Posted by Jay Livingston
Most people agree that when this election is over, Trump will have changed American politics. Bigly,* perhaps. But one of the more ironic changes may be that he caused the most conservative sectors of the electorate to relax their views on the connection between a politician’s private life and his** fitness for public office.
Call it “motivated morality.” That sounds much better than hypocrisy. It’s like “motivated perception” – unconsciously adjusting your perceptions so that the facts fit with your ideology . But with motivated morality, you change your moral judgments.
For religious conservatives, Donald Trump presents quite a challenge. It’s the sex, One of the things that conservatives are conservative about is sex, and Trump’s sexual language and behavior clearly fall on the side sin. What to do? Conservatives might try for motivated cognition and refuse to believe the women who were the recipients of Trumps kissing, groping, and voyeurism. That’s difficult when Trump himself is on the record claiming to have done all these things, and making those claims using decidedly unChristian language.
Instead, they have changed their judgment about the link between groping and governing. Previously, they had espoused “moral clarity” – a single principle applied unbendingly to all situations. Good is good, evil is evil. If a man is immoral in his private life, he will be immoral or worse as a public official.
Now they favor “situational morality” the situation in this case being the prospect of a Clinton victory. So rather than condemn Trump absolutely, they say that although he is out of line, they will vote for him and encourage others to do likewise in order to keep Hillary out of the White House. For example, in a USA Today op-ed (here), Diann Catlin, a “Bible-thumping etiquette teacher” says
|I like God’s ways .. . . I also know that he wants discerning believers to take part in government. . . .God has always used imperfect people for his glory.|
God uses people like Trump and like me who are sinners but whose specific issues, such as the life of the unborn child, align with his word.
She includes the“we’re all sinners” trope that’s so popular now among the Trump’s Christian supporters (funny how they never mention that when the topic is Bill Clinton’s infidelities or Hillary’s e-mails). More important is the implication that even a sinner can make good governmental decisions. That’s an idea that US conservatives used to dismiss as European amorality. In government, they would insist, “character” is everything.
It’s not just professional conservatives (op-ed writers and Jerry Falwell types) who have crossed over to the view that sex and politics are separate spheres and that a person can be sinful in one and yet virtuous in the other. Ordinary conservatives and Evangelicals have also (to use the word of the hour) pivoted.
Five years ago, the Public Religion Research Institute at Brookings asked people whether someone who had committed immoral acts in their private life could still be effective in their political or professional life. Nationwide, 44% said Yes. PRRI asked the same question this year. The Yes vote had risen to 61%. But the move to compartmentalize sin was most pronounced among those who were most conservative.
As with religion, so with political views.
People of all political stripes became more accepting, but when it came to judging a privately immoral person in public life, Republicans, like White evangelicals, went from least tolerant to most tolerant.
What could have made happened?
* A post at Language Log (here) confirms that what Trump is saying is “big-league.” It attributes the confusion to “the ‘velar pinch’ associated with the final /g/ of big league.”
** Yes, “his.” Their ideas about the importance of a woman’s private sexual life may not have evolved in a similar way.
*** The change may turn out to be only temporary, and that the next time a liberal candidate is revealed to have strayed in his private life, religious and political conservatives will revert to their former views.
The PRRI report is here.