In November 1992, when Bill Clinton was elected president, my mother made a friendly wager with a colleague. “I’ll bet you $100,” she said, “that Clinton will be impeached before he leaves office.”
It took six years to happen, but she was right.
In December 1998, President Clinton was impeached on charges of perjury and obstruction of justice. I was too young to really understand what he’d done (why the blue dress mattered was a mystery to me), but I remember my mom talking about why she’d been so certain something as unusual as impeachment would happen in a Clinton presidency.
It was about character, she said, or rather her perception that Clinton didn’t have any.
Presidential character was a big issue for the right more broadly in that era. That Clinton (particularly in hindsight) was fairly moderate and even worked with Republicans in Congress to briefly erase the federal deficit paled in comparison, at least for many conservatives, to the tears in his moral fiber.
“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,” said one typical 1998 statement.
“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,” continued the signatories, among them a number of big-name evangelical scholars and theologians.
As I recall, we continued hearing about presidential character in evangelical circles long after Clinton left office. During the George W. Bush years, for instance, as criticism began to swirl around the war in Iraq, a common defense I heard was, “You may not like policy X, Y, or Z, but his character…!” That Bush was a monogamous husband who seemed to be sincere in his faith should count for something, conservatives said, even if his political agenda wasn’t to your liking.
Today, many evangelicals have utterly abandoned this concern over presidential character as they cast their support behind Donald Trump.
As my colleague at The Week, Michael Brendan Dougherty, asks in a must-read piece:
[W]hat does it say about the quality of our convictions if we argue in 1998 that “the moral character of a people is more important than the tenure of a particular politician or the protection of a particular political agenda,” but then, as soon as our political agendas are threatened, find a handy excuse for installing a “flawed” man in the same office?
“It says,” Dougherty concludes, “that our convictions come with a political out-clause.”
Indeed, looking at the speed with which many (though not all) evangelical Christians and other self-proclaimed conservatives have thrown out their erstwhile concerns about character to back Trump, it’s not difficult to conclude they never really cared that much about character. If that sounds uncharitable, I’ll at least say that character, however valued, was at best (and perhaps unconsciously) a tool of partisanship and power—not vice versa.
Thus, in 2016, we see stuff like this:
“Is Donald Trump able to lead anyone’s congregation? Absolutely not,” said Pastor Mark Burns, a South Carolina-based minister who delivered a prayer at last month’s Republican convention. “Is Donald Trump the Bible-totin’, scripture-quotin’ Christian? To me, that’s irrelevant. We’re not voting for the next pastor of the United States, we’re voting for the next president.”
Now, I’ll be the first to argue that president and pastor are indeed very different jobs. I am as wary as anyone—and far warier than Burns, whose RNC prayer strayed far into heresy territory—of mixing church and state. But the argument being made here is a false dichotomy: opposing Donald Trump on grounds of character does not mean you want a preacher in the White House. One can fully understand that distinction and still believe that character counts.
The really telling thing in Burns’ quote and others like it is how Trump’s supporters describe their ideal president, how they view the position as one suited to authoritarian strongman tactics unconstrained by morality, character, or the rule of law. In a very real sense, they’re quite right.
The truly scary thing is that they observe this dynamic—and still wish to accelerate it.