Why are so many Christian conservatives refusing to criticize Donald Trump’s pay to play sex life? The news of a $130,000 settlement made to porn star Stephanie Clifford, a.k.a. Stormy Daniels, via alleged fixer Michael Cohen, is only the latest episode in which conservative religious leaders and the voters they influence seem unperturbed by personal behavior that they condemn in others.
This apparent contradiction is leading to outrage among other conservatives who view Trump’s lack of self-control as a growing vulnerability for the GOP. Surging evangelical support for Trump, despite persuasive evidence that his agents have paid hush money to Daniels and other women, is (in their view) evidence of moral collapse in the conservative coalition of economic, intellectual and religious factions that have dominated the party since Ronald Reagan was elected in 1980. Evangelicals’ failure to criticize the president is “revolting,” Rod Dreher, a writer at The American Conservative wrote at the end of March. “Again and again: I get voting for Donald Trump as the lesser of two evils. I don’t get this whoring after him, and telling lies about him — even if they are lies to oneself.”
This disagreement over the meaning, and even the facts, of Trump’s sexual escapades may represent the end of an era in American conservatism. It is not only prying religious and non-religious voters apart, but it is creating rifts among religious conservatives. Values activists like Bob Vander Plaatz, CEO of The Family Leader, have insisted on a full investigation of a new round of scandals triggered by the revelations unleashed by Daniels and her attorneys, urging Trump to, at the very least, publicly confess and apologize. Unrealistic as this may sound, given the President’s personality, the recognition of sin does create a path to public forgiveness in evangelical circles — as well as to Divine forgiveness, which is really the point.
But many other influential Christians simply want to let bygones be bygones. Jerry Falwell, Jr., president of Liberty University and heir to his father’s televangelist empire, maintains that evangelical voters knew who Trump was when they elected him. Trump’s multiple infidelities were beside the point as long as he kept his promise to roll back the liberal social agenda. “When you choose a doctor or lawyer, or when you decide which movie to watch, you don’t check the doctor or the lawyer’s past to see if they’ve had an extramarital affair,” Falwell told CNN anchor Erin Burnett last March. “It’s just that we are all sinners. Nobody understands that better than evangelicals.”
When the Stormy Daniels scandal was first breaking, Franklin Graham, heir to his father Billy Graham’s ministry, caused a stir among some of his fellow evangelists by dismissing the Daniels story altogether. “He is not president perfect,” Graham told MSNBC anchor Alex Witt late last January. “President Trump, I don’t think, has admitted to having an affair with this person. And so, this is just a news story, and I don’t even know if it’s accurate.” In any case, Graham continued, “the president is a much different person today than he was four years ago, five years ago, 10 years ago, or whatever and we just have to give the man the benefit of the doubt.”
Of course, how evangelicals speak to a national audience may not be how they speak to each other, and they may be more worried about the instability of this presidency than they are willing to admit. At the National Review Online (March 29, 2018) Andrew McCarthy proposes that all conservatives are less worried about the power of a sex scandal to drive the president from office than they are about the possibility that the Daniels case has opened a door to felony charges against Trump that the Russia investigation has not yet produced.
But evangelicals also have other priorities, primarily protecting their own belief systems from what they see as federal interference. Falwell, Graham, and other evangelical leaders see Trump as the champion for religious liberty that they have been waiting for since 1981, when the Reagan administration declined to pursue a family values agenda — prayer in school, an abortion ban, a Constitutional amendment to ban flag burning, protecting the tax status of Christian universities in violation of federal civil rights laws — in favor of pursuing a conservative economic agenda. Even the administration’s commission on pornography, chaired by Attorney General Edwin Meese, failed to produce any meaningful reform or restriction of commercial pornography.
Yet at least evangelicals could be satisfied that Reagan, George H.W. Bush, and George W. Bush lived, or appeared to live, according to family values principles. Trump does not, nor (as George W. did) has he been candid about his transgressions and his path to spiritual redemption. If it is true that the conservative movement is now on the brink of a major disagreement over the meaning of Trump’s sexual antics, this is a significant historical shift. The wars on pornography and sexual disorder were keystone issues in the family values agenda that came to define conservatism after 1968, and pursuing them helped bring the evangelical movement out of the political shadows and elevate Christianity to a new prominence within the Republican party. Crime, race, family values, the changing role of women and urban decay were all important issues, but pornography, crimes connected to pornography, and a liberal state that permitted the open sale of pornography, united an otherwise diverse conservative movement.
Family values politics also helped evangelicals become influential beyond their largely southern base, helping to create a truly national conservative movement as they welded Christian concerns together across geographical and theological lines. Initiated in the late 1960s, as obscenity laws were being invalidated by the Supreme Court of the United States, evangelical, intellectual and social conservatives saw the proliferation of sex in public spaces as a direct outcome of liberal governance. As historian Joseph Crespino has argued in his biography of South Carolina senator Strom Thurmond (2012), if conservatives in the North and West had a southern strategy, conservative southerners like South Carolina senator Strom Thurmond also had a northern strategy, one in which condemning sexual entertainments as an offense to religious values was crucial.
As Crespino argues, Thurmond’s successful attack on Supreme Court Associate Justice Abe Fortas, nominated for the position of Chief Justice by Lyndon Johnson in 1968, demonstrated that conservatives could insist on a standard of national morality and succeed. During the Senate vote, held as both parties were nominating candidates for the presidency, Thurmond filibustered, putting all of his objections on the table: Fortas’s close political connections to Johnson, alleged financial ethics violations, and his role in the Gideon and Miranda cases, which Thurmond claimed had led to a rise in violent crime by making it more difficult to prosecute criminals. But Thurmond’s filibuster also included the sensational charge that Fortas had “improperly voted to reverse the conviction of his pornographer friend and client” in the 1967 case Schackman v. California. To emphasize this point, Thurmond played the various porn movies that Fortas had judged to be not obscene on the Senate floor. The attack was so damaging that Fortas, the first nominee to ever face hostile questioning in the confirmation process, ultimately resigned from the Court.
As conservatives migrated to a new Republican party, opposition to sexual disorder won evangelical conservatives a set of political allies with whom they had little else in common. Cosmopolitan intellectuals who would soon call themselves “neoconservatives” had also long been skeptical that pornography was worthy of Constitutional protection. In 1948, during the attacks on the first Kinsey report on human sexuality, Columbia University literature professor Lionel Trilling had expressed skepticism about Alfred Kinsey’s assertion that sex was merely another form of human activity, “not to be judged at all, except, presumably, as it causes pain to others.” A decade later, in a 1958 essay about Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita, Trilling argued that, although he found the novel “shocking” but not pornographic, there was nevertheless a good argument for censoring it. One could not simultaneously believe, as humanists did, that good literature shaped character and that a book about a man initiating a sexual relationship with his step-daughter would have no deleterious effect on the reader. “No part of the human life,” Trilling wrote, “is so susceptible to literature as the sexual expectations and emotions.”
Similarly, Irving Kristol argued in 1971 in The New York Times Magazine that first amendment advocates had created a situation in which all sexual materials existed on an equal plane, impervious to any aesthetic or moral regulation. Those who “wanted a world in which Desire Under the Elms could be produced, or Ulysses published, without interference by philistine busybodies holding public office,” Kristol wrote, had a succeeded in creating urban sexual dystopias “in which Times Square has become little more than a hideous market for the sale and distribution of printed filth that panders to all known (and some fanciful) sexual perversions.”
At the risk of oversimplifying, the common ground of sexual morality was the glue that allowed Christian anti-porn activists to join conservatives as different as Thurmond, Trilling and Kristol in a new Republican party. So how is it that, fifty years later, conservative evangelicals are now able to risk these alliances by overlooking Donald Trump’s lack of – er, family values? The answer may be that they are not principally interested in politics at all, but in insulating themselves from federal regulation. Despite the President’s thin attachment to faith, evangelicals have been able to rely on him to promote the Christian policy agenda through executive orders and signing legislation, even if such policies are entirely at odds with his own personal behavior. “What is more important,” Mark Rozell of USA Today recalls a pastor telling him in January 2018, “the personal character of one man or the effects of his policies on millions of people over the next four or eight years and beyond?”
Perhaps it’s not that organized conservative Christian evangelicals are without principle: it’s that they may be shrewder, and more self-interested, than anyone knew.
Claire Potter is a professor of history at The New School, and executive editor of Public Seminar. You can follow Claire on Twitter.