Twenty years ago, evangelical leaders could hardly have been more appalled.
Arguing that character counts, Rev. Franklin Graham asserted that if a president “will lie to, or mislead, his wife … what will prevent him from doing the same to the American public?”
The late Billy Graham’s son was referring to President Bill Clinton.
Focus on the Family founder Jim Dobson lamented, “As it turns out, character DOES matter. You can’t run a family, let alone a country, without it. How foolish to believe that a person who lacks honesty and moral integrity is qualified to lead a nation and the world! Nevertheless, our people continue to say that the President is doing a good job even if they don’t respect him personally. Those two positions are fundamentally incompatible. In the Book of James, the question is posed, ‘Can both fresh water and salt water flow from the same spring” (James 3:11 NIV). The answer is no.”
These and other evangelical leaders wanted Clinton impeached, convicted and removed from office.
Their position, they asserted, was based on fundamental values. As one leader wrote, “Most evangelicals consider what Bill Clinton did … an undermining of … the moral and biblical principles on which [our Constitution] is based … evangelicals are values-based voters, values based on biblical morality … evangelicals believe in moral absolutes.”
These “values” were reflected in poll data. As recently as 2011, only 30 percent of white evangelicals believed “an elected official who commits an immoral act in their personal life can still behave ethically and fulfill their duties in their public and professional life,” according to a Public Religion Research Institute poll.
Enter Donald Trump.
We need not rehash his myriad moral failings in detail. Suffice it to say that he engaged in any number of extramarital affairs, not to mention the behavior described, and the vocabulary used, in the infamous “Entertainment Tonight” tape, as well as in scores of tweets and conversations.
Trump lied to and misled his wives. He caused parents heartburn about what kids were hearing on TV. He engaged in adultery and sexual harassment. Neither honesty nor moral integrity are his calling cards.
In short, whatever one thinks of Clinton, Trump’s transgressions are certainly as bad, and, in truth, worse.
So, if evangelicals’ concerns are in fact based on moral absolutes, they should be at least as distraught with Trump as they were with Clinton, if not more so.
And it’s not just the leadership who’ve become silent accomplices.
The number of white evangelicals who believe personal moral failings are not disqualifying for a public official rose 42 points, to 72 percent, in 5 years.
This revolutionary change in evangelical attitudes reveals, once again, the power of partisanship to structure our beliefs.
The absolutes to which they claim adherence are actually quite flexible in the face of partisan pressure.
It’s a simple mechanism to maintain consistency: “My Republicanism is preeminent. If continuing to like Donald Trump conflicts with my beliefs about the personal morality of public officials, I will alter my views on that subject, enabling me to continue to support Trump.”
Related to the power of partisanship is another lesson.
We often discuss “values” as deeply held, guiding beliefs from which spring our attitudes on a host of issues.
Evangelicals’ views on personal morality were frequently described as “fundamental” and indeed, “absolute” values.
Yet, they withered in no time, suggesting that “values” may not be as deep and enduring as we think.
Even for a partisan like me, it’s sad that party has become our highest value.
Mellman is president of The Mellman Group and has helped elect 30 U.S. senators, 12 governors and dozens of House members. Mellman served as pollster to Senate Democratic leaders for over 20 years and as president of the American Association of Political Consultants.