Will Evangelicals Pass the Test of Authenticity?

By George Yancey Published on October 17, 2016

The year was 1998. The Clinton controversy with Monica Lewinsky was in full rage. Republicans were milking it for all it was worth. Democrats were in full defense mode. All that was to be expected, of course; these are the games politicians play. But there were other groups who did not have to play that game, most notably feminist organizations such as NOW, who had brought the issue of sexual harassment to the forefront.

To fully understand 1998 we have to go back to 1991, the year that NOW and other feminist organizations had used the Clarence Thomas/Anita Hill controversy to draw attention to sexual harassment. On the basis of a single accuser, Thomas was subjected to severe vilification by feminist groups. So what made 1998 so different? President Clinton had several women pointing accusing fingers at him, creating an even greater opportunity for feminist groups to demonstrate their faithfulness to their cause. If they would hold a pro-choice Democrat’s feet to the fire, then no one could doubt the authenticity of their stand against sexual harassment.

With few exceptions, however, they did not pass this test of authenticity. Major feminist groups kept silent. Could the presidency of Bill Clinton have survived had feminist groups attacked him with the same vigor they attacked Thomas? The accusations of an ally can be devastating in the political sphere. Sadly, we will never know. Choosing power over principle, feminist groups maintained their cozy relationship with the president rather than the integrity of their support for sexually harassed women.

Today’s Test of Authenticity

Why this history lesson? It was clear at the time that feminists’ desire for political power outweighed their commitment to protecting women from sexual harassment. That realization has tainted my perception of organized feminism ever since. Today we evangelicals face a similar test of authenticity.

The recent “hot mic” revelations from Donald Trump add to what we already knew of his moral character: his willingness to degrade women, dismiss his wedding vows, and tolerate sexual assault. These are clear violations of the values we evangelicals espouse. Yet many evangelicals have minimized his words and actions. Are we setting our values aside as we try to protect the candidate we think will put us in the better power position? Will we pass the test of authenticity, or will we fail it as feminists did almost twenty years ago?

Unfortunately some evangelical leaders have already failed this test, in my view. One reminds us that “we are all sinners” — a nice sentiment, but I do not think he would have let Bill Clinton off so easily, for comments like Trump’s. Another prominent leader advises, “Let him who is without sin cast the first stone.” With such a standard, Christians have nothing to say about any moral failing at all.

Consistent Standards Are Called For

I remember many Christian leaders arguing that Clinton was no longer fit for office because of his sexual “adventures.” We need to treat Trump’s actions the same we would treat anyone else and not let him off because we hope for power through him. Otherwise we show that power matters more to us than our values. I fail to see how anyone using Monica Lewinsky to say that Clinton was unfit to remain as president can now rationalize support for Trump without looking like a hypocrite.

Fortunately some important voices have spoken up for evangelical values. Many evangelical women have pointed out the humiliation created by attitudes like those that Trump displays. Other Christians have called for Trump to step aside from the race. Others, like I, have pointed out the cost to our Christian witness that may come if we support Donald Trump. I am so glad that there has been this pushback against Christian voices that marginalize our stated values for the sake of preserving Trump’s candidacy.

The Credibility To Lead

I do not know how Christian leaders who fail the test of authenticity can continue to be viewed as moral leaders in our communities. They are twisting themselves to minimize the verbal atrocities of Trump; how can we look to them to lead us and represent us to others? It is understandable that many Christian leaders did not see all of Trump’s failings early in this election cycle. He was new on the political scene. The only thing many of us knew about him was that he was a rich reality TV star. By now, however, it is clear that he has said and done many things over the years that are simply indefensible, and has yet to publicly denounce them or show real contrition. To defend them or minimize them is to put at risk our integrity among the larger culture.

We must maintain our Christian witness, emphasizing our values over power. I do not want others to have to feel toward us the same way I feel about organized feminism. Christian leaders should not attempt to downplay Trump’s disgracefully sinful words. It may cost us political power in the short term, but I am confident that maintaining integrity will provide us a far better basis for long-term cultural influence.

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