With modern technology and media making it more common than ever for politicians’ private transgressions to be exposed, Mohler said, conservative Christians are adjusting their expectations accordingly. And while Mohler couldn’t bring himself to support Trump in 2016—he’d been an outspoken critic of Clinton during the Lewinsky scandal, and felt it would be hypocritical to give Trump a pass—he says he understands how other evangelicals justified their vote for the Republican nominee. “I’m not going to throw them under the bus,” he told me. “They’re not wrong that important issues are at stake.”
David Brody, a correspondent for the Christian Broadcasting Network who has co-authored a forthcoming “spiritual biography” of Trump, said many outside observers fail to grasp the desperation and urgency felt throughout much of conservative Christianity.
“The way evangelicals see the world, the culture is not only slipping away—it’s slipping away in all caps, with four exclamation points after that. It’s going to you-know-what in a handbasket,” Brody told me. “Where does that leave evangelicals? It leaves them with a choice. Do they sacrifice a little bit of that ethical guideline they’ve used in the past in exchange for what they believe is saving the culture?”
Of course, it could be argued that the culture suffers when a man of unbridled appetites and unimpressive impulse control is placed in the Oval Office. (In fact, many on the religious right advanced this very argument when Clinton was president.) But Brody says that encroaching secularism, combined with a perceived liberal hostility toward people of faith, has prompted many conservative Christians to support any politician who will protect their traditions. “Donald Trump always talks about bringing back ‘Merry Christmas’ and everybody laughs. But it’s not just about saying ‘Merry Christmas’—it’s about the idea behind it,” Brody said. “They are voting for a person who will be a placeholder for their values. They’re not voting for a person who is going to be Mother Teresa.”
Last week, an evangelical writer named Denise C. McAllister set Twitter ablaze with a column in The Federalist arguing that Christian voters were justified in supporting a “morally questionable” candidate like Moore. She pointed to famously flawed figures throughout history who managed to accomplish great things, and devoted a significant section of her essay to showing how “God uses all kinds of ‘immoral’ men and women to bring about his purposes.” The backlash was, predictably, swift and severe.
When I called McAllister, she made no effort to walk back her argument. Conservative evangelicals, she said, had learned from cultural elites on the left that in the struggle for power, idealism sometimes had to be sacrificed.
“What are the public-policy implications? That has to be the question,” she told me. “It’s no longer just about personal morality. It’s not that those things don’t matter to us. They do. But you need to think about it like a war. When you’re at the warfront, you just want the best guy next to you. You don’t care what his morality is, it’s just, ‘Can you shoot that guy over there?’”
McAllister paused for a moment, and then chuckled at the bleakness of her metaphor.
“I’m not saying that’s a good thing,” she conceded. “It probably isn’t. We should be a society of reasoned debate, and mutual affection, and coming together in the public square to sing kumbaya. But we’re not. Everyone sees it as a fight.”