This week, Newsweek published polling data showing that “nearly 40 percent of Evangelical Christians in Alabama say they're now more likely to vote for Roy Moore after multiple allegations that he molested children.”
Surprised? You shouldn’t be.
Last October, a PRRI/Brookings study found that white evangelicals were increasingly likely to support politicians who commit immoral acts. According to the poll, 72 percent of white evangelicals at the time believed that private immorality does not disqualify a public official from fulfilling their duties in the public sphere — an increase from only 30 percent in 2011. This trend is as worryingly significant now as it was then, especially in light of the Alabama Senate race and its disturbing revelations about many leaders’ and voters’ priorities.
It seems that something has changed about the way that a majority of Christians, specifically white Christians, see the figures they choose to represent them. Our optimism about the conviction of conservative morals went unrewarded with the election of Donald Trump, even after he bragged about sexual assault on tape, and continues to seem unfounded as Christians support a candidate in Alabama who by all standards should have been immediately disgraced and discarded as the allegations against him were released.
Many have called the allegations against Moore disqualifying. However, many have also responded that, even if true, they are not relevant to his potential role as a U.S. senator. In order to form a clearer response to those who do not see Moore’s, or anyone else’s, immorality as disqualifying, we need to explain why it matters in public life. The basic argument in support of Moore is that the essential duties of a senator have nothing to do with most of the duties of a private citizen, and that people respond differently to challenges and temptations in their personal and public lives. We have all done horrible things, it might be said, so how can we say what kinds of immorality are disqualifying?
To address this question, we must draw a basic line between the daily indicators of human sinfulness and a deep-seated selfishness that manifests itself in harm done to others. Sure, everyone has told a lie, privately wished to harm someone, lusted, acted greedily, excluded others, etc. However, there is a fundamental difference between personal shortcoming on the one hand and pervasive patterns of harmful behavior on the other. Not that either is necessarily beyond forgiveness and reconciliation, but the latter is disqualifying because of what it indicates about a person’s fundamental approach to those around them, as well as a disregard for the essential dignity of others. The kind of conduct that is alleged against Moore is too serious and harmful to not be considered disqualifying.
Public life, governance, and legislation are concerned with the well-being of the citizens of a society. From a political philosophy perspective, the intricacies and manifestation of this may be debated, but in practice it is true that citizens expect their governments to contribute to some kind of public benefit that individual people would not be able to attain on their own. In this vein, democratic governments are a tool to aid in decision making on a grand scale. The people we choose to represent us matter beyond the mere fact that we have someone representing us. In a representative democracy, a citizen’s identity and desires are appropriated by a representative who tries to reconcile the disparate wishes of their constituents.
We should choose representatives who are guided by principles that spur them toward benevolence and empathy with those whom their decisions affect. We expect our politicians to be moral people, both publicly and privately, because their decisions affect how we engage in society. Our politicians' private lives inform their public decision making. Imagine Roy Moore deciding laws affecting sexual assault policies on college campuses, domestic abuse, or virtually anything to do with the safety of women in America. He has acted selfishly and disturbingly in the past, and we have no real assurance that he sees the harm in a 30-something man having a relationship with a 14-year-old girl.
Morality, a person’s general outlook on ethics, is so essential to their identity that it cannot be truly compartmentalized. Electing someone with a history of sexual deviance and hoping that a position of responsibility will transform them has not worked in the past and amounts, at best, to nothing more than an empty gesture of trust. For those who disagree with Moore’s politics, this seems obvious. However, it is especially important for those who agree with him on political issues to stand against him, as failing to do so perpetuates the idea that a candidate’s personal life means nothing, when in reality it is the one of the best indications of their qualification for political office.