Franklin Graham, one of those court evangelicals, tweeted earlier this week: “I wish President Trump's enemies would give it a rest. For two years all the American people heard was collusion. Not true. Then accusations seemed to come out of the woodwork by various women. Then all we heard was impeachment. Now it's the whistleblower claim.”
Other court evangelicals have been silent about Trump's abuse of power as revealed in his phone call with the president of Ukraine. Many of the evangelical leaders who support Trump have chosen instead to praise him for his recent U.N. remarks about religious liberty and his decision to skip a forum on climate change.
Last time around, Bill Clinton, the last president Congress impeached, didn’t have the kind of support among conservative evangelicals that Trump enjoys. The Christian right levied a constant barrage of attacks at Clinton, a pro-choice Democratic president who had been accused of sexual misconduct.
Graham, in a 1998 Wall Street Journal op-ed written in response to Clinton’s affair with Monica Lewinsky, skewered Americans for succumbing “to the notion that what a person does in private has little bearing on his public actions or job performance, even if he is the president of the United States.”
Other evangelicals, who praise Trump as God’s anointed instrument to reclaim America as a Christian nation, went even further in 1998. Gary Bauer, who is president of an organization called American Values that often promotes Trump’s policies, was president of the conservative Family Research Council during the Clinton impeachment. He chided Clinton for lying about the Lewinsky scandal: “Day after day, children hear adults saying that it doesn’t matter if the President lied.” Character, he preached, “is destiny.”
James Dobson, one of the architects of the modern Christian right, told his followers that he was “alarmed” at “the willingness of my fellow citizens to rationalize the President’s behavior even after they suspected, and later knew, that he was lying.” Dobson, who was part of Trump’s evangelical advisory council during his campaign, claimed in 1998 that “you can’t run a family, let alone a country, without [character]. How foolish to believe that a person who lacks honesty and moral integrity is qualified to lead a nation and the world!”
In 1998, many mainline Protestants, Catholics and progressive evangelicals agreed with Graham, Bauer and Dobson.
Bill Clinton’s deceit and moral failures damaged the country and, perhaps more importantly, damaged his relationship with his spouse, Hillary, and daughter, Chelsea. As culture warriors, the Christian right reveled in his depravity.
As a Southern Baptist, Clinton knew that he had sinned and needed to repent. He knew he needed people in his life to hold him accountable and provide counsel as he worked toward the restoration of his fractured relationships and through the consequences of his deceit. He turned to different evangelical leaders to help him through this process. Tony Campolo, a sociology professor at evangelical Eastern University in the Philadelphia area and an ordained Baptist minister who shared Clinton’s commitment to social justice, met with the president on a regular basis during the impeachment crisis and its aftermath.
In a 2004 interview with PBS, Campolo said Clinton called him on Labor Day in 1998 and said, “I’ve made some terrible mistakes and I’ve messed up my life. Will you help me?” Campolo occasionally visited the White House in the early years of the Clinton presidency. He said their conversations usually revolved around ways to address the moral issues facing American society. But after the Lewinsky scandal, their regular Bible studies and prayer sessions focused much more on personal morality and spiritual renewal.
Gordon MacDonald, an evangelical megachurch pastor who had also served as the chairman of the board of the Christian nonprofit World Relief and president of the campus ministry InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, had an idea what Clinton was going through.
He had fallen from his perch of evangelical leadership 11 years earlier after an extramarital affair. MacDonald described the period of repentance, confession and renewal in “Rebuilding Your Broken World.” Clinton claimed he read the book twice.
MacDonald told the ABC news show “20/20” that during an evening at the White House, he “spent several hours with a deeply broken man, a deeply sorrowful man. We don’t talk politics, we talk about this man and his deeply personal walk with God.” MacDonald also said he demanded Clinton confess his sins and “avoid all excuses and rationalizations” for his behavior.
In his memoir, Clinton specifically mentions Campolo and MacDonald as two of three pastors he asked to counsel him for at least once a month for an indefinite period. (The third pastor was Philip Wogaman, a Methodist.)
Like the Old Testament prophet Nathan who confronted King David for committing adultery with Bathsheba, Campolo and MacDonald entered the president’s “court” as pastors — Christian leaders charged with the task of calling out sin and facilitating spiritual healing.
It’s hard to imagine something similar happening should Congress impeach Trump. The evangelical leaders he surrounds himself with are flatterers who are not likely to confront the president’s sin. They need Trump to continue to deliver on their agenda. I imagine most of them will affirm Trump’s belief that he has “done nothing wrong” and perhaps offer a lesson about the demonic forces seeking to undermine his presidency.
But even if the court evangelicals speak truth to power by confronting Trump for his failures of character, their words would probably fall on deaf ears. Unlike Clinton, who acknowledged his life was a mess and cried out for spiritual help, Trump, for all the lip service he pays to God, has denied any need of forgiveness in his life.
John Fea teaches history at Messiah College in Mechanicsburg, Pa., and is the author of “Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump.” Kyra Yoder helped with some of the research for this piece.
Correction: An earlier version of this piece referred to the wrong ministry Gordon MacDonald was affiliated with, which was World Relief.