Support for Trump involves a massive, disorienting shift, especially given the reputation of the religious right. It is, well, unexpected for evangelicals to endorse a political figure who has engaged in creepy sex talk on the radio, boasted about his extramarital affairs, made a fortune from gambling and bragged about his endowment on national television.
But the tension runs much deeper. Evangelical Christians are not merely choosing a certain political outcome. They are determining their public character — the way they are viewed by others and, ultimately, the way they view themselves. They are identifying with a man who has fed ethnic tension for political gain; who has proposed systemic religious discrimination; who has dramatically undermined the democratic values of civility and tolerance; who has advocated war crimes, including killing the families of terrorists; who holds a highly sexualized view of power as dominance, rather than seeing power as an instrument to advance moral ends.
In legitimizing the presumptive Republican nominee, evangelicals are not merely accepting who he is; they are changing who they are.
The ironies here are amazing or troubling depending on whether your politics are blue or red. The former speech writer for George W. Bush, a federal executive now associated with a horrible war to remake the Middle East and who governed an legal machinery that allowed Wall St. investors to wreck an economy, now cautions evangelicals about their public character? It’s not as if their support for the first born-again president (since Jimmy Carter) was all that good for their public reputation. How do you walk away from W.?
But the poignancy of Gerson’s advice is even greater than the level of irony. If evangelicals refuse Trump (which is understandable) that leaves Hillary Clinton as the candidate in whom they should invest their moral capital? (This assumes that a third-party is not an option which is an assumption I make because evangelicals thanks to their nationalism have never had the stomach for politics outside the mainstream.) And if evangelicals consider voting for Clinton, what will that do to the public perception of their character? Don’t they remember how morally reprehensible the Clintons were? Maybe Al Mohler will help:
In one of the strangest political reverses in history, the 1998 elections have been turned into a referendum on the Religious Right and the Republican Congress. Democratic leaders, on cue from the White House, have successfully turned the tables on conservatives by portraying President Clinton as the victim of a moralistic witch hunt.
Granting credit where credit is due, President Clinton and the First Lady must be acknowledged as the masterminds of this political master stroke. With breathtaking speed, conservatives found themselves the accused rather than the accusers. Many citizens seem ready to overlook President Clinton’s grotesque pattern of sexual immorality and, in the President’s words, “deal with the real issues facing this nation.”
Clearly, something more significant than a political strategy is involved here. We are seeing American culture divided into two opposing groups, who seem increasingly unable even to understand each other.
On the one side are those for whom personal character is a “real issue” and cannot understand how so many Americans seem untroubled by a philandering President who has acted as a sexual predator with audacity unmatched in the nation’s history, and who has obviously lied in order to cover his affairs. On the other side are those who seem genuinely to believe that the President’s sexual behavior is his own business, and perhaps the proper concern of the First Lady. Since she seems unconcerned, so should we, these citizens argue; and thus the Starr report, the upcoming impeachment hearings, and the pattern of conservative outrage look like hysterical overreactions by a bunch of moralizing busybodies.”
It’s too late now, but if evangelicals had ever held on to their Augustinian heritage, they may have re-entered the public square with low expectations for the morality of politicians and an awareness that the work of politics is always morally compromised.