If Yiannopoulos is a cultural leader for what remains of the conservative movement, then conservatism does not represent millions of people who once claimed it as their philosophical home. But it remains to be seen how the throngs of Trump-supporting Milo fans react to what will undoubtedly be referred to as a silencing of free speech. And already they are making a concerted effort to paint the dissent that led to his downfall as the work of the same group of #NeverTrump conservatives that Trump fans believe symbolizes the “death throes of the Establishment.”
They’re right. That’s precisely who threw a wrench in CPAC’s plans to ride the coverage of controversy that a Milo speech would bring.
But what’s more notable is who did not intervene: evangelical leaders.
Milo’s ascent over the last year was, to a tragic extent, enabled by the willingness of some evangelical leaders to offer their endorsement for the very behavior on display today.
In 2016, there was a lot of discussion about evangelical support for Trump. I grew up in a southern evangelical home with my father, a reverend and seminary professor. And while support from voters like me was treated as a foregone conclusion by conservatives, I was among many people who questioned how leaders of the movement could look past revelations that Trump had been recorded making crass, if not actionable, comments about women while talking to Billy Bush several years earlier. This criticism didn’t come from a place of perfection; certainly we’ve all said and done things we regret.The criticism was that Trump seemed unapologetic, giving no indication that the man in the recording was not the same man up on stage claiming to possess the moral and ethical clarity needed to clean up Washington, D.C. and “Make America Great Again.”
Indeed, it soon became clear he lacked that sort of clarity, but the overwhelming response from evangelical leaders was indifference.
After a dozen women came forward to claim that they had all personally interacted with the version of Trump heard in that recording, Trump offered no indication he was not the man they accused him of being. He issued some threats about lawsuits, pointed to the behavior of Bill Clinton, and hid behind the evangelical support he enjoyed as proof that the criticisms were moot. The message: He could grab a woman by her—wherever—in the middle of 5th Avenue and not lose their votes.
In spite of this, Franklin Graham, Jerry Falwell Jr., Robert Jeffress and others continued to provide the spiritual security that their religious followers needed to feel okay with their vote. They went on TV, tweeted support, wrote articles, met with the president, and came out emphasizing that Hillary Clinton was worse.
Some went so far as to interpret biblical passages to accommodate their newly flexible worldview, a stark contrast to the principled stand many of them (or the fathers on whose credibility they trade) took in the 1990s when a Democrat was the president.
Evangelical leaders of this stripe seemed to indicate that such petty and insignificant things as “moral depravity” were irrelevant now that the questions were raised by a Republican.
White evangelicals voted for Trump by a wide margin; eighty percent supported him, according to exit polls. But the election didn’t resolve the questions; a month into his presidency, Trump supporters are still defending the indefensible.
Yiannopoulos is simply an extension of the moral ambiguity that evangelical leadership has helped to solidify on the right. Instead of certitude or clarity, many of the national leaders who are responsible for helping to guide millions of Christians trying to navigate the muddy waters of life in American politics have opted for moral relativism. They gave Trump a pass. Will evangelicals now give Trump’s surrogates and spokespersons a pass as well?
Yiannopoulos is one of Trump’s biggest and loudest fans; Trump has returned the compliment. After Yiannopoulos was prevented from speaking at UC Berkeley earlier this month by protesters loudly, and in some cases violently, interfering with his event, the president threatened to pull government funding from the university.
But where were Falwell, Graham, and the scores of evangelicals who had given cover to this president’s moral deficits as the Yiannopoulos unfolded? Silent.
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