The Rhetorical Maneuvers of Wayne Grudem: A Guest Post from Matthew Boedy

On Thursday, theologian Wayne Grudem came out for Donald Trump with a long column justifying a vote for Trump as an acceptable moral choice. In response, Professor of Rhetoric and Composition at the University of North Georgia, Matthew Boedy sent the following thoughts which I am glad to present as a guest post. Dr. Boedy is on Twitter @matthewboedy
The Rhetorical Maneuvers of Wayne Grudem
by Matthew Boedy
Wayne Grudem has put his name on a growing list of evangelical leaders who were first against Trump and are now for him. Grudem’s change is interesting because Grudem has written extensively and rather recently about how he thinks Christians should interact with government and its political process. In that frame, as one who has argued for certain “winsome” and “loving” behaviors and attitudes from Christians in the political sphere, Grudem’s endorsement of one of the most unliked and ill-mannered candidates in political history seems at least unethical and at most immoral. Does Trump meet the standards Grudem lays out? To me, the quick answer is no. But my main question for this analysis is: Does Grudem follow his own advice?
Grudem’s 2010 book Politics According to the Bible argues Christians should seek to have “significant influence” on government. Such influence “does not mean angry, belligerent, intolerant, judgmental, red-faced, and hate-filled influence, but rather winsome, kind, thoughtful, loving, persuasive influence that is suitable to each circumstance and that always protects the other person’s right to disagree, but that is also uncompromising about the truthfulness and moral goodness of the teachings of God’s Word” (p. 55).
The negative traits above are of course how Grudem described Trump in the beginning on his endorsement in his TownHall column: “He is egotistical, bombastic, and brash. He often lacks nuance in his statements… He insults people. He can be vindictive when people attack him. He has been slow to disown and rebuke the wrongful words and actions of some angry fringe supporters. He has been married three times and claims to have been unfaithful in his marriages.”
In a common rhetorical maneuver, Grudem tries to defuse the “bomb” of Trump’s highly negative traits before the “other side” tries to use it. Grudem admits them out front. So while it is clear from Grudem’s own words that Trump wouldn’t fit the categories of leader in his church, it is not clear why Grudem thinks such a “flawed” man should lead a country.
Grudem dismisses a “character fight” altogether and instead attempts to make objective policy standards for supporting Trump. To rebut or argue them all would take a lot of space and also would be a waste of time. It is more interesting for me as a rhetoric professor to note that Grudem’s essay fails to live up to his own positive qualities for Christian influence on government. I am hopeful by making this case you will find better advice about how you might participate in our democracy.
Let’s begin with the adjectives from Grudem’s definition: “winsome, kind, thoughtful, loving, persuasive influence…”
As a professor of rhetoric I feel I can write convincingly that Grudem does not pursue persuasion as much as he pursues dictating in his essay. And if my claim is accurate, he fails to be the kind of Christian he calls us to be. That should deter anyone from giving his opinion any weight on the matter.
First, he claims a vote for Trump is imperative because of the federal judiciary consequences, specifically the Supreme Court. He notes “judicial tyranny” has brought on America abortion and same-sex marriage. That same tyranny would continue under Clinton, he argues: “The nation would no longer be ruled by the people and their elected representatives, but by unelected, unaccountable, activist judges who would dictate from the bench about whatever they were pleased to decree. And there would be nothing in our system of government that anyone could do to stop them.”
Grudem here trots out a common GOP talking point that can be neatly summarized in a phrase used repeatedly after same-sex marriage was legalized: “five unelected judges.” He adds another GOP favorite “activist.” Now, since Grudem played his expertise card – 29 years of teaching Christian ethics – I am obliged to point out he is not even close to being an expert in the centuries-long disagreement over the role of judges. What is new in that debate – and I as an expert on debate can say this – is the phrase “unelected.” Supreme Court judges have, of course, always been unelected. A few local and state judges are not. All federal judges are. In any case, to suggest the authority of SCOTUS to rule is somehow misused because of the fact of appointment (and consent by Senate in case of SCOTUS judges) is the worst form of populism. It is actually a threat to democracy.
The founders of this country put in place “separation of powers” to balance the power of each branch. Those have not disappeared. Grudem’s claim that “nothing in our system of government” can stop “activist” judges is not only inaccurate, it is an abuse of his position because he knows better.
It is inaccurate because Grudem goes on to state the very mechanism in our government that could stop them – the election of the president who appoints judges. And of course don’t forget the Senate.
And this is where Grudem fails to live up to his own standards. It’s “judicial tyranny” when the decisions go against what he believes or thinks the Bible teaches. But it is perfectly normal if the judges he likes – and could be appointed by Trump – overturn such decisions. Who is unelected now, Wayne?
Grudem goes one step further in his Trump endorsement to suggest SCOTUS isn’t a democratic institution: “We lost – not at the ballot box, but because we had a liberal Supreme Court that nullified the democratic process regarding the definition of marriage.”
He blatantly strips the court of any authority all the while saying his judges would rule in the opposite way but by the same manner. Let me be snide by suggesting that if a member of Grudem’s church made this argument to their elders, they would be quickly disciplined and/or excommunicated.
In regard to secular government, clearly Grudem – like all who makes this unsound argument – does not believe in the rule of law. He doesn’t want to be ruled by the law. He wants to be ruled by something else. Strange from a guy who extols democracy so much.
And that brings me to what standards he does use. He names them in his definition of “significant influence:” “… that is suitable to each circumstance and that always protects the other person’s right to disagree, but that is also uncompromising about the truthfulness and moral goodness of the teachings of God’s Word” (p. 55).
He surely isn’t protecting anyone’s right to disagree by suggesting the “disagreements” SCOTUS put into law (abortion and same-sex marriage) go against the American system of government. Translation: you can’t be patriotic if you think SCOTUS was right.
He isn’t protecting disagreement in a future Trump administration when he suggests that liberal “power” could further criminalize political dissent. This from a supporter of a candidate who has on numerous occasions banned media from covering his campaigns, called for further crackdowns on media freedom, and routinely belittles reporters and his critics in both parties. If liberal activists want to criminalize dissent, Trump is not the man who can fix that. He will just be a one-man version of it.
And so that leads me to Grudem’s attempt to be “uncompromising about the truthfulness and moral goodness of the teachings of God’s Word.” He has left out a few of those words from his unethical call for Trump votes. Proverbs and its call about fools come to mind. We can debate terms like justice all day. But surely someone of Grudem’s training and experience can recognize a fool in his midst.
But most interesting to me as a rhetorical scholar is the phrase “suitable to each circumstance.” Not only is it a phrase from Grudem’s definition of masculinity and femininity and the ways in which he wants men and women to apply his principles of gender, it is also a traditional part of a rhetorical education. Both uses suggest a form of judgment is needed. Rhetorical education aims to teach judgment – when to know to use which rhetorical tactic, for example. It is a virtue-backed judgment, not a sinister “say what the polls tell me to” decision making process. It is a formation of a quality that not only affects the words we say, but how and when and to whom we say them. This is why Augustine taught it.
Another word for such a judgment is character. Character isn’t born; it is made. Yet Grudem dismisses those who vote “only” on character. He writes such is “a fallacy in ethical reasoning” called “reductionism” – the mistake of reducing every argument to only one factor, when the situation requires that multiple factors be considered.”
He is correct on one thing – that is a good definition of reductionism. But it is not a good summary of the historical use of character by Christian leaders and the manner in which Christian voters see character. To many in the church, character is not “an” element – it is the umbrella concern. It is not a “single issue” – it is the issue. And this comes from the teaching they hear every Sunday. It is why so many have succeeded in bringing ‘character education’ to public schools. It is why so many are NeverTrump.
And it is exactly why Grudem himself highlights character so well in his definition of “significant influence.” He wants Christians to use their judgment, not merely be robots for pastors and leaders like himself. Or parties for that matter. He wants them to practice their politics in “winsome” and “loving” ways – character traits. This is why Grudem spent so many pages in his famous Systematic Theology on the attributes or character of God. This is why he discourages “mob mentalities” and wants us to use “persuasive influence.” This is why he calls for patience, kindness, and other fruits of the spirit (character traits) in citizens who are Christians.
He just doesn’t hold Trump or himself to the same standard. What a shame from a man who teaches Christian ethics. And this is why his reasoning on his vote for Trump is not to be heeded. What a shame from a man many look to for guidance.
Finally let me address Grudem’s theory on voting. He argues that voting “for a write-in candidate instead of voting for Trump” will help “Clinton because she will need one less vote to win.” He then addresses those who won’t vote at all: “But the teachings of Scripture do not allow us to escape moral responsibility by saying that we decided to do nothing.” He cites Obadiah 1:11.
His use of this verse is a shameful and willful misreading and misapplication from the context. But outside the interpretative issues, it grounds a profoundly misguided voting theory. A write-in vote isn’t helping Clinton; it helps the write-in. This line of thinking assumes one does not want Hillary to win. Fine. It should also assume one does not want Trump to win. Both desires can be found ethically in a Christian or any voter. Someone voting for Gary Johnson (or anyone else) should honestly believe he is the best person and most likely to help the country.
As for the non-voter, like me, I am not escaping any moral responsibility. I talk to others, I write, I even teach like Grudem. I haven’t decided to ‘do nothing.’ I am doing something – listening like a good citizen to the voices of our better angels. Something Grudem refuses to do. How sad from a person who claims Jesus.