Recent weeks have seen the precipitous downfalls of several powerful and influential men due to allegations of sexual assault. Harvey Weinstein, Kevin Spacey, and Louis C.K. are among the most recent names, but I doubt they’ll be the last. (See Ellen Page’s recent comments concerning director Brett Ratner.) It seems that a long overdue reckoning is happening in Hollywood, as more victims are coming forward to speak up after years of silence and shame.
But looking at the other end of the political/cultural spectrum, accusations have now been leveled against Roy Moore, the current Republican nominee for Alabama’s senate seat, that he sexually assaulted several teenage girls back in the ’70s, including a 14-year-old girl when he was 32 years old. All of these assault cases are troubling, especially considering how long the perpetrators were able to avoid being held accountable, but the Roy Moore case is troubling for an additional reason: it reveals so much of the moral failure at the heart of American Christianity, particularly that branch of American Christianity that has wedded itself to the Republican party.
As soon as the Washington Post article dropped, condemnation began swirling on social media; at one point, #RoyMooreChildMolester was trending on Twitter. But there was plenty of (not so) surprising circling of the wagons by Moore’s friends and supporters, specifically evangelical Christians. Jerry Falwell, Jr., president of Liberty University and outspoken Trump supporter, came to Moore’s defense, as did executives from prominent evangelical organizations like the American Family Association and Liberty Counsel.
One of the most egregious and repugnant defenses of Moore came from Alabama State Auditor Jim Zeigler, who defended Moore with several examples from the Bible — Zachariah and Elizabeth, Joseph and Mary (“Mary was a teenager and Joseph was an adult carpenter. They became parents of Jesus.”) — before uttering these appalling words: “There’s just nothing immoral or illegal here… Maybe just a little bit unusual.”
Let those words sink in. Even if Moore turns out to be guilty of undressing in front of a 14-year-old girl, removing her clothes and touching her through her underwear, and trying to get her to touch his penis, it’s “nothing immoral or illegal” — at least in the mind of Mr. Zeigler. Sadly, Zeigler is not alone in this type of thinking. Given this level of loyalty, one must assume that Moore’s supporters — especially those who identify as evangelical Christians — are okay with such behavior simply because Moore’s a Republican.
This is where we’ve arrived. Remember when the Republicans were the party of “family values”? But growing portions of the Republican Party have shown themselves quite willing to overlook allegations of sexual assault simply so they can beat the Democrats. And given the overlap between the Republican party and evangelical Christianity, it’s safe to say that means a lot of Christians are willing to overlook allegations of the worst kind… for the right political candidate, that is. They’ve put their own tribe before everything else, essentially agreeing with this sort of moral reasoning.
Fortunately, some sounder minds have spoken out. Over at Christianity Today, Ed Stetzer criticized Zeigler’s “biblical” defense of Moore, calling it “so far beyond truth that it would be comical.” Meanwhile, David French posted two excellent pieces on National Review. The first implores conservatives to not be dismissive of the allegations: “It’s a moral imperative that we not determine the veracity of the allegations by the ideology of the accused.”
The second is even more pointed: French calls evangelicals to task for ceding their moral standing to achieve temporary political gains.
I keep hearing these words from Evangelicals: We’ve got no choice. The Democrats are after our liberties. They’re seeking to destroy our way of life. Some even go so far as to say that even if the allegations against Moore are true, they’ll still hold their nose and put him in office to keep Jones from serving three years in the Senate.
I’m sorry Evangelicals, but your lack of faith is far more dangerous to the Church than any senator, any president, or any justice of the Supreme Court. Do you really have so little trust in God that you believe it’s justifiable — no, necessary — to ally with, defend, and even embrace corrupt men if it you think it will save the Church?
One of the best things I’ve read in the midst of the Moore controversy is this series of tweets that Kaitlyn Schiess, a writer for Christ and Pop Culture and Christianity Today, posted after attending a class on Men’s Ministry. While her tweets primarily criticized how the Church tries to reach out and minister to men — and for what it’s worth, her criticisms of that are spot on — several tweets touched on sexual abuse and how misogyny is rarely confronted within the Church.
4. We spent a LOT of time hearing that men aren't interested in "that theology stuff," church, or spiritual matters… https://t.co/kJyj9V2uXf— Kaitlyn Schiess (@KaitlynSchiess) #
Somehow we've ended up treating men as immature children AND the only competent leaders. At the same time. That's t… https://t.co/oxrp6Ghh5k— Kaitlyn Schiess (@KaitlynSchiess) #
And THAT is something that is so pervasively characterizing our discussions about sexual assault of women. Men's be… https://t.co/EvLJ6TxgvM— Kaitlyn Schiess (@KaitlynSchiess) #
Church, we cannot continue to contribute to the sexualization, degradation, and marginalization of women by treatin… https://t.co/o36n8gwDrs— Kaitlyn Schiess (@KaitlynSchiess) #
That last tweet, about “treating men as both helplessly juvenile and exclusively capable of leading and exercising authority,” hits especially hard because I’ve seen variations of that theme over the years. Consider Jerry Falwell, Jr.’s weak explanation for continuing to support Trump after those “grab them by the pussy” comments surfaced: “We’re not electing a pastor; we’re electing a president.”
There are times when evangelicals display more moral backbone than that, but it only seems to occur when Democrats (e.g., Bill Clinton) are the ones committing the offenses.
My wife and I have talked with our friends at length about how we often feel betrayed by various Christian authorities that we looked up to as kids — authorities that have proven themselves perfectly willing to sacrifice their morals and roll over for the promise of political power. Is it any wonder that more and more people are leaving the Church, especially the so-called nones?
Are folks leaving the Church because of increased doubts concerning the veracity of Christianity’s claims? Perhaps, but I suspect a bigger reason is the growing disparity between Christianity’s principles and the willingness (or even ability) of Christians to live consistently with those same principles beyond a most surface-level understanding. In other words, Christians are failing miserably to practice what they preach — and people are noticing, and saying “Goodbye.”
The unwillingness of Christians to call sin sin, and the rush to exchange moral consistency for political gains, is poisoning the Church’s witness in this country — and it will likely have unintended political and cultural consequences in the long run. (As Rod Dreher writes, “All of this is going to cement in the public’s mind that Evangelical Christians are morally bankrupt.”)
Consider the results of a recent poll concerning politicians committing “immoral” acts:
In 2011, 30 percent of white evangelicals said that “an elected official who commits an immoral act in their personal life can still behave ethically and fulfill their duties in their public and professional life.” Now, 72 percent say so — a far bigger swing than other religious groups the poll studied.
When Christians swarm to support a presidential candidate who downplays central aspects of the faith and brazenly admits to sexual assault and misogyny; when Christians pervert the Bible to defend their favorite political candidates; when Christians consistently side with the powerful rather than the vulnerable; when Christians flip-flop on moral and spiritual issues because of politics; when, as Ross Douthat put it, “your religious convictions are always secondary to your partisanship” — these things slowly and steadily erode both our ability to both speak prophetically, and to be taken seriously by those we’re trying to convince.
As a man, reading about the countless ways in which powerful men have violated, mistreated, and run roughshod over the dignity of women has been a convicting experience. At the very least, it makes me wonder if I’ve ever helped, even unknowingly, to create or support toxic and unsafe spaces for female friends and co-workers.
And as a Christian, seeing yet more examples of my fellow believers, including respected Christian leaders, explain away behavior that they would vehemently condemn if it had been committed by a Democrat has been a dispiriting experience, to say the least.
I think especially of my wife and daughter, and the world they have to navigate, and how that world is not made any easier by men who call them sisters in Christ but who then fail to actually treat, support, defend, and respect them as sisters — whether in word, deed, or the voting booth.
My wife recently read me Mary Oliver’s poem “The Morning Paper” (A Thousand Mornings). Though published in 2012, it seems almost prescient in how it can apply to our current political/cultural situation.
Read one newspaper daily (the morning edition is the best
for by evening you know that you at least
have lived through another day)
and let the disasters, the unbelievable
yet approved decisions,
I don’t need to name the countries,
ours among them.
What keeps us from falling down, our faces
to the ground; ashamed, ashamed?
As Christians (and Americans), we’ve seen a lot of “unbelievable yet approved decisions” in the last year or so. And a lot of those decisions have been made by people who purport to speak for us as Christians, and claim to be leaders, teachers, and pastors. But the question in the poem’s last line — “What keeps us from falling down?” — haunts me.
If you’re willing to be OK with the sexual assault of children because that helps your team hold on to power, then short of outright Divine judgement, is there anything that will make you fall down on your face, ashamed? Is there anything that will make you reconsider your earthly allegiances, and reflect on how they might be affecting your spiritual allegiance?
The last twelve months have shown beyond any shadow of doubt that many American Christians can’t answer those questions. They can’t answer because they have no answer. Instead, they’re willing to trade their souls for no other reason than to ensure that the Republican Party maintains its power.