What most stands out about Grudem’s defense of Trump isn’t how misinformed and uninformed it is—though that is notable, particularly for a person who, as an academic and theologian, ought to prize precision in argument and facts. (One gets the sense that Grudem’s epistemological universe, at least in the political sphere, has been shaped by right-wing talk radio and Fox News, where affect often triumphs over reason.)
What most stands out to me about Grudem’s case on behalf of Trump is that he is a near-perfect embodiment of an individual fully in the grip of confirmation bias and motivated reasoning. And in that sense, he is a near-perfect embodiment of some of the president’s most committed evangelical supporters.
In Grudem and those who think like him, you see astonishing intellectual, theological, and ethical contortions, all in the service of making Trump appear far better than he is. I have a hunch as to why: His supporters don’t want to struggle with the cognitive dissonance created by supporting a man who, if he were a liberal Democrat, they would savage on moral and ethical grounds.
But it isn’t enough to simply remove the tension; they need to justify their decision.
It isn’t enough for many of Trump’s evangelical supporters to say that, by their lights, he is advancing policies that promote the common good even as he is acting in unethical ways that deeply trouble them. In that difficult trade-off, they could admit, they have decided that the former should take priority over the latter. Instead, they have created a cartoonish image of the president, pretending that his character flaws are trivial and inconsequential, while his policy achievements put him near the top rank of American presidents.
What’s most interesting to me in all this is the psychology at play. From what I can tell, in many cases Trump’s most devoted evangelical supporters are blind to what they’re doing, so in a sense they’re not acting cynically or in bad faith, even as they are distorting reality.
I have observed firsthand that if you point out facts that run counter to their narrative, some significant number of the president’s supporters will eventually respond with indignation, feeling they have been wounded, disrespected, or unheard. The stronger the empirical case against what they believe, the more emotional energy they bring to their response. Underlying this is a deep sense of fear and the belief that they are facing an existential threat and, therefore, can’t concede any ground, lest they strengthen those they consider to be their enemies. This broader phenomenon I’m describing is not true of all Trump supporters, of course, and it is hardly confined to Trump supporters. But I would say that in our time, it is most pronounced among them.
I wish it were otherwise. When I started my Christian journey, at the end of high school, I never assumed that Christians would escape human foibles and human frailties. But I thought that faith would have more power, including more transformative power, than I have often witnessed, and that followers of Jesus would (imperfectly) allow a faith ethic to shape their understanding of things. That more than most, they would speak truth to power. Too often, they have denied truth in order to gain and keep power.