Character Should Still Count for Robert Jeffress, for James Dobson, for All of Us

U.S. President Donald Trump (L) is greeted by Pastor Jeffress at the Celebrate Freedom Rally in Washington, U.S. July 1, 2017.
U.S. President Donald Trump (L) is greeted by Pastor Jeffress at the Celebrate Freedom Rally in Washington, U.S. July 1, 2017. | (Photo: REUTERS/Yuri Gripas)

Pastor Robert Jeffress recently said on national TV that Donald Trump's adulterous sex with a porn star "doesn't matter" to evangelicals "even if it is proven to be true."

The Fox News segment was addressing whether evangelical Christians looked hypocritical in the wake of extensive Wall Street Journal reporting on $130,000 in hush money paid to Stormy Daniels just 12 days before the 2016 election.

Jeffress, pastor of First Baptist Dallas, then told the left-leaning Juan Williams, "A blue dress wasn't enough to turn you into a red Republican, and I believe that anything Stormy Daniels has will not be enough to turn red Republicans into blue Democrats. This is about the policies and issues."

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"What happened to your love of people of character?" Williams would ask.

Good question.

John Murdock teaches at the Handong International Law School, a Christian institution in South Korea.
John Murdock teaches at the Handong International Law School, a Christian institution in South Korea.

Jeffress is correct that a sex scandal or two (or twenty) and layers of lies surrounding them should not flip our assessments of entire party platforms. But neither should a general allegiance to a party blind us to the failings of our politicians and the impact that those can have on a nation.

Such things used to matter to Republicans and evangelicals. "Character Counts" was the slogan of Bob Dole's campaign to unseat President Bill Clinton in 1996. Clinton's character was later on full display to the world when his liaisons with intern Monica Lewinsky began to be revealed in early 1998. By April of that year, President Clinton had wagged his finger in denial and no DNA stained dress proving that he did indeed have sexual relations with "that woman" had yet come to light. Much of the nation, buoyed by a good economy, yawned.

At that time, political analyst Bill Schneider looked at the Democrats, who had to decide what to make of their morally compromised leader and his slightly unorthodox legislative agenda. (Anyone remember welfare reform?) He concluded, "Maybe a few of them are worried about losing their souls, but for most Democrats, it's no big deal." Schneider also assessed the options for a GOP that controlled both the House and Senate. Republicans could (1) do nothing; (2) make deals; or (3) take a stand.

The ultimately successful pressure to adopt the third option came from religious conservatives.

As Schneider put it, "Social conservatives are not just urging Republicans to take a stand on moral issues. They're demanding it."

Dr. James Dobson, then near the apex of his national influence, stated, "I believe a Republican meltdown is preferable to enabling the present disregard for the moral agenda to continue."

Later, after Clinton was clearly shown to have been lying, Dobson put out a lengthy response. (The letter is apparently no longer available at the Focus on the Family website, but you can read it in full here or here. And you should. And then read it substituting "Trump" for "Clinton.")

Dr. Dobson was beside himself. The country was putting prosperity and politics above moral principle. A majority of the people were just saying that "it doesn't matter." An exasperated Dobson exclaimed, "I just don't understand it. Why aren't parents more concerned about what their children are hearing about the President's behavior?" He lamented, "I am left to conclude from these opinions that our greatest problem is not in the Oval Office. It is with the people of this land! We have lost our ability to discern the difference between right and wrong."

Dr. Dobson turned to the Bible for help in his own discernment process and concluded:

As it turns out, character DOES matter. You can't run a family, let alone a country, without it. How foolish to believe that a person who lacks honesty and moral integrity is qualified to lead a nation and the world! Nevertheless, our people continue to say that the President is doing a good job even if they don't respect him personally. Those two positions are fundamentally incompatible. In the Book of James the question is posed, "Can both fresh water and salt water flow from the same spring" (James 3:11 NIV). The answer is no.

Dr. Dobson closed by noting his concern for President Clinton's personal spiritual health, but made clear that he would not mind seeing him out of the White House.

"One more solid punch," wrote Dobson, "and he could go down."

Dobson then urged Christians to pray for the nation and closed in 1998 by saying, "Nothing short of a spiritual renewal will save us."

In 2018, Dobson — now, like Jeffress, an adviser to President Trump — is again calling on Christians to pray. This time, however, the call is to pray that God keeps President Trump in the White House.

"I think this country will be in serious trouble," Dobson told an Intercessors for America conference call in January, "if they are successful in impeaching this man, and that's why I'm calling for a nationwide movement to pray for him." Dobson explained, "We all ride in the President's boat" and "if our President is thrown out of office, it will create chaos that will touch every dimension of the country."

At the height of the Lewinsky firestorm, Democrats and much of the mainstream media vociferously stood by President Clinton when they could have nudged him towards resigning. The result would have simply been a promotion for Vice-President Al Gore, a person of similar political values if lesser charisma and libido. Instead, the donkey party got two more years of Clinton and then eight of George W. Bush.

Nina Burleigh, a feminist journalist who had herself been ogled by President Clinton, epitomized the bizarrely fawning and hypocritical liberal mindset of the 1990s. Burleigh famously said of Clinton that she would be "happy to give him [oral sex] just to thank him for keeping abortion legal." And that quote has followed her for decades.

Rather than harness energy from the #MeToo movement, which has the progressives of today agreeing with the conservatives of yesterday, the Christian Right seems intent on repeating the other side's mistakes.

Jeffress says he will "never walk away" from Trump, and he has just deemed the Stormy Daniels affair "totally irrelevant" to the support of evangelicals. Those believers, Jeffress insists, are "not compromising their beliefs to support this great President." Any cries of hypocrisy from the left, the pastor says straight-faced, are "absolutely ludicrous."

Dr. Dobson's January effort at hypocrisy is noteworthy. He would certainly do well to read what he wrote two decades ago. Nevertheless, given the bigger stage of Fox News and the absolutism of his devotion even in the face of a porn star payoff, Pastor Jeffress has clearly moved to the lead in the quest to be the Nina Burleigh of the Trump years.

John Murdock is a professor at the Handong International Law School.

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