In the 1990s, many evangelicals were adamant that Bill Clinton’s extramarital affairs were ruining America.
“We are facing a profound moral crisis,” James Dobson, a longtime Christian right activist and founder of Focus on the Family, said at the time.
Now faced with the candidacy of Donald Trump, a thrice-married man who bragged about sexually forcing himself on unwilling women, some evangelical leaders, notably older men, are saying this is different.
“Donald Trump is not a perfect man, but he is pro-life,” Dobson told McClatchy. “To my knowledge, Donald Trump has never abused women physically or had oral sex in the Oval Office with a vulnerable intern.”
That kind of approach is opening a split within the religious community. Younger evangelicals and women express dismay with the older, mostly male church leaders who have elected to stand with Trump.
Beth Moore, a prominent evangelical author and founder of Houston-based Living Proof Ministries, struck a nerve when she said via Twitter that she was among the “many women” who had been “sexually abused, misused, stared down, heckled (and) talked naughty to.”
And she seemingly chastised the religious leaders who were sticking with Trump.
“Try to absorb how acceptable the dis-esteem and objectifying of women has been when some Christian leaders don’t think it’s that big a deal,” she said.
Moore declined an interview request. But in a scathing editorial, Christianity Today, the largest evangelical Christian publication in the country, called this week for evangelicals to “not be silent about Donald Trump’s blatant immorality.”
The editorial endorses neither candidate. It calls Hillary Clinton’s policies “manifestly incompatible” with some Christian beliefs. But it bemoans evangelical Christians for the “strategic calculation” of siding with Trump chiefly because he has pledged to appoint anti-abortion judges to the Supreme Court.
“He has given no evidence of humility or dependence on others, let alone on God his Maker and Judge,” wrote executive editor Andy Crouch. “He wantonly celebrates strongmen and takes every opportunity to humiliate and demean the vulnerable. He shows no curiosity or capacity to learn. He is, in short, the very embodiment of what the Bible calls a fool.”
Trump’s past mockery of women and people with disabilities had already alarmed many evangelical voters. And the release of a tape on which Trump boasts of grabbing women against their will and getting away with it was a tipping point for many, including the conservative magazine, said Katelyn Beaty, a former managing editor at Christian Today and the author of a book about women, work and Christianity.
“A majority of white evangelical Protestants have said they would vote for Trump, but not because they like him or support him, but because of the hostility toward Hillary Clinton,” Beaty said.
However, she argued that many women and other evangelicals think “we can’t honor the dignity of every human being and stand by as he mocks so many vulnerable communities.”
A member of Trump’s evangelical council sent an email Saturday calling Trump’s comments “misogynistic trash that reveals a man to be lecherous and worthless.” James MacDonald, pastor of an Illinois megachurch, followed it up with a statement after Trump’s debate performance Sunday, suggesting Trump’s apology had fallen short.
“If Mr. Trump is satisfied with what he offered in terms of regret, it is unlikely he has changed and, sadly, we can only expect similar behavior in the future,” he wrote.
Still, Trump has enjoyed strong support among white evangelical voters and a recent poll – taken before and after the audiotape surfaced – suggests the majority are sticking with him.
Nearly two-thirds – 65 percent – of white evangelical voters said they remained committed to Trump, while only 16 percent favored Clinton, according to the poll conducted by Public Religion Research Institute, in association with The Atlantic Survey
Some evangelicals argue that Trump never posited himself as the candidate of conservative family values and he’s made apologies for his remarks. He said at the debate Sunday that he “apologized to the American people” for comments he characterized as “locker room talk.”
Gary Bauer, a conservative family values advocate, pointed to Trump’s selection of Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, a longtime favorite of the Christian right, as his running mate as a sign that Trump has changed.
Bauer condemned Trump’s boasting. But he said the tape “of a private conversation in which Donald Trump uses grossly inappropriate language does not change the reality of the choice facing this country.”
Pence himself sought to make the case for Trump on Wednesday at Liberty University, the conservative Virginia school whose president, Jerry Falwell Jr. , has endorsed Trump.
Trump has shown “humility” since the audiotape was released and should be forgiven, Pence said at the school.
“As Christians we are called to forgive, even as we’ve been forgiven,” he said. That came as Trump’s campaign seized on comments reportedly made about Roman Catholics by a top Clinton staffer in an email exchange published by WikiLeaks.
“If only on behalf of her Catholic running mate, Hillary Clinton should renounce those bigoted, anti-Catholic, anti-evangelical remarks,” Pence said.
McClatchy could not verify the authenticity of the emails, and Clinton’s campaign declined to confirm their authenticity. Clinton communications director Jennifer Palmieri noted that she is Catholic and did not recognize the email, which is part of a leak that intelligence officials think was orchestrated by the Russian government.
Raw political calculation appears to be a major factor among many evangelicals who find Clinton so abhorrent that any indiscretions by Trump pale in comparison, said Bernie Pinsonat, partner in Southern Media and Opinion Research in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.
“No matter what he says, Trump’s their guy, because he’s not going to desert them on their issues,” Pinsonat said. Unlike Clinton, Trump has pledged to push to overturn abortion laws, for instance.
Trump is the only one who can stop Clinton, said Steve Scheffler, the Iowa Republican national committeeman who also heads the state’s Faith & Freedom Coalition, which does not endorse candidates.
“She’s eternally flawed through and through,” he said. He accused Clinton of helping to assist the spread of the Islamic State and complained that she’d stuck by her husband despite his extramarital affairs.
At that time, televangelist Pat Robertson said Bill Clinton had “hollowed out the moral soul of this country.”
Yet on his “700 Club” television show this week, Robertson dismissed Trump’s remarks as “macho talk” and praised Trump as “like the phoenix” for his debate performance.
“They think he’s dead. He’s come back,” Robertson said. “And he came back strong.”