In 2016, it was tempting to think American politics could never again produce worse choices for high office than Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. These would be the last Boomers to run for president, I thought, and they seemed to be designed specifically to humiliate their supporters. Trump, the sleazy tribune of traditional-values voters. On the other side, the grifter Clinton, who gets rich on behalf of the little guy.
The atheist Christopher Hitchens used to argue that religion was useful for getting good and conscientious people to do wicked things. Politics can be used in the same way. Those two candidates could only have advanced so far because American politics is so tightly wired to our fears and hatreds. Why would anyone decent support either of them — unless on some level you feared and hated the other side?
But nothing since the election suggests that the trend will change. Politics in 2017 is like a bad after-school special. And the plot twist we all knew was coming is now here: It turns out that Alabama’s rootin’-tootin’ man of God, Roy Moore, had previously unrevealed sexual sins in his life. Now in the public, they have exploded into a scandal during his insurgent campaign in Alabama’s special election to fill Jeff Sessions’s Senate seat.
Several prominent Evangelicals have already embarrassed themselves in their rush to cover Moore’s sins in a cloak of righteousness, and therefore justify pulling the lever for him in the election. Moore’s defense on Friday amounted to a strenuous denial that was difficult to credit. Asked if he could unequivocally state that he never dated a teenager when he was in his thirties, Moore replied: “It would be out of my customary behavior.”
My colleague David French has admirably (and correctly) put forward the way in which it violates Biblical principles to choose the lesser of two evils, so long as it’s your side’s evil. But I’d like to advance the political case against letting fear and hatred lead us to consistently lower our standards and lend our support to the ambitions of less and less worthy people.
First, there is is the argument from credibility. Every social conservative who supports Moore is increasing the cynicism of American society and justifying widespread skepticism about the sincerity of Christian belief among conservatives. People are reminded frequently that Christian conservatives once demanded that Bill Clinton resign in shame for carrying on an affair with a White House intern. Now some of those supposedly godly men, or their sons, defend Moore’s predation of teenaged girls on the grounds that even a child predator is better than a Democrat. This instrumentalism will eventually make it impossible for social conservatives to defend any of their preferred policies. The country won’t give consent to pro-life laws if they have good reason to suspect their advocates are insincere. And the public will shrug at the abrogation of religious liberties if it thinks these amount to privileges for hypocrites.
Second, there’s an argument from good citizenship. You cannot be a good citizen of your country if your immediate political interests outrank every other good in the commonweal. And citizenship requires some self-abnegnation, even some risk. Advancing a man of Roy Moore’s character to the Senate worsens public life in obvious ways. He’s unethical. He flouts the law. And he is peculiarly holier than thou.
Choosing the lesser of two evils is a fantastic way to prepare yourself to do worse and worse evils.
In this political environment, the war metaphor can become the war reality. Telling yourself that “this is war, and in war you have to make less than ideal choices” is a great way to excuse the destruction of your charity and the lifting of restraint, with collateral damage to your integrity.
Choosing the lesser of two evils is a fantastic way to prepare yourself to do worse and worse evils. And following it to the end is a bitter fate indeed. The worst tragedies of recent history were driven by masses of people giving in to existential fear and hatred. There are many alive today in Central and Eastern Europe who made themselves into Fascists or Communists in order to resist or avenge the Communists and the Fascists. But the names we remember and revere are often those who carefully and bravely stood apart.
It’s time to think about where the line in the sand will be. What behavior won’t you excuse? Where won’t you follow your party? Because the way things are going, these questions won’t be hypotheticals.