Rich Lowry: Evangelicals without standards
Lanny Davis must be dizzy from the deja vu.
Davis was a stalwart defender of Bill Clinton during the scandals of the 1990s. Little did he know that the excuses and rationalizations made for Clinton then would be repurposed by some of Clinton’s harshest and most moralistic critics for a Republican presidential contender.
One day, historians will puzzle over how a man representing the mores of a debased celebrity culture became not just the nominee of the Republican Party, but the candidate of the religious right. After the “Access Hollywood” tape emerged of Donald Trump bragging about an act of attempted adultery and getting away with groping women, representatives of “values voters” jumped most eagerly to his defense.
In a weird and depressing year, this has to rank among the strangest and most dispiriting phenomena. The salt has lost its savor as the price of a place at the table on the Trump Train.
The leading evangelical defender of Trump is vice-presidential nominee Mike Pence, who could sound like he’s delivering a sermon when ordering a cup of coffee. The first step in Pence’s highly principled, faith-based testimonial for Trump was to wait to see how he did in the second presidential debate — in case Trump blew himself up and Pence had to craft a highly principled, faith-based exit from the ticket. The second step was to pretend as though a penitent Trump was Henry IV standing barefoot in the snow begging forgiveness.
Pence said it takes a “big man to know when he is wrong.” As if it were a difficult call whether Trump was wrong to try to seduce a married woman or, as he put it, “move on her like a bitch.”
According to Pence, “My running mate showed humility, showed what was in his heart to the American people.” Actually, Trump expressed the minimum remorse possible.
When the tape first surfaced, Trump gave a pro forma “if anyone was offended” apology and slammed Bill Clinton for saying far worse things to him on the golf course. It wasn’t until hours later that his aides extracted from him a fuller apology.
Throughout, Trump gave off a sense of underlying anger at being caught. Bill Clinton sounded exactly the same way in the 1990s when he could no longer deny his affair with Monica Lewinsky. Not surprisingly, Trump was in Clinton’s camp back in the day. The mogul said at the time that Clinton’s conduct was no big deal and — true to form — dismissed the women he preyed on as unattractive.
Clinton’s defenders used to wheel out the King David defense, and Trump supporters have resorted to it in recent days. The 10th-century B.C. king of the Israelites indeed committed adultery, and in truly spectacular fashion. He impregnated Bathsheba and got her husband killed to avoid discovery. A hot mic in King David’s court might have made Trump blush. But this story doesn’t end well — the consequence of David’s sin was deadly strife in his family and kingdom.
The other common line of Clinton and Trump defenders is that we are all sinners. This is, of course, profoundly true. And people do change. But there is zero evidence that Trump has undergone any transformation. He evidently still doesn’t have the slightest inkling that Christians aren’t supposed to be vindictive, dishonest, insulting, bullying, greedy or boastful, among other things.
The prominent evangelicals sticking by Trump believe that he would be better on the issues — especially Supreme Court nominees and religious liberty — than Hillary Clinton would be. This is a reasonable calculation, although very few Trump supporters can remain cleareyed about him. Most find themselves defending the indefensible because forthrightly acknowledging all of Trump’s faults makes backing him so awkward.
Meanwhile, the Trump campaign sinks, more than anything else, from the character flaws of the candidate. It would be a perfect morality tale for the religious right — if so many of its leaders weren’t implicated in it.