Evangelical Christians, at the moment, are totally enamored with a candidate who has profited off strip clubs, cheated on his wife, and appeared on the cover of the nation’s pre-eminent porn magazine.
And to top it off, Jerry Falwell Jr.—the heir of the Moral Majority mantle—just endorsed him.
There’s plenty of explanations for conservative Christians’ Trump-lovin’ ways, and recent polling shows he’s these voters’ favorite (a new NBC poll shows him with the most support of white Evangelical Republican voters, 37 percent).
But this trend has many Evangelical leaders irate, perplexed, and hankering for some below-the-belt attacks on Trump. The time for policy analysis is over, they say—now it’s about to get Biblical, Falwell be damned.
Minutes after The Washington Post broke news of the Liberty University president’s endorsement, Russell Moore, a powerful Southern Baptist leader, subtweeted Falwell with a link to the Southern Baptist Convention’s 1998 “Resolution on Moral Character of Public Officials.”
“[W]e urge all Americans to embrace and act on the conviction that character does count in public office, and to elect those officials and candidates who, although imperfect, demonstrate consistent honesty, moral purity and the highest character,” the statement reads.
Some Evangelical leaders hope Trump’s moral character will get a little more attention in the coming days. When it comes to the mogul, there’s a ton of material to work with—and attacks like these have worked before. Allegations of sexual harassment tanked Herman Cain’s insurgent-style campaign, and a scurrilous (and untrue) whisper campaign about an affair likely played a role in John McCain’s loss to George W. Bush in 2000. The fact that Ronald Reagan got divorced even once gave many conservative primary voters pause when he first telegraphed his presidential ambitions. And to this day, most Republican presidential contenders act like caucus-goers are voting for the winner of a Bible verse memorization contest.
So far, Trump’s top foes have largely steered clear of attacking him based on his sexcapades and scandals. Even while he and Rubio lob birther-esque attacks at Ted Cruz for being born in Canada, Trump has evaded any hard-hitting criticism for his multiple marriages, casino ownership, and appearance on the cover of Playboy magazine.
A series of tweets from Sen. Ben Sasse, a freshman Republican from Nebraska, may suggest that the days of giving Trump a pass over his New York-values personal life are over.
“You brag abt many affairs w/ married women,” the senator tweeted on Jan. 24, addressing Trump. “Have you repented? To harmed children & spouses? Do you think it matters?”
In The Art of the Comeback, Trump boasted about bedding other men’s wives.
“If I told the real stories of my experiences with women, often seemingly very happily married and important women, this book would be a guaranteed best-seller,” he wrote.
Republican voters have forgiven a host of candidates for marital lapses. The process of sin, forgiveness, and redemption is an integral part of conservative Christian faith. Remember George W. Bush’s D.U.I.? Neither do Evangelical Christians—because he repented in a way they found authentic and sincere. But Trump has given zero indication that he’s sorry about his homewrecking ways. In fact, quite the contrary. The fact that at every stump speech, Trump boasts about a book wherein he boasts about sleeping with married women is—well, it’s the kind of thing that history suggests would give Iowa Republicans pause.
But, for whatever reason, Trump’s critics and questioners—Sasse exempted—have largely given him a pass on this. And many social conservatives are over it.
The fact that Trump-branded casinos have strip clubs is particularly troubling to some, including Penny Nance, who heads Concerned Women for America.
“I think respect for women is very important, and the idea that he profited from strippers and from exploiting women we find very disturbing,” she said.
In August of 2013, the struggling Trump Taj Mahal casino became the first casino in Atlantic City, N.J., to have an in-house strip club. Trump no longer operates that casino himself, but 2014 bankruptcy filings reported by The Wall Street Journal showed he held a 5 percent stake in the stock of the company that manages it, Trump Entertainment Resorts Inc.
“The seedy underworld of strip joints and sex trafficking and prostitution are often connected, and the idea that Donald profited from the exploitation of women directly is very discouraging to me,” said Nance. “It’s a serious issue. I’m not kidding.”
And Jeff Kubler, who heads the Oregon chapter of the Faith and Freedom Coalition, said Trump’s appearance on the March 1990 cover of Playboy—next to a model wearing only his tuxedo jacket—should cause him problems with Evangelical Christian voters.
“Obviously he wasn’t exhibiting,” Kubler said. “He was just on there as a businessman—he must have done an interview or something—but that he did such a thing—it’s something I wouldn’t have done.”
“There are a number of candidates who have really strong Christian testimonies, and I don’t think Donald Trump really has one,” he added.
There may be a reason Evangelicals aren’t up in arms about his appearance on the cover of a magazine famous for nude pics.
“I would hope that many of them wouldn’t know a thing like that, except secondhand,” said Colin Hanna, president of Let Freedom Ring USA.
“Why wouldn’t it come up in a debate, come up as a news item, and let him be called to task for it with 20 million people watching,” Hanna continued, of Trump’s infidelities. “It gets at the very matter of character, of sin, of forgiveness. A mature conservative Evangelical Christian should not hold confessed sin against someone, but unconfessed sin should be a problem—a theological problem. And unadmitted sin is sort of a step beyond unconfessed sin, isn’t it?”
Trump has even indicated that he thinks the fact that he cheated on his first wife, Ivanka, is fair game for his opponents. But so far, none have bitten. And that has some social conservatives—including John Stemberger, who heads the Florida Family Policy Council—irked.
“The great Bible says many many times, ‘Do not be deceived,’ over and over again, Old and New Testament,” Stemberger said. “And he’s deceiving us.”