From 2011 to 2016, white evangelicals dramatically changed their minds about the importance of politicians’ private behavior
Back in 2016, many journalists and commentators pointed out a stunning change in how white evangelicals perceived the connection between private and public morality. In 2011, a poll conducted by the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) and the Religion News Service found that 60 percent of white evangelicals believed that a public official who “commits an immoral act in their personal life” cannot still “behave ethically and fulfill their duties in their public and professional life.” But in an October 2016 poll by PRRI and the Brookings Institution — after the release of the infamous “Access Hollywood” tape — only 20 percent of evangelicals, answering the same question, said that private immorality meant someone could not behave ethically in public.
Other religious groups didn’t see such a dramatic shift. Between 2011 and 2016, Catholics only had a 14-point drop — substantial, but nothing like the white evangelicals. We also looked at changes over time among black evangelicals and white mainline (i.e., nonevangelical) Protestants; the trend for those groups was very similar to that for Catholics. However, people without a religious affiliation shifted in the other direction, with a nearly five-point increase — that is, they became more likely to say that private immorality translates to unethical public behavior.
White evangelicals still hold Bill Clinton to the old standard — while giving Trump a pass
What about now? To find out, we posed the same question in the post-election wave of the nationally representative 2018 Cooperative Congressional Election Study (CCES). The numbers generally held steady with those in 2016. In fact, white evangelicals are now slightly less likely to say that privately immoral behavior means a public official will be unethical in public life, with only 16.5 percent saying yes. The views of Catholics and secular Americans are essentially unchanged (as are black evangelicals and white mainline Protestants).
Have white evangelicals made an allowance only for Trump, or have they reconsidered their opinions on private and public morality more broadly? We tested this with two other versions of the same question. One starts with, “Many supporters of Donald Trump have argued,” followed by the identical statement about an elected official who commits a privately immoral act. The other harks back to the Monica Lewsinky scandal that led to Bill Clinton’s impeachment. “When he was president, many supporters of Bill Clinton argued . . .” To avoid the possibility of one question affecting responses to the others, respondents were randomly assigned to receive only one of the three variations: the “generic,” Trump, or Clinton version.
White evangelicals had a substantially different reaction when asked about Trump or Clinton. When primed to think about Trump, only 6 percent of them say that an elected official who acts immorally in private is incapable of being ethical in public life. But when Bill Clinton is mentioned, that rises to 27 percent — a 21-point increase.
By comparison, Catholics differed by only five points when asked about Trump or Clinton. And, as we might expect, mentioning Clinton makes secular Americans less likely to worry about the public ethics of a privately immoral official.
In short, white evangelicals are far more likely to shift their view of a politician’s private behavior when asked about Trump than when asked about Clinton.
That varies by party loyalty
To see whether this varies by the respondents’ party identification, we compared Republicans to non-Republicans (which combines independents and Democrats because of the very small number of evangelical Democrats) within the evangelical and Catholic traditions. Among both white evangelical and Catholic Republicans, the view that private immorality precludes ethical behavior in public life is far greater when we prompt our respondents to think about Clinton rather than Trump. For evangelicals who identify as Republicans, the level of concern about private morality declines by 34 points moving from Clinton to Trump. Unease about private immorality leading to unethical public behavior declines even more among Catholic Republicans — a 40-point drop from 54 to 14 percent.
In contrast, non-Republican, white evangelicals are slightly more concerned about politicians’ private morality when Trump is mentioned than when Clinton is mentioned. Catholic Democrats and independents are much more likely to be worried about private immorality when prompted to think about Trump.
In short, party loyalty is the driving force here. White evangelicals as a group are less concerned about private immorality when Trump is involved than when Clinton is involved because they are overwhelmingly Republican.
But Trump has changed white evangelicals’ views on private morality more generally
There is, however, more to the story. It appears that white evangelicals’ support for Trump has led to a more general change in their attitudes on private morality, even when evangelical Republicans are thinking about Clinton. Recall that, in 2011, six out of 10 evangelicals did not believe that a privately immoral official could still perform their duties ethically. In 2019, less than half that many evangelicals as a group and only 36 percent of evangelical Republicans say the same about Clinton — a president who was anathema to those on the religious right.
In contrast, during the Clinton impeachment, many white evangelicals argued that presidents’ private behavior determined the performance of their public responsibilities. As one evangelical put it recently, in those days the mantra was “character matters.” Today, it appears to matter a lot less — at least to evangelical Christians on the right. Now, criticism of the president’s character comes from progressive Christians on the left, like Buttigieg.
Thus, one legacy of Trump may be reduced attention to a president’s private behavior among those who used to care about it most.
David Campbell is the Packey J. Dee Professor of American Democracy at the University of Notre Dame.
Geoffrey Layman is a professor of political science at the University of Notre Dame.