Why We Should Still Grieve the Divorce of Public Honor and Private Morality

“So long as they don’t do it in the streets and frighten the horses.”

Swaim notes how little media coverage was generated by the report in January that Donald Trump’s attorney paid a pornographic actress $130,000 to keep quiet about an alleged sexual encounter with Trump. The story didn’t cause many waves in the media and didn’t cost the president much (if any) support. Some Christian leaders claimed that, even if the accusations were true, all of this was in the past and shouldn’t be held against Trump today.

 

I grew up as a child of the Religious Right.

I came of age in the 1990s during the peak of Focus on the Family’s political influence and the drama of President Clinton’s sex scandals. I was taught that we could not and should not separate private character from public office. In 2000, before leaving the country to spend several years in Romania, I remember watching a debate on TV at my grandparents’ house when George W. Bush promised to restore the honor of the presidency and bring character back to the White House. Everyone cheered.

I wasn’t cheering during the 2016 election. The first big letdown came during the primary season, when I watched watch leaders and organizations who had once championed the importance of character pass over other Republican candidates in order to support Trump. That sense of disillusionment was reinforced by surveys after the election, when white evangelicals swung from being the group most likely to say that personal character mattered for public office to being the least likely group to say so.

To be clear: I sympathized with those who felt pressed to make a pragmatic choice between two unacceptable, unprincipled candidates. What grieved me was not the reluctant evangelical voter but the way so many Christians justified their choice by saying the principles they once held regarding high moral standards for people in public office had been wrong or were no longer relevant.

Public Honor vs. Private Morality

In reading The Weekly Standard last week (a conservative magazine whose editors are not afraid to take on the president when necessary), I came across a brief editorial from Barton Swaim: “So long as they don’t do it in the streets and frighten the horses.”

Swaim notes how little media coverage was generated by the report in January that Donald Trump’s attorney paid a pornographic actress $130,000 to keep quiet about an alleged sexual encounter with Trump. The story didn’t cause many waves in the media and didn’t cost the president much (if any) support. Some Christian leaders claimed that, even if the accusations were true, all of this was in the past and shouldn’t be held against Trump today.

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