Donald Trump's latest scandal involving the release of comments made to Billy Bush during a 2005 taping of a segment for Access Hollywood have once again landed the candidate in hot water. Trump has been roundly criticized for his lewd language and description of what sounds like sexual assault, including by members of his own party.
Such criticism from rank-and-file members of the GOP is not entirely surprising, given the uneasy relationship between Trump and many party insiders. But the recent revelations, which have resulted in a number of new allegations of sexual assault, appear to have pushed matters over the line, at least for some.
Speaker Paul Ryan, for instance, has said that he will no longer defend Trump, although he didn't pull his endorsement. Senator John McCain went a step further, indicating that he will note vote for his party's nominee. "When Mr. Trump attacks women and demeans the women in our nation and our society, that is a point where I just have to part company," McCain said. "I have daughters, I have friends, I have so many wonderful people on my staff. They cannot be degraded and demeaned in that fashion."
Trump's comments would seem to spell the end for evangelical support of Trump as well. Conservative theologian Wayne Grudem, who had previously supported Trump, drew back after Trump's statements became public. "I previously called Donald Trump a 'good candidate with flaws' and a 'flawed candidate' but I now regret that I did not more strongly condemn his moral character. I cannot commend Trump's moral character, and I strongly urge him to withdraw from the election."
Grudem's regret, however, hasn't been passed on to other evangelical leaders. Indeed, Trump's comments have caused many to dig in even further with their support. For instance, Jerry Falwell Jr., the president of Liberty University, denounced Trump's remarks but doubled-down on his support for the candidate by appealing to the notions of "sin" and "forgiveness." "We're all sinners, every one of us. We've all done things we wish we hadn't," he said. "It was just a horrible thing. He apologized. He was contrite about it." Indeed, for Falwell, at the end of the day we have to make do with such imperfection, because "We're never going to have a perfect candidate unless Jesus Christ is on the ballot."
James Dobson, founder of Focus on the Family, took a similar approach. "First, I do not condone nor defend Donald Trump's terrible comments made 11 years ago," Dobson said. "They are indefensible and awful. I'm sure there are other misdeeds in his past, although as Jesus said, 'Let him who is without sin cast the first stone.'"
The examples could be multiplied, but that evangelical leaders would be so quick to dig their heels in in their support for Trump over claims that seem to obviously contrast with stated evangelical values has led to numerous charges of hypocrisy. Writing for The New York Times, Peter Wehner, for instance, blasted a host of evangelical leaders, including Gary Bauer, Tony Perkins, the Rev. Robert Jeffress and Ralph Reed, and Eric Metaxas, for their continued support of Trump. They are examples of the "heavenly heights of evangelical hypocrisy," Wehner suggested. Likewise, The Daily Show host Trevor Noah weighed in with a bit in which he discusses evangelical support for Trump with God. To emphasize the apparent hypocrisy, "God" tells Noah, "You see, my child, many use My name when it suits them. But come election time, they change positions faster than my Son changes water into wine."
It's no doubt an easy criticism to make, and I'd be the last to say that conservative evangelical leaders represent an ideal of moral virtue. But such charges do more to give voice to our own sense of outrage rather than change the minds of the criticized. This is not because conservative evangelical leaders who continue to back Trump are somehow uniquely impervious to criticism. It is, rather, that they don't see themselves as hypocrites at all.
It's this latter point that begs for explanation, and this is where pointing out the various contradictions within evangelicalism when it comes to the gap between their stated values and the politics in which they engage falls short.
Specifically, what such criticisms of conservative evangelicalism ignore is the striking consistency in how some evangelical leaders have justified their support of Trump. Again, this is not to legitimate their views. Rather, it's to say that those views have remained relatively constant, even before this latest scandal, whether we like those views or not. Evangelicals have, on the whole, never claimed that their support for Trump has to do with him as an individual; they have never treated him, that is, as an example of moral virtue. The opposite has been more the case: evangelical leaders have emphasized his flaws as a means of garnering support for his bid. When news of Donald Trump's supposed "conversion" to evangelical Christianity broke back in June, for instance, James Dobson said, "Yeah, you got to cut him some slack. He didn't grow up like we did. I think there's hope for him, and I think there's hope for us. I have great concerns about the next election."
All of us, according to the evangelical worldview, are sinners, just like Trump. But unfortunately all of us don't get cut the same "slack," especially in the public sphere. Not all, in other words, are worthy of "forgiveness" in the same way, especially when what is at issue is political support. Forgiveness, although ostensibly universal in scope, isn't applied to those on the other side of the aisle, to those who hold positions that contradict or outright oppose the positions that constitute the conservative evangelical playbook. Otherwise put, the notion of "forgiveness" functions politically as a means of dividing the acceptable from the unacceptable, the elect from the damned.
This explains the very clear difference in the way evangelicals treat Trump and Clinton. When understood in individualistic, moral terms, Trump certainly throws a wrench into evangelical mores, but those aren't the terms in which many evangelicals understand his candidacy. Rather, their focus is issue-based, which they see as vital to the future of the nation and, by extension, Christianity.
Falwell, for instance, justified his continuing support in precisely such terms, noting that although Trump's comments were "deplorable," he finds "Hillary Clinton's support of partial birth abortion criminal and her opinion of evangelicals to be bigoted. There really is only one difference between the two. Mr. Trump promises to support religious liberty and the dignity of the unborn. Mrs. Clinton promises she will not."
Dobson took a virtually similar line, saying, "Donald Trump hasn't vetoed bills that would have outlawed the procedure known as partial-birth abortion. Bill Clinton alone is responsible for the brains being sucked out of unanesthetized babies during delivery. That naziesque procedure continued for years until the Supreme Court declared it illegal. Donald Trump is pro-life. Clinton and his wife disrespect the Constitution of the United States, although Trump has promised to protect it, especially the First Amendment. Shall I go on?"
And he could go on, because at the end of the day, it's all about politics. That Clinton isn't extended the same sort of "grace" as Trump is not because evangelical leaders are somehow going against their own self-understanding in an act of hypocrisy. Rather, they already work with a limited understanding of "forgiveness" and the like, one that extends it to those whose political views line up with their own self-understanding.
That just is conservative evangelicalism in the United States, and we shouldn't pretend otherwise. Conservative evangelicalism, at least at this point, isn't a religion that has expressed itself in a particular political form. Rather, it's an essentially political phenomenon, down to its grammar and vocabulary.