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Donald Trump’s smartest political move this year was issuing his list of prospective Supreme Court nominees. This is the ultimate “trump card” (pardon me) for white evangelical voters, it seems. Franklin Graham spoke for many when he suggested recently that the only thing at stake in this election is the future of the Supreme Court.

Franklin Graham Facebook

Thus, such white evangelicals imply, we can ignore Trump’s history of race-baiting, infidelity, and misogyny, his lack of basic understanding of all kinds of political and constitutional issues, and the array of other problems with his candidacy, because he might appoint good Supreme Court justices.

Viewed from one perspective, this is not a ridiculous argument, and I can understand why many evangelicals are going to hold their nose and vote for Trump. We know that Hillary Clinton will appoint judges who will keep abortion-on-demand legal. Why not roll the dice on the hope that Trump will keep his word and appoint good judges?

Trump does not have a sterling record of keeping his word. Still, I would not be shocked, if he wins, if he did actually choose judges on the list. I suspect Donald Trump (unlike Clinton) doesn’t really care that much one way or the other about such social issues, so what would be the harm for him in following through?

But if we take a step back, we can see how peculiar and troubling this Supreme Court argument is. We should elect someone, the argument goes, with Trump’s record (or lack thereof), convictions (or lack thereof), and family history because he might appoint good justices to the Supreme Court.

The reason why many evangelical voters have taken this approach is partly because of the Supreme Court’s increasing encroachment into the legislative arena over the past 50 years. Can’t get enough state laws passed expanding abortion rights? Can’t wait for the states to sort out their own definition of marriage? Just hand it over to the Supreme Court, and they’ll take care of everything! And because the justices are unelected, they do not have to be responsive, as quasi-legislators, to the people’s indignation.

And so we are told over and over, in 2008 and 2012, and now most glaringly in 2016, that we must accept the GOP nominee, whatever his manifest deficiencies, because he might handle the Court’s metastasizing power the right way. It is a strange way to choose a president.

Another obvious problem with the “Supreme Court” argument is that Republican presidents over the past four decades have a poor record of appointing judges who are reliable on issues such as the right to life and religious liberty. As thankful as I am for the late Antonin Scalia’s work, not every GOP appointee is Scalia. Other than Scalia, President Reagan was not so great on choosing justices, with Sandra Day O’Connor, and Anthony Kennedy, who is surely the most powerful unelected official today in the American government. Kennedy has been the decisive vote on some of the Court’s most notorious recent decisions.

George H. W. Bush batted .500, with a good choice of Clarence Thomas and a catastrophe in choosing David Souter, who was supposed to be conservative but turned out to be consistently liberal. George W. Bush did better than Reagan or his father, on average, with the appointments of Samuel Alito and John Roberts. But let’s not forget Bush’s disastrous 2005 nomination of Harriet Miers, who withdrew after a firestorm over her views on abortion and sexuality.

Setting aside Miers, the three most recent Republican presidents had four of their seven Supreme Court appointments turn out pretty well. That’s coming from three presidents (Reagan, Bush ’41, and Bush ’43) who all had firmer, if not entirely secure, moorings in the conservative movement than Donald Trump does.

The question for white evangelicals, then, is whether we are willing to get behind a non-conservative candidate like Trump, who is so boorish, divisive, and uninformed, because he might appoint judges who can get confirmed and then actually turn out to be good judges? That’s a lot to ask, and a lot of “ifs.” I remain convinced that no major party has offered us a candidate worthy of evangelicals’ support in 2016.

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28 thoughts on “The Supreme Court and the Convoluted Case for Trump”

  1. Phil says:

    Kennedy, you’ll remember, was the choice after Robert Bork was crucified by the Senate. It’s not as if presidents are alone in their judicial choices. Plus, many other judges on many other courts are also nominated by our president. We know Clinton will pick, pardon my language, wicked people who don’t care about justice. I don’t believe Trump is as low a figure as you appear to and that he will pick or look for law-and-order-type judges to nominate. Honestly, I think the media paints Trump in the harshest light possible (as well as lying about him) while glossing over Clinton and ignoring other candidates (who have little chance of victory anyway). The result is a belief that Trump and his team are less trustworthy than Clinton and hers. That’s hard to believe.

    1. Phil says:

      I feel the need to come back and say that I’ve moved your direction. I can’t support Trump. I still think Clinton’s policies and character are as anti-Christian as they come, but Trump’s character reveals a man who cannot be trusted on anything.

  2. steve burdan says:

    Good! and SCOTUS appointments are not automatically accepted anyway – they’ve got to navigate the minefields of Congress…

  3. carlos says:

    We do not depend on the Supreme Court in any case. The Bible tells us of a time when Christians will be hated and attacked, and this will happen. We will be rejected, our churches closed and eventually we will face death before the coming of our Lord.

    1. Dennis Applegarth says:

      Perhaps, but not necessarily on our watch. It is foolish to assume a fatalistic attitude. As we are faithful to repent, pray and seek God’s face, He may well decide to delay His judgment and rescue us yet again from the wrath we deserve. Whether you vote or not, the question is, will you be part of the effort to seek God for revival?

  4. JoeA says:

    There are plenty of reasons to NOT vote for a candidate this round. Are there any reasons you give to vote for a candidate? Is there a less abortion-minded candidate somewhere on the ballot I am unaware of?

  5. Garrett says:

    Why is this a question for “White Evangelicals”? What does any of this have to do with being white? This is a question to consider for evangelicals, not just white ones.

  6. Missy M says:

    What is disappointing is that you represent a narrative which is only a narrow range of why voting for Trump is warranted. Few, if any, have proposed this singular reason to be why we should vote for Donald Trump but you argue as if this is the sole force of Trump supporters. If fact, “straw man” comes to mind here.

    Neverminding the serial corruption and ethics violations of Clinton, men such as even Senator Cruz have laid out a multi-faceted argument for supporting Trump.

    Btw, he chose a rather conservative, born-again believer in Pence. Your cynicism toward his promise of conservative judges is both unwarranted and unbecoming.

    While his detractors wish to describe him in unflattering terms, almost universally, those civil agencies and private businesses with who he has been contracted all of his adult life, they regularly atest to his robust fufullment of contractual obligations to the smallest detail, an ethic his adult children have had modeled and now employ.

    1. Andy says:

      Unfortunately, that is not accurate.

      “Donald Trump often portrays himself as a savior of the working class who will “protect your job.” But a USA TODAY NETWORK analysis found he has been involved in more than 3,500 lawsuits over the past three decades — and a large number of those involve ordinary Americans, like the Friels, who say Trump or his companies have refused to pay them.

      At least 60 lawsuits, along with hundreds of liens, judgments, and other government filings reviewed by the USA TODAY NETWORK, document people who have accused Trump and his businesses of failing to pay them for their work. Among them: a dishwasher in Florida. A glass company in New Jersey. A carpet company. A plumber. Painters. Forty-eight waiters. Dozens of bartenders and other hourly workers at his resorts and clubs, coast to coast. Real estate brokers who sold his properties. And, ironically, several law firms that once represented him in these suits and others

      Trump’s companies have also been cited for 24 violations of the Fair Labor Standards Act since 2005 for failing to pay overtime or minimum wage, according to U.S. Department of Labor data. That includes 21 citations against the defunct Trump Plaza in Atlantic City and three against the also out-of-business Trump Mortgage LLC in New York. ”


    2. Dan says:

      Actually Missy, I’d say about 1/2 of the people I know are voting for Trump solely on the basis of the SC/not HRC. I’ve heard multiple people say things like “Trump and HRC are both terrible, but the SC decides the case for me.” So yeah, you’re wrong here…

    3. Richard says:

      Well said, missy m. You certainly cleared the air of any fog!

    4. Michael B. says:

      Totally agree with your assessment of this blog post. Nothing mire than Never Trump rhetoric that frankly us getting old to read. Such posts walk the line of attempting to paint evangelicals who desire to vote for Trump as no longer worthy of bearing the title of evangelical.

      Sorry….do not buy it.

    5. BYLRPhil says:

      How about his contractual agreement to pay contractors, which he regularly backed out of?

    6. Cedric says:

      Missy, here is Donald advice for you today, 30 Sep 2016: go check out Alicia M sex tape!!! Yes, really. 8081 likes so far.

    7. Edward says:

      “They regularly attest to his robust fufillment of contractual obligations to the smallest detail”

      I’d love to see some evidence on this point; In actuality, Mr. Trump’s business record is littered with lawsuits, bankruptcies, broken promises, cheated contractors, bribing officials and so on. If you want to justify supporting him, thats fine- but you need to reckon with the actual man, not an imaginary, sanitized version.

  7. Sara says:

    Missy M: I have to disagree with ya, mainly because I have heard the argument presented here. Those who have retracted former statements (i.e. Ted Cruz) in regard to Trump’s fitness for Commander in Chief, I think have retracted because ANYTHING is better than Hillary. At least, that is the message that I keep getting the more I’ve read over the last four months or so. The main goal of the GOP is to keep Hillary out of the presidency. Even at the cost of surrendering the GOP ideals. I don’t think that the points presented here are unwarranted, because in the end: who makes it onto the Court is going to determine much of our laws in the land. I would also say that if Trump’s character and ethics as we have seen and heard reported are any indication of how he makes decisions, I would say that it isn’t unwarranted to say that he might change his mind on his picks, if selected as president. If there are any good practices that Trump uses, please feel free to share, as all I have researched points to the contrary.

    I’m planning on voting third party, as I cannot in good conscience vote for Trump or Clinton as a Christian.

  8. Clarissa Saunders says:

    The two main candidates are so terribly flawed, what other topic or issue besides SCOTUS can voters use to decide whether and for whom to vote?

    I don’t have a clue why the author used the phrase ‘white evangelicals’ multiple times in this article.

  9. Kate says:

    Agreed. And you didn’t even mention the fact that the Bible says nothing about fighting for our religious freedom, but says everything encouraging us to trust God, turn the other cheek, make discuples, and pursue social justice for the least of these. I would love to see a conservative judge on the court. My husband is in ministry and freedom of religion is important for our personal wellbeing. But I will not seek that while giving my vote to a pandering, lying, racist, arrogent playboy!

  10. Doug says:

    Perhaps we will ultimately come to the same conclusion as many of Democracy’s predecessors, that Democracy is an exercise in futility. It is simply impossible for a government to function in accord with the will of a people, a polytheistic people at that. Democracy only encourages a government to practice deceit in an attempt to govern. The better alternative is to accept whatever government leaders we have and pray for them. That said, an argument could be made that many of Trump’s positions are more righteous than the positions advocated by the Christian leaders that vehemently oppose him. For instance, Trump’s emphasis on law and order is solidly consistent with Romans 13. Also, Trump’s vision of “one people, under one God, saluting one flag,” finds more solid biblical support than the relativistic, polytheistic vision pushed by contemporary Christian leaders under the banner of religious liberty. All said, God’s word gives no directives for a people in the matter of selecting government leaders. The most alluded to passage in the Bible is an instruction given to Moses. Other passages are to leaders themselves.

  11. Patrick says:

    Another issue is religious free speech. I expect Hillary to nominate candidates who will subordinate religious expression to sexual demands. She will do this in the courts, in the Executive Branch, in the US Civil Rights Commission. You should all be concerned for the future of Religious Higher Education and the demands placed on it by the Department of Education. If these issues don’t matter, then vote with Her.

  12. Curt Day says:

    Graham’s logic for supporting Trump basically employs reductionism and its psychological corollary: all-or-nothing thinking.

    We should note that what can easily follow reductionism is authoritarianism, a trait shared with many democrats including our President and its presidential nominee in this election. We should note that Republicans are not slackers in exhibiting authoritarianism either. Authoritarianism shows aggression when its conventions are not followed.

    Finally, this supreme court argument has allowed the Republican Party to take for granted votes from Evangelicals. That is just the nature of reductionism with its psychological corollary. For its reasoning says nothing else matters except this one issue. And think of what has not mattered in the past for the sake of controlling who gets appointed to the Supreme Court: wars and destruction of the environment are just two prominently disturbing examples. There are others. But just as using the Supreme Court judges to determine one’s vote is reductionistic, so does judging a politician’s or judge’s performance by whether it adhered to conservative or liberal ideology. Such presupposes an inflated value to those ideologies.

  13. kierkegaard71 says:

    Nothing illustrates the fact that anything that could be called “constitutionalism” in any sense is dead than conservatives making arguments for Trump concerning the Supreme Court. It is as if they are in the position of paupers begging for bread from tyrants. The Supreme Court is, and has been, lawless for decades. Acceptance of the function of the Court is a much bigger problem than the mere impact of Trump versus Clinton on it. “Saving the Court” by voting for Trump is short-sighted and a glaring admission that the Republic really is done for.

    1. Ken Abbott says:

      All true. I would much rather a candidate call for a return to constitutional responsibility and balance, especially in the legislative branch with respect to its interaction with the other two branches.

  14. Rita Miller says:

    First thing that springs to mind is, why are all these Christians judging Trump’s life? And if you’re going to judge Trump then where is Hillary’s condemnation? God will judge those on the outside-that’s not our job. So. We have only been given a choice of two. That’s it. Let’s do our duty and pick one. Hillary is the worst choice, that’s a given, that’s obvious. So who’s left? Those are the facts. Another question, who says all Evangelicals are voting Trump because of the party he represents? I don’t think he fully represents the republican Party as it now stands. They are not 100% behind him for a reason. He doesn’t fit the mold. I am looking at each candidate’s campaign promises, (I know). I’m looking at their past to see if they’ve flip flopped much, I fact-check and as much as possible I look at video records to hear it from the horse’s mouth. I’m looking at their running mates-our potential next pres. I’m considering how well their policies line up with what my Bible says. Just like with all my decisions I look to my Bible as guide and council. People say Trump is dangerous because he has access to “the codes” among other things. I’m not afraid because Trump has good council and he listens. Is he perfect? Are you? I’m not. His track record versus hers, His word against hers, His friends versus hers. Is he qualified? According to U.S. law, YES. He meets the criteria: US Constitution, Article II, Section 1
    No person except a natural born citizen, or a citizen of the United States, at the time of the adoption of this Constitution, shall be eligible to the office of President; neither shall any person be eligible to that office who shall not have attained to the age of thirty-five years, and been fourteen years a resident within the United States.” When I was growing up it was often said that “In America, anyone can grow up to be President.” And our American Constitution says that’s true. Any one of us, as legal citizens can run for and be elected to the Presidency, and that was by design.

  15. Edward says:

    The evangelical support for Trump on the hope that he might elect conservative Supreme Court judges feels desperate and short-sighted at best. Akin to pledging support for Nebuchadnezzar in the hope that he might throw a temple our way.

  16. Christopher Walker says:

    I’m not voting for Trump because I live in a state where I don’t have to (it’s electoral votes are going to Clinton barring an act of God). But I can respect and even sympathize with my friends and family who live in battleground states where they believe they must hold their nose. Here’s my best case I can put forward in their stead:

    I think it’s worth noting that evangelicals have gotten to this sorry state after exhausting every other opportunity to nominate someone else, and that therefore the argument “Vote for Trump because he *might* appoint limited government SC justices” exists only because there is no better short-term option available to return the nation to a rule of law. The other option, so the story goes, is to give up this ground voluntarily (and likely for an entire generation) instead of making the left pry it from our cold, dead hands.

    Whether that is worth the cost or not of supporting Trump and his manifest deficiencies and offensiveness, who can tell? With respect to injuring our witness, I know for myself that I’ve not seen a lot of people only now writing off Christians as hypocrites unworthy of listening to. It seems that has by and large already happened.

    Point #2. Yes, we might end up with an authoritarian Trump for 4 or 8 years. But we for sure will end up with an authoritarian Clinton, and one who happens to be a true believer with plans to appoint a stacked court to back her up, whereas Trump is chaotic, has no ability to appoint justices who share his worldview (there’s enough people in both parties in Congress to block them), and no ability to plan ahead. Some might even say this chaos is preferable to the calculated malice of a Clinton presidency fully committed to changing the culture and government from the top down over the next 40 or so years.

    This next bit I am hesitant. We all know the dangers of an analogy that goes too far. Eventually they break down. With that in mind, still, maybe it’s helpful to picture an alternate universe where everything is the same, except that the issue of the Supreme Court in this election is not over ending abortion/returning marriage to the states, but in electing justices who will overturn Jim Crow. It isn’t a perfect fit, but it fits in this respect; both abortion and Jim Crow involve the systemic dehumanization and destruction of real human beings, and ultimately the worth and value of our fellows is what is at stake. To wit, the question then becomes for people in this universe, how many of Trump’s character defects are worth overlooking when the choice is “Vote for Trump because he *might* elect justices what will end Jim Crow” and not voting for Trump and handing over the Supreme Court to a party who has a vested interest in keeping that enterprise running? I’m actually curious how others might respond to that question.

    There. My most sympathetic case. Please proceed to tear it apart. :D

    Thanks for reading.

  17. Greg says:

    Not sure the point. In closing you say “I remain convinced that no major party has offered us a candidate that is worthy of evangelicals’ support in 2016.” While I do agree with the sad state of politics in our nation that these two do cause us to questions “is this the best we have to offer?” in your view when was the last time we did have a “worthy” candidate? Are you recommending evangelicals don’t vote at all? Again. Or divide the vote and continue on? What actions do you see taking place in the evangelical community that will offer an opportunity for more “worthy” choices in the future? Sadly I see this years options as a reflection of our nation and the entertainment and personal comfort focused mindset that has steadily taken hold, even in the evangelical community. These two candidates didn’t get where they are by just showing up one day. Sure seems to me if evangelicals spent half as much time -praying, meeting people and telling them about Jesus, as complaining about our degrading state of affairs, we’d have better options in future el elections.

  18. LL says:

    Why is your blog post directed solely at White evangelicals, instead of Christians in general? Though I agree with much of your statements, I am concerned with the tendency for separation, and what bigger problems may stem from it.

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Thomas S. Kidd, PhD

Thomas S. Kidd is distinguished professor of history at Baylor University, and the author of many books, including Benjamin Franklin: The Religious Life of a Founding Father  (Yale, 2017); George Whitefield: America’s Spiritual Founding Father (Yale, 2014) and Baptists in America: A History with Barry Hankins (Oxford, 2015). You can follow him on Twitter and subscribe to his weekly author newsletter.

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