I came of age during the presidency of Bill Clinton. As a result, I learned about various sexual behaviors just by watching the news. In school hallways I heard chatter about those behaviors and the president of the United States used as justification for why it must be okay. Many Christian leaders — including many Baptists — rightly spoke out, noting that moral turpitude of our leaders trickles down into society. In particular, those leaders noted the impact on children who, like sponges, are always soaking in what they see and hear.
As a father, I fear we are living in another such era. Although my son is younger than I was during the Clinton presidency, I still worry about what he picks up on. I no longer turn the news on the radio when he’s in the car. Last month, in particular, the moral failings of our leaders made the news seem rated ‘R.’
Nearly every day it seems some celebrity is exposed for sexual misconduct or harassment. And while some industries are cleaning house, politics seems to invite the circling of the wagons.
Missouri Governor Eric Greitens admitted to an affair with a married woman that occurred just as he started his campaign in 2015. The graphic details of the affair played out on the news. While he denied allegations of revenge porn and blackmail, he proved his campaign rhetoric of being “pro-family” was just, well, political rhetoric. The fall of Greitens could hurt the witness of Christian leaders who have been among his staunchest supporters. Missouri Baptist Convention leaders even featured him as a speaker during their annual meeting in October. Although the news of the affair was not out yet, Greitens had already been found guilty of an ethics violation. Warning signs about his character were ignored because of his party affiliation.
It’s been said that politics makes strange bedfellows. It also makes for dangerous bedfellows. Perhaps this should serve as yet another warning of wedding ourselves to politicians or celebrities as we tie our credibility — and thus the credibility and witness of our churches — to what that person says or does.
Shortly after the Greitens news, President Donald Trump used an obscenity as part of a racist attack on Haiti and African nations. Soon that obscenity filled the airwaves. Once again, a president is debasing public conversations — and a new generation of children will be impacted. To be clear: the president’s language was inappropriate and the argument he made was inappropriate. Our God, who chose to be born in a dump and not a royal palace, created and loves all people and nations.
Sadly, many Christian leaders — including some Baptists like Robert Jeffress of First Baptist Church in Dallas, Texas — have defended Trump’s remark. Yet, I suspect if it had been uttered by a president they hadn’t supported they would not have given that president a mulligan. That’s what happens when party trumps principles. Like Esau, we sell our birthright for a pot of stew — and it’s not even good stew. Such responses remind me of the court preachers the prophet Jeremiah condemned.
“They dress the wound of my people as though it were not serious. ‘Peace, peace,’ they say, when there is no peace” (Jeremiah 6:14).
I fear that many Christian leaders no longer can claim the mantle of “values voters,” but instead seek to be political kingmakers. That’s not being prophetic; that’s being hypocritical. Rather than being the ever-shining light of the world, we flip the switch depending on the party.
Research by the nonpartisan Public Religion Research Institute demonstrates this. They found in 2011 that white evangelicals were the least likely to say that “an elected official who commits an immoral act in their personal life can still behave ethically and fulfill their duties in the public and professional life.” Only 30 percent agreed back then. But just weeks before the contentious 2016 election day, they found white evangelicals are now the most willing to excuse immoral politicians. Now, 72 percent agree. Our politics is too often shaping our theology, instead of the other way around.
Baptists taught me during the Clinton presidency that character matters. I still believe that. Do you?
Brian Kaylor is editor & president of Word&Way.