Home/Rod Dreher/Trump & Moore: Defining Deviancy Down

Trump & Moore: Defining Deviancy Down

'God has put me in this race,' said Roy Moore in this speech (via YouTube)

“There is always a certain amount of deviancy in a society. But when you get too much, you begin to think that it’s not really that bad. Pretty soon you become accustomed to very destructive behavior.” — Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan.

Think about Sen. Moynihan’s line in light of these quotes from two Alabama divines (via David French, who got them from the Boston Globe):

“I don’t know how much these women are getting paid, but I can only believe they’re getting a healthy sum,” said pastor Earl Wise, a Moore supporter from Millbrook, Ala.

Wise said he would support Moore even if the allegations were true and the candidate was proved to have sexually molested teenage girls and women. “There ought to be a statute of limitations on this stuff,” Wise said. “How these gals came up with this, I don’t know. They must have had some sweet dreams somewhere down the line. “Plus,” he added, “there are some 14-year-olds, who, the way they look, could pass for 20.”


For 40 years, “these women didn’t say a word. They were cool as a cucumber,” said pastor Franklin Raddish, a Baptist minister from South Carolina and a Moore supporter. “You’re asking me to believe them,’’ Raddish said, “when their own mother didn’t have enough red blood in her to . . . go and report this? Come on.”

Meanwhile, a third Alabama divine has just given aid and succor to Judge Moore’s campaign:

A prominent right-wing preacher who appeared alongside Senate candidate Roy Moore at a campaign rally just days ago said that Moore dated teen girls because of their “purity” and because when he got back from Vietnam there weren’t any women his age left to date.

Pastor Flip Benham told a local Alabama radio show on Monday that there was nothing wrong with Moore dating teenage girls.

“Judge Roy Moore graduated from West Point and then went on into the service, served in Vietnam and then came back and was in law school. All of the ladies, or many of the ladies that he possibly could have married were not available then, they were already married, maybe, somewhere. So he looked in a different direction and always with the [permission of the] parents of younger ladies. By the way, the lady he’s married to now, Ms. Kayla, was a younger woman,” Benham said on WAPI 99.5 FM Monday evening. “He did that because there is something about a purity of a young woman, there is something that is good, that’s true, that’s straight and he looked for that.”

So Judge Moore was demonstrating his moral uprightness by chasing barely-legal girls. Good to know.

You will not be surprised by this breaking news today:

President Trump broke with leading Republicans on Tuesday and voiced support for Roy S. Moore, the Republican Senate candidate in Alabama who has been accused of sexual misconduct with teenagers and has seen his campaign’s prospects imperiled.

In his first extensive remarks on the accusations that date back decades, the president cited the vigorous denials by Mr. Moore, who is facing off in a high-stakes special election against Doug Jones, the Democratic candidate.

“He totally denies it,” Mr. Trump said of Mr. Moore, who has been accused of molesting a 14-year-old girl and sexually assaulting another teenager.

The Donald Trump presidency and the Roy Moore campaign are classic examples of defining deviancy down. Think about things that Trump says or does almost every day that would have been unthinkable before now in an American president, but which barely raise our eyebrows. We’re used to it now.

In 1998, a famous man wrote this in a book about the Bill Clinton presidency and its moral effect on America:

It is said that private character has virtually no impact on governing character; that what matters above all is a healthy economy; that moral authority is defined solely by how well a president deals with public policy matters; that America needs to become more European (read: more “sophisticated”) in its attitude toward sex; that lies about sex, even under oath, don’t really matter; that we shouldn’t be “judgmental”; that it is inappropriate to make preliminary judgments about the president’s conduct because he hasn’t been found guilty in a court of law; and so forth.

If these arguments take root in American soil — if they become the coin of the public realm — we will have validated them, and we will come to rue the day we did. These arguments define us down; they assume a lower common denominator of behavior and leadership than we Americans ought to accept. And if we do accept it, we will have committed an unthinking act of moral and intellectual disarmament. In the realm of American ideals and the great tradition of public debate, the high ground will have been lost. And when we need to rely again on this high ground — as surely we will need to — we will find it drained of its compelling moral power. In that sense, then, the arguments invoked by Bill Clinton and his defenders represent an assault on American ideals, even if you assume the president did nothing improper. So the arguments need to be challenged.

I believe these arguments are also a threat to our understanding of American self-government. It demands active participation in, and finally, reasoned judgments on, important civic matters. “Judgment” is a word that is out of favor these days, but it remains a cornerstone of democratic self-government. It is what enables us to hold ourselves, and our leaders, to high standards. It is how we distinguish between right and wrong, noble and base, honor and dishonor. We cannot ignore that responsibility, or foist it on others. It is the price — sometimes the exacting price — of citizenship in a democracy. The most popular arguments made by the president’s supporters invite us to abandon that participation, those standards, and the practice of making those distinctions.

Bill Clinton’s presidency is also defining public morality down. Civilized society must give public affirmation to principles and standards, categorical norms, notions of right and wrong. Even though public figures often fall short of these standards — and we know and we expect some will — it is nevertheless crucial that we pay tribute to them. When Senator Gary Hart withdrew from the 1988 presidential contest because of his relationship with Donna Rice, he told his staff, “Through thoughtlessness and misjudgment I’ve let each of you down. And I deeply regret that.” By saying what he said, by withdrawing from the race, Senator Hart affirmed public standards. President Clinton, by contrast, expresses no regret, no remorse, no contrition — even as he uses his public office to further his private ends. On every scandal, what he says or intimates always amounts to one of the following: “It doesn’t matter. I wasn’t involved. My political enemies are to blame. I have nothing more to say. The rules don’t apply to me. There are no consequences to my actions. It’s irrelevant. My only responsibility is to do the people’s business.” This is moral bankruptcy, and it is damaging our country, its standards, and our self-respect.

Once in a great while a single national event provides insight into where we are and who we are and what we esteem. The Clinton presidency has provided us with a window onto our times, our moral order, our understanding of citizenship. The many Clinton scandals tell us, in a way few other events can, where we are in our public philosophy. They reveal insights into how we view politics and power; virtue and vice; public trust and respect for the law; sexual morality and standards of personal conduct.

That was Bill Bennett in 1998. This was Bill Bennett in 2016, laying into those conservative snobs who think they’re better than Trump:

He does not need to speak to the Never Trumpers, some of my friends or maybe former friends who suffer from a terrible case of moral superiority and put their own vanity and taste above the interests of the country.

More recently, Bennett, a Catholic, said, of Trump:

“We are conscious of his history. We are conscious of his future. And as Oscar Wilde said, ‘Just as every sinner has a future, every saint has a past.’ “

O tempora o mores! as they say at the food court in the Gadsden mall.

As you know, I didn’t vote in the 2016 presidential race. I thought both candidates were horrible. But this was by no means an act of virtue. I got off easy. Louisiana, my home state, was going to go for Trump by a comfortable margin, so my vote wouldn’t have mattered. Yet I’ve thought since then that had Louisiana been a swing state, I probably would have done what I did in the 1991 governor’s race between Edwin W. Edwards and David Duke: held my nose and voted for the appalling candidate (EWE) likely to do less damage in the long run than the other. In the 2016 case, I would probably have held my nose and voted Trump, only for the Supreme Court.

It’s not about abortion or same-sex marriage. What many grassroots conservatives don’t know is that overturning Roe v. Wade (politically possible, if a long shot) and Obergefell (politically impossible) would only return the issues to the states. In the case of Roe, many states would pass strong pro-abortion laws within days. Others would restrict abortion to some degree. This would be a good thing, certainly, but it would not end abortion in America, as some believe.

In the unlikely case of Obergefell‘s fall, most American states would quickly respond by legalizing same-sex marriage. The only generation in which a majority opposes same-sex marriage is the “Silent Generation,” born from 1928 to 1945. The youngest member of that generation is 72 years old this year. Same-sex marriage is popular now. Obergefell wrongly holds that there is a constitutional right to same-sex marriage, but if it were to be overturned, all that would do is send the issue back to the states, in which case nearly every state — and, depending on when it happened, every single state — would legalize gay marriage.

For me, then, SCOTUS mattered — and does matter — most urgently because of religious liberty. As America continues to secularize, it is massively important to protect in law the right of religious conservatives and our institutions to live as we believe to be right, without undue penalty from the state. Far too many Christians fail to grasp how serious this issue is — in part because the news media do not cover it. It is so serious that I almost certainly would have voted for Trump in 2016 had I lived in a swing state.

The Trump presidency in general, and the Roy Moore race in particular, are forcing me to rethink that.

Leaving aside his trashy and possibly criminal dating habits as a younger man, Roy Moore is such an affront to the basic constitutional order that he is not fit for public office. If I lived in Alabama, I would probably vote for the pro-abortion radical Doug Jones, not as a vote for Jones, but as a vote to defend institutions and standards under attack by what social conservatives in an earlier age called the death of outrage, and defining deviancy down. Besides which, though Catholics and Orthodox Christians aren’t really involved in this Alabama race — Alabama is overwhelmingly Protestant, and there are more Baptists in Alabama than all the other religions combined — the behavior of some prominent Evangelicals in the Moore contest brings disrepute onto all religious conservatives.

The same dynamic is true with the Trump presidency.

I heard from a conservative Evangelical friend today, a Millennial, who told me that his generation is “in meltdown” over what they consider to be the moral collapse of Evangelicals, who have chosen political power and access over upholding Biblical standards. Stephen Mansfield, author of a new book about Trump and Christian conservatives, recently told NPR that the Evangelical churches are facing a generational crisis:

In the end, the word that is used most often when I talk to the young is “hypocrisy.” They sat in their churches, and they heard certain conduct described as wrong. Yet when Donald Trump did it, or when it was reported on a video, we heard kind of a “boys will be boys” sort of response even from very, very prominent religious leaders. They began to wonder if the message they had been hearing all those years in church was consistent with the people they had respected.

It’s really thrown a lot of them into real turmoil, and I think as a result we’re going to see the number of “religious nones” increase, because many of them will continue to be religious, continue to be believers in God. But they are losing confidence in the church they were once part of, and in some cases, that’s a direct result of what happened in that election.

I have heard the same thing. Though I’m not an Evangelical, I would rather a thousand times that the Evangelical churches be theologically and morally strong than that the Republican Party hold the White House and Congress. What’s going to happen is that the GOP will eventually lose both — in the normal cycle of things, sure, but especially given how Trump’s malice and incompetence has fired up opposition — and the conservative Evangelical churches will see the true cost of the deal they have made with this particular devil.

That’s the cost to the church. There is also a cost to constitutional and cultural norms of politics and the presidency. I did not appreciate last year, when Trump was running, how great this cost was going to be. In his thin but important book On Tyranny, Twenty Lessons From the Twentieth Century, historian Timothy Snyder writes, “You submit to tyranny when you renounce the difference between what you want to hear and what is actually the case.” He continues by saying that this begins through

open hostility to verifiable reality, which takes the form of presenting inventions and lies as if they were facts. The president does this at a high rate and at a fast pace. One attempt during the 2016 campaign to track his utterances found that 78 percent of his factual claims were false. This proportion is so high that it makes the correct assertions seem like unintended oversights on the path toward total fiction. Demeaning the world as it is begins the creation of a fictional counterworld.

Do I really need to mention that factions of the Left do this too, in their own version? And do I really need to tell conservatives, especially Christian conservatives, that if you fight evil through evil means, you will inevitably be corrupted? To steal and modify a line from Robert Bolt’s Sir Thomas More, “It profits a man nothing to give his soul for the whole world … but the White House, Christians? For an Alabama Senate seat?”

The war that traditional Christians and other social conservatives are facing is going to be very long. My great fear is that by winning, or appearing to win, this momentary political battle, we will have surrendered the things we need to endure what is to come. I might be wrong about this, but watching the daily degradation of our politics, culture, and yes, of our religious life under Trump and the politics he has spawned, I am faced for the first time with the thought that, had I been in a swing state, it might have been more strategically wise to have voted for Clinton, as it likely is to vote for Doug Jones in Alabama.

There is nothing that Senator Roy Moore can do for us religious and social conservatives that will outweigh the damage a clown like him with a national platform will do to conservatism and conservative Christianity, as well as to the institutional standards and democratic customs upon which our liberty depends. Though I am grateful for Neil Gorsuch, at least some of Trump’s federal judge appointments, and a few other things he has done as president, this is also true of Donald Trump.

The fact that our elites — including GOP elites — are so crummy and out of touch doesn’t negate that fact, either.

What is conservatism anymore? Come back, Russell Kirk, your country needs you. I invite any young conservative despairing of the present moment to run, not walk, to Kirk’s work. Do not believe that what you see on TV, read about on the Internet, and find in the institutions of Conservatism Inc. is the sum total of the conservative intellectual tradition!

I’m going to leave off this despairing and dyspeptic post with this excerpt from the final chapter in Kirk’s autobiography. He’s writing about himself in the third person:

At the age of seventy-five, Kirk had come to understand that he had sought, during his lifetime, three ends or objects.

One had been to defend the Permanent Things, in a world where “Dinos is king, having overthrown Zeus.” He had sought to conserve a patrimony of order, justice, and freedom; a tolerable moral order; and an inheritance of culture. Although rowing against a strong tide, in this aspiration he had succeeded somewhat, certainly beyond his early expectation, in reminding people that truth was not born yesterday.

A second had been to lead a life of decent independence, living much as his ancestors had lived, on their land, in circumstances that would enable him to utter the truth and make his voice heard: a life uncluttered and unpolluted, not devoted to getting and spending. In his antique vocation of man of letters, he had achieved that aspiration at Piety Hill.

A third end had been to marry for love and to rear children who would come to know that the service of God is perfect freedom. In his middle years, the splendid Annette had given herself to him and then given him four children, presently endowed with the unbought grace of life. Annette and he helped to sustain the institution of the family by creating a vigorous example.

Thus his three wishes had been granted; he was grateful. Power over others, and much money, he never had desired; he had been spared those responsibilities.

Both on authority and through his own insights and experiences, Kirk had come to understand that there exists a realm of being beyond this temporal world and that a mysterious providence works in human affairs—that man is made for eternity. Such knowledge had been consolation and compensation for sorrow.

Kirk stood ready to affirm his belief in such knowledge, and to be derided for it, despite his being no Hot Gospeller. Like David Hume, he was more skeptical of Rationalism than of Tradition—a worldly defensor fidei. Strongly influenced by Christopher Dawson and Eric Voegelin, Martin D’Arcy and Mircea Eliade, Kirk had come to conclude that a civilization cannot long survive the dying of belief in a transcendent order that brought the culture into being. The ideology of modernism bestrode the intellectual world from 1860 to 1960; after that, its power waned. As Arthur Koestler observed, yesteryear’s scientific doctrines of mechanism and materialism ought to be buried with a requiem of electronic music. Once more, in biology as in physics, the scientific disciplines had begun to enter upon the realm of mystery. Kirk had become in his convictions both pre-modern and post-modern.

This Russell Kirk was a canny Scot with a relish for the uncanny. The one high talent with which he had been endowed was imagination, the power of raising up images of truth and terror in the mind; through images, he had come to know something of the world beyond the world. The armed vision, Kirk had discovered, penetrates through the skin of appearances to energetic reality; the unimaginative human being is dully confined to the provinciality of time and to the provinciality of place. His had been a romantic life, conducted on classical lines. Apprehending reality through images, he had succeeded in exhibiting those images of the Permanent Things to a good many people; and after his body was dust, his books would carry on that work.

The effective defense of the Permanent Things is the task of all who would be conservative today. The Republican Party, Donald Trump, and his amen chorus are passing into the long and turbulent night. Only the relentless pursuit of truth, goodness, and beauty — which is to say, God — will see us through. Here’s what I mean.

UPDATE: Reader Br. James Patrick posts:

I attended a public theological discussion group recently in my city. I was initially happily surprised by so very many young folks attending. As the evening progressed I counted the room. Those of us ‘over 40’ amounted to about seven. The rest of the room appeared considerably under 30 and numbered about 35.

Of those under 30-ish, One female and one male professed to be a happy believing Christian. That’s about 6%. I was shocked when the discussion continued and they mirrored what Rod quotes above.

Only the one male who was happy to be a believing Christian grew up in a mainline Church (Episcopalian). The 34 others grew up as home-schooled, private-schooled, Conservative Evangelical Christians and there was one female who remained a believing Christian.

The hatred for their Churches was palpable in the room among those who generally said they were agnostic at best. They felt they had been lied to and the leaders they once respected only told them to the things they once believed in to promote their political power. This strong emotion could only come (in my opinion) from those who once loved the faith, but are now betrayed. It was extremely unnerving for me.

To be blunt, these were all suburban white kids (except for one) that had been raised as their parents thought would keep them in the Church for a lifetime. However due to the lies of the leaders and the political machinations, this has backfired spectacularly. For the folks in the room, the Trump election was the cherry on top of a lifetime of being lied to. I was profoundly shocked by how strong they reacted to it, and how they linked it to all the lies they heard growing up.

When I was a young man, I was an enthusiastic supporter of Jerry Falwell’s moral majority, et. al. Back then, I recall an ‘old’ Pastor warning me that “to get so involved with politics was to eventually compromise the Gospel”. I thought he was an old fuddy duddy.

It’s so sad to live to see this day, and I fear what will come after. Rod is right, the conservative Evangelical churches will see the true cost of the deal they have made with this particular devil. But it won’t just be them, it will be all Christians.

about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. He has written and edited for the New York Post, The Dallas Morning News, National Review, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, the Washington Times, and the Baton Rouge Advocate. Rod’s commentary has been published in The Wall Street Journal, Commentary, the Weekly Standard, Beliefnet, and Real Simple, among other publications, and he has appeared on NPR, ABC News, CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, and the BBC. He lives in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, with his wife Julie and their three children. He has also written four books, The Little Way of Ruthie Leming, Crunchy Cons, How Dante Can Save Your Life, and The Benedict Option.

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