Politics & Policy

Would Thomas More Have Voted for Donald Trump?

Casting a ballot is a matter of conscience.

The basic facts are these. St. Thomas More, born in London in 1478, was a devout Catholic, and also one of the most incisive legal minds of his day. Upon entering the service of King Henry VIII, he made clear that he believed the king’s marriage to Catherine of Aragon to be valid and thus not annullable. Initially, Henry claimed to respect More’s views, but over time his resolve to re-marry hardened. Knowing that the pope would not sanction his second marriage, the king named himself the head of the Church in England, and demanded an oath to that effect from public officials and their families. More refused to take the oath, but attempted to preserve his life by retiring and maintaining his silence. It didn’t work. He was beheaded in 1535.

Through months of imprisonment in the Tower of London, More refused to open his mind to his interrogators, insisting simply that his refusal was “a matter of conscience.” Most of his loved ones took Henry’s oath, and he made no effort to dissuade them. We are left to speculate on the private reflections that led More to believe that, at least for him personally, it was necessary to die rather than violate his conscience. What is clear is that More was deeply dedicated both to his faith and to the good of the realm. With his final words he declared himself “the king’s good servant, but God’s first.”

Interesting parallels can be drawn between More’s situation and that of conservatives contemplating the impending nomination of Donald Trump. As in More’s time, a decadent and egomaniacal politician presses us to choose between valued principles and longstanding party allegiances. It’s a difficult decision, especially given the likelihood that a party rupture will deliver the presidency to Hillary Clinton. Some of Trump’s detractors have been fairly bruising in their judgment of (even reluctant) Trump supporters, but the invective in the other direction has also been badly overwrought, as #NeverTrump conservatives are accused of being sanctimonious, naïve, self-righteous, or simply foolish. Comparing one’s own position to that of a saint is always perilous, but it’s still worth noting that More’s contemporaries (including some valued friends) seem to have made similar judgments about him.

I would submit that the decision to support Trump, or not, should be seen as a matter of conscience. This is not to say that the broader political circumstances have no relevance (they do), or that sincere conservatives cannot choose wrongly (they can). It is to say that our present situation calls for serious moral deliberation, as tensions are introduced between cherished principles and goals that we were previously able to pursue simultaneously. At such times, friends may find their paths diverging for reasons that needn’t necessarily discredit either party. Thomas More likely felt that his public visibility, his legal expertise, his previously stated views, and his relationship to Henry put him in a position that was rather different from that of his family and friends. Conscience is by its nature personal, reflecting the significant fact that individual decisions are made within the context of a richly nuanced interpersonal and moral life.

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In deliberating seriously about matters of conscience, we must strive to avoid two sorts of error. On the one hand, we must consider the consequences of our actions seriously, and not hide behind oversimplified moral principles. Real-world choices have real-world consequences, which serious people do not attempt to deny. Politics has ever been the realm of the highly imperfect, but by working within its confines, we can often achieve genuinely good ends. More himself was highly attuned to this fact.

If I re-frame the decision to vote for Trump as nothing more than a strike against Hillary Clinton, I am engaging in self-deception.

Unseriousness about political consequences is a real problem in our time. We see it in the blithe and ridiculous populist claim that the Republican Congress “hasn’t done anything” to frustrate the agenda of the Obama administration. Most of us probably also know people who have for years been gleefully throwing their votes away, claiming that both parties are too corrupt to merit support. We feel justifiably irritated at the “grubby politics off my pristine morals” attitude that such people often project. Chosen irrelevance is not something to celebrate. Disengage if you must, but don’t try to elevate imprudence to a virtue.

Self-righteous unseriousness about consequences is one peril to be avoided in bracing moral deliberations. There is another, however. When pressed by fractious political circumstances, we must resist the temptation to bury our moral agency under pragmatic calculations. Virtuous, upright living is not some trivial side project along the path to world domination. It is itself the goal of human existence.

If you are reading these words, you are a rational being. That means that you are far more than just a cog in a chain of causal events. You have the potential to live well, shaping a life in accord with recognized moral realities. That capacity makes your life precious in a way that an ant’s or a thistle’s is not, but it also means that your choices proceed in an important way from your moral agency, and shape your character in myriad ways.

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Voting is one example of a moral act. If I vote for Donald Trump, I will have supported Donald Trump. That choice has moral implications that affect my psychology and character, whether or not I willingly acknowledge the fact. Perhaps it is a justifiable choice that can be harmonized with my broader moral commitments. Still, if I re-frame the decision in my mind as nothing more than a strike against Hillary Clinton, I am engaging in self-deception. When we feel compelled to describe our actions in terms of their secondary implications, that’s usually a sign that we’re not acting in good faith.

Moral decision-making can be hard. Everyone craves a sense of moral clarity, and so we’re regularly tempted to default to one of the above oversimplifications: either consequences don’t matter at all, or else they are the only thing that matters. Moral maturity requires us to look for a middle path. Consequences matter, but we’re still moral agents, so we need to reflect seriously on the moral character of acts themselves.

#share#When questions of conscience arise in the political realm, we frequently find ourselves in awkward debates about the relative value of a clean conscience as compared to some desirable political goal. Which matters more: your feelings of guilt or a healthy judiciary?

The question itself manifests a deep confusion. No reasonable person tries to weigh “unpleasant moral feelings” against the value of a conservative SCOTUS justice; if you do see the matter that way, you’ve almost certainly decided in advance that conscientious objectors are little more than self-righteous navel-gazers. This judgment misses the point entirely: An easy conscience is not something we value for its own sake. Turbulent moral feelings are usually indicators of underlying moral realities to which we may perhaps be beholden. If we dismiss conscience as a luxury for the morally fastidious, we are effectively rejecting the entire moral order. In that case, the ramifications for our own humanity are bleak. We have effectively offered up our souls to gain the world.

Is it clearly and definitely wrong to support Trump, even in a qualified way?

Is it clearly and definitely wrong to support Trump, even in a qualified way? I would tentatively say no, but the question calls for careful individual discernment. In the first place we must consider distinctions between the various demands that are being made of us. Voting is a moral act, and voting for Trump does represent a kind of assent (even if weak and heavily qualified) to his leadership. Publicly endorsing Trump (especially from a position of influence) represents a stronger kind of assent. The manner and wording of the endorsement certainly makes a difference here; there is a wide gulf between Bobby Jindal’s heavily qualified foxhole-endorsement, and Jeff Sessions’s uncoerced decision to support Trump at a critical phase of the primaries. Still, the decision to help unify the party behind Trump is morally consequential in a distinct way.

This is presumably why Jonah Goldberg declares that he won’t vote for Trump even though he would, if personally empowered, send Trump rather than Clinton to the White House. Were a single man actually entrusted with presidential king-making, his choice would presumably be heavily focused on the relative merits of the available candidates. That, however, is not how our electoral system works. Goldberg’s actual vote (along with those of the handful of #NeverTrump intellectuals and pundits) is of no real consequence. What others demand of him is help in unifying the party behind “the presumptive nominee.” Helping to shepherd others toward such a deeply objectionable candidate might, for some, constitute an unacceptable attack on their personal integrity. Unless we have lost all regard for their opinions, we should respect fellow conservatives’ considered claim that, for them, it does.

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Bernard Williams, the great 20th-century critic of utilitarianism, once observed that consequentialists have a bad tendency to dismiss as easy questions that really ought to be hard. Should I personally murder an innocent man if this will enable nine more to live? Should I take a job doing work I find morally reprehensible, knowing that the other candidate would do the work far more zealously than I? Is it okay to tell a woman on her deathbed that her children survived the car crash, realizing that the truth would be devastating? Consequentialists can dispense with these questions easily. Murder the man, take the awful job, and lie to the dying mother. Most morally serious people find this troubling. Even if those are the right answers, shouldn’t these be harder questions? If moral deliberation seems to you like a waste of time, is it possible that you’re missing some important moral realities?

#related#Reading conservative criticisms of #NeverTrump, I keep thinking about Williams. I can believe that some conservatives might conscientiously decide that it is their unpleasant duty to help unify the party behind Trump. Party loyalty is important, and Hillary Clinton is bad. Is this obviously the right decision, though? The zeal to oversimplify is disquieting. In the heat of an agonizing election, foundational principles of Western moral thought (such as the basic distinction between act and omission) get thrown overboard like so much philosophical baggage. What will be left of conservatism if we collectively agree that stopping Hillary is the only thing that matters? If our movement is to have a future, we must each ask ourselves: At what point do I say, with More, “This I cannot do”? (Do I have such a point at all?)

I will not support Trump, but that isn’t because I imagine myself to be morally purer than Dennis Prager, or Peter Robinson, or Victor Davis Hanson. I have long respected these men, and lacking access to their interior moral lives, I can’t reliably say whether they’ve chosen well in lending Trump their public support (albeit with stated reservations). I can say, after reflecting on my own circumstances and commitments, that I am unable to follow suit. It’s a matter of conscience, which should be enough. We don’t trade our souls for the world.

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