From a distance, Alabama’s special election can seem like a liberal caricature of conservative Christians brought to life. The Republican candidate is a gun-toting, Bible-quoting, cowboy-hat-wearing ex-judge who has been accused of sexually abusing multiple teenage girls. Rather than recoil at the credibility and multiplicity of the accusations against him, his God-fearing supporters have rallied valiantly to his defense.
“This is a spiritual battle we’re fighting,” they say.
“As Christians, we believe in second chances,” they say.
There’s Biblical precedent, they say—just look at Mary and Joseph!
To many on the secular left, the race has only confirmed all the worst things they’ve long assumed about social conservatives. But what’s taking place in Alabama is actually the product of a dramatic, and relatively recent, shift in the political ethics of the religious right—a shift that could have far-reaching consequences in American politics.
For decades, the belief that private morality was essential to assessing the worthiness of politicians and public figures was an animating ideal at the core of the Christian right’s credo. As with most ideals, the movement did not always live up to its own standards. So-called “values voters” pursued a polarizing, multi-faceted agenda that was often tangled up in prejudice and partisanship. They fiercely defended Clarence Thomas when he was accused of sexually harassing Anita Hill, for example, and then excoriated Bill Clinton for his affair with Monica Lewinsky.
But even when they were failing to hold their own side accountable, they still clung to the idea that “character counts.” As recently as 2011, a poll by the Public Religion Research Institute found that only 30 percent of white evangelicals believed “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.” But by the time Donald Trump was running for president in 2016, that number had risen sharply to 72 percent. White evangelicals are now more tolerant of immoral behavior by elected officials than the average American. “This is really a sea change in evangelical ethics,” Robert P. Jones, the head of the institute and the author of The End of White Christian America, recently told me.
Conservative values voters seem to have largely abandoned their search for moral exemplars in the political arena—as my colleague Yoni Appelbaum wrote last year—and are now content to settle for any candidate who will fight abortion and protect their religious freedom.
“In an ideal world, you would have both character and [the right policy positions], but we don’t live an ideal world—we live in a fallen world,” Robert Jeffress, a pastor of First Baptist Dallas and a Trump adviser, told me. “That’s not to say character isn’t important. It’s certainly important. But it’s one of many factors you have to look at … character, competence, policy. Depending on where the country is at the time, you have to determine which of those is most important.”
Character still counts, in other words, but its market value has plummeted.
At a time when sexual misconduct allegations against powerful men are rocking many of America’s institutions, some Christians lament this deemphasizing of morality. “This really is a moment in which we ought to be having a conversation about how much character counts in all walks of life,” said David P. Gushee, a Baptist pastor and professor of Christian ethics at Mercer University in Georgia. “Instead, it is mainly a moment in which our side points to the character flaws of their side, and so on.”
Why did the values voters surrender on the character question? Gushee blames “hyper-partisanship”—and, indeed, it’s hard not to see Trump-era tribalism at work here. But leading conservative Christians told me the reasons extend beyond the latest election.
Albert Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, said that many of his fellow evangelicals have simply lost faith in the caliber of America’s political leaders. “In the 1960 presidential election, the voters basically assumed the basic moral probity of both Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy,” he told me. “Forty years later, voters came to understand that one was a serial philanderer and the other was a paranoid leader who was a habitual liar … We live in an entirely different information environment, and I do think that changes a lot.”
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.”