Sex scandals involving American male “notables” – especially politicians — are as old as the country. But the current round is qualitatively differently from the earlier episodes in two critical respects. First, it is the result of female victims “outing” the male perpetrators for sexual abuse or worse – and not revealed as a salacious media spectacle. Second, the current round makes clear the moral hypocrisy as the heart of Republican self-claimed “Christian” morality.
Over the last decade, numerous politicians have been exposed for actual or alleged illicit activities. Some might remember New York Congressman Anthony Weiner’s sexting scandal and subsequent misadventures; in September 2017, he was sentenced to 21 months in a federal prison for sexting with a minor.
But who remembers Weiner’s fellow Rep. Chris Lee (R-NY), forced to resign in the same 2011 sexting scandal. These resignations came in the wake of numerous scandals between 2006 and 2009 involving Rep. Gary Condit (D-CA), Rep. Mark Foley (R-FL), Sen. Larry Craig (R-ID), Sen, John Edwards (D-NC) and Sen. John Ensign (R-NV). The exposures undermined the Republican party’s claim to moral leadership and contributed to Obama’s ’08 electoral victory. In 2010, Rep. Mark Souder (R-IN), a Bible-thumping evangelical Christian, was outed for an extramarital affair and resigned.
American politics looks like an amateur version of the original British series, House of Cards, except no one is smart enough to be pulling the strings like Ian Richardson’s “Francis Urquhart.” The show’s U.S. lead, “Francis Underwood,” was played artfully by Kevin Spacey, who was outed as a sexual predator.
In the current American real-world version of the show, politicians accused of immoral, if not illegal, sexual conduct are being outed. Some have been forced to fall on their swords, including Democratic Rep. John Conyers (MI) and Sen. Al Franken (WI) as have Republicans Rep. Tim Murphy (PA) and Rep. Trent Franks (AZ); Rep. Blake Farenthold (TX) will likely resign shortly. However, the Republican leadership are gloating, seeking to ride out the storm. Pres. Donald Trump and the Republican Party endorsed Ray Moore for Senator from Alabama.
The U.S. is living through a profound crisis of morality. Republicans have, for generations, proclaimed their divine purpose in determining the nation’s moral order. In 1972, Phyllis Schafly killed the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA), launching the modern culture wars. A year later, Christian conservatives, often Republicans, were deeply disturbed be the Supreme Court’s ruling in Roe v. Wade decision and were infuriated by the American Psychiatric Association’s dropping homosexuality as a “disorder” in 1973 edition of The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-III).
A half-century later, the political role symbolized by Trump and Moore illustrates the end of Republican Christian right’s claim of moral leadership. They have sacrificed religious values for political power; tolerance of difference has been replaced by absolutism, the tyranny of the righteous. And they are exercising this power through the Trump administration, the Congress and state legislatures throughout the country.
The Christian right seized state power twice in the 20th century and each time imposed its moral order on the nation – and failed in its effort to regulate social values. First, following a decades-long struggle over abstinence and sexual purity, it secured the adoption of the 18th Amendment establishing Prohibition, the Roaring ‘20s. A year later, the Christian right played a critical role securing the adoption of 19thAmendment granting women the right to vote. Accompanying FDR’s election in 1932, Prohibition was repealed by the 21st Amendment.
Second, amidst the great communist witch-hunts of the post-WW-II era, led by Sen. Joe McCarthy and HUAC, a parallel war on “immorality” took place. In this campaign, the moralist right targeted homosexuals, comic-book publishers, pornographers and birth-control manufacturers. This war also failed as evident in the explosion in values promoted by the new consumer society, civil-rights movement and 1960s counterculture that helped spawn the women’s and the gay-rights movements.
A half-century later, the “Christian” right is again trading moral values for state power. How this plays out will have significant consequences for the nation, particularly as it further consolidates political power at both the federal and state levels.
On December 12th, Alabama voters will decide who will be their next Senator — and Moore may well beat the Democratic candidate, Doug Jones. Pres. Trump and the Republican Party are backing him with words and money. Recent polls show Moore leading by a hair.
However, as the website FiveThirtyEight warns, don’t trust polls. Reviewing the Senate election polls since 1998, it finds that they are even less reliable than presidential polls – and we all know what happened with the 2016 polls. In addition, it warns, “Alabama polls have been volatile, this is an off-cycle special election with difficult-to-predict turnout, and there haven’t been many top-quality pollsters surveying the Alabama race.” It then adds, “So even though Moore is a favorite, Democrat Doug Jones is just a normal polling error away from winning. (Or, by the same token, Moore could win comfortably.)”
Taken with a grain of salt, as a suggestive indicator and not a fact, polls can be revealing. One critical variable in the Alabama election will be the turnout and voting practices of the state’s white evangelical Christians. In a recent (although undated) report from Pew Research, “Religious composition of adults in Alabama,” it found that 86 percent claimed to be Christian of which nearly half (49%) identified as Evangelical Protestants. They played a critical role in Trump’s 2016 victory. Pew found that in the 2016 election, 81 percent of self-described “white, born-again/evangelical Christians” voted for Trump. Politico reported that 63 percent of the Alabama electorate voted for Trump.
A recent study by JMC Analytics found that 37 percent of Alabama evangelicals surveyed said the allegations make against Moore made them more likely to vote for him. Moore and his supporters have effectively played upon this shift in values to rationalize his quote: “The Obama-Clinton Machine’s liberal media lapdogs just launched the most vicious and nasty round of attacks against me I’ve EVER faced! … We are in the midst of a spiritual battle with those who want to silence our message.” More telling, 53 Alabama pastors signed a letter in support Moore.
For evangelical supporters, Moore represents a politician willing to stand up for “Christian” values. This is the same man who, as a state circuit-court judge in 1992, hung a wooden plaque of the Ten Commandments in his courtroom. And, nearly a decade later, when serving as the state’s Supreme Court chief justice, installed a 5,280-pound granite monument of the Ten Commandments in the judicial building. He was twice removed from office for ethics violations and, as a candidate, continues to fight for his fundamentalist beliefs.
Trump’s election and Moore’s possible victory in the Alabama race points to a profound shift in the nation’s political morality. For decades, Republicans waved the flag of state’s right and their religious beliefs to rally popular support. Both have been revealed as scams.
In the 1960s, they successfully adopted Pat Buchanan’s race-identity “Southern Strategy” to draw white voters from the Democratic to the Republican Party. In the ‘70s, following Schafly’s battle against the ERA, they built the Christian conservative’s culture wars. In the ‘80s, they promoted Pres. Ronald Reagan’s new economics of trickle-down prosperity and saw the new-capitalist class, i.e., finance capital, getting ever-wealthier as most other Americans only stayed stuck or lost ground, running in place to survive but never really feeling secure. Welcome to 21st century America.
In these and other campaigns, Republicans wore their Christian morality as a sacred badge of honor, not unlike Crusaders of old. However, their claimed morality was often used as a cudgel against those who questioned their supposedly religiously-inspired actions, most gruesomely expressed in acts of reactionary violence.
This tendency is evident in the so-called moral purpose expressed by those who killed doctors performing legal abortions or attacked Planned Parenthood facilities. It is also expressed in the ceaseless – and opportunistic – support for “gun rights” and the NRA. Sadly, their endless promotion of guns legitimizes domestic mass-shootings that take place with all-too-much regularity. Between 2009-2016, there were 156 mass shootings — incidents in which four or more people were shot and killed, not including the shooter.
Is Trump election and Moore’s campaign yet other indicators of the profound shift in the politicization of religion? Have evangelical Christians traded their religious beliefs for political power? If so, what does this say about the nation’s moral order?
In a 2016 survey, the Brookings Institute’s Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) posed a challenging question to “a large random sample of Americans”: “Do you think an elected official who commits an immoral act in their private life can still behave ethically and fulfill their duties in their public and professional life?” Examining respondent’s answers in terms of political and religious affiliations, its finds are revealing in terms of both Trump’s election and the current Alabama contest.
PRRI study found that “over the past five years, Americans have shifted toward a more accommodating stance.” This could be a valuable, “progressive” development, one empowering sexual equality and freedom of sexual expression. Rather, the study focused on quite the opposite, of tolerance of questionable sexual practices by politicians.
In 2011, less than half (44%) of those polled believed that politicians could be immoral in private and still perform their public duties in an ethical manner. Five years later, those endorsing the position had jumped to nearly two-thirds (61%). Politically, this broke down to 61 percent among Democrats (up from 49% sin 2011) and to 70 percent of Republicans (up from 36% in 2011). Its most revealing finding was that in 2016, “72 percent of white evangelicals — up an astounding 42 points — believe that the two can go together.”
Four centuries ago, New Englanders and other British colonists up and down the Atlantic Coast confronted an endless series of sex scandals. These were battles over the boundaries of acceptable sexual practice and mostly involved premarital sex (fornication), extramarital sex (adultery), sodomy (homosexuality and interracial sex. Two offenses were most upsetting: bestiality involving young men and sexual witchcraft among older women. Among Puritans, as the historian John Murrin pointed out, “Bestiality discredited men in the way that witchcraft discredited women.”
Four centuries later, morality seems transient, not grounded in 1st principles, the “10 Commandments” or other such decree. What does it mean, in terms of fundamental moral values, when nearly three-out-of-four (72%) of white evangelicals believe a politician can do a good job while engaged in an illicit sexual relations? More so, why is a morally-questionable candidate running in Alabama? — and why is a morally corrupt, amoral man president of the country?