The year 2016 will go into the history books as the year the Religious Right destroyed itself. Instead of trusting in the Lord, the Religious Right, fearful of the future and unwilling to accept an honorable defeat, bowed down in worship not so much to a golden calf as to a copper-toned ass.
The Failure of the “Hillary is Worse” Mantra
Over the last fourteen months as a candidate, Donald Trump has repeatedly displayed xenophobic demagoguery, authoritarian caprice, moral vacuity, and an astonishing lack of prudential judgment. Indeed, Trump has done just about everything in his power to alienate swing voters and ensure Hillary Rodham Clinton’s election except drop-kick a beagle puppy off the top floor of Trump Tower. Yet even today many Catholic and Evangelical leaders and pundits continue to support Trump’s candidacy, even to the extent of excusing his most vile behavior, and willfully blinding themselves to the damage such support does to their credibility as moral leaders.
Understand, I am just as aware as any other person that a Clinton presidency will be perilous for the pro-life movement and religious rights. I am also aware that Clinton’s records as New York Senator and Secretary of State hardly demonstrate competence, and that she exudes a duplicity and corruption eerily reminiscent of Richard Nixon. She has also had a few miscues in this election; her “basket full of deplorables” was at least as ill-considered as Mitt Romney’s “binders full of women.” By asserting that Trump is an unacceptable choice, by no means am I arguing that Clinton is fit to govern.
However, the Religious Right has been parroting the mantra “Hillary is worse” as if it were infallible dogma. As I have argued more fully elsewhere, this claim, never persuasive to begin with, has over time lost all credibility save within the Religious Right’s epistemic bubble. That Trump would bring in a worldview or philosophy substantially different from Clinton’s, or that the Republican Party could compel him to adhere to the GOP platform or his own promises, is dubious a claim at best. And with the U.S. and Russia teetering on the edge of war, a belligerent authoritarian who has the impulse control of a five-year-old is hardly a better choice to be Commander in Chief — with access to the nuclear launch codes — than a crooked politician.
“A Voter Ought to Place Limits”
It was never clear, then, that Donald Trump was the lesser of two evils, or the least of all evils when Libertarian candidate Gary Johnson and Green candidate Jill Stein (both pro-abortion and hostile to religious liberty) are included. Catherine Nolan of Ethika Politika argues that arguments which attempt to obligate Catholics, and by extension other Christians, to vote for Trump are essentially consequentialist. And Gregory Brown of the Witherspoon Institute argues that the infamous audio clip has undermined the lesser-of-two-evils argument, exposing its moral hazard:
The stakes — the prospect of a Hillary Clinton presidency — have made Republicans willing to accept anything, however base, from their own candidate. The political process should not be open to such unaccountability; a voter ought to place limits on what he will tolerate.
If this were not enough, various pundits and leaders have refused to acknowledge the true import of the audio clip. Trump’s statements in the clip are not merely “lewd” or “locker-room banter;” they describe non-consensual sexual contact — bluntly, sexual assault. While many Catholic and Evangelical leaders have insisted that the clip is ten or eleven years old, the character flaws Trump has displayed throughout the campaign give us no grounds to trust that such behavior is truly a thing of his past. And by continuing to defend the indefensible, these leaders and pundits have shown incredible deafness and insensitivity to the outrage of over half the nation.
The Blowback, Part 1
From the pundits:
These … leaders have said that, for the sake of the “lesser of two evils,” one should stand with someone who not only characterizes sexual decadence and misogyny, brokers in cruelty and nativism, and displays a crazed public and private temperament — but who glories in these things. Some of the very people who warned us about moral relativism and situational ethics now ask us to become moral relativists for the sake of an election. And when some dissent, they are labeled as liberals or accused of moral preening or sitting comfortably on the sidelines. The cynicism and nihilism is horrifying to behold. It is not new, but it is clearer to see than ever. (Russell Moore, “If Donald Trump has done anything, he has snuffed out the Religious Right”, Washington Post, Oct. 9)
A vote for Trump is a betrayal of [pro-life] values. He embodies every toxic force in the culture that pro-lifers hope to overcome. He is, by his very nature, not their friend.
By making excuses for him and his malignant character, they are trading their moral authority, credibility and integrity for uncertain, short-term considerations. With that, they are dooming everything they cherish. (Steve Chapman, “The pro-life movement’s fatal attraction to Trump”, Chicago Tribune, Oct. 14)
The evangelical hypocrisy meter is redlining right now — and the world, as well as our own children, are taking note. A former student I knew when I was in youth ministry posted to Facebook on Friday: “Nothing says pro-life like sexual assault as a lifestyle. Enjoy his SCOTUS picks, values voters.” I hate to say it, but we deserve that. (Julie Roys, “Evangelical Trump Defenders Are Destroying the Church’s Witness”, Christian Post, Oct. 11)
The [Catholic advisors’] rationale for sticking with Trump makes for painful reading, but it also illuminates how Catholics who worship the idol of single-issue politics damage the credibility of a prolife movement they want to serve. (John Gehring, “Credibility Gap? Troubling Rationale from Trump’s Catholic Advisors”, Commonweal, Oct. 13)
The Blowback, Part 2
From women, especially rape survivors:
I can’t tell you how disappointed many of us are that you didn’t stand up for women this time. You threw us all under the bus for the sake of a candidate who pays lip service to being pro-life (though he was pro-choice not long ago) and might possibly make better nominations to the Supreme Court. His lack of morals and any victims of that immorality are just collateral damage to a more important agenda — “the future of this nation.” (Roxanne, “A Letter to Dr. James Dobson”, Roxanne’s Wild World, Oct. 14)
I’ve been sickened by [Fr. Frank] Pavone’s cozy relationship with Trump during this election cycle, considering that even after Trump conveniently claimed to have changed his mind on abortion, he still adamantly claims that he respects Planned Parenthood. It’s unseemly in any number of ways for Pavone to be so active in the campaign to elect a Planned Parenthood supporter who now has admitted to boasting about being a rapist. (Mary Pezzulo, “What is Happening At Priests For Life?”, Steel Magnificat, Oct. 9)
When I see people try to excuse or downplay Trump’s words because “Babies will die!” or “Supreme Court Justices!” I am reminded of my ex-husband trying to convince me to give him money to go buy crack. These people are so addicted to the idea that Trump will overturn Roe v Wade (even though no other Republican president has and Trump has said that Roe v Wade is the law and should stay that way) that they are trying to convince me that voting for a man who brags about sexual assault will be good for me as [a] victim of sexual abuse. Ben tried many times to convince me that giving him $100 for crack would benefit me in the long wrong. That didn’t work on me then, it doesn’t work on me now. (Leticia Adams, “Did I Die? Let Me Count The Ways”, Through Broken Roses, Oct. 11)
I recall a few months ago the entire Republican Party being gravely concerned about their wives or daughters walking into a bathroom and being groped or molested by a trans-woman. But now they seem to think it’s perfectly fine for their nominee for president to do it to any woman he happens to lust after. (Nicole Cauffman, social media post)
The End of the Religious Right
“By their fruits you shall know them” (Matthew 7:20 DRA). Actions speak louder than words, the old proverb tells us; our culture judges our intentions not by what we say but by what we do. A man is known by the company he keeps, said Aesop; “Bad company ruins good morals,” St. Paul told the Corinthians, quoting an old proverb. Those leaders and pundits who continue their association with Trump’s presidential campaign and give intellectual cover for his actions have besmirched not only their own moral authority but the credibility of all conservative Christians as well. “For, as it is written, ‘The name of God is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you’” (Romans 2:24 RSVCE).
Nor will the Religious Right recover from the damage by 2020. The ugly truth is, the Religious Right as it currently exists is a spent force in American politics.
Over the last three generations, the center of ideological gravity has been moving slowly but steadily leftward. Demographically, the Religious Right is part of the “white Christian America” that is aging into irrelevance, succumbing to the “biological solution”. It is estimated that, by 2051, “religiously unaffiliated Americans could comprise as large a percentage of the population as all Protestants combined” (Robert P. Jones, Public Religion Research Institute). Our culture has been re-engineered: socialists, social progressives, and secularists have been chipping away at America’s Christian foundations for a century or more. Now they have collapsed, and three or four generations may not suffice to undo the damage … assuming the nation survives that long.
Epilogue: The Last Person We Wanted
As of this writing (Oct. 20, 2:00pm CDT), the odds heavily favor a Clinton victory — 84.1%, with a 119-vote margin of victory in the Electoral College, a 5.5% margin in the popular vote, and a 71.6% chance of Democrat control of the Senate (source: Nate Silver, fivethirtyeight.com). It is highly unlikely that any further “startling revelations” from Wikileaks or stumbles on Clinton’s part will enhance Trump’s likelihood of winning. It is even more unlikely that the Religious Right can find and agree upon a “last-minute miracle” third-party or write-in candidate who can score an upset victory.
The very last person any Republican, Christian, or pro-lifer wanted to become President is now all but a divine intervention away from winning the election. Ironically, the Religious Right helped make it happen; the many compromises Catholic and Evangelical Wise Persons have made with Christian moral principles were for naught. As C. S. Lewis’ demon Screwtape said, “To get the man’s soul and give him nothing in return — that is what really gladdens [Satan’s] heart.” And even a last-minute Clinton defeat will not undo the damage the Religious Right has suffered to its credibility. No one is listening to us anymore.
The Church will survive a Clinton Presidency, even if it is a smaller Church that has been metaphorically pushed back into the catacombs. But if we are ever to re-emerge as a significant and cohesive influence in the public square, we will have to change the way we do politics.