Back in the ’90s, when Bill Clinton was sexually sinning, conservative evangelicals fulminated with outrage and insisted that a president’s most important trait was moral character. Funny how they don’t talk that way anymore. I wonder what’s changed.
It was a tad sickening this week — but not surprising, of course — to hear Tony Perkins’ assessment of the Stormy Daniels brouhaha. The president of the Family Research Council, the evangelical activist group and self-appointed guardian of the nation’s morals, shrugs off the news, broken by The Wall Street Journal, that Donald Trump trysted in extramarital fashion with a porn star who was paid off to keep quiet on the eve of the ’16 election. Heck, he shrugs off all the evidence of Trump’s Bible-breaching behavior.
In Perkins’ inimitable words, referring to himself and his evangelical brethren, “We kind of gave him — ‘All right, you get a mulligan. You get a do-over here.'”
The word hypocrisy doesn’t begin to describe people who have forfeited moral authority and proved to be as fraudulent as the president they deify. There’s no other way to explain someone like the Rev. Franklin Graham, who said last weekend that he loves Trump because this president has “a concern about Christian values.”
This is the same Franklin Graham who contended, during the Monica Lewinsky scandal of 1998, that character counts, that a president’s private behavior can’t be separated from his public behavior. He wrote that if a president “will lie to or mislead his wife, those with whom he is most intimate, what will prevent him from doing the same to the American public?”
Graham had plenty of company that year. They were all in high dudgeon. At the ’98 Christian Coalition convention, which I covered as a political reporter, evangelical leader Gary Bauer said this about Clinton: “I walk around my home with the TV remote in my hand for fear that [my children] will come in the room when a story about the president comes on. [Thanks to Clinton] our kids have been taught that fidelity is old-fashioned, that adultery is the norm. This [sex scandal] is the equivalent of a cultural oil spill.” And Christian Coalition director Randy Tate chimed in, “We have to be a nation that expects the highest from our public officials.”
But not anymore. These people have converted to Trumpism. In the words of columnist Michael Gerson, a principled conservative, “The priests have become acolytes … The gag reflex is entirely gone.”
They’ve become just another special interest group in the partisan tribe. They’ve shelved their morals to serve a president of abysmally low character, in exchange for his ideological favors — most notably, judicial curbs on the rights of people who aren’t white, male, or straight. Their Faustian pact with Trump troubles and infuriates millions of Americans, including mainstream Christians who try to live their moral principles without craven political calculation.
I can attest that this fury is widespread. Yesterday, I tweeted something about evangelical hypocrisy, and, at last check, it has been retweeted or favorited more than 49,000 times. Don’t believe me? Look it up.
What I posted was purely hypothetical. Just imagine that The Wall Street Journal had outed Barack Obama for sleeping with a porn star prior to his presidency, and imagine that The Journal had unearthed a $130,000 hush payment arranged by Obama’s personal lawyer on the eve of his election, courtesy of a Delaware LLC set up for that purpose. And just imagine (I didn’t have room in the tweet for this) that Obama had done the dirty deed, and been spanked with a magazine, while his wife was home with his newborn baby; and just imagine that this baby was his fifth with three wives. How do we suppose conservative evangelicals would have reacted?
Easy: They would’ve preached that Character Counts. They would’ve stormed their pulpits in high dudgeon. They would’ve demanded impeachment. Or perhaps marched on Washington with tiki torches. Or perhaps they would’ve spontaneously combusted.
Rest assured, there would’ve been no “mulligan” for Obama. But, for Trump, there’s all kinds of doctrinal flex. For Trump, evangelicals like Tony Perkins are so darn willing to forgive. Perkins says: “We see right and wrong. We see good and evil, but also among evangelicals, there’s an understanding that we are all fallen, and the idea of forgiveness is very prominent … There is mercy.”
How convenient! We’re getting the same riff Jerry Falwell Jr., son of the Moral Majority movement founder, who calls Trump “a dream president.” We’re getting the same riff from James Dobson, ex-leader of Focus on the Family, who has asked Christians to pray and fast for Trump. This is the same guy who lectured in the ’90s about the “profound moral crisis” of low presidential character.
Ah yes, the Clintonian ’90s. That’s when Gary Bauer — Perkins’ predecessor at the Family Research Council — lectured one and all about the imperatives of presidential virtue: “Character counts — in a people, in the institutions of our society, and in our national leadership.”
But when moral piety is selectively applied and selectively ignored, does it still have value? Or have the evangelicals’ vaunted principles become as worthless as a ’90s videocassette?