The conservative evangelical David French has reminded us that in 1998, during the Bill Clinton–Monica Lewinsky scandal, the Southern Baptist Convention passed a “Resolution on Moral Character of Public Officials,” declaring that it was wrong to “excuse or overlook immoral or illegal conduct by unrepentant public officials so long as economic prosperity prevails,” because “tolerance of serious wrong by leaders sears the conscience of the culture, spawns unrestrained immorality and lawlessness in the society, and surely results in God’s judgment.”
It further affirmed that “moral character matters to God and should matter to all citizens, especially God’s people, when choosing public leaders,” and “implore[d] our government leaders to live by the highest standards of morality both in their private actions and in their public duties, and thereby serve as models of moral excellence and character.”
“Be it finally RESOLVED,” the document continued, “that we urge all Americans to embrace and act on the conviction that character does count in public office, and to elect those officials and candidates who, although imperfect, demonstrate consistent honesty, moral purity and the highest character.”
It turns out that this resolution cannot have been based on deep scriptural convictions, as it was sold to the world (the Southern Baptist resolution included a dozen scriptural verses); it has to have been motivated, at least in large part, by partisanship. It’s quite possible, of course, that many of its supporters were blind to just how large a role partisanship and motivated reasoning played in the position they took. But there is simply no other way to explain the massive double standard.
The carefully choreographed dance goes like this: Moral character in public officials matters quite a lot when the public officials who morally fail are Democrats; it matters hardly at all when they are Republicans. If it’s a liberal who has crossed ethical lines, emphasize righteous conduct; if it’s a conservative, emphasize forgiveness and verses like “Judge not lest you be judged.” If it’s Bill Clinton in the dock, savage him; if it’s Donald Trump, savage his critics.
But the problem goes far beyond an inconsistent application of a biblical ethic. What the Trump years have exposed is something more fundamental, which is that many evangelical Christians have not brought anything distinctively Christian to politics.
One would hope that people of faith would act differently from members of political interest groups—that followers of Jesus would passionately defend human dignity, champion justice, and create the conditions for human flourishing, without being co-opted by any political party or power structure.
One might expect that they would care for the weak and the vulnerable, including the unborn and those living in the shadows of society; promote ordered liberty, empathy, and compassion, especially toward those viewed as social outcasts and aliens (one of the most striking features of the ministry of Jesus); and speak out—time and time and time again, if necessary—against political leaders and presidents, including those who advance a political agenda they believe in, if those leaders are cruel, pathologically dishonest, and lawless, and if they dehumanize their enemies. To reduce this to a single sentence: People of faith should embody moral and intellectual integrity.