Among the more confusing aspects of the uniquely confusing 2016 election cycle was the unfailing kinship evangelical Republicans displayed toward Donald Trump, a man who not only did not share their ostensible values but so frequently offended them. The thrice-married, boastfully adulterous Trump won 81 percent of born-again or Evangelical Christians, and their support has not waned. Evangelical leaders and voters alike have conspicuously refused to criticize the president, even when he deserves it. Sympathetic portraits of a culture in crisis supposedly justified this cognitive dissonance because, even if Trump weren’t perfect, he was the last bulwark against the tyranny of liberal secularism.
The expectation Trump would serve them better than Democrats has led Evangelical leaders to defend Trump’s demonstrable mendacities and brush aside his boorishness and divisiveness. Still more disturbing, when Trump urges police not to be “too nice” when making arrests or when he lumps those who oppose dismantling Confederate monuments with neo-Nazis, for example, none dares object too loudly. To speak up would be to threaten the project.
That’s immoral, and stifling yourself for fear of providing the Democrats and liberals with political ammunition is weakness. If Evangelical Christians really do feel existentially threatened to the point that they must compromise their values, they will have made a fatal error. The sad and sordid story that just broke involving the Republican Senate nominee in Alabama, Roy Moore, exemplifies this.
Moore is accused of having had improper sexual contact with several minors when he was a district attorney in his 30s. The Washington Post’s account is meticulous; four women—some on the record and some anonymous—have come forward with their stories, all of which the Post published in lurid detail. They include the allegation that Moore tried to get a girl as young as 14 drunk and molest her, and he was undeterred from making a second attempt despite having been informed of her age. Moore denies these stories and says they amount to defamation. The allegations are decades old and will likely be neither proven nor disproven. Either way, Moore’s political career is indelibly stained.
As of this writing, nearly half the Republican Senate majority has called on Moore to step down from his nomination. Some have appended the caveat “if proven true,” but others have not couched their demands at all. A decent Republican would step down, but Moore is not a decent Republican. He endeared himself to his constituents by supporting religious litmus tests that would bar Muslim-Americans from public office and has advocated for making certain sexual practices illegal. Moore made a name for himself nationally by standing athwart proper standards of civic conduct. He was forcibly removed from the state Supreme Court bench after refusing multiple orders to remove a 5,000-pound Ten Commandments monument and vacated the bench again only after he was going to be removed for refusing to enforce the U.S. Supreme Court decision that legalized gay marriage. Sensing a pattern? Moore has a habit of wrapping himself in religious virtue to justify his contempt for the Constitution. That kind of fraudulence should offend the millions of moralists for whom Moore pretends to speak, but such public expressions might diminish his electoral prospects. And we can’t have that.
A generation of conservatives whose political maturation occurred in the 1990s as an army of thought leaders and columnists denounced the illegality and immorality of the Bill Clinton White House must now wake every morning in fear of who will prove themselves an irredeemable hypocrite. Every day, it seems, another of Clinton’s fiercest critics prove his moral flexibility in the Trump era. It would appear their condemnations were only ever a means to an end; the pursuit of power at any cost, even personal integrity and the trust of millions. Millions of us who were convinced of the virtue of the right’s righteous attacks on the liberal left’s moral profligacy thought they really meant it. Right now it’s hard to argue they ever really did.