Should a politician’s private behaviour matter when considering their suitability for public office?
When the Bill Clinton sex scandal broke in 1998, the dominant Christian point of view was clear: Clinton’s private infidelity with Monica Lewinsky should preclude him from holding public office.
But 20 years on, it seems evangelicals have changed their minds. In 2011 only 30 per cent of white evangelicals believed “an elected official who commits an immoral act in their personal life can still behave ethically and fulfill their duties in their public and professional life”. Today the figure is 72 per cent.
Liberty University president Jerry Falwell Jr would often comment during the last US election campaign: “We’re not electing a pastor; we’re electing a president.” It’s another way of saying that a politician’s private morality is either not relevant to, or not as important as, their public policies.
The election of Donald Trump by 81 per cent of white evangelicals is proof that this group is now far more comfortable appointing leaders with lower standards of personal morality than they were in years gone by. Those wishing to highlight the president’s immorality cite his three marriages, the mocking of a disabled reporter and multiple crude comments (on and off the record) about the opposite sex. This is to say nothing of the untruths he is regularly accused of spreading through his Twitter account.
A Cyrus figure?
Supporters have defended even the president’s most unchristian actions and words.
When Trump attacked “s***hole countries”, one of his evangelical advisors, Johnnie Moore cast doubt on the validity of the reported words, claiming they were “absolutely suspect and politicized”. Meanwhile, the Christian broadcaster and author Eric Metaxas suggested Trump’s intentions were pure: “If @POTUS said that word, it’s lamentable. But it’s certainly not racist. Have we lost all perspective on what real racism is?”
Others have taken a softer approach, acknowledging the president’s faults and explaining he is, in the words of James Dobson, only a “baby Christian”. Trump is still finding his way after committing his life to Christ under the guidance of televangelist Paula White, they argue.
Turning to the pages of scripture, some evangelicals have referenced Nebuchadnezzar, or the ancient Persian king Cyrus mentioned in the book of Ezra as pagans who were nevertheless used by God. The logic is that, despite Trump’s serious personal failings, God is using him to accomplish wider and greater purposes.
For example, the president’s decision to relocate the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem was heralded by Israel-supporting evangelicals. Just as Cyrus was an evil man who nevertheless allowed the Jews to return to their ancient homeland and rebuild their temple, so Trump is seen as an immoral figure who should nevertheless be applauded for supporting Jewish sovereignty over Jerusalem.
Not all evangelicals back Trump. On the contrary, some are incensed at current Christian support for the president. In his article for The New Yorker, pastor Tim Keller wrote “fury and incredulity” was mounting against evangelical Christians who support Trump: “People who once called themselves the ‘Moral Majority’ are now seemingly willing to vote for anyone, however immoral, who supports their political positions.”
Because of this, Keller notes that some evangelicals are beginning to ditch the label, writing: “‘Evangelical’ used to denote people who claimed the high moral ground; now, in popular usage, the word is nearly synonymous with ‘hypocrite.’ When I used the word to describe myself in the nineteen-seventies, it meant I was not a fundamentalist. If I use the name today, however, it means to hearers that I am.’”
It was also hard to read megachurch leader Rick Warren’s recent tweet as anything other than an attack on the president: “‘He flatters himself and does not hate or even recognize his guilt. The words from his mouth are nothing but trouble and deception. He has stopped doing what is wise and good. He invents trouble while lying on his bed.’ Psalm 36:2-4 (GWT)”.
Bigger than Jesus
According to the president’s advisor Steve Cortes, Trump could beat Jesus in an election. Such bluster is now derigueur from Trump and his aides. But it doesn’t impress Right Rev Paul Bayes, the Bishop of Liverpool, who recently slammed US evangelicals for their “uncritical support of Trump”.
The president’s rhetoric is a far cry from his predecessor’s statesmanlike persona. But this is arguably part of the reason Trump was elected.
Plenty of voters wanted to upset the political establishment and put someone in power who was different and wouldn’t play by the same rules. Just as establishment ‘experts’ couldn't persuade Brits to back the Remain campaign, neither could the political elites in America encourage the electorate towards Clinton. Both countries freely chose political upset and uproar. This is why today’s near-constant criticism of Trump’s tweets has done so little to sway the opinions of those who voted for him.
Controversial and outspoken opinions are exactly what they wanted. The president has also delivered on many of his political promises, and this may partly explain his ongoing popularity in some quarters.
Campaign pledges to rollback Obamacare, take no salary and invest in infrastructure are in the works. Whether his critics like it or not, he’s also kept his promise to keep Guantanamo Bay open, cancel the Paris climate agreement and halt the Trans-Pacific Partnership. At the time of the US election, many Christians spoke of Trump as the “lesser of two evils”. They argued that Hillary Clinton would mean more abortions, less freedom for Christians and a more liberal Supreme Court.
Christians felt they had to vote for a personally immoral candidate in order to get what they wanted politically. But one year on from Trump’s inauguration, evangelicals are seen in some communities as responsible for electing an egotistical, narcissistic and petulant man who makes racist comments.
Esau famously sold his birthright for a bowl of soup. Have US evangelicals sold their long-term credibility for the sake of short-term political gain? If ‘evangelical’ becomes synonymous with ‘Trump voter’ (and some say it already has), then the term will be regarded as irredeemable among many.
To hear more about evangelicals and Donald Trump, listen to Premier Christian Radio's Inspiration Breakfast programme from 7:30am on Wednesday 28 February