Article authored by Robert Gagnon
David French, a religious liberty attorney and National Review commentator, is at the center of a kerfuffle in Evangelicalism. This offers a good opportunity to evaluate French’s incessant and often harsh “NeverTrump” attacks on Evangelical voters for Trump as we head into the 2020 presidential election.
French Charges Graham With Hypocrisy and Starts a Spat
On April 25, French criticized Franklin Graham (and, by implication, all Evangelical voters for Trump) for “blatant hypocrisy” that “earned” him “his critics’ wrath.” Graham had criticized on Twitter Mayor Pete Buttigieg’s “flaunting,” “praising,” and “politicizing” of “homosexuality.”
On May 6 the American Family Association asked Christians to sign a petition expressing support for Franklin Graham in the face of French’s “unconscionable” act of “character assassination.” The petition proper does not even allude to David French. The following day David French responded. He reiterated his previous article and lambasting the AFA’s claim that “since our current president has taken the oath of public office, he has come nowhere near the glaring moral indecencies of Clinton while he [Clinton] served in office.”
And now David French’s own wife has jumped into the fray. She portrays her husband and other NeverTrumpers, including Russell Moore of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC), as martyrs for the faith who have to endure “mocking” for their views.
Correct me if I’m wrong: But wasn’t her husband the first one to attack? The Frenches have no problem relentlessly attacking Evangelicals who voted for Trump as hypocrites. Russell Moore too viciously attacked fellow Evangelicals voting for Trump in (you guessed it) a WashPost op-ed, just prior to the 2016 election. Dr. Moore accused them of “moral relativism,” “disgrace,” and “scandal.” Is he a martyr for doing so?
Despite the op-ed title, there is nothing in the article about “what happened” to her husband other than a mention of the AFA petition. Did David French lose his job at NRO? No, they applaud him for it. Did he earn the ire of the vast left-wing complex of media, entertainment, and institutional academia? No, they are happy to enlist the Frenches to achieve the overall objective of oppressing Christian “bigots.”
The article is devoted largely to reiterating her husband’s arguments. She calls Trump a “self-described sexual assaulter.” She accuses Evangelical Trump voters of “moral compromise,” “double standards” and promoting “evil.” She portrays herself, her husband, and Russell Moore as a modern-day Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. They do not “‘bend the knee’ in moral compromise whether the king is Nebuchadnezzar or the president is Clinton or Trump.” Guess what that makes the rest of us?
The Problem with David French’s Case Against Franklin Graham
In his initial attack on Graham, French cited Graham’s apparent flip-flop on a position he held in a 1998 op-ed. At that time, Graham argued that President Bill Clinton’s private sexual misbehavior had public repercussions. Twenty years later in a May 2018 YouTube video (published May 3, 2018), Graham apparently changed his mind. He said that “when the country went after President Clinton, the Republicans, that was a great mistake that should have never happened and I think the thing with Stormy Daniels … is nobody’s business.” In French’s view, because Graham is only now “rediscover[ing] his moral voice” when a Democratic “gay candidate” for President is surging in the polls, Graham is exposing the “evangelical witness” to ridicule by his “partisan double standards.”
French asks rhetorically: “So is this the ‘new normal’ for Evangelicals? Is politics entirely transactional now? Do we evaluate politicians only on their policies and leave the sex discussions to the privacy of their own bedrooms?” The heading for the article sums up his argument: “Graham’s willingness to abandon Christian principles when it’s politically expedient has cost the church dearly.”
French appears to have a legitimate concern, if one limits his criticism (French does not) to what at first glance appears to be a complete rejection of any concern for a candidate’s private life. Graham goes too far when he says that Republicans made “a great mistake” of raising the issue of Clinton’s infidelities and connected perjuries perpetrated even while Clinton occupied the White House. To say that Trump’s likely past affair with Stormy Daniels “is nobody’s business” ought to be a bridge too far for Evangelicals. A person’s “private” sexual character matters. The question should be “How much?”, not “Does it?”
At the same time, French is not entirely fair to Graham. Graham stressed at the start of his remarks: “I don’t have concerns … because these things happened many years ago and there are such difficult problems in front of us a nation that we need to be dealing with than other things in his life a long time ago.” Graham here raised two legitimate factors: (1) the time lapse since Trump’s last known adulterous acts; and (2) the draconian alternative posed to Evangelical voters by extreme left-wing Democratic candidates. Such matters do not “minimize” sexual immorality but they do mitigate them relative to other concerns that should determine one’s vote.
On the first point, Trump, so far as we know, has not committed sexual infidelities while occupying the office of the President. (Unlike Bill Clinton and other presidents: certainly JFK, LBJ, Harding; possibly Jefferson.) Indeed, there is no evidence that Trump had improper sexual relationships after 2007, at least a dozen years ago. If he had, surely the hostile MSM would have discovered such misdeeds.
As regards the second point, while I agree with French that the character of the candidate matters, I don’t think that this one issue must override all others. We’ll return to this point.
The Problem with French’s Comparison of Trump and Buttigieg
French saw no moral or political differences between Buttigieg’s engagement in homosexual relations (which Graham criticized) and Trump’s adulterous acts (which Graham said was “nobody’s business”). Yet there are differences. For one thing, both Testaments of Scripture treat homosexual practice as the most unnatural and extreme form of consensual sexual immorality between humans.
Not only is there no credible evidence from an overzealous press that Trump has continued his adulterous ways over the past twelve years. Trump has done the opposite of affirming his past adulterous behavior. Toward the end of the 2016 campaign, Trump issued an apology for his conduct and remarks revealed in an audiotape made in 2005 (11 years prior). “I’ve never said I’m a perfect person, nor pretended to be someone that I am not. I’ve said and done things I regret, and the words released today on this more than a decade-old video, are one of them. I said it, I was wrong, and I apologize. … I pledge to be a better man tomorrow.”
I can’t get into Trump’s heart to know how genuine the apology was. Neither can French. Certainly, Trump offered the apology under duress and with only a vague reference to past acts of immorality. Yet we have no credible evidence of any acts of infidelity since the apology (or nine years prior). Jesus does tell us to accept the genuineness of a confession of repentance even when the violator commits the same sin some ridiculous number of times (seven times per day according to Luke 17:3-4; “77” or “70 times 7” according to Matt 18:21-22). The chance of a relatively clean record in his sexual life for twelve years would be evidence for at least some limited change. At any rate, Trump is not promoting his past (or any secret present) immoral lifestyle. There are also no public policy spinoffs to justify Trump’s past immoral actions.
Buttigieg, by contrast, is currently having sex with a man, affirms homosexual behavior, and wants to impose acceptance of such behavior on the whole country. The fact that Buttigieg appears to be monogamous for now makes about as much difference as being in a monogamous committed relationship with one’s parent or sibling. Does anyone think that Buttigieg, a 37-year-old “gay” man, who met his “husband” on a “dating app” in 2015 and “married” him 3 years later (coincidentally just 7 months before he unofficially announced his presidential bid), was a virgin till the age of 33? Does anyone believe his current “marriage” will be anything close to “lifelong monogamous”? If so, they might be in the market for buying any number of bridges that someone off the street wants to sell them.
French also misses that the Left’s “wrath” against Graham is almost entirely about scaring other Evangelicals from making Buttigieg’s “gay” lifestyle an election issue. To my knowledge, French himself has not criticized Buttigieg’s sexual life as a disqualifying factor. Graham’s courage here should be saluted. By French’s reckoning, is the Democratic Party now the party concerned about premarital and extramarital sex? Give me a break. This is the Party of abortion/infanticide, “gay” sex, and “transgender” do-overs (not to mention the party of JFK, Ted Kennedy, and Bill Clinton). Sexual purity is the last thing anybody who supports this party is concerned about.
I don’t know if Graham has ever criticized Trump for past immoral sexual conduct. I suspect that in a confidential talk, Graham has discussed Trump’s past sexual failings with him privately. It’s likely Trump has assured him that he will not return to such behavior. One could argue that this should have been accompanied by stronger public denunciations of Trump’s past behavior. If Franklin is serving as Trump’s unofficial pastor, though, I could understand why he wouldn’t do that. Graham is under no illusions about Trump’s Christianity. When asked by a journalist last year, “Do you think that President Trump really wants to turn the nation to God?”, Graham responded, “No. That’s not what he’s trying to do, no.”
The Problem with French’s Case against the American Family Association
David French then responded by reiterating his previous article and focusing on the AFA’s claim that “since our current president has taken the oath of public office, he has come nowhere near the glaring moral indecencies of Clinton while he served in office” (emphasis added). Says French: “Well, even by the AFA’s made-up standard, their argument fails. While president, Trump has lied to the public about his porn-star affair and there is strong evidence that he paid hush money as part of Michael Cohen’s criminal scheme to conceal the affair during a crucial phase of the presidential campaign.”
Is French’s claim valid? Clinton not only lied to the American public about his many affairs (including the affair with Gennifer Flowers). He also perjured himself while in office when he lied under oath about his affair with Monica Lewinski. And he conducted this affair while he was in the White House (both literally in the building and figuratively while he was president). Moreover, while he was President (1999) Clinton shelled out $850,000 to Paula Jones in an out-of-court settlement that is as good (or bad) as hush money. And he did so not for a consensual immoral act but for a non-consensual exposure of his genitals. Clinton also sexually assaulted Kathleen Willey and did so while in the White House. Few today think that Juanita Broaddrick lied when she asserted Clinton raped her in his hotel room while he was running for governor of Arkansas in 1978. A number of other women have claimed that Clinton sexually assaulted them.
Clinton committed adultery, perjury, and sexual assault while in the White House and was likely a rapist prior to that, on top of serial philandering. So Clinton’s behavior was worse than Trump’s since being in office (or for almost a decade prior to assuming the presidency). What French calls Trump’s “criminal scheme” to influence the election by paying hush money to former mistresses, many other first-rate lawyers view as entailing no legal jeopardy. (See also this; and, again, how is Clinton’s Paula Jones payout different?) That doesn’t make Trump’s actions right, of course. However, the more serious moral matters are the affairs themselves. These happened a decade or more before Trump assumed the office of the presidency and for some of them, Trump at least obliquely apologized.
French will insist that this effort at showing that Clinton was worse than Trump “minimizes” Trump’s evil sexual life. Yet the fact that French feels a need to make Trump even worse than he actually was is twisted confirmation that French himself doesn’t think the reality is sufficiently bad. Showing that Clinton was worse than Trump doesn’t make Trump a “man of God” or excuse his past life. It does help us to better weigh his personal conduct in the light of policies for the nation.
Without providing specifics, French also refers to “the torrent of untruths that have poured from the president’s mouth throughout his first term. It turns out that the answer to Graham’s 1998 question is clear — If a man will ‘lie to or mislead his wife and daughter’ there is nothing that will stop him from ‘doing the same to the American public.'”
Given French’s vague complaint, I find it all the more amazing that Trump has kept so many of his policy promises to conservatives. He’s kept far more than French ever thought possible in 2016. Not bad for an inveterate liar. A Fox News article from Aug. 8, 2018 reports French as admitting: “One of the core reasons of Never Trumpism and the concerns for folks in the election was that we didn’t trust that Trump was going to follow through on his promises, regarding judges in particular, just to name one. And he did and he has and he’s done in it in a really dramatic way.” Yet less than a year later French is again arguing that Trump can’t be relied upon to keep his campaign promises. While that argument had some merit in 2016, it has little now. That ship has sailed, even if French refuses to get on it.
The Problem with French’s Attack on All Trump Voters
French is still waging his misguided “NeverTrump” campaign and maligning Evangelicals who vote for Trump. He shames even those with misgivings about Trump’s shady past but who are also aware of the draconian alternative offered by any candidate who wins the Democratic nomination. This should be transparent to everyone.
Graham was the direct target of French’s attacks. Evangelical Trump voters were his indirect and ultimate targets. When French asks rhetorically whether it is the “new normal” for Evangelicals to make politics “entirely transactional” by evaluating “politicians only on their policies,” he is clearly taking a potshot at all Evangelical Trump voters. He criticizes Graham for saying “‘God put him’ in the presidency” and warns, “We can’t ever forget the importance of character.” By this, he means that an Evangelical should not vote for a candidate who flunks the test for character, even if that candidate passes the test of policy compatibility. His wife trucks out the tiresome canard that “the lesser of two evils is still evil.”
In that Fox News article, French insisted that a candidate must meet “two requirements.” “One, the candidate must have quality character. … And the other is that they should share your political values. … Trump advanced the policy interest, but he still flunks number one. I can’t see myself voting for someone who has that man’s character.”
When French says that both private character and public policies matter in a political candidate, I say “Amen.” When he says that the former always trumps the latter, no matter how dire the policy outcome, I say “Hold on.” For French, the issue of “character” all by itself can override any consideration of policy outcome, no matter how dire the latter may be. I doubt that even French holds such a view absolutely. In fact, I know he doesn’t.
I don’t know of any NeverTrumper, including French, who, slandering Evangelical Trump voters as hypocrites, thinks we should have dumped Douglas MacArthur and George S. Patton in WWII. These men had engaged well into their middle-aged lives in horrible sexual immorality. The first consideration was their soldiering, winning the war, and saving lives.
Nor do I know such a NeverTrumper who asserts that we should not honor the memory of MLK because he was a serial philanderer right up to the day of his death. (See especially the Pulitzer Prize-winning biography by David Garrow, Bearing the Cross, pp. 311, 323, 373-76, 586-87, 616-17. See also this, this, this, this and this. For French’s high esteem of MLK go here.) On the contrary, I have seen NeverTrumpers either ludicrously deny his well-documented immorality or simply ignore it. That is, unless they arrive at a “transactional” or “consequentialist” position about his immorality, which is inconsistent with their NeverTrump posturing. (For an example go here for how the ERLC, headed by fervent NeverTrumper Russell Moore, dealt with the issue, starting at 20-minute mark. Note Moore’s conspicuous silence on this issue while otherwise revering MLK.) The first consideration for them was the excellence of his leadership in civil rights.
Nor do I know of a NeverTrumper who argues that Oscar Schindler should not be honored for his rescue of so many Jews. He too was a notorious skirt chaser during his marriage. Still, we rightly assess him for how he used his business acumen to rescue Nazi-oppressed Jews.
Nor do I know any NeverTrumper who thinks that we should tear down the Jefferson Memorial. Jefferson, writer of our Declaration of Independence and third president of the U.S. (among many other achievements) had an unmarried (and by definition coercive) sexual relationship with his slave Sally Hemings. This relationship likely began when she was 16 (he 46). It spanned a 20-year period, leading to eight pregnancies.
David French himself discusses briefly Patton, Jefferson, and MLK. He did so in a harsh critique of Tully Borland’s defense of Evangelicals who voted for Judge Roy Moore over pro-abortion, pro-LGBTQ-coercion, anti-free-speech Doug Jones. Borland had made the comparison with Jefferson, Grant, Patton, and MLK. French ridiculed the comparison to Moore. What’s interesting is that French did not contest the principle of choosing the lesser of two evils. He rather made a “transactional” or consequentialist argument. He contended that the sexual offenses of these figures were not decisive for evaluating them because they did such a great service to the country. Yet he lambastes Evangelical Trump voters for making that very same argument.
When it comes to a candidate who runs for President, NeverTrumpers adopt a rigid position. They make non-policy-oriented, private behavior more important than accomplishments related to the functions of the office. Consistency would suggest that the first consideration, albeit not exclusively so, in voting for a candidate for president ought to be the policies espoused by that candidate for the nation as a whole.
This is all the more true if, as with Trump: One, the sexual immorality of the candidate has been publicly repented of and lies in the past. Two, the policy consequences of the only viable option to that candidate would be disastrous for the nation as a whole. Three, the candidate has demonstrated a certain degree of reliability in making an effort to deliver on his policy promises. And four, his past bad behavior has no obvious adverse policy implications.
Who is Making Moral Compromises?
To take such an approach is not to condone any past bad behavior of the candidate (to the contrary). Rather, it’s to assess the candidate, in the first instance, based on what he or she is being voted on to do.
There is a complex interplay here. The respective significance or severity of each factor must be weighed. All the Democratic Party’s presidential candidates support not only viable abortion but also early infanticide. Not only homosexual unions but also the evisceration of any biological basis to gender. Not only coercive indoctrination but also mandatory “LGBTQ” speech, replete with fines, loss of employment, and the threat of imprisonment. When Evangelicals vote for Trump over the candidate of the Infanticide, GenderQueer, and Mandatory Speech Party, they do not demonstrate that they are “hypocrites.” Rather, that they are sensible. They are neither masochists who like to experience unjust suffering, nor sadists who like to see unjust suffering inflicted on others.
I have a choice between prison guards. Prison guard A cuts up babies and beats my family daily, but has been faithful to his spouse and is a middling liar. Prison guard B has a track record of keeping his promise to prevent these horrible policies but has a sordid sexual past 12+ years ago and a lying potty mouth. I go with prison guard B every time.
I’m all for criticizing Trump for his failings, as well as applauding his successes. I’m not for paving the way for the Democrat Party to take over and impose its draconian policies. That’s ludicrous and irresponsible.
Like her husband who claims that Evangelical Trump voters “abandon Christian principles,” Nancy French accuses them of a “double standard” and “moral compromise.” Arguably, the shoe fits the other foot better. The rhetoric and logic of the Frenches follow this trajectory: “Our NeverTrump diatribes slandering Evangelical Trump voters as hypocrites, if successful, will result in the election of a Democrat who promotes infanticide, GenderQueer coercion, left-wing court tyranny, and mandatory speech. Thank God we aren’t like those moral compromisers who practice double standards.”
You say that you care about the killing of babies? Then cast an effective vote for president that will implement your concern. Care about the “LGBTQ” coercion that leads to forced indoctrination of children and the workforce? Mandatory speech compelling the use of transgender pronouns and names? Men in women’s restrooms? Massive fines for people who do not want to use their businesses to promote “gay marriage”? The firing of people who post critical messages about homosexuality and transgenderism in social media? The state taking your children from you if you don’t encourage their “sexual orientation” or “gender identity”? Then cast an effective vote for a president who will not make it his or her first order of business to destroy the “deplorables.” Care about the prospect of an unelected judicial oligarchy of left-wing jurists eager to amend the Constitution under the pretense of “interpretation”? Then cast an effective vote for a President who will nominate originalist judges.
Voting for a candidate who can’t possibly win is not an “effective” vote. If you normally vote for candidates with conservative policies, a vote for a third-party or write-in candidate who can’t win counts for all intents and purposes as a half vote for the hard-left Democratic candidate.
Kindly explain to me again how it is that those who enable far greater harm to come to a far greater number of people by persuading Evangelicals not to cast an effective ballot against the Infanticide, GenderQueer, Mandatory Speech Party can charge Evangelical Trump voters with moral compromise.
So Where Does This Leave Us?
Of course, there is a social price to pay for voting for Trump. The left-wing media will portray you as a hypocrite. Even though, as supporters of the “LGBTQ” agenda, they have little concern for promoting marital indissolubility or monogamy. They don’t care about your “Evangelical witness.” They care only to say or do anything that will influence you not to oppose the Democratic candidate.
I am grateful to God for David French’s many talents and contributions. In particular, I am thankful for his steadfast and articulate defense of religious liberty and the pro-life position. I also know many admirable people who are NeverTrumpers. Though there are fewer of these now than in 2016, for the obvious reason that Trump has shown himself to be reasonably reliable to do what he promises.
I wouldn’t dream of labeling NeverTrumpers hypocrites for refusing to cast an effective vote against Democrats who stand for an array of policies abhorrent to faithful Christians. I think that they are misguided, both morally and politically, not to cast an effective vote against whomever will be the Democratic candidate in 2020. (Whoever it is will be extreme on just about every policy issue that matters.) I would simply request of the Frenches this one thing: Whatever you do, spare us your hypocritical charge of hypocrisy.
Robert A. J. Gagnon, PhD, is the author of The Bible and Homosexual Practice (Abingdon) and co-author of Homosexuality and the Bible: Two Views (Fortress). For 24 years he was a professor of New Testament at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary.