We have been here before. The release of Donald Trump’s “Access Hollywood” tape, leaked in October 2016, very nearly placed him beyond the bounds for many evangelical voters. Yet as we now know, this was to be short-lived. On Oct. 19, 2016, the Public Religion Research Institute released a survey showing that whereas in 2011 only 30 percent of evangelicals thought that a person who commits immoral acts in their personal life could still behave ethically in their public duties, by 2016, that figure had leaped to 72 percent. In 2011, evangelicals could afford to prioritize questions of integrity. The common-sense inference is that by 2016, the possibility of attaining power was considered to be of greater significance than that of maintaining character or virtue. We are watching another episode of the same show, and much depends upon the outcome.
By now, many on the right have issued strong condemnations of Moore. Still, the fact that there is even a debate on whether the allegations, if true, are disqualifying is deeply revealing. It betokens a Protestant right that is open to establishing a pattern whereby even egregious moral failure is a price worth paying for political and cultural power, and whereby one need not seek actual goodness, but rather need only not to exceed the badness of one’s opponents. The significance of these developments, and how far they remove evangelicals from the traditional practices of Christian politics, can be seen by grasping a few key historical points.
From the beginning, Christianity, like Judaism before it, was constitutively political. The gospels are filled with explicitly political and borderline seditious language such as “the kingdom God” (51 references) or “the kingdom of heaven” (32). These phrases, though, are mixed with such enigmatic statements as “My kingdom is not of this world” (John 18.36) and “The kingdom of God is within you” (Luke 17.21).
The earliest Christians understood God to have initiated a political project, but one focused not on the accrual of might, territory or treasure, but rather of virtue — the life well lived. Within this mind-set, the modern question of dividing private and public virtue was incomprehensible. “The City of God” simply was the manifestation of the virtuous life, and any other political feat accomplished by Christians was insignificant or worthless. For centuries, Christians would consider their greatest political achievement to be found not in the Christianization of Rome, but rather in some forgotten monastery in the middle of the Egyptian desert or the Italian hill country.
This straightforward view that Christian political life simply was a manifestation of inner virtue came under severe attack with the Protestant Reformation, in part because of the (often legitimate) claim that medieval structures of political power had failed massively in their aspirations to such goods, becoming instead systems of control and exploitation. Protestants argued that rather than pursuing virtue and power in tandem as the medievals had done, the two should be handled separately.
The American project itself, and its large evangelical population in particular, have always been descendants of this critique of the falsity of Catholic piety. The initial suspicion that many monks were using their aura of spirituality just to accrue power became a wholesale critique of the idea that virtue and power could ever coincide. (Think of Lord Acton’s famous maxim: “Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”) Once the organic link between virtue and power is severed, however, the relationship between the public and private becomes deeply unstable. Such instability has been manifest in America, and in American low Protestantism from the start, as different values vie for primacy.
When the idea that political power as such is a danger takes precedence, evangelicals have tended to advocate for a minimalist vision of the state and a privatization of religious virtue and devotion. On this model, more or less enshrined in the First Amendment, the state should be sufficiently muscular to intervene to protect minority groups from being persecuted, but should otherwise remain aloof to any claim regarding what sort of virtue it should embody. Christianity, meanwhile, adopts an essentially depoliticized vision of itself, taking its role to be about local charity, “a personal relationship with Jesus” or “the salvation of souls.”
But in a second model, which gained unprecedented prominence with the rise of the religious right in the late 1970s, the emphasis shifts somewhat toward the “virtue” end of the spectrum. Suspicion of state power remains, allowing evangelicals to accept the secular state, even as they seek to enact policies that they perceive to be embodiments of Christian values. In this model, internal virtue and political fitness mingle together, and figures like President George W. Bush are praised not because they are simply superior to the alternatives, but because they are “Godly” people.
What has been consistent across both of these strategies is the conviction that inasmuch as Christians have a role in the public sphere, this is in principle an overflow from the virtues cultivated on a local level. Thus, maintaining certain continuity with the ancient model, evangelicals have often been highly demanding with regard to the conduct of their religious and political leaders, continuing to see personal and political virtue as intertwined.
What is unique to the past two years, then, is the strange way that evangelicals have been willing to invert this hierarchy. By supporting candidates who fall obviously outside the bounds of Christian ethics, evangelicals are also accepting further privatization of religion. What is needed for public life is divorced from the ideals that obtain in private. Furthermore, the measurement for acceptability switches from being a transcendent measure — “what is actually good?” — to a contingent measure — “am I as bad as my opponent?”
Consider recent defenses of Moore: Alabama Republicans have openly claimed they would still vote for Moore even if all the allegations against him were true, because he would still be better than a Democrat; others have sought to play down the nature of the alleged offenses, writing them off as minor or consensual. Others have simply replied that Democrats also have sex with minors or very young adults sometimes: Conservative commentator Laura Ingraham, for instance, tweeted a news report from decades ago about liberal comedian Jerry Seinfeld dating a teenager while in his 30s; others, like right-wing radio host Rush Limbaugh, have argued that Moore’s alleged crimes are nothing compared to those of former president Bill Clinton.
If these habits of disregarding character and measuring oneself against one’s opponent persist, evangelicals will have taken a further and decisive step toward discarding the very idea of Christian politics itself.
The divide between right and left is often portrayed as an argument about conflicting visions of the full human life; that much is true, and is a debate well worth having. But there is also a more fundamental debate playing out on both sides regarding whether human life can even be coherently lived at all, with cynicism, suspicion and hypocrisy winning the day for the moment. Power is frequently amenable to corruption, but if we adopt the view that it is not also amenable, on principle, to virtue, then eventually we are going to get what we paid for.