishment of new HHS policies to protect health-care workers who refuse services like abortion on religious grounds and his executive order on organizations refusing to comply with the contraceptive mandate in the Affordable Care Act likewise remove past threats to freedom to follow religious beliefs.
On the economic side, before Trump was elected, economic growth was forecasted to stagnate at about two-thirds what it was since World War II. My own studies and those of many other economists supported the conclusion that the proliferation of regulations and rising taxes since the Bush era were the primary causes of this stifled growth.
President Trump delivered the largest revision of the tax code since President Reagan. While the tax bill could have been much better, it was still a move in the right direction, as I have written elsewhere. Trump has also made the first real progress in 40 years of sporadic attempts to rein in regulation. The number of regulations putting constraints on business in the first year of the Trump administration was only 32 percent of the number issued annually under Obama — not counting all the proceedings started to roll back regulation. Investment, employment, and the stock market all responded immediately.
These are not just economic issues but issues of social justice as well. Starting with Pope Leo XIII’s encyclical “Rerum Novarum” in the late 19th century, the Catholic Church has reflected at length on the nature of social justice, especially in terms of the well-being of the working classes. A consistent theme is that workers should have an income from their labor that will allow them to support their families, educate their children, and provide for their old age.
At the same time, these “social encyclicals” condemned socialism for taking those privileges and responsibilities away from the workingman and imposing a government’s preferences and values. Later encyclicals, such as “Centesimus Annus,” having observed some consequences of the welfare state, warned perceptively about how welfare programs eroded self-respect, incentives to work, and the family. A key theme in this Catholic social teaching is that political and economic problems should be dealt with at the lowest level of social organization that can do so effectively — preferentially the family, church or community.
The Church also supports property rights and has condemned death taxes on the basis of human nature. Why? Because the worker who creates economic value and can anticipate the future should be allowed to own the property that is necessary to have some control over that future as well as provide for his children. As “Rerum Novarum” puts it, government actions an only be beneficial so long as “a man’s means be not drained and exhausted by excessive taxation.” Tax reform and deregulation both support these aspects of Catholic social thought.
One aspect of deregulation, Trump’s reversal of Obama’s climate policy, is of particular note. Many of the president’s critics, including Pope Francis, view this as a clear moral failure. My view is entirely different, as I have argued elsewhere.
The pope is, of course, correct that proper moral framework for evaluating climate policy is concern for the poor and vulnerable of the world. But the decision of what action to take in light of that concern is a matter of prudential judgment. Unilateral action by the United States government to reduce greenhouse gas emissions would raise costs of energy and impose burdens on the poor in this country, and only help the global poor to a limited extent and in the distant future. More might be accomplished for the global poor by using the same resources that would be devoted to reducing emissions in the U.S. to make them less vulnerable to current natural disasters.
Immigration is admittedly a tough issue for Catholics. This is in part because Pope Francis appears to condemn all limits on immigration as immoral. But this is a departure from the established position of the Church. The Catechism states that: “Political authorities, for the sake of the common good for which they are responsible, may make the exercise of the right to immigrate subject to various juridical conditions.” This places the matter of immigration policy squarely in the realm of prudential judgment, since the “common good for which [political authorities] are responsible” is one that requires application of principles of justice and charity along with knowledge of facts about an issue and understanding of the consequences of various ways of dealing with it.
Although I part ways with Trump on broader issues of immigration, he is right that there are real risks here, which many mainstream politicians have been reluctant to admit. With the current wave of Muslim immigration, Europe has seen a rise in terror attacks, rapes, and other criminal and social problems. In our own country, violent felons and suspected terrorists have been apprehended who entered through the southern border. Not only lone wolves but wolf packs enter into the country this way, as evidenced by MS-13.
The extent of these problems can be disputed on factual grounds. But having recognized that there are problems, the obligation of government to protect the lives and property of the innocent becomes a relevant moral issue. So does the practical question of how to provide that protection without sacrificing justice, charity, and other practical benefits of immigration.
All in all, despite his offensive rhetoric, President Trump’s actions on immigration policy do not amount to moral failings so much as a different set of conclusions in the realm of practical judgment.
What about morality? Does my willingness to weigh the good President Trump does against the harm imply that I am cooperating with evil? Not in my moral education. In “Pacem in Terris” Pope Saint John XXIII discussed at length how in this world most leaders do not share the moral framework to which we as Christians adhere. That makes it necessary to work for as much good as possible in public affairs, recognizing that we must as Christians settle for less than perfection. This means working with the moral infirmities and motivations of those in power, while at all times trying to change their moral framework.
Of course, there is a limit to what actions a Christian can tolerate because some moral prohibitions override any incidental benefits. If President Trump were to intentionally violate fundamental principles of justice in wartime, support liberalization of abortion laws, or promote assisted suicide, these actions could not be condoned even if his policies advance the common good in other ways. But his positions on all such issues appear sound. As far as I can tell, the type of immorality the president’s critics worry about either does not concern such inviolable moral principles or else falls clearly within the area of prudential judgment.
One might, for instance, argue that the president’s actions on health policy or the environment violate the principle of protecting innocent life because denying access to health care or harming the environment can harm or even kill people. But such an argument fails to recognize the distinction between direct and intended effects and indirect and unintended effects, which determines moral culpability. For example, relaxing air quality standards may increase mortality rates slightly for some vulnerable populations. That is neither a direct nor an intended effect, but a possible outcome that depends on uncertain predictions and many different factors, including potential responses to the change in the law. In a world with limited resources, relaxing air quality standards may also reduce mortality rates among those who bear their cost. Since it is impossible to eliminate all risk, policymakers must balance the costs and risks that remain in light of the common good. That requires prudence and practical judgment as well as a consistent moral framework.
Considered in this light, I conclude that President Trump’s policies contain no grave moral errors, do some practical harm, and achieve a great deal of practical good. Far better than I could have expected of anyone else.
Then there are all the personal misdeeds of which the president has been accused — mostly prominently allegations of sexual impropriety.
Those who question how “conservative Christians” can support Donald Trump despite these accusations seem for the most part to be working with a caricature of Christian moral thought. According to this caricature, Christians are expected to denounce every public figure who violates any moral principle to which they adhere. But that sounds a lot more like virtue-signaling progressivism than Christianity.
It is not that Christians are indifferent to sexual immorality. As one theologian put it recently, “The premise of the Sexual Revolution is antisocial, and its effects are socially destructive, as every pope since Leo XIII has shown, including Francis.” This includes sex in any form outside of marriage, pornography, and the entire LGBTQ agenda. There is no question that we believe the sexual behavior of which Trump is accused to be gravely immoral. Although, ironically, those who are most preoccupied by these accusations do not appear to share that belief, since they have for the most part been vocal supporters of the sexual revolution and unlimited freedom for consenting partners to engage in any kind of sexual activity they choose.
But the Christian also recognizes that “God’s ways are not the ways of men.” David had Bathsheba, yet is still honored as the greatest of the Kings of Israel and the ancestor of Our Incarnate Lord. Trump, at least, never sent Melania’s husband out to certain death in battle so that he could marry her. The biblical God does not always select flawless individuals to carry out his plan for the good of his people. Of course, many have hoped through the ages for a compassionate, just and successful Christian king. But no head of state since St Louis of France (13th century) and St Jadwiga of Poland (14th century) has been canonized by the Roman Catholic Church. Though it may come as a surprise to others, Christians admit — indeed, emphasize — that we are all sinners. Politicians are just more visible.
In fact, sexual escapades seem for whatever reason to be highly correlated with success in politics. To cite only the most clearly documented cases, Presidents Clinton, Kennedy, Eisenhower, and Franklin Roosevelt all had extra-marital affairs. Even George H. W. Bush, that most honorable of men, had quite a reputation as a Navy pilot. Of course, this whole situation is wrong. We should not be letting news reports about sexual infidelities of prominent figures convince our children that such behavior is all right. But remember subsidiarity: That is a problem we can and should begin to solve at home by moral example and instruction.
One of the most infuriating misconceptions about Christianity is the idea that Christians see themselves as perfect and so judge the morals of everyone they encounter. Christ’s injunction was the opposite: to hold ourselves to the same standards by which we judge others. And we are all sinners, after all. Some are more virtuous than others, of course, but, unfortunately, that rarely seems to include successful politicians.
So lets get over the hypocrisy bit. Church attendance is not virtue signaling. We do not go to services to show off how perfect we are, we go because we are all sinners seeking to do better. More precisely, since Jesus walked the earth, we have been enjoined to do the latter and not the former.
I am convinced that we who voted for Trump did so for valid and urgent reasons and that, as president, he has done a good job delivering what we hoped for. Finally, I am confident that this is consistent with my Christian faith, despite the president’s shortcomings, personal or political.
That does not mean I am satisfied with any of this.
Conservative Christians tend to lack confidence in the inevitability of progress. We understand that this is and will always be an imperfect world, inhabited by imperfect humans. Our task, accordingly, is not to perfect this world but to make some part of it as much better as we can. At some points in history, the imperfection has been much clearer than at others. As G.K. Chesterton pointed out, the past 100 years (and more) provide clear empirical proof of the doctrine of Original Sin. In political life, we can only attempt to bring about as much good and avoid as much evil as is possible in an imperfect society with imperfect leaders.
To that end, Christians engaged in the public square must act in accordance with moral law, while recognizing that it is sometimes necessary to cooperate with those who do not share their moral formation. This is the fundamental reason why conservative Christians can work with Donald Trump and find little benefit in moralizing about his personal behavior.
That leaves us with more concrete political questions, such as: Which of President Trump’s actions advance the common good and which do not? Could we expect better? Which violate clear moral laws and which advance their recognition? My answers are that the common good is advanced by his policies on tax reform, deregulation, and his defense of religious liberty and the right to life. I expect that the common good may be harmed by some of his positions, such as those on immigration and trade. On balance, though, I am convinced that the gain to the common good far exceeds the loss. I will always hope for better, but I did not expect even this much to be accomplished.
As for President Trump’s personal failings, they — like mine — will be judged by a Higher Authority than even The Atlantic magazine.
David Montgomery is retired from a career of teaching, government service and consulting, during which he became internationally recognized as an expert on energy, environmental and climate policy. He has a PhD in economics from Harvard University and also studied economics at Cambridge University and theology at the Catholic University of America.