In 1958, the Baptist preacher Jerry Falwell, who would go on to found the Moral Majority, gave a sermon titled “Segregation or Integration: Which?” He inveighed against the Supreme Court’s anti-segregation decision in Brown v. Board of Education, arguing that facilities for blacks and whites should remain separate.
“When God has drawn a line of distinction, we should not attempt to cross that line,” he wrote, warning that integration “will destroy our race eventually.” In 1967, Falwell founded the Lynchburg Christian Academy — later Liberty Christian Academy — as a private school for white students.
The Lynchburg Christian Academy, in Virginia, was one of many so-called seg academies created throughout the South to circumvent desegregation. In the 1970s, these discriminatory schools lost their tax-exempt status. Feeling under siege as a result, conservative Christians started organizing politically. This was the origin of the modern religious right, and it helps explain why a movement publicly devoted to piety has stood so faithfully by Donald Trump.
In his 2014 biography of Jimmy Carter, the Dartmouth historian Randall Balmer quotes the conservative activist Paul Weyrich: “What caused the movement to surface was the federal government’s moves against Christian schools. This absolutely shattered the Christian community’s notions that Christians could isolate themselves inside their own institutions and teach what they please.” (This should sound familiar to anyone who has heard Christian conservative outrage over being forced to accommodate same-sex marriage.)
In 1980, the nascent religious right overwhelmingly supported Ronald Reagan, a former movie star who would become America’s first divorced president, over the evangelical Carter. In doing so, it helped destigmatize divorce. “Up until 1980, anybody who was divorced, let alone divorced and remarried, very likely would have been kicked out of evangelical congregations,” Balmer, who was raised evangelical and is now a scholar of evangelicalism, told me.
Given this history, it is not surprising that the contemporary leaders of the religious right are blasé about reports that Trump cheated on his third wife with a porn star shortly after the birth of his youngest child, then paid her to be quiet. Despite his louche personal life, Trump, the racist patriarch promising cultural revenge, doesn’t threaten the religious right’s traditional values. He embodies them.
Last week, Tony Perkins, leader of the Family Research Council, told Politico that Trump gets a “mulligan,” or do-over, on his past moral transgressions, because he’s willing to stand up to the religious right’s enemies. Evangelicals, Perkins said, “were tired of being kicked around by Barack Obama and his leftists. And I think they are finally glad that there’s somebody on the playground that is willing to punch the bully.”
On Wednesday, Jerry Falwell Jr., who inherited his father’s job as head of the evangelical Liberty University, defended Trump on CNN through an acrobatic act of moral relativism.
“Jesus said that if you lust after a woman in your heart, it’s the same as committing adultery,” Falwell said. “You’re just as bad as the person who has, and that’s why our whole faith is based around the idea that we’re all equally bad, we’re all sinners.” To defend Trump, Falwell seems to be taking the position that no Christian has the right to criticize anyone else’s sexual behavior.
The people who are most disturbed by such theological contortions are earnest evangelicals who fear the disgrace of their religion. Trump’s religious champions, Michael Gerson writes in The Washington Post, are “associating evangelicalism with bigotry, selfishness and deception. They are playing a grubby political game for the highest of stakes: the reputation of their faith.”
I sympathize with his distress. But the politicized sectors of conservative evangelicalism have been associated with bigotry, selfishness and deception for a long time. Trump has simply revealed the movement’s priorities. It values the preservation of traditional racial and sexual hierarchies over fuzzier notions of wholesomeness.
“I’ve resisted throughout my career the notion that evangelicals are racist, I really have,” Balmer told me. “But I think the 2016 election demonstrated that the religious right was circling back to the founding principles of the movement. What happened in 2016 is that the religious right dropped all pretense that theirs was a movement about family values.”
This is one reason I find it hard to take seriously religious conservatives who say they are being persecuted for their defense of traditional marriage. People who are sympathetic to Christian, conservative Trump supporters — even if they don’t support Trump themselves — will say that they’ve been backed into a corner by the expansion of civil rights laws and policies protecting gay people. As they see it, liberals not only won the culture war on same-sex marriage but now are also demanding that private redoubts of resistance be brought into line.
Referring to the Supreme Court’s 2015 same-sex marriage decision, Rod Dreher, a social-conservative Trump critic, wrote, “Post-Obergefell, Christians who hold to the biblical teaching about sex and marriage have the same status in culture, and increasingly in law, as racists.”
Dreher obviously thinks they deserve better. He sees a fundamental difference between Christians who thought their religious freedom was trampled by desegregation and Christians who think their religious freedom is trampled when their business and charities have to serve gay people.
But it seems absurd to ask secular people to respect the religious right’s beliefs about sex and marriage — and thus tolerate a degree of anti-gay discrimination — while the movement’s leaders treat their own sexual standards as flexible and conditional. Christian conservatives may believe strongly in their own righteousness. But from the outside, it looks as if their movement was never really about morality at all.
Michelle Goldberg is a columnist for The New York Times.