By David K. Shipler
To anyone naïve enough to think that sexual decency should be high on a list of virtues, Donald Trump’s news conference just before last year’s second presidential debate was a puzzling scene. Days after the disclosure of the “Access Hollywood” tape that had caught Trump bragging about his predatory exploits, four women who had been victims of sexual assault gave him their support. “When you’re a star, they let you do it,” Trump had said on the tape. “You can do anything. Grab them by the pussy. Do anything.” Nevertheless, the four women sat with him behind a table, endorsed him, and assailed the Clintons.
Juanita Broaddrick claimed to have been raped by Bill Clinton. Paula Jones and Kathleen Willey said he had groped them. Kathy Shelton’s grievance was aimed instead at Hillary Clinton, who had been assigned by the court as defense attorney for a man who had raped Shelton when she was 12. Her resentment was misplaced, since Clinton was plainly fulfilling the Sixth Amendment’s guarantee of a defendant’s right to counsel.
Shelton and the others might have been expected to see sexual crimes as transcendent, well above politics. That they clearly did not—that they backed Trump in the face of detailed accusations against him by a dozen women who were brave enough to give their names—was as much a commentary on the state of social morality as Democrats’ impulse had been to wish away the allegations against Bill Clinton.
Rumors and stories about Clinton were in the air before his first election to the presidency, but they lacked the specificity that would have confronted liberals with a hard choice. Although Paula Jones sued Clinton in 1994, two years before his reelection, her accusations didn’t sway many voters. And his sexual liaisons with intern Monica Lewinsky in the Oval Office didn’t become public until after the election. Even then, his supporters generally opposed his impeachment by the Republican-led House and were relieved when the Senate failed to convict him.
“Sexual misconduct,” it seems, is outrageous only when committed by a member of your opposing political tribe. When it’s your own guy, the accusations are fabricated, concocted by conspiracy, discredited by the character of the accuser, undermined by the delay in reporting, or just ambiguous enough to be dismissed as a misunderstanding.
It’s not news that in politics, policy outweighs ethics. But there’s something more these days. The passion among many evangelical Christians to stick by Roy Moore, the Alabama candidate for Senate who has been accused by nine women of fondling and groping them when some of them were just 14 or 16, rests in part on his opposition to abortion, gay marriage, and transgender rights, which carry more moral weight for the Christian right than his alleged immoral sexual deviance.
But his core support is also driven by the power of political affinity, which runs deeper into the cultural bedrock than mere policy positions can reach. A kind of tribal identity has been created among large segments of American voters who go with their team, right or wrong. In this dynamic, Moore gains something as criticisms of him escalate. Calls by the Congressional Republican leadership for him to step aside have energized the conservative, anti-Washington tribe in Alabama to circle the wagons and stand tall against the onslaught.
The siege mentality has long been promoted by Republicans who have preached the fantasy that Christians are victims in a mostly Christian America, under assault by social liberals.
Among 10 Alabama pastors interviewed by the Boston Globe who have remained firm in their support for Moore, “several said the allegations made them more proud to vote for the former judge,” the paper reported. One minister wondered how much the women were being paid to make the accusations. Franklin Graham, the son of evangelical preacher Billy Graham, decried the hypocrisy of “so many denouncing Roy Moore when they are guilty of doing much worse than what he has been accused of supposedly doing.”
Speaking of hypocrisy, Moore retains the backing of Christian conservatives who wanted Clinton to resign the presidency after his sexual escapades with Lewinsky, the Globe reported. Further, polls by the Public Religion Research Institute found that between 2011 and 2016, the proportion of white evangelical Protestants who thought that an official “who commits an immoral act in their personal life can still behave ethically and fulfill their duties” jumped from 30 to 72 percent.
Such discounting of personal transgressions is not usually associated with fervent religious belief, but a good deal of religion is more secular than divine. Trump’s ethical vacuum has played into this phenomenon: He won 80 percent of the white conservative evangelical vote as the theological and moral basis of that brand of Christianity has become narrower, shallower, and more severely political.
Some bright day, perhaps, our society will produce moral leadership and will learn to condemn sexual assault no matter the party affiliation of the perpetrator. “We can’t let women’s dignity ebb and flow with the political tides,” said Lynn Dickinson, a friend who’s a lawyer in Dallas. “Either we have and deserve to be treated with dignity or we don’t.”