Yesterday, I saw something in my Twitter feed that made me cringe: a story in The New York Times titled “Trump Says Jump. His Supporters Ask, How High?” What I objected to had nothing to do with the fact that Trump was elected, although I have previously shared my concerns on that score. It was not even anything particularly new. What caused me to cringe was the article’s mention of a poll conducted by the Public Religion Research Institute and the Brookings Institution last October, the month before Trump was elected. I seem to recall seeing it when it initially appeared, but being exposed to it again seemed to double the effect.
The issue considered in this poll was whether “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”. I understand that this is a complex issue. Even in scripture, we see examples of people who did something terrible at one point or another (e.g. Moses or David) and yet were described as godly leaders (though somewhat compromised by their sins). Therefore, I would be willing to accept a certain variety of responses to this question, but what I am not willing to accept is the result of this poll.
In 2011, 44% of Americans stated that an immoral act in a politician’s personal life did not prevent them from behaving ethically in their public duties. That means that 56% disapproved of such actions to the extent that they felt them to be ethically disqualifying. When the same question was asked five years later, 61% believed that the same “politician X” could still behave ethically in their public duties, a shift of 17%. That is a pretty big change in a relatively short amount of time. What accounts for it?
It turns out that voters who identified as religiously unaffiliated felt virtually the same in both versions of the poll: 63% vs. 60%. The sea change came among those who described themselves as more religious. Only 42% of Catholic voters had previously said that a politician who is immoral in their personal life can be moral in their public and professional life. That number jumped to 58%. Among white mainline Protestant voters, the number increased from 38% to 60%. However, the biggest shift of all was among white evangelical Protestants, where the number more than doubled from 30% to 72%.
What caused such a massive change, and why did evangelicals change most of all? Five years ago, a full 70% of white evangelical Protestants were willing to state that an elected who commits an immoral act in their personal life cannot behave ethically in their public life. Now only 28% are willing to make the same claim. Has the Bible changed since 2011? Has there been a major evolution in the substance of our preaching? Are we adapting to the secular culture that quickly? I would submit that the answers are no, no, and no.
This change in responses seems to have been due to the changing political situation. In June 2011, President Barack Obama had been in office for a couple of years and was starting to gear up for the 2012 election. In October 2016, when the second poll was conducted, all of the news was about the 2016 presidential election. You will perhaps recall that near the beginning of that month, some old footage of Donald Trump taping an Access Hollywood segment was released in which he bragged about kissing and groping women against their will. (Warning: That transcript includes all of his obscene language.) Trump claimed that there was no truth in what he said and that it was merely “locker-room banter”. Even so, there is no question that throughout the 2016 campaign, Trump’s personal morality was often called into question.
I believe that in 2011, white evangelicals were thinking of the Democrats then in power when they answered that poll question. In 2016, they were likely thinking of Donald Trump. I furthermore believe that this accounts for the massive shift in their responses. You may be asking, “How can you prove that?” At the same time, a part of you surely knows that what I am saying is true.
I have been unsurprised but nevertheless deeply disappointed over the course of these past two years to see many Christians – and here I refer both to people I know personally and public figures – who spent most of the 1990s complaining about the ethical lapses of President Bill Clinton going to great lengths to either excuse or at least minimize the moral failings of Donald Trump. Here I must note that while I strongly disapprove of many of President Trump’s words, actions, and political positions, I do not by any means condemn all the people who voted for him. The 2016 presidential election presented us with an awful choice: a kind of “pick your poison” moment. I am not looking to rehash the past. What does concern me is the apparent cognitive dissonance that is occurring among evangelicals in the United States of America. They were previously the most likely poll participants to say that an elected official’s immoral personal behavior was essentially disqualifying. Now they are the least likely to say that same thing out of all the major Christian groups that were identified.
What this suggests to me is that the positions of these survey participants were never truly based on strongly held scriptural principles, or at least not anything that they were not willing to abandon when the political situation changed. Evangelicals, it seems, are very changeable on this issue. There is no clear biblical reason why Trump’s failings should be considered any less severe than Bill Clinton’s. The evidence that Trump has engaged in sexual indiscretions (quite possibly on a criminal level) seems to be just as strong. The only real difference between the two men is their political ideology – and in the case of Donald Trump, I’m not sure he has one.
One of my political science professors used to explain this sort of phenomenon with the phrase, “He may be an S.O.B., but he’s our S.O.B.” That is to say, voters are often willing to forgive a politician’s flaws if they feel that the politician in question is “one of us”. I do not believe by any stretch of the imagination that Donald Trump is an evangelical Christian. In fact, many of his statements lead me to believe that he is not a Christian at all. Even so, many evangelicals whom I spoke with prior to the 2016 election seemed to believe that Trump would at least stem the tide of moral decline to a certain degree, perhaps by appointing a conservative nominee to the Supreme Court or perhaps by undoing some of the policies of the Obama administration. This seems to have ensured their loyalty.
Once again, I am not attempting to make an argument about whether or not evangelicals should have voted for Trump. My concern is that our opinion on ethical issues appears to change depending on how the political wind is blowing at any particular moment. This suggests to me that we are not making our decisions based on doctrine, deeply held principles, or even common sense. We are willing to show grace to those who agree with us, but not to those who we feel are our enemies.
I am very hesitant to state that the Bible supports this or that political position. However, I cannot see how the situation I have just described is in line with the teachings of Jesus Christ. Either something is a sin or it isn’t. Either we should be gracious or we shouldn’t. Slight differences in situations will certainly affect our response, but not to this degree. Remember, the rate of approval more than doubled over the course of five years! This is hypocrisy, plain and simple, and I hardly think that Christ approved of hypocrisy.
At a time when evangelicals are presenting themselves as taking principled ethical stands in the face of growing cultural persecution, polls like this one make us appear to be two-faced moralizers and nothing more. Truly standing up for what is right means speaking the truth to your friends (or at least the people you think are your friends) in addition to your enemies. It may not always be appropriate to obsess about what the wider world thinks of us, but in this case I think that we definitely need to do some soul searching. Why should the world care what we have to say regarding biblical truth when we are apparently so hypocritical?
I do believe that the evangelical Christian witness in America has been hurt over the course of the past couple years, not simply because so many white evangelicals voted for Trump, but because certain prominent figures have been willing to give him a free pass on moral issues: people who previously tore into Democrats for the same kinds of failings. By no means do I believe that all evangelicals have been discredited by this situation, for there have been some leaders who have been willing to speak up and maintain biblical consistency. However, it is an unfortunate fact that non-evangelicals are likely to paint us all with the same brush, and the errors of even a small group can have a widespread impact. Just look at how those poll numbers changed, and look at how the media now perceives us. The problem has affected us at the grassroots level, and the world has taken notice.
There is no easy fix for this. We need our leaders to speak in a truly prophetic manner, and not just to the people with whom they disagree. We need to repent of our hypocrisy and return to the principles of scripture. We need to ask ourselves quite honestly how we got to this point, and whether shallow doctrine and easy believism are to blame. We need to start acting like Christians who worry less about the kingdom of this world and more about the kingdom of God. It is my great hope and my prayer that our revival will begin at home, and that we will become the ambassadors that Christ truly desires.