How 'values voters' made a deal with the devil

Christian conservatives show there's nothing they won't tolerate from Trump. Here's why.

President Donald Trump at the National Cathedral in Washington.
(Image credit: Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

One has to wonder what the phone calls were like when evangelical leaders reached out to one another upon hearing that President Trump paid $130,000 in 2016 to a porn star in exchange for her agreement not to speak publicly about their affair. Were they angry? Shocked? Betrayed?

My guess is that they mostly just wondered about what they'd say to the press when the inevitable questions came. And since they had already come this far with a president possessed of no identifiable virtues and almost every character flaw that human beings are capable of, they didn't feel much in the way of moral qualms, let alone any glimmers of doubt about what they've done to their own reputations.

Nevertheless, the reactions were comical. Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council said that the reaction of people like him to the Stormy Daniels story was "All right, you get a mulligan. You get a do-over here." Fortunately, this was the first time Trump, a committed family man, had given in to such lascivious impulses.

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Franklin Graham, the son of Rev. Billy Graham, said that maybe there was no affair, and anyway it was years ago, and most amazingly, "I believe that he's a changed person." Donald Trump: changed person. Sure, in the past Trump cheated on all three of his wives, proclaimed proudly that he could sexually assault women with impunity, bragged about walking in on pageant contestants so he could see them undressing — including teenagers — but now he's a new man, brimming with righteousness.

Yea, did the values voters find their faith tested, but through it all they stood strong in that faith. Praise be!

It's true that many evangelical voters harbored doubts about Trump from the beginning, given his career of very public dirtbaggery. In the 2016 primaries some got behind sincerely devout candidates like Ted Cruz or Ben Carson seeking a godly man in the Oval Office. But I come back often to that moment when Trump spoke at Liberty University and recited a passage from what he called "Two Corinthians" (instead of "Second Corinthians"). He was mocked for it, but the real key was what he said just after: "Is that the one? Is that the one you like? I think that's the one you like."

It was a clear signal, delivered with his characteristic absence of subtlety: I am ready to pander to you. Whatever you want, just tell me.

By the time the general election came around, white evangelicals were behind him in numbers that no previous Republican candidate had managed; he got 81 percent of their votes, more than any candidate since exit polls have asked the question. And it was far from grudging, because Trump gave them unadorned culture war rhetoric of a kind they weren't used to hearing from politicians. He didn't waste time saying that everyone ought to be respected or that America welcomes those of all faiths, because he doesn't believe it and neither do they. He told them that he'd wage war on the "political correctness" that says Christians shouldn't be placed above others in American society, that they shouldn't be able to exempt themselves from civil rights laws they don't like, and that everyone shouldn't be forced to say "Merry Christmas" whether they want to or not. Screw that, he told them in so many words. And they cheered.

So let's be clear about one thing: As a group, conservative Christian voters never cared about the character of the people they supported, and their political leaders certainly didn't. They'd certainly rather have a faithful, devout, morally upstanding man (almost always a man) to get behind, but if it's a choice between a Democrat of strong character and a moral degenerate like Trump who happens to be a Republican, they'll pick the degenerate every time.

Which puts the lie to the idea of "values voters." It was always insulting and untrue, because it said that conservative Christians have "values" while everybody else just has opinions. The truth is that we're all motivated in politics by our values. We have a vision of the world we'd like to see, we make choices about what matters, and we find politicians who share the same perspective we have.

But we also have interests: what's good for us, regardless of what might be good for other people. And there's a ground where values and interests meet, and that's where conservative Christians welcomed Trump. They'd like to roll back civil rights protections for gay people, outlaw abortion, and generally engineer a return to a more traditional, patriarchal society. They want that for themselves, but they want to impose it on everyone else as well. And they shrewdly realized that when it comes to the policy decisions that move us in that direction, Trump just doesn't care. He'd be fine if abortion is legal, or if it isn't. He'd be fine if gay people can access services without being discriminated against, or if they can't. What matters to Trump is Trump.

So he and the Christian right made a transactional arrangement: He'd give them what they want (like hard-right judges and an attack on reproductive rights) and they'd stay loyal to him. As long as both sides hold up their end of the bargain, it works.

However, it does mean that those who claim to be of higher moral character because of their reliance on God's word have to do certain things that are a little uncomfortable. They have to pretend that they believe Trump carries with him a deep religious faith, even though they know it isn't true. They have to excuse his bigotry. They have to go before the cameras when news of the latest Trump scandal breaks and act as though Trump is a man of the highest character and integrity, despite the mountains of evidence to the contrary.

But they'll do it for as long as they have to. After all, they made a deal.

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