One of the natural consequences of spending your entire professional life opposing abortion and defending religious freedom is that you find yourself on the email list of virtually every Christian conservative group of any size or consequence. Normally, you receive a fount of press releases and petition requests, mainly aimed at Planned Parenthood, Democrats in Congress, or various leftist universities. So imagine my surprise when I received a series of emails from the American Family Association aimed at your humble correspondent.
If you want, you can go to the AFA website and join more than 35,000 of your fellow citizens who’ve signed a petition condemning my “character assassination” and deploring my “yellow journalism.” My sin was writing a piece last month critiquing Franklin Graham for his selective moral outrage. In 1998, Graham wrote an essay in the Wall Street Journal arguing that even Bill Clinton’s private sins can have serious, public consequences. He rightfully asked the key question: “If [Clinton] will lie to or mislead his wife and daughter, those with whom he is most intimate, what will prevent him from doing the same to the American public?”
But in 2018 he reversed course. When the philandering Democrat Bill Clinton was out of office, and the philandering Republican Donald Trump occupied the White House, Graham told the Associated Press that the Republican pursuit of Clinton was a “great mistake that should never have happened.” He resurrected the old Clinton defense — that adultery is an entirely private matter. Graham said, “This thing with Stormy Daniels and so forth is nobody’s business.”
Then, this year, he changed course yet again, this time publicly tweeting his opposition to Pete Buttigieg’s gay marriage.
Here was my central point — the “yellow journalism” that the AFA condemns:
The proper Evangelical position toward any president is not hard to articulate, though it is exceedingly difficult to hold to, especially in polarized times when one party seems set on limiting religious liberty and zealously defending abortion: We should pray for presidents, critique them when they’re wrong, praise them when they’re right, and never, ever impose partisan double standards. We can’t ever forget the importance of character, the necessity of our own integrity, and the power of the prophetic witness.
In other words, Evangelicals can never take a purely transactional approach to politics. We are never divorced from our transcendent purpose, which always trumps political expediency. In scripture, prophets confronted leaders about their sin. They understood a core truth, one clearly articulated in the Southern Baptist Convention’s 1998 Resolution on Moral Character of Public Officials: “Tolerance of serious wrong by leaders sears the conscience of the culture, spawns unrestrained immorality and lawlessness in the society, and surely results in God’s judgment.”
The AFA, of course, can’t quite defend the president’s conduct, but it sure can minimize it. “Certainly, no one would agree that President Trump’s past is a perfect model of morality,” says the AFA. Not ‘perfect’ is one way to characterize marrying one woman, having an affair, marrying his mistress, marrying a third woman, and then having an affair with a porn star while that third woman is pregnant with his child. But so what? The AFA says that since taking the oath of office, Trump has come “nowhere near” the “glaring moral indecencies of Clinton.”
Well, even by the AFA’s made-up standard, their argument fails. While president, Trump has lied to the public about his porn-star affair and there is strong evidence that he paid hush money as part of Michael Cohen’s criminal scheme to conceal the affair during a crucial phase of the presidential campaign. I think that’s a pretty glaring moral (and potentially criminal) indecency, but your mileage may vary. And those lies and deceptions are but a few of the torrent of untruths that have poured from the president’s mouth throughout his first term. It turns out that the answer to Graham’s 1998 question is clear — if a man will “lie to or mislead his wife and daughter” there is nothing that will stop him from “doing the same to the American public.”
Finally, as the AFA knows very well, one of the most common secular leftist critiques of American Evangelicals is that our professed moral standards — especially on matters of human sexuality — aren’t truly heartfelt convictions but rather convenient pretexts. They say that they’re prudish and homophobic hammers used to pound our political enemies rather than advance eternal values. I can think of few better ways to vindicate that critique than to behave exactly the way your critics expect you to behave.
As I stated in my original piece, Graham’s double standard should not define him. He has done much good and preached the Gospel faithfully for many years. But his double standard is still a serious mistake, and it’s a mistake the AFA compounds when it uses my critique to raise money and collect new names for its email list. The Southern Baptist Convention’s 1998 resolution was correct. “Tolerance of serious wrong by leaders” does in fact “sear the conscience of the culture.” It has certainly seared the conscience of the AFA.