Not since the Bill Clinton-Monica Lewinsky scandal of 1998 has the sex life of a president been on display in such a public manner. On Sunday it was Stormy Daniels. Last week it was former Playboy playmate Karen McDougal telling the nation, among other things, that she had unprotected sex with Donald Trump.
Walt Disney and Marlin Perkins would have blushed. Trump’s evangelical supports give him a “mulligan.”
When the country learned that Clinton had sex in the West Wing, evangelical Christian leaders responded with heavy doses of moral condemnation. In a letter to his followers, Focus on the Family founder James Dobson argued that Clinton’s escapades with Lewinsky made him unfit for office. But he also told his readers that they should have seen this coming:
“How did our beloved nation find itself in this sorry mess? I believe it began not with the Lewinsky affair, but many years earlier. There was plenty of evidence during the first Presidential election that Bill Clinton had a moral problem. His affair with Gennifer Flowers, which he now admits to having lied about, was rationalized by the American people.”
Today Dobson is one of Trump’s strongest supporters. He and other evangelical leaders such as Liberty University President Jerry Falwell Jr. and prosperity preacher Paula White make regular visits to the White House and regularly praise the president.
So far these Trump supporters — I call them the “court evangelicals” because they model the flatterers at the courts of Renaissance-era kings — have been relatively silent in the wake of the Stormy Daniels and Karen McDougal allegations.
The court evangelicals do not condone Trump’s behavior. But neither do they say they think that his indiscretions are in any way harmful to his presidency. They appear to believe that Trump’s sins should not be held against him because they occurred a long time ago and, unlike Clinton’s sins, did not occur while he was in office.
Trump, they have said, is a changed man. He deserves forgiveness. The man who said he grabs women by the genitals has been born again, they say. All evangelicals, his defenders argue, should support him because he defends their moral commitments.
All of us must deal with the consequences of Trump’s sins now that he is president. He may have been forgiven, but we would be foolish to believe that his past actions are not adding to an already coarse moral culture — the kind of culture that the court evangelicals have been trying to change for nearly half a century.
The bar for what is acceptable behavior in public life has been lowered significantly. Our kids encounter unhealthy images — on television, at the theater, at school, on their computers and phones — at a much earlier age than my generation encountered them.
While our country has made great strides in correcting many of our past sins, we are arguably exposed to more vulgar language, sex and violence than at any other time in American history.
Let’s take pornography. I think many Americans, whether they are religious or not, would agree that porn has a negative effect on our culture.
I am sure there will be many — libertarians or some feminists — who disagree with me about the destructive nature of pornography, but most followers of Jesus believe that pornography leads to sin. Christians who watch porn seek to gratify desires that can only be truly satisfied by God and one’s marriage partner.
I know the court evangelicals agree with me. Many of Trump’s most ardent supporters are pastors. I am sure they have counseled people who are addicted to pornography. They can tell stories about families that have been torn apart by porn. They have seen men squander their savings or run up massive credit card debt on Internet porn sites. Some of the most unsung heroes of the evangelical world are those who work with ministries that help men whose lives have been destroyed by pornography.
I would imagine that the court evangelicals are disgusted that Stormy and Karen have replaced Walt and Marlin. But there was a time when opposing pornography was on the top of the Christian Right’s agenda. Today, many conservative evangelicals have cast their lot with a president who, perhaps more than any other politician in American history, has brought pornography into the political and cultural mainstream.
If the court evangelicals are troubled by the fact that the porn industry is getting free publicity every night on the news, they must realize that they are partly to blame. Trump’s past sins (forgiven or not) have found him out. Presidential character matters — past and present. The court evangelicals should be ashamed of themselves.
As the Stormy Daniels interview aired Sunday night on “60 Minutes,” Texas megachurch pastor Robert Jeffress was leading his congregation on a “March for Eternal Life” through the streets of Dallas. Members of First Baptist Church carried a large white cross and announced that the gospel of Jesus Christ — the message we celebrate this Holy Week — is the only hope of the nation.
Sadly, I don’t think anyone was listening. The good news of the gospel will fall on deaf ears as long as the hypocrisy of the court evangelicals continues.
John Fea teaches American history at Messiah College. He is the author of the forthcoming “Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump.” (Eerdmans Publishing, June 2018).