Last week, Michael Cohen released what has been said to be the first of many tapes he has of private conversations with his former client, Donald Trump. But what is on this tape is already interesting enough. Despite the furious spinning from Trump apologists on cable news, the tape clearly shows that Trump, who has denied knowledge of paying off mistresses in the past, clearly remembers a previous discussion about this and volunteers, “So, what do we got to pay for this? One-fifty?” The casual tone is remarkable, suggesting that such payoffs are routine in Trump’s world.
This article was originally published at Salon
All of this creates yet another problem for a segment of Trump’s fiercest defenders: white evangelical Christian leaders. For decades, these leaders have been trying to impose a strict sexual morality on the rest of America — one that forbids premarital sex and homosexuality — through not just moral scolding but government action, including things such as abstinence-until-marriage programs in high school and restrictions on contraception and abortion meant to punish women for defying a moral code to which most Americans don’t subscribe.
And now such leaders find themselves in the position of defending a thrice-married chronic adulterer who has flaunted his habit of using his wealth to get porn models and actresses into bed.
The result of this gross sexual hypocrisy will likely be twofold. To be clear, in the short term this will help President Trump by shoring up his support among the Republican base. But in the long run, this will do real damage to evangelical Christianity and to the Republican Party that depends on its support, as the pews continue to empty out of people who are increasingly disgusted with the two-faced nature of the religion.
No one can doubt that white evangelical leaders have really put their backs into making excuses for supporting Trump with all his adulteries, largely (and ironically) because Trump has been eager to help them in imposing legal penalties on women and LGBT people who have sex of any sort, no matter how harmless. Every time a new story about Trump having sex with a woman in the sexual entertainment industry crops up, some prominent minister or another is ready to make excuses.
In many cases, as with Family Research Council head Tony Perkins, the narrative on offer is that Trump may have been naughty in the past, but at some point prior to his run for president, he was born again and started to “walk the straight and narrow.” This Cohen conversation, recorded just a few weeks before the election, makes clear that narrative is false. To add insult to injury, Cohen and Trump are also recorded discussing how they can “use” some of the pastors they had gathered around Trump to bolster his credibility with evangelicals.
But there’s no doubt that religious right leaders will continue to defend Trump, which also underlines the fact that their strict sexual morality was never meant to apply to straight men in the first place. Already, evangelical leader Franklin Graham is playing the pious cast-the-first-stone card, declaiming on Twitter that, “everyone should realize that every word that is spoken or thought is recorded by God” and “you will be judged by truth & righteousness — by God Himself.”
But while Graham encourages his followers to leave judgment of Trump up to the Almighty, he is quick to encourage Christians to advocate laws that deprive women and LGBT people of basic rights, health care and the ability to live peaceable lives in this world, all as punishment for having sex he doesn’t approve of.
This double standard, where straight men can do whatever they like and everyone else must face a stern crackdown on sin, has long been baked into the religious right’s ideology. Increasingly, younger members of the churches are starting to get sick of the unfairness and are walking out the door.
As I reported for Salon last year, research from the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) shows that a strong surge of people disaffiliating from Christian churches, which researcher Robert P. Jones attributed to “a culture clash between particularly conservative white churches and denominations and younger Americans.” At the center of that culture clash, he said, is the issue of sexual morality and the rejection of the “patriarchal view of the family.”
Younger Americans of all faiths and backgrounds already largely reject prohibitions against premarital sex and homosexuality. Now these evangelical leaders are trying to defend Trump’s noxious private life on one hand while still maintaining the moral authority to demand punishment for other people’s sexual behavior.
The word “hypocrisy” comes to mind, but that doesn’t really do the situation justice. After all, most of the behavior the religious right is trying to punish — premarital sex, non-procreative sex, same-sex relations — is consensual and not just harmless but life-affirming. It’s mostly just a matter of consenting adults having fun and seeking positive connections.
Trump’s adulteries and general objectification of women, however, are not harmless. He’s wrecked at least two marriages (likely three, when all is said and done), consistently treated women like trash and bragged about committing sexual assault. When women have tried to speak out in public about his ugly and possibly criminal behavior, he has demonized them or tried to paint them as liars.
It’s a topsy-turvy moral world that religious right leaders live in, where Trump’s behavior is put in the realm of forgivable, minor transgressions, but ordinary people who pursue healthy and respectful sexual relationships are treated as sinners who need to be punished by denying them basic rights and access to health care.
In the short term, the defenses of Trump from the Christian right will do what they’re meant to do: Keep the believers punching the ballot for Republicans out of loyalty to their leaders and their tribe. But in the long run, these moral contradictions will continue to alienate more people, especially younger people. The religious right base will rally around their shameless pastors and the president with whom they’ve made a devil’s bargain, at least for now. But there will be a steep price to pay for that bargain in the not-too-distant future.