Character Counts: Well Done, Jonathan Merritt

Jonathan Merritt:

“Character counts.” That was evangelicals’ rallying cry in their all-out assault against Bill Clinton beginning in 1993. In response to what they perceived as widespread moral decline, some religious groups had become aligned with the Republican Party during the Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush administrations. To them, the allegedly draft-dodging, pot-smoking, honesty-challenged womanizer symbolized everything that was wrong with America.

More than two decades after Clinton’s first inauguration, many evangelical leaders of that era have endorsed the draft-dodging, foul-mouthed, honesty-challenged womanizer named Donald Trump for president. Only a handful refuse to follow suit, including Albert Mohler, the president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. During the Clinton years, he regularly argued in mainstream media outlets that the Arkansan was morally unfit to serve as Commander-in-Chief.

“If I were to support, much less endorse, Donald Trump for president,” Mohler says, “I would actually have to go back and apologize to former President Bill Clinton.”

At least Mohler is consistent, which is more than can be said for some of his peers in leadership. While prominent evangelicals tied Bill Clinton to the public whipping post for nearly a decade to make him pay penance for his character defects, they now celebrate a reality-television star who is at least as flawed. As Mohler said, if these Christian leaders want to endorse Trump, they should apologize to Bill Clinton….

Given all of this, it’s perplexing that the former Christian Coalition executive director Ralph Reed declared that “character matters” when it came to Clinton but privately offered to run Trump’s campaign in 2012. It’s hard to understand how the former Family Research Council head Gary Bauer ran television ads in the ’90s calling for Clinton’s resignation due to a “virtue deficit” but now supports Donald Trump. It’s confounding that the theologian Wayne Grudem signed a public letter lambasting former-President Clinton for “ill use of women” and “manipulation of truth” but recently wrote a 5,000-word endorsement of Trump, calling him “a good candidate with flaws” and arguing that people who vote for Hillary will be sinning….

All of this signals something bigger: an end to meaningful evangelical power and influence. Since the late 1970s, conservative Christian leaders have claimed their political engagement is about morality. They have claimed it is about character. They have claimed it is about values. They have claimed it is about biblical principles. Pious preachers, thunderous televangelists, and moralizing activists have sold America a bill of goods about their pure motivation for decades. But evidence indicates that evangelical political engagement is really about cultural influence, social dominance, and power.

Trump-loving evangelical leaders should either apologize to Bill Clinton or admit, after all these years, that they, too, have a character issue.

About Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. McKnight, author of more than fifty books, is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.