Opinion

JEFF JACOBY

How the religious right embraced Trump and lost its moral authority

Attendees said the Pledge of Allegiance last month at the Values Voter Summit in Washington.

Doug Mills/New York Times

Attendees said the Pledge of Allegiance last month at the Values Voter Summit in Washington.

IT WILL TAKE a long time to assess the full extent of the damage wrought by Donald Trump on the Republican Party and American conservatism. But this much is already clear: Buried under the post-election wreckage will be the moral credibility of the religious right.

Hypocrisy and politics have gone hand in hand since time immemorial. But the embrace of Trump by influential religious conservatives — who have always insisted that they, like Hebrew National, answer to a higher authority — is orders of magnitude worse than the customary flip-flopping and sail-trimming of a presidential campaign.

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For decades, Christian (and some Jewish) conservative spokesmen portrayed their involvement in partisan battles as an aspect of their faith’s witness. Judeo-Christian ethics and the inculcation of moral standards in public life were not just talking points to the organized religious right; they were the reason the movement existed in the first place. Jerry Falwell, who launched the Moral Majority in 1979, explained that its purpose was “to turn back the flood tide of moral permissiveness, family breakdown, and general capitulation to evil” that he feared was inundating American life.

You didn’t have to sympathize with the Christian right’s political platform to understand why so many evangelical leaders were appalled by the sexual scandals that trailed Bill Clinton into the White House. It was no mystery, for example, why Ralph Reed, an early leader of the Christian Coalition, would insist vehemently, in 1998, as pressure was growing for Clinton’s impeachment, that “we care about the conduct of our leaders, and we will not rest until we have leaders of good moral character.” Or why the formidable televangelist Pat Robertson would blast Clinton as a “debauched, debased, and defamed” politician who turned the Oval Office into a “playpen for the sexual freedom of . . . the 1960s.”

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That isn’t how they talk about Trump.

Far from leading the opposition to the GOP’s grotesque nominee, Reed chairs his religious advisory board. Nothing in Trump’s long record of lecherous and disreputable behavior has shaken Reed’s support — not even the video in which he boasts explicitly of groping women. “People of faith” have more important concerns, Reed told CNN on Monday. “I think a 10-year-old tape of a private conversation with a TV talk show host ranks pretty low on their hierarchy of concerns.”

Robertson, who has said that Trump “inspire[s] us all,” isn’t backing away either. The Donald’s talk of grabbing women by the crotch, Robertson indulgently explained to his TV audience, was just his way of “trying to look like he’s macho.”

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Falwell died in 2007, but his son — Jerry Falwell Jr., the current president of Liberty University — fulsomely endorsed Trump in January. “Donald Trump lives a life of loving and helping others as Jesus taught,” Falwell the Younger gushed. He, too, sees no reason to walk back his blessing.

“We’re all sinners, every one of us,” Falwell says now. “I don’t think the American people want this country to go down the toilet because Donald Trump made some dumb comments on a videotape 11 years ago.”

Christian conservatives had no patience for such rationalizations when they were invoked to defend Bill Clinton. William Bennett — a serious Catholic, public intellectual, and Reagan-era Cabinet secretary — published a book in 1998 debunking the arguments made then by Clinton’s supporters, and now by Trump’s.

In “The Death of Outrage,” Bennett showed the absurdity of tolerating grossly immoral behavior on the grounds that everyone sins.

The Gospel’s injunction to “judge not, lest ye be judged” is a warning against hypocrisy and self-righteousness, he wrote. “It is not — it cannot be — a call to withhold all judgment or never to express a critical opinion of another.” After all, both Old and New Testaments repeatedly condemn immoral behavior. Christians are not called upon to overlook sin, Bennett pointed out, but to resist it. There is nothing admirable about refusing to “make reasonable judgments based on moral principles” — particularly in weighing the actions of democratic leaders.

Equally intolerable is the willingness to ignore a candidate’s brazen moral offenses because you like his stands on public policy. Such ends-justify-the-means arguments are “Nixonian,” said Bennett. “Moral precepts are real; they are not like warm candle wax, easily shaped to fit the ends of this or that president, or this or that cause.” When Trump backers downplay their candidate’s scandalous conduct on the grounds that Supreme Court appointments matter more, they are as bad as Clinton backers who downplayed the president’s Oval Office debauchery because they liked his position on abortion rights.

Yet Bennett now exemplifies the phenomenon he excoriated. When it came to Clinton’s depravity, Bennett was unsparing. Trump’s depravity he doesn’t mind so much. In August, Bennett accused anti-Trump conservatives of “put[ting] their own vanity and taste above the interest of the country.”

Not everyone on the religious right has sacrificed their principles for Trump’s sake. A coalition of Liberty University students issued an eloquent statement Wednesday rebuking Falwell for endorsing the GOP nominee. “Donald Trump does not represent our values and we want nothing to do with him,” they wrote. Albert Mohler, a deeply respected Baptist theologian, remains as steadfast in opposing Trump as he was in opposing Bill Clinton.

But they and other honorable exceptions will not undo the damage caused by the pro-Trump leaders of the evangelical right. What started as Christian witness ended in hypocritical partisanship. Religious conservatives shed their principles, and thereby dismantled their influence.

Jeff Jacoby can be reached at jacoby@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @jeff_jacoby.
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