Tiny cracks have appeared in evangelical support for Donald Trump over the video of his sexually predatory comments about women.
Among those reversing course was well-known theologian Wayne Grudem, whose endorsement was widely cited by other Christians backing the Republican presidential nominee. Popular evangelist and author Beth Moore tweeted that she was among many women who had been sexually abused or harassed, and “we’re tired of it.” That behaviour, she warned, becomes more acceptable “when some Christian leaders don’t think it’s that big a deal.”
Katelyn Beaty, author of “A Woman’s Place,” and a former managing editor at Christianity Today magazine, said Moore’s comments indicate evangelical women are becoming more wary of Trump, “especially as it relates to the ways he consistently talks about and treats women.”
But Trump’s backing from conservative Christians, which has confounded many inside and outside evangelicalism, seems to be holding for now — at least among his most prominent endorsers.
James Dobson, of Family Talk radio, condemned Trump’s comments, but called Clinton’s support for abortion rights “criminal.”
“Mr. Trump promises to support religious liberty and the dignity of the unborn. Mrs. Clinton promises she will not,” Dobson said in a statement Monday.
Jerry Falwell Jr., president of Liberty University and an early endorser of the real estate magnate, said Trump’s remarks were “reprehensible.” Still, Falwell said, “we’re never going to have a perfect candidate,” and suggested the video leak was engineered by Trump’s enemies in his own party.
“I think it was timed,” Falwell told WABC-AM radio in New York. “I think it might have even been a conspiracy, you know, among the establishment Republicans who’ve known about it for weeks and who tried to time it to do the maximum damage.”
Others who reaffirmed their endorsements were Ralph Reed, founder of the Faith & Freedom Coalition, which aims to mobilize conservative Christian voters, and televangelist Pat Robertson, who dismissed Trump’s remarks as an attempt by the candidate “to look like he’s macho.”
On the video released Friday, Trump is heard describing attempts to have sex with a married woman and bragging that women let him grab their genitals because he is famous. Responding to the leak, Trump said, “I was wrong,” to make those comments, but dismissed them as “locker room talk.”
Evangelical support for Trump has been one of the more baffling trends this election year. Trump is a casino mogul who was married three times, said he didn’t need to ask God for forgiveness, mocked a disabled reporter and alluded to his penis size during a debate. Early on, prominent evangelicals, including Russell Moore of the Southern Baptist Convention, and Christian author Max Lucado, warned evangelicals against Trump.
Still, as the year progressed and the large pool of GOP primary contenders dwindled, it became clear that white conservative Christians were coalescing behind the candidate. Recent polls show the GOP presidential nominee drawing about 70 percent of the white evangelical vote.
Although some evangelicals defended Trump’s character, many couched their endorsements in pragmatic terms, focused on Trump’s promise that he will appoint conservative justices to the US Supreme Court.
Laura Olson, a Clemson University political scientist, said this support can be seen in part as payback for evangelical losses in the so-called culture wars. Many conservative Christians see the roots of their failure in the policies of President Bill Clinton. In 1993, days into his first term in the White House and on the 20th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, Clinton signed an executive order abolishing some restrictions on abortion.
Younger evangelicals likely don’t remember that far back. But for others, the Clintons “come as a package deal in so many people’s minds,” Olson said.
In a recent Pew Research Center survey, more than three-quarters of white evangelicals cited dislike for Clinton as a major reason they prefer Trump.
“A perception grew, even while (Clinton) was first lady, that she was the extremely liberal one, that Bill Clinton was a moderate, a pragmatist, while Hillary had an extremely liberal approach to things,” said Matthew Lee Anderson, founder of the popular Christian blog Mere Orthodoxy, who came out early against Trump. “A lot has to do with her views on abortion. She was much more easily characterized as a foe than even Bill Clinton was. That picture was set relatively early within the religious right, and it has endured.”
Another legacy of that period was Hillary Clinton’s approach as first lady, which did not fit the expected roles for women in more traditional corners of evangelicalism.
Mark Setzler, a political scientist at High Point University in North Carolina who studies voting patterns in mixed-gender congressional and gubernatorial elections, said evangelicals in surveys state a strong preference for male leaders. But it’s not clear how this translates into voting behavior. He was surprised to find that Christian conservatives were no less likely than others to back a candidate because she’s a woman.
At a Liberty University schoolwide assembly Monday, Falwell, onstage with Reed, put the focus on Clinton’s record, deeming it much more of a threat than Trump’s predatory remarks. Falwell said five years from now, “nobody is going to remember” what the Republican nominee said.