November 2016 Church & State - November 2016

Tale Of The Tape: The Religious Right Flunks An Ethics Test

  Barry W. Lynn

When you live long enough, the people you’ve connected with even briefly have a tendency to return.

In the aftermath of the reprehensible videotape of Donald Trump and Billy Bush discussing women in the crassest possible terms, I was surprised to hear the views of U.S. Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) and Texas pastor Robert Jeffress.  

Sessions was one of the six Senators who insisted back in 1999 that the U.S. Justice Department should investigate me for allegedly violating the civil rights of Christians by informing them that federal law prohibits intervention by churches in political campaigns. Jeffress is an anti-gay activist I’ve criticized over the years for his intemperate views.

The shocking Trump tape, taken in 2005, shows him on a bus on his way to do a cameo on a soap opera. He was talking with Bush, at that time the host of a show called “Access Hollywood.” The conversation was vile. Trump boasted about approaching women he found attractive and kissing and groping them.

“When you’re a star, they let you do it,” Trump said. “You can do anything.” He even bragged that he had grabbed women’s genitals.

Jeffress and Sessions were not fazed by this. Jeffress readily admitted that Trump is no saint but quickly added, “The fact is we’re all sinners, we all need forgiveness and God doesn’t grade people according to their level of sin.”

Sessions was even more appalling. He denied that touching a woman sexually against her will is a crime.

“I don’t characterize that as sexual assault,” Sessions told The Weekly Standard. “I think that’s a stretch. I don’t know what he meant.” 

Jeffress and Sessions were far from the only “family values” conservatives toeing that line.

TV preacher Pat Robertson suggested Trump was just being “macho.”  James Dobson found the comments “deplorable” but less serious than Hillary Clinton’s supposedly “bigoted” views about evangelical Christians and “criminal” support for late-term abortions.

Ralph Reed dismissed the comments as a “10-year-old tape of a private conversation with a talk show host.” Jerry Falwell Jr. argued “we’re all sinners” and said the remarks were only “dumb comments on a videotape 11 years ago.” Family Research Council’s Tony Perkins told news outlets that his support for Trump was never based on “shared values.”

Although I am a minister, I try not to theologize in this column – yet I find there is something mind-numbing about these excuses. For starters, it’s not just Trump’s bullying language itself that is so repulsive; it’s the ideology behind it. Affirmation of the patriarchal values of too many Americans is not just “macho.” It’s a repugnant refusal to accept the equality of women. 

Second, I don’t know of a single legitimate theologian who would agree with Jeffress on levels of sin. There’s a world of difference between engaging in genocide and coveting your neighbor’s new SUV, after all. 

And how could Sessions, himself a lawyer who was once considered for a federal judgeship, seriously doubt that forcibly kissing or groping someone is not sexual assault? Finally, a question for Perkins: Isn’t every political issue ultimately a question of “values”? Indeed, that’s why Perkins has a position on virtually every public policy issue.

Denizens of the Religious Right and previously pro-Trump politicians had a tendency to describe their concern as based on the dignity of women in their own lives: wives, daughters, sisters and aunts. One politician who has now indicated he won’t vote for Trump even noted that “women should be revered.”

At first blush, these comments may sound noble But a moment’s thought quickly demonstrates that it’s unfortunate that empathy and understanding only reach as far as your own family. As Christina Cauterucci observed in an insightful Slate column, invoking the “Daughter Clause” demonstrates “a complete disregard for women’s humanity, agency, and internal lives.”

I wrote this column in mid-October, well before Election Day. I don’t know who’s going to win the election, and it’s not my job to advise anyone on how to vote. Unlike some right-wing churches, we follow federal law here at Americans United. 

But I can say this: We’ve already seen one big loser this year. It’s America’s Religious Right groups. They lost every shred of credibility when they made it clear that politics means more to them than principles


Barry W. Lynn is executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State.

Congress needs to hear from you!

Urge your legislators to co-sponsor the Do No Harm Act today.

The Do No Harm Act will help ensure that our laws are a shield to protect religious freedom and not used as a sword to harm others by undermining civil rights laws and denying access to health care.

Act Now