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Trump & Consequentialism

As in the church abuse scandal, some Christians are willing to dismiss serious sin to preserve a good outcome

It finally hit me what all these conservatives — especially conservative Christians — defending Trump, despite more and more evidence of his propensity for sexual assault, remind me of: apologists for the Catholic Church during the abuse scandal.

We have to vote for Trump because if Hillary wins, things will be worse! they say. The enemies of the faith will have a field day.

And you know what? If Hillary wins, things will be terrible. The enemies of faith will in fact have a field day.

Yet this is the same argument I heard personally many times from fellow Catholics — including priests — during the abuse scandal. We have to keep it quiet because enemies of the Church would use that information to discredit it. It will give those who would destroy us ammunition.

Yeah, it would, and it did. But that puts us in the position of the bishop of a large diocese (now retired) who was very blunt when he met with an abuse victim, her lawyer, and the psychiatrist who was treating her (a faithful conservative Catholic, by the way). The victim had not been a child when she was abused by her priest. She was an adult who, in a sacramental confession, admitted that she had cheated on her husband. The priest used that information to blackmail her into a sexual affair. She finally had a nervous breakdown, and sought psychiatric help. Once the bishop found out about it, he sent the priest to Ireland, then met with the victim and her team.

Both this woman and her psychiatrist told me in an interview that the bishop told her that if she filed a lawsuit against the Church or went public with what happened, that he would see to it that she was ruined. Said the bishop, “I have to protect the people of God.”

I think this bishop honestly thought that’s what he was doing. He went on to be transferred to an even larger diocese. By the time he retired, his name had been all over the papers for covering up child sexual abuse in the dioceses where he had served.

But see, that bishop was protecting the people of God. Just not all the people of God.

Let me be clear: I don’t think what Trump is alleged to have done equals the horror of child molestation. And unlike what that priest in the confessional did, Trump has not been accused of rape. But the principle that many of his Christian defenders are using is the logic of an enabler. When I was covering the scandal back in the early 2000s, over and over I saw in court documents evidence that church communities, church employees, other priests, even family members of victims, knew what was going on, or had reason to know … but they turned a blind eye. If what Father was doing was true, then our world would fall apart if anyone knew. Therefore, it must not really be happening, or if it’s happening, it’s no big deal, certainly big enough to justify the damage that would result from making a big deal of it.

That’s the logic. I don’t buy it. If we can’t do evil even if good comes from it, we also can’t overlook evil for the same reason. Everybody has to make prudent decisions, and the world is rarely black and white. This same logic could be used regarding a vote for Hillary: dismissing all her sins and failings because anything is worth keeping Trump out of office.

Still, I wish that I saw less consequentialism at work in the increasingly shrill defenses of this sexual predator offered by Christians. The dreadful consequence of a Hillary Clinton presidency is not a moral disinfectant.

UPDATE: Caleb Bernacchio writes:

Taking account of consequences when making decisions does not amount to consequentialism. The argument doesn’t follow because voting unlike “ruining” a victim is not immoral (according to some non-utilitarian criteria). The bishop’s view was consequentialist but arguments concerning voting for the lesser evil are not.

This said I think these arguments all fail because there are no plausible criteria for determining the likelihood that either Trump or Clinton will bring about bad consequences. Both seem to have vicious characters and thus both would likely do harm.

Thanks for the distinction you make here, but when I wrote, I had in mind friends of mine who have said that nothing Trump has done or might ever do would dissuade them from voting for him, because Hillary is worse. I asked one woman on Sunday, “Could he kill a man, and you’d still vote for him?” The answer: “Yes, because we can’t have Hillary in the White House.” In that voter’s mind, Trump has a free pass to do anything, because the only outcome that matters is Hillary’s loss. That’s what I’m talking about. Voting for the lesser of two evils is understandable.