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Candidate Character & Evangelical Political Influence

30 Nov 2017

During the Bill Clinton imbroglio, Gloria Steinem famously defended the sitting president, who had engaged in a sexual relationship with an intern, by claiming it was understandable for men to behave certain ways as long as they were aware that “no means no.” Her tawdry defense of Clinton came to be known as the “one free grope” rule. Nancy Pelosi trotted out a similar rationalization last Sunday. John Conyers, who has now been accused by eight women of predatory behavior, is “an icon” according to Pelosi, and has done much to “defend” women’s rights. So what if some women were treated at least rudely, and perhaps criminally, Rep. Conyers votes the right way.

Feminists, in their desire to maintain both access to power and abortion rights decided, in the end, that supporting men whose actions contradicted their most cherished principles was worth it. Feminists became an integral part of the party coalition. They had a seat at the table, access to the levers of power, but what did it cost them? They enthusiastically belonged to a party built around a man accused of rape, who perjured himself, and was stripped of his law license. They enthusiastically belonged to a party that raked in tens of millions of dollars from Hollywood, which also perpetuated the abuse of women by powerful men.

In backing the Democrats, feminists sacrificed their principles and vacated whatever moral high ground they once might have occupied.

Evangelicals have come to their own Clinton impeachment moment with the rise of Donald Trump and Roy Moore.

The backbone of the Christian Right, Evangelicals see themselves as the conscience of the G.O.P. They advocate for family values and fight for the unborn. They are the loyal foot soldiers that helped transform the South into a bastion of Republicanism. Evangelicals want their own seat at a different table. Like the feminists, they wish to be “in the room where it happens.”

In 2016, Evangelicals embraced Donald Trump at the ballot box and many of the same faces and families that lambasted Clinton for his sexual improprieties, defended Donald Trump. After all, we were not “electing a pastor, but a president.” Roy Moore’s candidacy has resurrected the same arguments.

D.C. McAllister, at The Federalist, provides us with her own justifications for why religious voters should sometimes support “immoral” political leaders. It is a matter of “context” and “policy.” Senators like Moore will vote to confirm conservatives to the Supreme Court and govern in a more traditional manner. McAllister thinks these kinds of votes are justified by God’s actions in the Bible. God used all sorts of unsavory people in the Bible. Our job, as voters, is not to expect our leaders to be moral or to live up to God’s standards, but to make cold choices in the dirty game of politics.

Her take was quickly endorsed by author and media figure Eric Metaxas:

As Michael Gerson notes, these sorts of arguments are utilitarian by nature. The ends (party power, Supreme Court appointments) justify nearly any means.* Metaxas, probably unintentionally, makes this clear. He asks fellow Evangelicals to embrace reason and rigor instead of their “emotion” and self-righteousness. Gerson thinks this approach leads to intolerable outcomes. Pure reason, untethered from divine principles, can lead to truly awful places. What, precisely, would Metaxas or others be willing to support in exchange for a reliable Republican vote in the Senate? An accused rapist, thief, or lunatic? Of course not, but why not? The argument gives no obvious reason why these flaws are more damaging than accusations of sexual predation against minors.

The prevailing assumption seems to be that we, as Christians, are unreasonable or naive if we expect our elected officials to abide by our particular values. McAllister says it is appropriate for us to hold pastors to these loftier standards, but not politicians. Politics is the “city of man” and exists outside of the “city of God,” where evangelicals’ narrow moral conceptions might prevail.

This argument has many flaws, but chiefly, it is a red herring. No one I’m aware of argues elected officials should abide by the same standards as pastors or other religious leaders. McAllister here is conflating a call for character in elected officials with a requirement they be Christian ethicists. I cannot speak for Evangelicals, but I would be happy with just ethics (or better yet, virtue), regardless of their source.

Honesty. Integrity. Prudence. Wisdom. Humility. Some connection between words and deeds. Are these too much to ask for in elected officials? Does this, to use Metaxas’ words, make it “self-righteous” to advocate for leaders that are simply decent human beings? We should pause to consider that we, as Christians, are being criticized, sometimes by fellow Christians, for expecting elected officials to behave as civilized, honorable men and women with some demonstrable level of integrity. Such is the Republican Party in the Age of Trump.

Beyond this “standard,” there is another lurking matter that is more sensitive and, I fear, more pointed. There is a fundamental honesty to the politician that says, “I am not a Christian, so don’t expect me to behave according to your Christian moral or sexual codes.” Had Donald Trump taken this approach during the GOP primary, I would have been more receptive to his message and his motives. I did not agree with Trump enough to vote for him, but his candidacy would at least have assured me he was an honest broker with a high degree of “what you see is what you get.”

Obviously, this did not happen. Trump knew Evangelicals were too important within the Republican Party to take this approach. He took on the trappings of Christianity. He spoke at Liberty University, picked his favorite Bible verse, and talked of his faith. At the same time, sometimes in the same settings, he said he did not need forgiveness because he doesn’t make mistakes, how the “little wine” and “little cracker” helped him feel cleansed, so he took those as often as possible, and he said he would apologize, in the distant future, if he ever made a mistake. While I cannot know the inside of Donald Trump’s heart, these do not sound like the words (we will not even get into the actions) of a man who has come face-to-face with his own sinfulness and his desperate need of God’s grace. On top of that, it is hard to square Christianity with prideful boasting and a persistent need to exalt one’s wealth and status in order to humiliate others.

But where Trump stumbled, many Evangelical elites were there to pick him up. Jerry Falwell, Jr., James Dobson, Tony Perkins, Mike Huckabee, Robert Jeffress, and Eric Metaxas went out of their way to assure us of Trump’s fidelity or, failing that, his acceptability on grounds similar to those echoed by McAllister.

In some ways, Evangelical elites want to play on both sides of the fence. Like Metaxas, they want to chide people like me for holding flawed humans to divine, unreasonable standards. But, they also want to surround these same, flawed humans with the trappings of my faith. We are reminded, always, this election (whichever one happens to be current) really is “a spiritual struggle. This is God’s fight against progressivism,” or that “there are prayer meetings in the White House!” or “did you hear he quoted Scripture in his speech!?!?” or “did you see the pictures on social media of all of the pastors and religious media personalities who went to the White House?”

We are witnessing, I fear, the twilight of Evangelical influence, which has been sacrificed to maintain Evangelical power. We are now reliably, wholly Republican. We are in the room where it happens and we have a seat at the table. In the eyes of our party, regardless of our motivations, we will vote dutifully for any Republican put before us, warts, accusations, and all so long as a pro-choice Democrat is the opponent.


Albert O. Hirschman, in Exit, Voice, and Loyalty, famously examined how individuals function in the context of organizations like political parties and interest groups. During times of turmoil, individuals must decide how to behave in order to change or at least positively influence the organization. They have three options: exit, voice, and loyalty. They can leave (exit) with the hope their departure might spark a change. Alternatively, people can speak out (voice) for reform or change, or they can maintain loyalty. Loyalty strengthens the organization but it tends to maintain the status quo. Voice, Hirschman notes, seems most effective when coupled with the possibility of exit. So, if a political party, for example, is convinced it must change or it stands to lose significant support, it will listen to the disgruntled.

Feminists, when confronted with a faltering Clinton Administration within the Democratic Party, chose loyalty. They fiercely defended the administration and kept their “seat at the table” as a result. Their party, however, did little to respond to feminist ethics outside of its adherence to pro-choice policy positions. While it might seem idealistic, what could have happened had the feminists struck back at Clinton? Would we have had #MeToo a generation ago? Could Bill Clinton have been the Harvey Weinstein of the 1990s? Could thousands of our friends, daughters, sisters, and wives have been spared harassment, abuse, or assault?

Evangelicals have arrived at their own Clinton impeachment moment. The Republican Party is out of kilter; it seems unsure of its beliefs and is fractured between the leadership and voters.  We have been presented with Donald Trump and now Roy Moore. I understand the mixed motivations that go into voting. Many Evangelicals chose Trump, and will choose Moore, as the lesser of evils. I have never been persuaded that choosing a lesser evil is defensible, but I am sympathetic.

Even those Evangelicals who see elections in such terms need to understand the message they are sending to the G.O.P. (at the national, state, local, elite and mass levels) when they cast a vote for a Trump or a Moore. They are choosing loyalty in the face of an organization in desperate need of voice, and unless that voice is coupled with the possibility of exit, here seen as “I refuse to vote for scoundrels,” the voice grows small and still and can be safely ignored.

We are in danger of making the mistake the feminists made in the 1990s. Will we be seen, fairly or not, as squandering our principles in order to secure our policy goals? Will we lose our role as the conscience of the Republican Party? Will we look back and think, what could have happened if Evangelicals had resolutely stood against the likes of Trump and Moore? What evils could we have avoided? What innocents might we have spared? Who is the future, more monstrous, political version of Harvey Weinstein we may have neutered by standing firmly now?


There is, like it or not, much to be said about being in “the room where it happens.” That is where judicial nominees are selected, agendas get set, and the sausage gets made. It is where ideas get championed and horses are traded. Those seats at the table yield real power.

Instead of focusing on being at the table, Evangelicals should seek loftier goals. We should design the furniture. Pick out the paint on the walls. Better yet, we should draw up the blueprints for the building that includes the room. We should shape the cultural that informs the minds of the people who walk into the room. Instead of getting to see how the sausage gets made, how about changing the menu?

*I wrote a previous post on my primary problems with this sort of argument on behalf Roy Moore.