Back in the 1976 presidential campaign, former Georgia Governor Jimmy Carter, then the Democratic nominee, made headlines in the United States and around the world merely by granting a single interview. That interview was with Playboy magazine. The interview was a political bombshell back in 1976. No major American politician had come within any distance of Playboy magazine at all. It was considered the iconic symbol of American pornography, and the very fact that a political candidate—not to mention the nominee of one of America’s major political parties—had granted merely an interview to Playboy magazine, seemed almost morally unbelievable and indefensible. In the interview, Jimmy Carter dropped no bombshells concerning any kind of moral revelation; to the contrary, he basically made news by affirming what Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount when Jesus said that it is not enough not to commit adultery, one must not even lust in the heart.
Jimmy Carter went on to be an elected President of the United States, but he is remembered from 1976 for the very fact that scandal was attached to the appearance of a major presidential candidate on the pages of Playboy magazine. Now fast-forward to 2016 and this year’s presidential race 40 years later, and you can tell how much evangelicalism has changed. Some of the evangelicals who were appalled by Jimmy Carter’s interview in 1976 appear to have changed their mind. A photograph went viral yesterday of a major evangelical leader, the president of an evangelical institution, standing with his wife endorsing Donald Trump as President of the United States, and over the wife’s shoulder is a cover of Playboy magazine featuring, quite boldly, none other than Donald Trump.
On the one hand this underlines what a difference 40 years can make. But, of course, the story is even bigger than that. Back during the 1990s and the scandals of the Clinton administration, evangelical Christians were pretty certain that Bill Clinton was a living demonstration of the fact that character matters and that a lack of character can be fatal for leadership. Back during that time when commenting on the character crisis, I wrote an article entitled, “Character in Leadership: Does it Really Matter Anymore?.” I cited former President Calvin Coolidge, who identified character as “the only secure foundation of the state.”
As I pointed out, controversies of a political nature having to do with character are not new, but they certainly have changed over the years. Back during the 1990s there was an open cultural debate in the United States as to whether or not the sex scandals that were first alleged and then confirmed about President Bill Clinton had any direct impact upon his ability to lead the nation. It was very clear back during the 1990s that even as Americans seemed to be unsure about the centrality of character to leadership, at least most evangelical Christians seemed to have that centrality very much in mind. Conservative evangelicals were very quick to criticize Bill Clinton for his sexual infidelities and, furthermore, to make the open argument that Bill Clinton’s fitness for office as President of the United States had been undermined by his sexual misbehavior. Evangelicals at the time were very quick to make clear that this was not only even a matter of an isolated active sexual misbehavior, but rather that it fit a pattern of infidelity that was well-traced through the entire adult life and career of then-president Bill Clinton.
What we saw back in the 1990s was a basic solidarity amongst evangelicals, an understanding of the centrality of character to leadership, and of character as something essential to the credibility required of one who would hold a major position of leadership, in particular, one who would be elected President of the United States. In the midst of the Clinton controversies, Peggy Noonan, then well known as a former speechwriter to both presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, wrote:
“In a president, character is everything. A president doesn’t have to be brilliant … he doesn’t have to be clever; you can hire clever …. You can hire pragmatic, and you can buy and bring in policy wonks. But you cannot buy courage and decency; you can’t rent a strong moral sense. A president must bring those things with him.”
Back during the Clinton crisis, I cited Peggy Noonan’s assessment as an example of the way we should all be thinking about the centrality of character to leadership. Even back during those times of controversy, James Davison Hunter, a sociologist at the University of Virginia, pointed out that most Americans were unsure about exactly how character was essential to leadership, but there was little question that character is essential to leadership.
“Character matters,” Hunter explained, “because without it trust, justice, freedom, community, and stability are probably impossible.”
At the time of that controversy swirling around then-president Bill Clinton, I tried to make several points in the article. First, character really is important. We are right to demand moral character of our leaders and to believe that character is inseparable from credibility in leadership. This is especially true, I argued, in a representative democracy.
Secondly, it is also clear, as I wrote then, that character is inevitably rooted in conviction. It was President Harry S. Truman who once remarked: “A man cannot have character unless he lives within a fundamental system of morals that creates character.”
Third, as I pointed out back then, Christians also understand that sin is a fundamental reality we have to take in account when considering character. It is impossible for one who is driven by the Christian biblical worldview to expect moral perfection of anyone, including those who will lead us. However, that same biblical worldview informs us that character is so central as to be an indispensable guide to making decisions about whom we will trust and how we will vote. As I also pointed out, true character and leadership is also demonstrated when a leader responds to his own moral failure in a way that shows true repentance and moral courage. That was especially an issue back during the Clinton crisis when former President Bill Clinton was well known for actually making a tortured moral argument in which he evaded moral responsibility, even saying at one point that it all comes down to what ‘is’ means. In the midst of that controversy, I found myself repeatedly discussing these issues in public, including on news programs. On one particular episode of the Fox News program Hannity & Colmes, I was facing off with a liberal Roman Catholic priest on the question of character and leadership. That priest made the argument that we simply are not to judge, to make moral judgments about any other human being. I pointed out that even as Jesus warns us about hypocrisy in judging, we have to be making moral judgments about human beings all the time. For example, it is impossible to make the straight-faced argument that parents should not be concerned about the moral character of a potential babysitter. I then concluded my argument with these words,
“Americans have retained enough moral sense to know that personal character still matters in the choice of a babysitter. If this is true, we can hardly claim with a straight face that character is irrelevant to those who hold high positions of political leadership. In the end, our concept of character must be filled with specific content if it is to be meaningful. We must press on to think as Christians, refuse to be daunted by the complications and show that we care about character even between elections.”
I raise that because I now have to wonder where evangelical Christians are going to stand on the issue of character. If the issues seemed to be so clear to evangelicals back in the 1990s, how do I explain what appears to be a very mixed signal coming from many evangelicals in the midst of the 2016 presidential election?
Earlier this week in New York between 900 and 1,000 prominent evangelicals met with the presumptive Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump, and it was announced by the national media that many of those evangelicals appear to be quite satisfied with what they heard from Donald Trump, with no small number of them seem to be ready to endorse Trump for the office of President of the United States.
Writing yesterday evening at The Atlantic, Emma Green wrote,
“The ‘90s are back in Trumpland, and the old-guard religious right is making its return. After Trump spoke at a meeting of more than 1,000 evangelicals and some Catholics on Tuesday, his campaign announced his appointment of an ‘evangelical executive advisory board’ to lead a larger ‘Faith and Cultural Advisory Committee.’”
As she said, “The list reads like a who’s who of conservative Christian leaders.”
She also points out, to her credit, that the list hints at tensions over Donald Trump amongst conservative evangelicals The list is noteworthy, not only because of the names that are on it, but also because of the names that decidedly are not.
In the 2016 presidential race, evangelicals are facing some very hard questions we have not had to face before. We’re looking at a very different political equation in this election than we have ever faced in terms of the lifetimes of those who will be voting in 2016, in particular those evangelicals who can look back at previous election cycles — especially since 1980 — and understand that we have not faced this kind of difficult decision.
Evangelicals looking to the 2016 election in the fall are basically going to be torn between two different directions, two political alternatives—one is voting for someone not a major party nominee—that is, not neither Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump—or on the other hand voting for Donald Trump, with the argument that he is the lesser of two evils in terms of the understanding of the political choices that evangelicals will face. Those who are driven by an affirmation and conviction of the sanctity and dignity of human life cannot vote for a Democratic nominee, whoever that nominee may be, who would be committed to the Democratic Party platform’s call for abortion to be legal under virtually any circumstance. Furthermore, Hillary Clinton, now the presumptive Democratic nominee, has not only made her identification with abortion rights and with Planned Parenthood very clear and central to her campaign, she has gone further even to demand the public taxpayer funding of abortions.
While that is hardly the only issue, evangelicals should not be embarrassed by the fact that every voter is single-issue dispositive on at least some issues. That means there at least some issues every voter understands are absolutely nonnegotiable. Without any apology, I believe the sanctity of human life is absolutely nonnegotiable. But the very fact that someone is pro-life, or claims to be pro-life, is not a sufficient reason to elect that person or to vote for that person over against every other consideration. And when you look at someone like Donald Trump, you’re looking at someone who has made his entire fortune in terms of a real estate empire based on casino gambling. You’re looking at someone who has bragged about his extramarital affairs even to the point where, in his own words, he has warned husbands that their wives are not sexually safe so long as he is in the room. You’re looking at a major party candidate who has actually framed in his office a cover story from Playboy magazine showing his own face.
I cite that article I wrote during the Clinton crisis perhaps at least in part to read it to myself and to document arguments I made then about President Clinton and the importance of sexual morality and character to leadership. I read those words because I want to make certain I am consistent over time and not bending my argument to the political urgency of the moment, to what I now see as a grave political temptation. If I were to support, much less endorse, Donald Trump in terms of his candidacy as president, I would actually have to go back and apologize to former President Bill Clinton. But that would mean I would have to say that back during the 1990s and during his scandals I was wrong. I don’t believe I was. I don’t believe evangelicals who stood united that time were wrong.
In this difficult political season, evangelicals must not demonize one another in terms of how we’re trying to think through these issues, but I must plead with all evangelicals that indeed we must think through these issues carefully and faithfully, and think very biblically and very candidly. We are going to be learning a great deal more about the candidates in weeks and months ahead. But it’s also increasingly true that we’re going to be learning a great deal about ourselves as evangelical Christians in America. Perhaps we had better brace ourselves for what we’re going to learn.
This essay is drawn from my commentary on the Wednesday, June 22, 2016 edition of The Briefing.
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Publication date: June 24, 2016