This is certainly true when it comes to matters of sex, one area in which President Trump’s “moral fitness” has come under the most scrutiny. Divergent evaluations of behavior have driven our culture wars for decades, and sex has often been at the center of them. It was not always so. At the end of the 19th century, Americans did hold a shared morality, or the closest they’ve come to one, at least where sex and marriage were concerned. Whatever else Americans disagreed about then — race, war, labor laws and more — most believed in, and took for granted as natural, a sexual order in which men were heads of households, wives needed to submit to husbands’ authority, and monogamous heterosexual marriage was the only moral place for sexual relations. This was believed to be God’s law, or nature’s, and those who broke the rules were often punished or shunned.
That consensus began to fracture after 1920, when women achieved the vote and something closer to equal citizenship rights with men, and the rupture deepened in subsequent years as birth control became increasingly accessible and accepted. More questions cropped up in this moral sphere: Must women limit their lives to marriage and motherhood? Could they be trusted to take charge of their own bodies? Should the government police private sexual behavior? Moral issues that had once seemed settled became subject to fierce debate in successive conflicts over obscenity laws, interracial marriage, sex education, abortion, sexual harassment and LGBTQ rights. And the ferocity of emotions regularly led activists fighting changes in the moral code to tactics of outright deception, evasion and political machinations in service to supposedly moral ideals.
Studying these battles together shows that Americans have a core disagreement about women’s equality with men, and the significance of sexual behavior, that has deepened over the past century. There is an overarching divide between opposing views about the very meaning of morality. On one side, it primarily emphasizes personal behavior, sexual purity, clear distinctions between “men” and “women,” and authoritative male headship — the patriarchy. This is where conservatives traditionally have staked their claim. On the other side, morality is centered on social justice, gender and racial parity, and civil rights for all, at least in theory. This is where liberals and progressives have staked theirs. And there is no sign of the division closing.
This vehemence of the division makes it particularly difficult to assess presidents and their moral “fitness” for office. Thomas Jefferson held many slaves, raping and reproducing with at least one. Was he morally unfit to be president? John F. Kennedy had multiple affairs, and Ronald Reagan was once divorced. What about them? Paula Jones accused Bill Clinton of trying to sexually assault her in a hotel room while he was governor of Arkansas. Was he morally unfit to be president? Many of us might say yes to some of these or others, but our answers may well have more to do with our political predilections than our professions of behavior we deem “moral.”
Sex, of course, is not the only area of moral concern. Honesty is another. Well before Comey pronounced Trump morally unfit, Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas was fending off Trump’s accusation that Cruz’s father was somehow tied to the assassination of Kennedy. Trump is “utterly immoral,” Cruz said during the Republican presidential primary. “Morality does not exist for him.” If definitions of morality are mutable when it comes to sex, they may be even more so when it comes to dishonesty and violence. Many presidents have cheated on their wives and otherwise exploited women sexually, but still more have lied shamelessly to the press and the public, upheld policies deeply damaging to African Americans and other citizens, and caused the deaths of millions worldwide.
Many presidents might also have seen “moral equivalence” between the white supremacists and counterprotesters in Charlottesville last summer, or talked about and treated women “like they’re pieces of meat,” or lied constantly about “matters big and small and insist the American people believe it,” as Comey put it in itemizing Trump’s moral deficiencies. To point this out is not to defend Trump but rather to highlight the deep ethical compromises many Americans have long been comfortable making when it comes to the sex, lies and violence of their leaders. If Americans were to have a national reckoning on where to draw the lines on these, in whatever form that takes, then we might come to a consensus on moral fitness, or at least agree on what we can tolerate as moral in a president.
Comey’s favorite theologian is Reinhold Niebuhr. Niebuhr’s 1932 book, “Moral Man and Immoral Society,” argued that a sharp distinction must exist between the moral behavior of individual people and that of social groups, and that “this distinction justifies and necessitates political policies which a purely individualistic ethic must always find embarrassing.” Ultimately, Niebuhr argued, the morality of an individual must be held to a higher standard than that of the group, including the nation state and the government leaders who represent it. “Sanctimonious hypocrisy” was one of the greatest sins he attributed to presidents of his own time, but what made one “morally unfit” for the job he left to others to assess. Given our current political crisis, it might be past time we figured that out.