The Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) takes place this week near Washington, D.C., the first such gathering since Donald Trump took office. The conference purports to be a gathering for like-minded folks who believe, generally, in the well-established principles of the conservative movement, as enunciated by the American Conservative Union.
This year, aside from President Trump himself, activist Milo Yiannopoulos was briefly granted a featured speaking slot, and it caused a lot of disruption, garment-rending, gnashing of teeth, and in-fighting on the right.
Yiannopoulos, who prefers to go by MILO (yes, capitalized), is a controversial figure with dubious conservative credentials, most famous for being outrageous during speeches on his college campus tour, soberly called the “Dangerous Faggot” tour. Throughout the 2016 election, Yiannopoulos seemed to enjoy nothing quite so much as the crass, antagonistic side of candidate Trump. He didn’t just celebrate it; he rode it like a wave to greater stardom.
But on Sunday, a Twitter user recirculated several old interviews with Yiannopoulos, in which he defended the merits of relationships between “younger boys” and “older men,” called for consensual sex between 13-year-olds, and said that a relationship he had with a Catholic priest when he was 14 (he now claims he was 17) was consensual and in fact the child is the “predator” in such a relationship. Critics quickly denounced his invitation to speak at CPAC as evidence of the decline of the right; if not in electoral power, then at least in moral authority.
By mid-day on Monday, he had offered a lackluster defense of his words on Facebook, and CPAC rescinded his invitation.
If Yiannopoulos is a cultural leader for what remains of the conservative movement, then conservatism does not represent millions of people who once claimed it as their philosophical home. But it remains to be seen how the throngs of Trump-supporting Milo fans react to what will undoubtedly be referred to as a silencing of free speech. And already they are making a concerted effort to paint the dissent that led to his downfall as the work of the same group of #NeverTrump conservatives that Trump fans believe symbolizes the “death throes of the Establishment.”
They’re right. That’s precisely who threw a wrench in CPAC’s plans to ride the coverage of controversy that a Milo speech would bring.
But what’s more notable is who did not intervene: evangelical leaders.
Milo’s ascent over the last year was, to a tragic extent, enabled by the willingness of some evangelical leaders to offer their endorsement for the very behavior on display today.
In 2016, there was a lot of discussion about evangelical support for Trump. I grew up in a southern evangelical home with my father, a reverend and seminary professor. And while support from voters like me was treated as a foregone conclusion by conservatives, I was among many people who questioned how leaders of the movement could look past revelations that Trump had been recorded making crass, if not actionable, comments about women while talking to Billy Bush several years earlier. This criticism didn’t come from a place of perfection; certainly we’ve all said and done things we regret.
The criticism was that Trump seemed unapologetic, giving no indication that the man in the recording was not the same man up on stage claiming to possess the moral and ethical clarity needed to clean up Washington, D.C. and “Make America Great Again.”
Indeed, it soon became clear he lacked that sort of clarity, but the overwhelming response from evangelical leaders was indifference.
After a dozen women came forward to claim that they had all personally interacted with the version of Trump heard in that recording, Trump offered no indication he was not the man they accused him of being. He issued some threats about lawsuits, pointed to the behavior of Bill Clinton, and hid behind the evangelical support he enjoyed as proof that the criticisms were moot. The message: He could grab a woman by her—wherever—in the middle of 5th Avenue and not lose their votes.
In spite of this, Franklin Graham, Jerry Falwell Jr., Robert Jeffress and others continued to provide the spiritual security that their religious followers needed to feel okay with their vote. They went on TV, tweeted support, wrote articles, met with the president, and came out emphasizing that Hillary Clinton was worse.
Some went so far as to interpret biblical passages to accommodate their newly flexible worldview, a stark contrast to the principled stand many of them (or the fathers on whose credibility they trade) took in the 1990s when a Democrat was the president.
Evangelical leaders of this stripe seemed to indicate that such petty and insignificant things as “moral depravity” were irrelevant now that the questions were raised by a Republican.
White evangelicals voted for Trump by a wide margin; eighty percent supported him, according to exit polls. But the election didn’t resolve the questions; a month into his presidency, Trump supporters are still defending the indefensible.
Yiannopoulos is simply an extension of the moral ambiguity that evangelical leadership has helped to solidify on the right. Instead of certitude or clarity, many of the national leaders who are responsible for helping to guide millions of Christians trying to navigate the muddy waters of life in American politics have opted for moral relativism. They gave Trump a pass. Will evangelicals now give Trump’s surrogates and spokespersons a pass as well?
Yiannopoulos is one of Trump’s biggest and loudest fans; Trump has returned the compliment. After Yiannopoulos was prevented from speaking at UC Berkeley earlier this month by protesters loudly, and in some cases violently, interfering with his event, the president threatened to pull government funding from the university.
But where were Falwell, Graham, and the scores of evangelicals who had given cover to this president’s moral deficits as the Yiannopoulos unfolded? Silent.
They remained silent precisely at the moment that their moral responsibility should have instructed them to speak loudly; the American cultural decline they promised to reverse continues, moving the country farther from resembling the Christian society they’ve often defended.
The earliest indicator of Trump’s effect on evangelicals came in the fall of 2016, when it was revealed evangelicals had shifted dramatically on the immorality of a politician. Whereas only five years before, with the Lewinsky scandal still part of the national dialogue, only 30 percent of white evangelicals believed an immoral elected official could still perform his or her job ethically, the number rose to 72 percent of white evangelicals. They seemed to subscribe to the same “none of our business” mantra that they had so derided in the 1990s.
Much like President Bush said in 2008 that he had “abandoned free market principles to save the free market,” the self-professed crusaders on behalf of Christ-like morality in the Culture War have opted to surrender their authority and cede the battlefield while claiming doing so will somehow save the day.
Moral failure is human, and a core tenet of understanding the Christian belief of salvation. But Jesus did not only say to the adulteress “Neither do I condemn you.” He did not merely challenge the assembled sinners to cast the first stone only if it came from a place of sinlessness. He beseeched the adulteress to change her ways.
For today’s evangelical leadership, though, “Now go, and sin no more” seems to have become inconvenient to the church’s newest idol and most precious mission: Republicanism.
Electoral victory, obtained seemingly at any cost, has become more important than all other moral or religious obligations one might assume come with the role of spiritual leadership. Scarcely a month into this brave new version of conservatism, my suspicion is that we have not yet begun to see how far evangelical standards will yield to the Church of Winning.
This column originally appeared at The Atlantic.
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