Trump’s Dirty Deeds: Is This an Off-Ramp for Evangelicals?

Yesterday President Trump’s former lawyer Michael Cohen was sentenced to 3 years in prison for several crimes, including campaign finance violations. In his remarks prior to receiving his sentence, Cohen said he was sorry he helped cover up Donald Trump’s “dirty deeds.”

According to Cohen, Trump directed him to make hush money payments to two women for the purpose of influencing the 2016 presidential campaign. If Cohen (and Dept. of Justice prosecutors) are right, Donald Trump deceived the American people when he told reporters that he didn’t know about the hush money payments. Putting aside the intricacies of campaign finance laws, the evidence is mounting that Trump told the nation a story he knew wasn’t true.

Evangelicals in 1998 and Evangelicals Now

I am old enough to remember when presidential lying about personal moral behavior set off spasms of indignation among evangelicals. In 1998, some of them put pen to paper with an admonishment and solemn call for integrity.* They said the Clinton presidency was in “crisis.” Now, many evangelicals think we are in the best of times. My, how times have changed.

The entire statement is here. Let me bring out a couple of segments which could be written about the current crisis, if only it was seen as one.

We are aware that certain moral qualities are central to the survival of our political system, among which are truthfulness, integrity, respect for the law, respect for the dignity of others, adherence to the constitutional process, and a willingness to avoid the abuse of power. We reject the premise that violations of these ethical standards should be excused so long as a leader remains loyal to a particular political agenda and the nation is blessed by a strong economy. Elected leaders are accountable to the Constitution and to the people who elected them. By his own admission the President has departed from ethical standards by abusing his presidential office, by his ill use of women, and by his knowing manipulation of truth for indefensible ends. We are particularly troubled about the debasing of the language of public discourse with the aim of avoiding responsibility for one’s actions.

Remember this was written by evangelicals in 1998. Now we hear that a good economy and Supreme Court justices trump violations of ethical standards. Evangelicals of 1998 were “troubled about the debasing of the language of public discourse.” Now they join in the debasing.

It appears clear to me that evangelical leaders no longer believe “the moral character of a people is more important than the tenure of a particular politician or the protection of a particular political agenda.”

Neither our students nor we demand perfection. Many of us believe that extreme dangers sometimes require a political leader to engage in morally problematic actions. But we maintain that in general there is a reasonable threshold of behavior beneath which our public leaders should not fall, because the moral character of a people is more important than the tenure of a particular politician or the protection of a particular political agenda. Political and religious history indicate that violations and misunderstandings of such moral issues may have grave consequences. The widespread desire to “get this behind us” does not take seriously enough the nature of transgressions and their social effects.

This statement finds new relevance in the presidency of Donald Trump for reasons which go far beyond hush money payoffs to women. It is absolutely stunning what is now acceptable to evangelical leaders. Current evangelical leaders clearly have flipped this statement. It appears to me that they believe that their political agenda is more important than the “moral character of a people.”

At least that is how it has seemed up to now. I have to wonder: Could the Michael Cohen sentencing and surrounding events be the off-ramp for evangelical leaders? It was also revealed yesterday that the National Enquirer entered into a cooperation agreement with prosecutors regarding the hush money to one of the two women. The effect is that they acknowledged the money was paid to influence the campaign which contradicts Trump’s story. In other words, the magazine sided with Cohen’s version of events. Will evangelicals stick with Trump if it becomes crystal clear to them that he directed felonious violations of the law in contrast to his claims?


*(Declaration concerning religion, ethics, and the crisis in the Clinton presidency. The following declaration can be found at, November 16, 1998. To be released on 13 November 1998.)

26 thoughts on “Trump’s Dirty Deeds: Is This an Off-Ramp for Evangelicals?”

  1. That any christian can’t see the similarities from then to now is that the opposition just takes things they know have negative connotations then scream those ppl are the bad people doing the negativity..
    Arise because those negative things will always have a bad connotations.
    That they will use to step on you for power over you.

    1. Unfortunately, this article has some sloppy (misleading) reporting. for example:

      The numbers are stark: Twenty years ago, just 46 percent of white
      evangelical Protestants were older than 50; now, 62 percent are above

      implying this is evidence younger people are leaving the evangelical churches. However, it could simply be a sign of an aging population. Then the article claims “Only 10 percent of Americans under 30 identify as white evangelicals.” but don’t give what that figure was 20 years ago to compare.

      1. “Then the article claims “Only 10 percent of Americans under 30 identify as white evangelicals.” but don’t give what that figure was 20 years ago to compare.”

        Fair enough. Yet, my gut also tells me it’s unimportant what the figure was 20 years ago.

        What’s your gut tell you?

        1. My “gut” tells me I’d like to see the actual data, because this sort of “reporting” tends to make me suspicious of the claims.

          I have read differing claims about the situation. I.e. claims that there is indeed a decline of younger people being christian, however, counter claims that attendance in “conservative” churches is increasing. Unfortunately, many of these claims aren’t supported with proper references making it difficult to determine the actual facts.

      2. It’s very well established from surveys by Pew and Gallup over the last few decades that trends in belief and church membership (or lack thereof) have been generationally driven. More specifically, if you track each generation as they get older, their survey results remain remarkably similar over their lifetime, it’s the changes between the generations that is driving virtually all the trends in the overall numbers.

        Evangelical support has held up better as the mainline denominations have seen declines over the last 25 years, but I believe that’s beginning to change. While still more conservative than their non-evangelical peers, Pew found that younger white evangelicals are considerably more liberal on issues like gay marriage, homosexuality, immigration, government spending, etc. than their elders, which would certainly help explain a drop in the numbers. Then, of course, there’s the overall drop in religious belief in young people, which has been accelerating over the last 10-15 years.

        So, yes, the population is aging, but fewer young people are graduating as adults into the evangelical church, as our society becomes more secular. What I don’t know is whether the presence of Trump is making any difference. From what I’ve seen, anecdotally, becoming less religious isn’t making this nation much less conservative, so probably not.

  2. The off ramp is a viable anti-abortion candidate. Until then, evangelicals will prioritize the country’s long post-Trump future, not today’s comparatively dinky problem of Donald Trump’s moral failings. He’s not Hitler. He’s not Reagan. He’s just Donald Trump, acting the same as he did in the 1990s.

    1. They have a VP in Pence. If they all turned on Trump tomorrow and called for impeachment, Pence would be there. He is more to their liking on many issues. If evangelicals as opportunistic as many paint them and abortion was their only issue, they would do that and then do all they can to keep Pence in office past 2020. I wish I understood what drives evangelical leaders to support this train wreck of a person when there are options and have been options all along the way.

      1. I am likewise baffled at what the heck the likes of Falwell Jr are thinking, although I was regularly perplexed by things they said long before Trump showed up. I can very easily understand those who are casualties of offshoring, the financial crash, long and repeated deployment of our volunteer forces. etc. latching onto Trump’s “America First” mantra.

        I pretty much have my fingers crossed that Trump declines to run for re-election. Although I have no idea what the aim of the Republican Party is at this point. They will need a Kasich or Pence just to redefine the party. It does not represent what I want for the country, and neither do the Democrats.

      2. I suspect rationalization has something to do with it. They voted for Trump to deliver on what they wanted. Now they don’t want to admit he isn’t what they thought he was and that they were conned by him.

    2. and….the SCOTUS had an opportunity to address Planned Parenthood funding and didn’t pick up the cases. So even that argument should be falling on deaf ears now. Trump / Republicans have now put two judges on the bench and have yet to do a single thing about abortion. This shows where the motivations truly are – for the politicians, pro-life is nothing more than a perpetual motion ‘elect me!’ machine and why I’ve moved over wholeheartedly to support the Democrats for Life party – a whole life Democratic platform

  3. ” Will evangelicals stick with Trump if it becomes crystal clear to them that he directed felonious violations of the law in contrast to his claims?”

    Yes, of course they will.

  4. Evangelicals will stick with Trump for as long as he is useful in delivering the outcomes they desire. It is a purely cynical relationship. Their proximity to power — especially in the form of someone they believe can be manipulated into carry out their agenda — overrides any moral considerations.

    The moment Trump is no longer useful to them, they will be “shocked” and “dismayed” to discover depth of the depravity of Trump’s behavior. And when the next Democratic president is elected, they will strenuously declare they will never been fooled again (until the next Republican administration, anyway).

    Oh, and if Pence does have to step in, you will see a mad scramble among the evangelical leaders to ingratiate themselves with the new President, absolving him of all blame for Trump. If you thought the tongue-bathing was bad before…

  5. I am a politically moderate evangelical* who found Donald Trump’s candidacy and election to be highly problematic. I found the wholesale and enthusiastic (and apparently unshakeable) embrace of him and all of his actions and policies by the vast majority of my fellow white evangelicals to be even more disturbing. What I keep coming back to in my mind is this: a large number of my fellow evangelicals who for many years decried and sounded many alarm bells over the “dangerous moral relativism creeping into the culture” turned out in the end to essentially be . . . moral relativists. Refusing to call out immorality and sin when done by someone on “our side.” Turning a blind eye to immoral/illegal things done by someone since, after all, they were delivering on at least some of the transactional “quid pro quo” bargain made in exchange for delivering the large bloc of voters. Turns out that many of my fellow evangelicals are perfectly willing to sacrifice many of their Christian moral principles for political influence and power. Which, ultimately, shows where the true motivations and values lie.

    (*still holding onto the label based on a particular theological approach but every day getting closer and closer to abandoning the label)

    1. Good evening Dave,
      I agree with what you say and I think this wrinkle might also play into it: Can the Big Evan. Leaders afford to stand alone and take a stand on moral/ethical grounds. It seems to me that there are a lot of card houses waiting to be knocked over by a big down turn in Sunday offerings.
      I think that they are too busy worshiping the Golden Calf of success and fortune to be anything other than a ‘suburban christian’

      — CJ

      1. I think it is not a one-size-fits-all situation. I think that some of the leaders are indeed primarily (and some, exclusively) focused on political influence and material gain, and are intentionally manipulating their followers for purely selfish purposes. I think some others have bought whole cloth into the view (fostered 24/7 on conservative Christian and right wing media) that we are in a culture war to the death, and the very survival of the faith is at stake and all the “monstrous godless liberal enemies” must be destroyed no matter the cost. Those are the ones who see everything as Us-vs-Them and say that Trump may be a crude, blunt instrument but what the church needs now is a ruthless bully to be its salvation. Finally, I think there are some who are one or two issue voters (typically abortion and/or “religious liberty,” defined almost exclusively as opposition to same-sex marriage) to the exclusion of any other considerations, who will “hold their noses” and vote for absolutely ANYBODY who presents themselves as an ally on those issues.

        The first group is motivated by greed and a desire for power. The second group is motivated by fear and tribalism. The third group is motivated by a view that distills the entire Christian gospel down into one or two moral claims and ignores or downplays all other aspects of the faith. Each is willing to sacrifice most moral considerations in order to achieve their ends. I could name several prominent “evangelical leaders” and provide my own assessment on which category each falls into, but I will refrain from doing so here.

  6. Thank you Dr. Throckmorton for documenting this. U.S. White Evangelicals have forever cemented themselves to Trump’s rage-filled gospel of lies, deception, wide-scale corruption, and disdain for God’s children and God’s creation.

    U.S. White Evangelicals have worked carefully and diligently at earning their own reputation. This is how history will remember them.

  7. “It is absolutely stunning what is now acceptable to evangelical leaders.”

    Yep, sadly, that’s it in a nutshell.

  8. Judging from the history of the evangelical dominated Bible Belt, and white “conservative” Evangelical indifference (at best) to the Civil Rights Movement, “morality” is just something that can be used to control “those people” who are thought to be challenging whiteness and white male privilege.

    Trump doesn’t challenge whiteness and white male privilege, so he’s just ‘naturally’ more moral than those who do, such as Hillary Clinton and former Pres. Obama.

  9. The conservative movement now exists for little more than “sticking it to liberals.” Trump has overseen tear gas attacks on migrants, a disastrous tax cut for the rich, and the sabotage of our health care system, all of which have outraged liberals. Therefore, Trump is the greatest “own the libs” leader they’ve ever seen. There’s no off-ramp at all. They love what he’s doing and what he represents.

    1. Yes. In a previous thread, I called Trump the grievance president — giving voice to all the grievances (mostly imagined) the conservative right have stored up over the eight years of the Obama presidency.

  10. It appears clear to me that evangelical leaders no longer believe “the moral character of a people is more important than the tenure of a particular politician or the protection of a particular political agenda.”

    Well, there’s your problem. What was obvious to me then and is still obvious now is that there was no “No longer”. Basically, ever since Evangelicals have been mobilized for political action, every argument Evangelical leaders have made has been out of political convenience. When Democrats commit a moral failing, it’s pearl clutching and “the moral character of a people is more important than the tenure of a blah blah blah.”, when Republican commit a moral failing it’s “We didn’t elect a Pastor-in-Chief. We knew we didn’t elect a boy scout.”

    This is analogous to the old lawyerly adage that when you have facts on your side, you pound the facts. When you have the law on your side, you pound the law, etc. And it’s intent is the same, to influence the jury, which in this case is the broader American public. The purpose, political power. Everything, literally everything, that comes from prominent Religious Right leaders is political theater. It should be taken merely as spectacle not as sincere communication of belief.

    And because of this, the only time there will ever be an “off ramp” for the Religious Right is when support of Trump hurts them politically. If there is a massive backlash from the voters, I’m talking landslide defeats, *only then* will you see a rush of Evangelical leaders condemn his actions. Not only that, but you’ll see some serious tap dancing as they all pretend they were never that high on him to begin with, never really supported him all along, and somehow pin the blame on Democrats for poisoning the culture that allowed a good man to falter. Then, their few moments of honest introspection will amount to an alteration of their political strategy of something like “Republicans are too nice.” They will learn nothing.

    Then, when the next Democrat is in charge, the cycle will begin anew. They will take on the mantle of moral integrity, demand to be taken seriously because they alone warned us about Trump, and then excoriate the Democrats for every imagined (and sometimes real) moral failure. This will continue until it stops working. We need to get off the merry-go-round

    1. I don’t remember where, but a recent article talked about white conservative Christians as a political coalition masquerading as a religion, getting tax exemptions from the government and political favors from the courts. Sounded right.

  11. I doubt that buying the two women off will move a single Trump supporter to go against against him. The only thing that might possibly sway some of them would be the public release (against his will) of his tax returns if they conclusively show that he’s not a billionaire. In his own mind and in the minds of his supporters, his worth is tied into the billionaire status he claims often and loudly. He’s wealthy, but not that wealthy.

    Maxine Waters, incoming chair of the Financial Services committee, has made it pretty clear that she’s willing to subpoena his tax returns for various good reasons.

    1. The weighs and means dept. Have always had access to trump’s taxes.
      You are particularly correct that trump’s private life doesn’t matter to us. God will judge him, if it really mattered to the media they’d discuss trump’s former girlfriend before marring was an African-american super model.
      What mattered to us is ending war, stopping Hillary and most of all
      The fiat currency is failing and who better to have in control than someone that’s been a billion dollars in debt

  12. Evangelicals would stick with Trump if, as he said, he murdered somebody. Selling out your values the first time is a difficult step. Doing it for the thousandth time is just a habit.

Comments are closed.