Former conservative congressman J.C. Watts, appearing on “Meet the Press,” reminded the audience that after Charlottesville, two of the president’s business advisory councils disbanded. He noted that “you saw the exodus of many people on the business council, who resigned, who said those are not my personal values, those are not our corporate values, and those — we don’t believe — are the values of our country.” He noted that when it came to President Trump’s faith council, only pastor A.R. Bernard resigned. Watts said candidly that he was “quite disappointed … that we didn’t have more.”
Lack of principle, however, has been par for the course for the vast number of politically active Christian conservatives who endorsed and defended Trump, rationalized every outlandish, hateful statement (on Mexicans, POWs, a federal judge, “Access Hollywood,” etc.) and gave a pass to a thrice-married, dishonest narcissist who displays no religious sensibilities or ethical principles. They have continued to vouch for him, acting as a political shield, not as a spiritual force. They are mute when Trump measures success purely in monetary terms (just billionaires and generals in his Cabinet, thank you) and omits any mention of Jews from an International Holocaust Remembrance Day statement. They rejoice when he enacts a religiously bigoted travel ban and wants to throw honorably serving transgender people out of the military.
Watts would have been even more horrified had he seen Jerry Falwell Jr., who had this exchange with ABC News’s Martha Raddatz:
RADDATZ: On Twitter this week, you praised what you called the president’s bold, truthful statement about Charlottesville saying you were so proud of Donald Trump. But the president said Tuesday, there were quote very fine people on both sides. Who were those very fine people marching with the neo-Nazis?
JERRY FALWELL JR., PRESIDENT, LIBERTY UNIVERSITY: The bold and truthful statements I was referring to were his willingness to call evil and terrorism by its name, to identify the groups, the Nazis, the KKK, the white supremacists. And that’s something a leader should do. And I admire him for that. . . .
RADDATZ: Well, let me tell you what he said, though, let’s go back to this. He said, there were very fine people on both sides. Do you believe there were very fine people on both sides?
FALWELL: He has inside information that I don’t have. I don’t know if there were historical purists there who were trying to preserve some statues. I don’t know.
But he had information I didn’t have. And I believe that he spoke what was…
RADDATZ: What made you think he knew that…
FALWELL: I think he saw videos of who was there. I think he was talking about what he had seen, information that he had that I don’t have.
All I know is it was pure evil. The media has tried to paint this as Republican versus Democrat, black versus white, Jew versus gentile, but it’s just pure evil versus good. And that’s what we all need to unite behind. We all need to unite behind stopping evil, whether it’s Timothy McVeigh who is the terrorist in Oklahoma City, or it’s Muslim terrorists in Barcelona, or it’s somebody flying a plane into the World Trade Center, it’s all evil.
RADDATZ: But when you say things like that, when you say it’s all evil, but you say you’re so proud of Donald Trump, that’s the message that resonated. It didn’t resonate that you think he might have some information.
Falwell continued to dodge and weave, but Raddatz persisted:
RADDATZ: So, would you say, given what you know, there were no very fine people on that side, that other — the side of the neo-Nazis?
FALWELL: I don’t have that information. All I know is those people are pure evil. And there’s no moral equivalency — the secretary of the Treasury said this morning that Donald Trump does not believe there is any moral equivalency. …
RADDATZ: The president also said there is blame on both sides. Susan Bro, the mother of the woman killed in the car attack, Heather Heyer, said she wouldn’t talk to the president, as we heard there, because he equated counter protesters with the KKK.
Raddatz confronted Falwell with the fact that “a growing number of Liberty University graduates are preparing to return their diplomas” to protest his support for Trump. (One student explained that Falwell was “making himself … [and] the university he represents, complicit.”) Falwell insisted that his support for Trump stemmed from the president’s “bold and truthful willingness to call terrorist groups by their names, and that’s something we haven’t seen in presidents in recent years.” (This is a religious perspective?) Raddatz questioned why he is not applying the same standard to Trump, who has refused to call the neo-Nazis domestic terrorists, as he did to President Barack Obama. Falwell pronounced himself confused by this point and refused to criticize Trump.
Robert P. Jones, author of “The End of White Christian America” observes, “I think Falwell, Jr.’s defense of President Trump’s recent remarks is unsurprising. If there’s anything surprising about Trump’s Evangelical Advisory Council over the last week, it’s that anyone resigned.” He explains that “like most things in the Trump orbit, the committee is mostly constituted as a Trump fan club rather than a group that broadly represents the major entities in the evangelical world and who might be conduits of concern on these issues. Loyalty, not moral guidance or prophetic voice, is the coin of the realm.” Even worse, he reminds us, “Given white evangelicals’ own checkered past supporting segregation and remaining silent about white supremacy groups (something I covered in my book), there may in fact be widespread agreement with Trump’s remarks.”
Falwell’s intellectual dishonesty — the president must know something we don’t! — and refusal to apply religious (or even secular) values to Trump’s ratcheting up of racial tension would be something you’d expect from a sleazy politician, not a religious or academic leader. (“But at least he’s not politically correct; he’s not so concerned about rehearsing and focus grouping every statement he makes and that’s one of the reasons I supported him.”) The debasement of so many Christian conservatives, who could call for Trump to practice self-reflection on matters of tolerance and national unity, may be one of Trump’s lasting legacies. Quite simply, who’s going to take these people seriously in the future?
David French, an evangelical Christian, veteran of the Iraq War, constitutional litigator and columnist, sees a familiar pattern. “At this point nothing surprises me from Falwell,” he told me. “Remember, this is the guy who posed with the grin and thumbs-up right in front of Trump’s Playboy cover.” French observed, “Like many of Trump’s most zealous Evangelical supporters, he’s not making arguments. He’s just offering an unconditional, mindless defense — and grounding it all in opposition to political correctness.”
The decision to pursue access and power, to act as political advocates for Trump rather than as spiritual leaders, has stripped the religious right of any claim to the moral high ground. Instead of amplifying the worst traits in our political debate — rapid partisanship, angry populism, tribalism and blind xenophobia — they might consider challenging, not defending, the purveyor in chief of racial animosity and xenophobia.