When Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, ran for president in the 2008 GOP primary, many evangelical Christian voters were reluctant — putting it mildly — to support him, because of his membership in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
One of Romney’s opponents, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, exploited this hesitance by trying to instill fear about the differences between himself and Romney: “Don’t Mormons,” Huckabee trolled in a New York Times Magazine interview, “believe that Jesus and the devil are brothers?” (Though real theological differences exist, that was not one of them.) At the 2007 Values Voter Summit, Huckabee, a former Baptist preacher, told the crowd they ought to back a candidate who speaks “the language of Zion as a mother tongue.”
I was there that day, and swallowed hard as the crowd, full of anti-Romney fervor, cheered. Was this what Christians were about? Making theology a political litmus test struck me as terribly misguided, especially since Christians, more and more, find ourselves at the short end of that stick. Yet, when this evangelical crowd had a chance to mock a good man for his beliefs, they relished the opportunity.
My husband and I, members of the Presbyterian Church of America and Republicans at the time, should’ve been welcomed by the “values” voters. After getting to know Romney and his wife, Ann Romney, when I worked on a book project with her in 2007, we threw our support behind them and suddenly became the target of evangelical ire. One political activist saw me wearing a Romney campaign hat and angrily said, “You obviously don’t love America,” leaving me in near tears, since my husband was just days from deploying to Iraq. She would later become a vocal Trump supporter.
Romney won the GOP nomination four years later, but neither he nor Huckabee ever became president. Nearly a decade later, evangelical Republican voters embraced Donald Trump despite his well-documented flaws, sins and lack of repentance. Throughout his career, Romney has stood for strong moral values, sometimes at great personal and political cost, but he’s never been Christian enough for some Republicans. Somehow, after everything we’ve seen, President Donald Trump still is.
Last week, Romney reacted to the findings in special counsel Robert Mueller’s report with disgust. One might even describe it as righteous indignation. He conceded that Mueller found no basis to charge the president with a federal crime but tweeted that he was “sickened at the extent and pervasiveness of dishonesty and misdirection by individuals in the highest office of the land, including the President.” It’s the response you would expect from a political leader, of any or no faith, who holds honesty and accountability as important civic values. Yet few evangelical leaders expressed any outrage, or even mild disappointment.
In fact, Huckabee lashed out at Romney, not Trump, tweeting that it “makes me sick that you got GOP nomination and could have been POTUS” — a statement that seeks both to diminish the president’s moral accountability and undermine anyone trying to hold the president to account. It’s a cheap shot implying the only thing we should expect from our leaders is that they walk narrowly within the confines of the law, and not that they should be held to a higher, or even basic, moral standard. It also reveals the insincerity with which Huckabee and others once asserted that Christian values should be central in the selection of a president.
Isaiah 5:20 speaks directly to Huckabee and the rest of Trump’s evangelical defenders: “Woe unto them that call evil good, and good evil; that put darkness for light, and light for darkness; that put bitter for sweet, and sweet for bitter!” Their “mother tongue,” it turned out, wasn’t the “language of Zion,” but crass expediency, molding their definition of Christian values to suit their needs in a quest for power over principle.
Take, for instance, Robert Jeffress, an influential pastor of a Dallas megachurch. “Do we want a candidate who is a good, moral person,” he asked at the 2011 Values Voter Summit, “or one who is a born-again follower of the Lord Jesus Christ?” He said it was “imperative to vote for a Christian” and said voting for Romney would give credibility to a “cult.” Televangelist Bill Keller said that “a Romney election will help ensure at least 1 million souls will burn in hell.”
At the time, too few evangelical leaders denounced this fearful, denigrating rhetoric (though Jeffress, in calculating fashion, came around to endorsing Romney in the general election, saying President Barack Obama “opposes biblical principles”) and some Christians sat it out, holding that their religious views prohibited them from supporting anyone but the holiest of candidates. But four years later, when Trump erupted onto the political scene, the same leaders abandoned their religious litmus tests faster than you could say “grab ’em by the p----.”
Huckabee endorsed Trump in 2016, and his daughter, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, serves as Trump’s White House press secretary. She told the Christian Broadcast Network earlier this year that God “wanted Donald Trump to become president” because he supported “a lot of the things that people of faith really care about.” And while truth is one of the things that, presumably, Christians really care about, she admitted to Mueller that “in the heat of the moment,” she made up disparaging information about former FBI Director James Comey as an excuse for his firing.
Jeffress became a Trump apologist, even defending Trump after Michael Cohen alleged that Trump was aware Cohen paid hush money to mistresses on Trump’s behalf. When Trump bemoaned immigrants coming from what he reportedly described as “s---hole countries,” Jeffress was offended only by Trump’s profanity, not his heartless xenophobia, saying, “Apart from the vocabulary attributed to him, President Trump is right on target in his sentiment.”
Yet Trump’s sentiments, actions and character are opposed to the biblical values these evangelicals claimed to demand in a candidate. Instead of striving to be “poor in spirit,” as Matthew 5:3 commends, he talks endlessly about his material wealth. Instead of being respectful, he is arrogant. Instead of thirsting for righteousness, he has bragged about his affairs. Instead of being a peacemaker, he chooses words that polarize and divide. Instead of respecting women, he has gleefully described himself as a sexual assaulter. Instead of accepting God’s forgiveness, he claims he doesn’t need it.
If evangelical leaders really demanded Christian values in their president, they’d stop calling evil good and good evil. They might also be ashamed that Latter-day Saint Romney stands up for Christian values more than Trump and his sycophants combined.
Nancy French is a four-time New York Times best-selling author.
Nancy French is a four-time New York Times best-selling author.