Religious Right groups have argued for a long time that a president has to do more than oversee the economy, direct international relations and run the Executive branch. He or she is also expected to set a moral example. During the presidencies of Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, Religious Right groups frequently complained – unfairly, in the view of many Americans – that these two men had failed in that regard.
Let’s consider where we are now: The Religious Right has rallied around President Donald J. Trump, a thrice-married serial womanizer and admitted sex offender, a man who, prior to running for president, seemed utterly indifferent to evangelical Christianity and who, in fact, has demonstrated biblical illiteracy.
Trump hasn’t gotten better since taking office. In fact, recent events in Charlottesville, Va., presented a moral test for Trump and indeed the entire nation. Most of us passed it, but our president did not.
Although President Trump's approval ratings are low, he remains popular among the Religious Right.
We faced two camps. One was composed of Nazis bearing torches and screaming vile anti-Semitic, racist and nationalistic slogans; the other was made up of people opposed to fascism and the hate it represents. The difference was stark, and decent people wasted no time condemning the fascists.
Yet Trump’s first instinct was to blame “both sides” for the violence that erupted, despite the fact that it was a neo-Nazi who drove a car into the crowd, killing counterprotestor Heather Heyer and injuring several others. Later, under clear duress, Trump read a pro forma statement denouncing hatemongers. Within 24 hours, however, he was back to his original statement: Both sides were at fault. Furthermore, he insisted that there were some “very fine people” in both camps, which would, of course, include the Nazi mob. He later asserted that communities should not have to remove “beautiful” monuments that glorify the Confederacy.
Many Americans were repulsed by Trump’s comments, but not the Religious Right. Its leaders responded to his comments in a number of ways, none of which involved criticizing the president or noting his appalling moral failure – as they certainly would have done had a progressive president behaved this way.
Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council issued a statement echoing Trump’s offensive “both sides” rhetoric. Perkins couldn’t manage to muster the courage to denounce Nazis, but he did find a way to point out – twice – that a Bernie Sanders supporter shot U.S. Rep. Steve Scalise.
Prominent evangelist Franklin Graham chose to blame the victims of neo-Nazi violence, asserting that this all started because some people advocated removing a statue of Robert E. Lee from a public park. (For good measure, he blamed Satan as well.) The clear implication is that they should have known better.
Richard Land, the former lobbyist for the Southern Baptist Convention and now president of Southern Evangelical Seminary, issued a rambling statement asserting, “We have a responsibility as Christ’s ambassadors of reconciliation to speak out against every form of racism and bigotry as unconditionally and straightforwardly as possible.” Nice words – but they contain not one mention of Trump’s inability to clear this bar.
The American Family Association had a different spin, issuing a story through OneNewsNow, its fake news site, asserting that “the left” is using words like “nationalist” and “white supremacist” to smear conservatives. (Isn’t it interesting that in the Religious Right’s world, no matter how badly Trump bungles something, no matter how inept he is at day-to-day governing, no matter how reckless he is with his Twitter account, no matter how far into his mouth he shoves his own foot, what follows always manages, somehow, to be the fault of liberals?)
Perhaps the most offensive response came from Jerry Falwell Jr., president of Liberty University, who tweeted support for Trump’s comments, saluted him as a strong leader and drooled about his greatness as president.
In the wake of Charlottesville, all the American people asked is that the president make it clear that he shares their outrage and that he’s able to see the difference between good and evil. At times like this, a president doesn’t have to command the rhetorical eloquence of Cicero; he just has to be able to unequivocally denounce hate and those who traffic in it. That Trump could not do this speaks not so much to his incompetence as a leader as it does the yawning depth of his moral and ethical void.
Yet this is the man the Religious Right continues to idolize. This is the man that most members of Trump’s evangelical council still support even as the members of his business council fled in disgust. This is the man many far-right fundamentalists hail as a strong leader.
Inevitably, we all face moral quandaries from time to time. Some are complex, but some are not. Some, indeed, are very simple. Charlottesville was such a test. Trump and his Religious Right allies failed it utterly. Our challenge is to make sure the American people never forget that.