When a sex scandal between a porn star and the president of the United States entered national headlines, some evangelicals had already made peace with allegations that their “dream president” may have cheated on his third wife shortly after the birth of their child.
“We kind of gave him — ‘All right, you get a mulligan. You get a do-over here,’” Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, a conservative Christian lobbying group, told Politico in January.
And the Rev. Franklin Graham, one of President Trump's faith advisers, said he believes that the president is likely different from pre-Oval-Office Trump.
“Now, did he have an affair with this woman? I have no clue. But I believe at 70 years of age the president is a much different person today than he was four years ago, five years ago, 10 years ago, whatever. We just have to give the man the benefit of the doubt,” he said in January on MSNBC.
But as more details become public, campaign finance watchdogs say a new lawsuit from adult-film actress Stormy Daniels bolsters claims that the $130,000 she was paid for her silence likely violated federal election laws. Trump has denied the affair, and his press secretary has dismissed the claims as irrelevant to the American people.
“The president denied these allegations,” press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said on Wednesday. “We've addressed this. The American people were aware of this, voted for the president. I don't have anything more to add.”
While Americans may not have been aware of the alleged coverup during the campaign, most knew that the GOP's then-nominee had a history of affairs — and millions of voters still chose him to lead the country, including more than 80 percent of white evangelical Christians.
Trump's support from white evangelical Christians, historically the most socially conservative voting bloc when it comes to sexual morality issues, has declined. But the majority of those identifying with the group still approve of his job performance — an approval that some leaders within evangelicalism find “very confusing.”
Collin Hansen, editorial director of the Gospel Coalition, a national network of conservative evangelical churches, recently told ABC News that white evangelicals' embrace of Trump was a symptom of greater moral issues within their community.
“It's an unmasking, more or less, a revelation of what's truly happening here. There had been a lot of talk among evangelicals about the significance of character in politics.... That clearly was not the top priority of white evangelicals, or at least most of them, when it came to the last presidential election.”
“They were willing to overlook many things that they had not overlooked in other candidates — and namely in other candidates from the other party.”
Rep. Mark Sanford (R.-S.C.), who faced impeachment hearings after it was revealed that he used taxpayer dollars in an international extramarital affair, called out the partisan hypocrisy in how conservatives are responding to Trump's scandal.
“I think we all ought to call it for what it is, which is it’s deeply troubling,” he told The Washington Post. “If it was a Democratic president and hush money had been paid in the campaign, would there be a series of hearings going on? I think you could probably point to a fair number of indicators that suggest there would be.”
One of those indicators is how evangelicals responded to the last president to face a sex scandal: Bill Clinton.
Christian Broadcasting Network Chairman Pat Robertson once accused Clinton of turning the Oval Office into a “playpen for the sexual freedom of the poster child of the 1960s” and called the president a “debauched, debased and defamed” leader.
But even after Trump faced allegations of sexual misconduct from nearly 20 women, the televangelist continued to praise Trump.
Though one could argue that many evangelical Christians are treating Trump differently because his alleged affairs did not happen while in office, the selective concern has left some confused.
“You used to think morality is important. Now, morality is not important. You used to think repentance is important. President Trump says that he’s never had anything to ask forgiveness for. I mean, it is very confusing,” Hansen said.
And perhaps more importantly, the response of white evangelicals to the Daniels scandal — not to mention the others — raises much bigger concerns for the faith, Hansen noted.
“Meanwhile, the compromises being made on the inside have the possibility of truly destroying the credibility of American Christian witness,” he said.