From “20 Myths about Religion and Politics in America” by Ryan P. Burge
I was born in the early 1980s and raised in a politically and theologically conservative Southern Baptist Church in the 1990s. That most salient political moment of my teenage years was the scandal related to President Bill Clinton’s affair with Monica Lewinsky. That event happened when I was the most active in the youth group of my church, so I heard lots of discussion from both the pulpit and the pews about the incident. The one phrase that I distinctly remember being uttered by many trusted leaders in the church was “personal morality matters.” Christians wanted a president who not only supported moral policies but also lived a life based on moral principles. Obviously, President Clinton had acted in an immoral way in his relations with the young intern, and he deserved to be impeached.
However, less than two decades later those same men and women who told me repeatedly that personal morality mattered threw their support behind a man who had divorced twice, allegedly cheating on each wife, filed for bankruptcy multiple times, and uttered swear words during his stump speech to audiences of all ages. It makes complete sense that many observers of American politics would find it hard to believe that Donald Trump’s strongest supporters were likely the same people who called for Clinton’s ouster just two decades earlier. However, the data also indicates that white evangelicals had shifted their views significantly. The Public Religion Research Institute posed this question to white evangelicals: “Do you think an elected official who commits an immoral act in their personal life can still behave ethically and fulfill their duties in their public and professional life?” Thirty percent agreed that this elected official could fulfill their duties in 2011. It was 72 percent in 2016. In essence, the simplest explanation is the best: religious conservatives changed their views to justify their preferred candidate.