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What Christian moral theology has to say about Trump’s eligibility for office

by California Digital News

(RNS) — The current dispute over former President Donald Trump’s eligibility to run for office poses a moral as well as a legal and political dilemma. While the Constitution, our sacred rulebook, indicates that he may have disqualified himself with his actions on and around Jan. 6, 2021, there’s a powerful sense that, in a democratic republic, it should be up to the voters to decide whether he did or not, or whether they want him for president anyway.  

At issue is Section 3 of the 14th Amendment, which bars from public office anyone who, having taken an oath to support the Constitution, “shall have engaged in insurrection or rebellion against the same, or given aid or comfort to the enemies thereof.”

In the view of a range of legal scholars, notably including some of the country’s leading conservative strict constructionists (“originalists” and “textualists”), there’s no question that Trump is barred by Section 3 from again serving as president. The other side, which includes some leading liberal voices, contends that it would be a grave mistake if election officials and judges kept the likely Republican presidential nominee off state ballots — as is now the case in Colorado and Maine. 

This is the kind of dispute that classic Christian moral theology can help clarify, if not resolve.

In Eastern Orthodoxy, the principles to grasp are akriveia, the strict application of the rules, and oikonomia, which recognizes that in a fallen world the rules must sometimes be eased. In Byzantium, the commandment not to kill was waived for soldiers in battle, although some penance was prescribed for those who did.

These days, under oikonomia, divorced persons are permitted to be married a second and third time in a Greek Orthodox church, although the ceremony is more muted than the first time around. By contrast, LGBT persons, under akriveia, must remain celibate if they want to be in good standing.

Advocates of the strict application of Section 3 can be considered as embracing akriveia: The rules are the rules. Let the political chips fall where they may. Those on the other side believe that a democratic imperative requires Section 3 to be ignored in Trump’s case.

Of course, given the difficulty of saying, “Let’s ignore the Constitution,” the latter don’t come right out and say so. To the contrary, they grasp at any and all possible straws to enable Section 3 not to be applied to Trump.

Such as: Maybe Section 3 doesn’t consider the presidency an “office” (despite Article II referring to the president’s “office”). Maybe (unlike every other section of the 14th Amendment), Section 3 requires an act of Congress to go into effect.

And: Maybe what occurred on Jan. 6 was not an insurrection according to Section 3’s original intent (albeit Noah Webster’s American Dictionary defines it as “[a] rising against civil or political authority; the open and active opposition of a number of persons to the execution of law in a city or state”). Maybe Trump did not engage in insurrection (even as he told his followers to march on the Capitol to stop Congress from certifying the 2020 presidential election result).

These are the kinds of arguments that led French philosopher and Catholic puritan Blaise Pascal to denounce the way Jesuits, he said, would find ways around applying moral laws to well-to-do supporters — a denunciation that’s made “casuistry” (case-based reasoning) into a bad word. So what would Pope Francis, a Jesuit but no fan of casuistry, say?

On the one hand, Francis’ emphasis on the importance of pastoral outreach would put him in the oikonomia camp, as he most recently showed himself to be in permitting priests to bless same-sex couples (while insisting on the rule that marriage is only for opposite-sex ones). Likewise, his embrace of democracy might lead him to recommend a relaxation of the strictures of Section 3.

And yet he, like many of us, might wonder whether kicking Trump off the ballot would create worse consequences for democracy than his serving a second term. Both sets of consequences are hypothetical. Against a clear constitutional mandate, how much do hypotheticals weigh?

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