When allegations about President Bill Clinton’s infidelity emerged in 1998, the Southern Baptist Convention, America’s largest evangelical denomination, passed a resolution declaring that “moral character matters” for public officials. Back then, the SBC urged Americans to vote for candidates who “demonstrate consistent honesty, moral purity and the highest character.”
Two decades later, the fact that most white evangelical Christians are willing to overlook President Donald Trump’s infidelity, his dishonesty, his disparaging rhetoric toward immigrants and refugees, and the multiple accusations of sexual misconduct lodged against him suggests that their views on morality have changed dramatically.
Curious about the shift, University of Notre Dame professors David Campbell and Geoffrey Layman turned to data from the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) and the Cooperative Congressional Election Study (CCES) to see how religious group’s beliefs about politicians’ private immoral behavior has changed over the years.
Campbell told HuffPost that they were interested in the question because it provides further proof that many Americans, and evangelicals in particular, are “putting their politics before their religion.”
In a 2011 poll from PRRI and the Religion News Service, 60% of white evangelicals surveyed said that a public official who “commits an immoral act in their personal life” cannot still “behave ethically and fulfill their duties in their public and professional life.”
But in October 2016, right after The Washington Post published an “Access Hollywood” recording of Trump making lewd comments about sexual assault, the number of white evangelicals who weren’t willing to give politicians a pass for immoral behavior dropped to 20%. On the other hand, 72% of the religious group claimed an elected official who commits an immoral act in their personal life can still behave ethically in their professional life, according to a PRRI and Brookings Institution poll conducted at the time.
Campbell and Layman used 2018 post-midterm election data from the CCES, a nationally representative study, to see how white evangelicals felt about the question today. Their research was previously reported in The Washington Post.
“Our motivation was to see if anything had changed since 2016, since that poll was done in the immediate aftermath of the ‘Access Hollywood’ tape,” Campbell told HuffPost. “It might have been the case that, as time passes, opinion would shift back to what we saw in 2011.”
But that’s not what happened. In fact, the CCES found that white evangelicals were even less likely in late 2018 to connect politicians’ private and public lives in this way. Only 16.5% said they believed privately immoral behavior translates to unethical professional conduct.
Altogether, there has been a stunning 42-percentage-point swing in white evangelicals’ opinions on this issue since 2011. Other religious groups experienced some shifts, but nothing quite as dramatic, Campbell said. Religiously unaffiliated Americans showed a 5-percentage-point change in the opposite direction, with more saying that private immorality translates to unethical public behavior.
Campbell and Layman were also curious about whether the results would change if respondents were primed to think about either Bill Clinton or Donald Trump. The CCES respondents randomly received one of three versions of the same question ― a generic version about politicians’ personal behavior and public ethics, a version that mentions Trump and a version that mentions Clinton.
The professors found that white evangelicals were more likely than other religious groups to have different responses based on the politician they had in mind. Only 6% of white evangelicals primed to think about Trump said that elected officials who behave immorally in private won’t act ethically in professional life. But 27% of those primed to think about Clinton said the same.
Campbell said that the driving force behind all of this is party identification rather than religion. He said that because white evangelicals are a staunchly Republican group, their partisanship has caused them to reconsider the connection between private and public behavior.
“They have put politics first,” Campbell said.
Notably, since white evangelicals had to reorient their views on morality to accommodate Trump, the religious group also seems to have adjusted its thoughts on public officials’ morality more generally. While 60% of evangelicals didn’t think privately immoral officials would perform ethically on the job in 2011, less than half said the same about Clinton today.
“While there is still a big difference between attitudes on Trump and Clinton, evangelical Republicans are far more sympathetic toward Clinton’s personal behavior now than in the past,” Campbell said.
Since the late 1970s, white evangelicals have become increasingly tied to the Republican Party. The Moral Majority movement, led by pastors Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson and other leaders on the Christian right, convinced evangelicals that the only way to live out their faith in public and win the culture wars was to vote in politicians who advanced a conservative political agenda.
Decades later, a new generation of evangelical leaders has been rallying around Trump. Falwell’s son, Jerry Falwell Jr., has said that there’s nothing Trump could do that would endanger evangelical leaders’ support. Franklin Graham, son of the famous evangelist Billy Graham, often uses his substantial social media following to defend the president’s policies. And Robert Jeffress, pastor of First Baptist Dallas, has said evangelicals will continue to support the president because Trump is “the most pro-life, pro-religious liberty and pro-conservative judiciary president in history.”
Rev. Adam Taylor, executive director of the progressive Christian group Sojourners, told HuffPost that these evangelical leaders have struck a “Faustian bargain” with the president. As long as Trump continues to support their political agenda, Taylor said, they will turn a blind eye to the “many other ways in which his immoral statements, behaviors and policies contradict the gospel and should assault Christian conscience.”
Taylor said he also fears that this vocal support for the president is exacerbating the perception that evangelicals are “an overly politicized, intolerant and nationalistic movement,” which Taylor believes “misrepresents Christ.”
He pointed to a quote from Martin Luther King Jr. encouraging the church not to be the “master or the servant” of the state but its “conscience.” Taylor said that Campbell and Layman’s analysis confirms his fear that for too many white evangelicals, “their Republican loyalty and identity has become more primary than their Christian identity.”
“Many white evangelicals have made the mistake of trying to become the master of the Republican Party, but, in the process, they have often ended up being a servant to the Republican Party and now increasingly to an amoral president.”