Evangelical Christians castigated Bill Clinton in wake of his “improper relationship” with White House intern Monica Lewinsky. He had sinned. He would be stoned.
Franklin Graham, the evangelical minister, wrote in The Wall Street Journal in 1998 that Clinton’s “extramarital sexual behavior in the Oval Office now concerns him and the rest of the world, not just his immediate family,” and that “private conduct does have public consequences.”
He concluded, “Mr. Clinton’s sin can be forgiven, but he must start by admitting to it and refraining from legalistic doublespeak. According to the Scripture, the president did not have an ‘inappropriate relationship’ with Monica Lewinsky — he committed adultery. He didn’t ‘mislead’ his wife and us — he lied. Acknowledgment must be coupled with genuine remorse. A repentant spirit that says, ‘I’m sorry. I was wrong. I won’t do it again. I ask for your forgiveness,’ would go a long way toward personal and national healing.”
But Graham never demanded the same of Donald Trump. To the contrary, he became one of Trump’s biggest defenders.
When a tape was released during the 2016 campaign of Trump bragging years earlier about sexually assaulting women, Graham revealed his true motives: It wasn’t religious piety, but rather, raw politics.
He wrote on Facebook that Trump’s “crude comments” could not be defended, “but the godless progressive agenda of Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton likewise cannot be defended.” He continued, “The most important issue of this election is the Supreme Court.”
The Supreme Court represents a more lasting power than the presidency, a way to lock in an ideology beyond the reach of election cycles and changing demographics, at least for a generation.
In an interview with Axios on HBO in 2018, Graham said of his support of Trump, “I never said he was the best example of the Christian faith. He defends the faith. And I appreciate that very much.”
The courts are central to that supposed “defense,” in Graham’s calculation.
Case in point: his rigid defense of Brett Kavanaugh, who was accused by Christine Blasey Ford of cornering her in a bedroom at a 1982 house party. Graham dismissed the allegations as “not relevant” and said of the episode, “Well, there wasn’t a crime that was committed. These are two teenagers, and it’s obvious that she said no, and he respected it and walked away — if that’s the case, but he says he didn’t do it. He just flat-out says that’s just not true. Regardless if it was true, these are two teenagers, and she said no, and he respected that, so I don’t know what the issue is. This is just an attempt to smear his name, that’s all.”
The hypocrisy of white evangelicals, taken into full context, shouldn’t have been shocking, I suppose, but as a person who grew up in the church (although I’m not a religious person anymore), it was still disappointing.
I had grown up hearing from pulpits that it was the world that changed, not God’s word. The word was like a rock. A lie was a lie, yesterday, today and tomorrow, no matter who told it.
I had hoped that there were more white evangelicals who embraced the same teachings, who would not abide by the message the Grahams of the world were advancing, who would stand on principle.
But I was wrong. A report for the Pew Research Center published last week found that, contrary to an onslaught of press coverage about evangelicals who had left the church, disgusted by its embrace of the president, “There is solid evidence that white Americans who viewed Trump favorably and did not identify as evangelicals in 2016 were much more likely than white Trump skeptics to begin identifying as born-again or evangelical Protestants by 2020.”
That’s right — the lying, philandering, thrice-married Trump, who has been accused by dozens of women of sexual misconduct or assault, may actually have grown the ranks of white evangelicals rather than shrunk them.
To get some perspective on this, I reached out to an expert, Anthea Butler, a professor of religious studies and Africana studies, and chair of the religious studies department at the University of Pennsylvania. She is also author of the recently released book “White Evangelical Racism.”
As Butler told me, the reason that some people might be surprised by these findings is that “they believed the hype.” For years, evangelicals had claimed that they were upholding morality and fighting injustice. But what the movement has really been since the 1970s, said Butler, is “a political arm of the Republican Party.” As Butler put it, evangelicals now “use moral issues as a wedge to get political power.”
Butler concluded, “We need to quit coddling evangelicals and allowing them to use these moral issues to hide behind because it’s very clear that that’s not what the issue is. The issue is that they believe in anti-vaxxing; they believe in racism; they believe in anti-immigration; they believe that only Republicans should run the country; and they believe in white supremacy.”
Charles M. Blow is a columnist for The New York Times.