June 5, 2018 at 1:51 pm PDT | by Gabriel Hudson
Trump, Evangelicals and porn explained

Donald Trump poses with Evangelical leader Rev. Franklin Graham in front of a Playboy cover photo in Trump Tower. (Photo via Franklin Graham Twitter)

Throughout the height of his crusades to save souls in the 1950s, America’s pastor—the late Rev. Billy Graham—used to tell a favorite anecdote to encapsulate the degree of moral rot in the nation. In the story, Graham’s wife, Ruth, upon completing a passage from one of his books about decadence and decline in the United States, laments that God would either need to punish the United States soon or have to apologize to Sodom and Gomorrah.

The story was always effective because it contained reams of condemnation in one familiar admonition. Sodom and Gomorrah are two cities depicted in the book of Genesis that God destroys for wickedness. According to the biblical account, God sends two angels to visit his servant, Lot. Upon hearing of the visitors, the townspeople show up at Lot’s home as an angry mob demanding sexual access to his guests. Lot, in an attempt to quell the swarm, offers his daughters instead. But the angry mob cannot be assuaged, forcing Lot and his family to flee the two cities before they are destroyed by a rain of fire. Sodom and Gomorrah’s most infamous sin—from which we get the word “sodomy”—is made worse by pride, inhospitality toward guests, and unchecked, violent lust. God’s destructive warning is referenced elsewhere in the Bible and throughout Christian history: police immorality among your populace or face the righteous anger of the Lord.

Graham used the story in a similar way, to warn of societal consequences for the tolerance of depravity. Like many leaders of the Christian Right today, Graham spoke of his mission as involving more than saving individual souls. Conservative Evangelicals believe God judges and punishes whole nations based on the degree of sin permitted within society. Christian right activists believe that the United States is in a covenant relationship with the God of the Bible much like the ancient nation of Israel. God’s providence in world history led to the founding of the United States and that special favor comes with expectations for his new chosen people.

The story of ancient Israel in the Old Testament is one of a people continually gaining and losing the favor of their God through the curtailing of iniquity. God’s judgment can be staved off for a time through periods of national repentance, but God reserves the harshest punishments for the moral failings of a nation’s leaders.

In 2 Samuel, David, the King of Israel, lusts after Bathsheba while watching her bathe on a rooftop. David’s desire for another man’s wife inspires him to order her husband moved to the front lines of a decisive battle, essentially murdering him. As punishment for the King’s lust, pride and dishonesty, God temporarily removes his protection from the nation of Israel, prompting several successive military defeats.

These stories have been part of conservative Protestant activism since the birth of the United States. Much of the contemporary agenda of the Christian Right centers around the need for political and legal impediments to sin. Part of the role of the state is to assure public lasciviousness is minimized to sustain God’s covenant and perpetuate his protection. Like the prophets of ancient Israel, today’s most vocal messengers for the Christian God warn that we cannot continue to court God’s benevolence if we allow unexamined sin in our hearts, heads and homes.

To the Christian Right, personal moral fidelity— especially among believers—is inextricably linked to national prosperity. Pastors are called to lead their flocks and to intercede to an angry God on behalf of their countrymen. Failure to temper lust in the culture endangers more than merely the penitents immortal soul—it dooms the entire covenant. These arguments have been used effectively by Christian Right activists in familiar opposition to gay rights and abortions. It is the thinking behind national observances like the annual Day of Prayer. But now, conservative Evangelicals fight a new, less conspicuous terror of the soul: pornography.

Christian minister and prolific author, Josh McDowell, is a venerable scholar among Evangelicals. His magnum opus “Evidence That Demands a Verdict” is arguably the most widely read work of Christian apologetics of the 20th century. Now McDowell has turned his academic prowess to the study of pornography’s use among Christians. In a video published on Watchmen on the Wall’s website, McDowell explains with extensive technical details how ubiquitous porn use is within the church. Pastors, their wives, youths and youth ministers are all implicated by his thorough dataset and careful analysis. Like the larger secular culture, Christians find themselves besieged by a tsunami of porn. McDowell calls it the “greatest cancer in the history of the church,” and claims pornography is “destroying more churches, pastors and families” than any prior evil.

He’s not wrong about porn’s pervasiveness or deleterious nature. Secular sources like the CDC recognize porn’s prevalence as a public health crisis and the American Psychological Association warns that porn addiction ruins lives more quickly than hardcore substances. McDowell and likeminded ministers have seized on a real issue of private, personal failing with socio-political implications. Unlike the anti-LGBT activism most commonly associated with the Christian Right, the focus on pornography seems more personal than political, more discarnate than bigoted.

Addressing the problems associated with pornography—its addictive nature, its tendency to be exploitative and violent, its negative impact on the potential for real, satisfying adult relationships—is an appropriate role for public advocates of morality. More sincere than politically calculated, it regains a measure of relevance for the religious right. There is one major impediment to their new moral commission, however. The champion they have sent into the political arena embodies the cancer attacking their congregations. 

President Trump breaks many precedents but none so egregiously as the expectation that the nation’s leaders be paradigms of virtue. We have had libidinous presidents in the past, but none so out and proudly sinful as Trump. Even Clinton’s cigar shenanigans with a White House intern were revealed with contrition and shame. Trump, conversely, is the first president to appear on the cover of Playboy magazine. That framed cover appears on the wall behind Trump and Franklin Graham in a publicity photo. His five children by three wives, not to mention his long list of sexual conquests and accusers, suggests a long term undermining of conservative principles and family values.

Surely, these huge contradictions cause introspection among the Christian Right. Surely they see the glaring inconsistency between their role as public prognosticators of moral rectitude and their embrace of the “pussy grabber-in-chief.” The unwavering support for Trump by Evangelicals appears to deflate their entire agenda, but only if one misunderstands their entire agenda.

Christian Right activism has never really been about holding leaders to the standards spelled out in the Bible. The agenda has always primarily concerned control. Moral condemnations are a means to securing privilege and influence. Conservative Christians use their providential version of American history to justify special status within the body politic. The covenant relationship narrative casts conservative Christians as the only legitimate Americans while other citizens are fortunate interlopers. Castigating gay rights and abortion serve to “otherize” and control bodies more than foster sexual purity. Viewed in this light, support for Trump is not a contradiction. He perfectly fits their template for power—not in spite of his moral failings, but because of them.

Much scholarship since World War II has been devoted to diagnosing the symptoms of creeping authoritarianism. Hannah Arendt’s “Origins of Totalitarianism” details how Christian theology and history were applied selectively for political benefit in the Weimar Republic. Religious identity was used as a tool to establish patterns of in-group/out-group thinking and exclusionary laws.

Umberto Eco’s 1995 essay “Ur Fascism” details an anthropological consensus on the common characteristics of fascist regimes. He warns that all proto fascist cultures lionize a hero strongman that embodies machismo and misogyny. This universal fascist “transfers his will to power to sexual matters. This is the origin of machismo (which implies both disdain for women and intolerance and condemnation of nonstandard sexual habits.)” At the time of its publication, Eco’s work was meant to critique burgeoning democracies in Latin America by pointing out tell-tale signs of fascist tendencies. It serves today as a prescient appraisal of America.

Like Lot’s option in Sodom, the sexual commodification of women is a tertiary concern.

As Franklin Graham criss-crosses California winning souls for the GOP, the overt embrace of Trump seemingly undermines his spiritual message while bolstering his political agenda. But the contradiction is illusory. Trump’s lust for the flesh comports with a hungrier lust for power. The centerpiece of Christian Right activism has always been a ceding of the body and soul to the control of the state. Some individualized liberty of conscience in which citizens arrive at differing moral conclusions has never been a tenet of their democratic theory. God judges nations. Morality is not personal, it is political. Its enforcement requires an absolutist in terms of authority, not virtue.

McDowell and likeminded ministers are sincere and well-intentioned when they warn about the widespread use of pornography. One would expect society’s moral guides to caution against instant gratification and a perpetual poisoning of the mind with unrealistic images and exploitative depictions of sexuality. But the political agenda of the Christian Right has little to do with purity and everything to do with securing power and privilege. Trump’s machismo pride and libidinous bravado do not undermine the political aspiration of Evangelicals; they empower it. Viewed in terms of theology, Trump seems like an exercise in logic contortion and overcoming cognitive dissonance for Evangelicals. Viewed correctly within the broader context of authoritarianism, Trump’s lust is a job requirement. 

Gabriel S. Hudson, Ph.D., a democratic theorist, teaches at George Mason University’s Graduate School of Education and The Schar School of Policy and Government. He is the author of ‘Christodemocracy and the Alternative Democratic Theory of America’s Christian Right.’

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