I like Dr. Michael Brown a lot. And he's very rightly put up a video absolutely decrying the despicable "all men talk like that" defense, particularly from Christians, of Donald Trump's despicable conduct. He throws in a few disappointing phrases about hoping that Trump has changed and what-not, which make him sound very naive, but the bulk of the video is right on the money. Dr. Brown has heard Christian men blustering that, "We all talk like that," and he is disgusted and is giving them a talking-to. I applaud that. I also applaud (in some ways) Dr. Brown's article, in the wake of this latest scandal, rightly taking to pieces the nonsense comparison between Donald Trump and King David, of all people. My only criticism of that piece is, again, the silliness of thinking for a moment that Donald Trump might yet (now) repent like David, even before the election. Brown really shouldn't be holding out hope for a Trump change of heart, especially not in the short run, but Brown's own heart and head are to a very large extent in the right place, and I do not write this column to belittle him at all.
But around the same time this piece came out in The Stream, also by Dr. Michael Brown, about the Trump tapes. It repeats a meme that I'm seeing a lot from people who either are planning to vote for Trump or, like Brown, are still making up their minds but gearing themselves up to be willing to vote for him. The way this goes is something like, "But we already knew he was like this. So this audio tape shouldn't change anything. We should already be making our decision in the full knowledge that he's sleazy."
Here are some quotes to that effect from Brown's article:
Instead, I’m writing this to ask those who once supported Trump, like my highly esteemed, Christian brother Wayne Grudem, a fellow-professor and theologian, why the video tape changed things.[snip]
My purpose in writing is to ask those who once backed Trump but do so no longer: Why the surprise at his past conduct? Weren’t his weaknesses and flaws shouting aloud to the nation over the last year via tweet and spoken word?
I never for a moment bought into the “Saint Donald” rhetoric, questioning other Christian leaders who embraced him as such. (I don’t mean to deny that he has helped people privately and has a compassionate, caring side. I simply mean that to present him as a wonderfully Christian man is to be self-deceived.)
And I understand the convictions of the NeverTrumpers, although I have never identified with this group. (I once used the hashtag in a tweet but decided not to do so again.)
My issue is with the political leaders and Christian leaders who endorsed Donald Trump and who worked to help elect him but are now distancing themselves from him in shock and dismay. Who did you think you were dealing with?
But if you’re going to endorse him, do so with your eyes wide open, or don’t endorse him at all.[snip]
But he did not renounce his past or change his public ways, because of which, the only issue with the 2005 tape should not have been the tape itself but rather how he responded to it today.
I have colleagues who believe that God is raising up Trump the way He raised up Cyrus, pointing out that Cyrus was used by the Lord although he was a pagan king who did not know the God of Israel (see Isaiah 45:1-6, and note carefully the phrase “although you do not know Me” in v. 5-6).
I have no problem with this concept at all. As the old saying goes, let God be God (in other words, let Him do what He chooses to do in His way and for His purposes). So be it. As I’ve written before, I personally hope it’s true.
But for those who are having cold feet about Trump now, I ask again: Wasn’t it clear from day one that this was the man you were endorsing?
For all of us, then, from here on in, the lesson is simple and clear: Whatever we do, let’s do it with our eyes wide open and with our trust in God alone.
Again, there are some things to commend in these passages. For example, there's the emphatic point that Trump has done nothing to show true change or repentance of heart.
One could even view this as just Brown's expression of exasperation with Dr. Grudem's recklessness in having endorsed Trump without doing due diligence. Though frankly, if that's all it is, I don't think it was worthy of publication. If we're going to talk about being forgiving, then the person we ought to be forgiving is Wayne Grudem, since he really has manned up and fully admitted that he was irresponsible. Good for him! This isn't the time to be giving him a hard time, for goodness' sake.
That's one of the first oddities about this Stream post by Brown. (After the title. But I don't blame Brown for the title. Anyone who writes for someone else's publication knows that somebody else often chooses the title.) Brown is explicitly writing to and about Grudem, yet he asks a question that Grudem has already answered. Brown wants to know why this video changed anything for Grudem. Grudem already told us that he hadn't done due diligence, hadn't seen the Howard Stern show filth that was already out there, and hadn't realized that Trump was like this. So why is Brown going on and on? Grudem admitted that he should have done his homework and should have known better. Why rub it in?
But the further oddity is the general idea, which I have seen others express more concisely and even harshly than Brown, that consistency in endorsement is very nearly an end in itself. Brown expresses it as, "If you're going to endorse him, do it with your eyes open, or don't endorse him at all," and he pretty strongly implies that, if you once really do that, you won't change your mind later.
But that way of talking and thinking is not really taking seriously the possibility that endorsing Donald Trump is objectively wrong.
Suppose, for a moment, that it is objectively wrong. If so, isn't it better for people to waver about it and to change their minds than to "endorse with their eyes wide open" and then stick to it?
Consider an analogy: Suppose that a woman has had an abortion and later regrets it because she sees pictures of aborted babies or an ultrasound. We would never tell her, "What did you think you were doing? You knew you were killing a human being! Why does this video change anything? You need to make your choices with your eyes wide open, lady, and then you won't have any reason to regret them!" That would be a terrible thing to say. The last thing we want is for women to be so fully committed to killing a baby that they are later incapable of (or unwilling to entertain the possibility of) regret and repentance. The last thing we want to do is to chide or mock a woman for changing her mind and turning back.
If you don't like that example, because it concerns what is clearly an intrinsically wrong act, consider this example of an act that lies in a grey area: Suppose that a general has ordered a military strike against a certain location and that there is some outcry that this was unethical because it was not a military target but a civilian target. The general had a lot of statistics and facts showing precisely this question, showing why this question arose, but he still chose to order the strike despite the doubts. Later, he sees pictures of the children who have died in the airstrike, precisely as predicted by the statistics he had available to him about the civilian population at that location. He is filled with remorse and offers a deep statement of grief and repentance. We should certainly not say to him, "You had the statistics in advance. You knew that it could plausibly be regarded as a non-military target. What did you think you were doing? Why do these pictures change anything? You should make your decisions with your eyes wide open or not make them at all!"
We know perfectly well that sometimes people have a notional commitment to doing a particular action but then have their minds and hearts changed by being viscerally confronted with the reality of what they have chosen. And this is not a bad thing but a good thing. It is on the many subtle interactions between conscience and the real world that our hopes for repentance often turn. We should not want it any other way. We should not want people to choose wrong things in such an "eyes wide open" way that they are then callous even when evidence emerges that makes it especially clear that this was a bad choice. That is something that the Holy Spirit can use, something our consciences cue to, something that softens our hearts. We want to be the kind of people who can repent and change course if we have indeed chosen wrong.
Does this mean that conscientious people are often on the rack, filled with misgivings about what they have done or with indecision about what they are considering doing? Yes, it does. But is that always bad? As long as we humans cannot be certain that we have done right or are headed right (which often, we can't be), it's better to be on the rack than to be given over to hardness of heart.
My concern with this response that says, "Why should this change anything?" is that it, no doubt unintentionally from Dr. Brown, encourages hardness of heart. I've seen it expressed more nastily from other people in such a way that is quite intentional: "Put on your big boy pants!" "Man up!" "You weren't endorsing this guy to be your best friend!" These sorts of expressions frankly make a virtue out of hardness of heart. I'm sure that Dr. Brown, of all people, doesn't really want to have that effect on people. But in fact, that is the effect: "Once you really realize that you're endorsing a sleazeball, it shouldn't bother you anymore or change anything when you get more and more evidence that he's a sleazeball."
But is that true? Why shouldn't it make a difference? Maybe some particular piece of sleaziness will convince the person that, after all, he shouldn't be endorsing a sleazeball.
Since Dr. Brown is respectful of the Never Trump position, he should be holding this open as a real possibility. But in that case, the fact that vividness often results in an epiphany in ethical matters answers his question. Why should this make a difference? It might just make a difference, Dr. Brown, because it makes us see reality more clearly.