It’s a conundrum that many observers find hard to fathom. How can people of faith continue to back President Donald Trump? As Jewish Week editor and publisher Gary Rosenblatt asked earlier this month, it’s hard for some to understand how those Americans, “whose beliefs and values reflect a commitment to piety and morality can somehow, seemingly inexplicably, give a pass to the coarsest president of modern times.”
It’s a good question and one Rosenblatt believes should impel religious Jews and Christians to stop being “enablers” of behavior by Trump that he believes is putting at risk the “fabric of our democratic society.” (Read his column here.)
But while Trump’s behavior is often indefensible, it isn’t as simple as that. Like most things in life, politics is a series of choices. Religious Trump supporters are doing the same thing every other group does: weighing the costs and benefits of backing a candidate and making a rational choice that does the most to advance causes they believe are of the greatest importance.
The theoretical case for ignoring Trump’s misbehavior was actually made 20 years ago by Nina Burliegh, a liberal journalist and Columbia University Professor of journalism. In 1998, when questioned about President Bill Clinton’s sleazy behavior, Burleigh told the Washington Post, “I would be happy to give him a blowjob just to thank him for keeping abortion legal. I think American women should be lining up with their Presidential kneepads on to show their gratitude for keeping the theocracy off our backs.”
As far as she was concerned, protecting the right to abortion on demand was more important than the conduct of the serial sexual harasser in the White House. That attitude was shared by most leading feminists as well as most Democrats at the time and was every bit as hypocritical as the current willingness of religious conservatives to stick with Trump. But if you think abortion is crucial to the defense of liberty, then continuing to support Clinton was a rational decision.
To cite Burleigh’s comments, which were every bit as vulgar as anything that comes out of Trump’s mouth these days, when discussing support for the president can be dismissed as a case of “whataboutism.” The analogy isn’t exact but both examples point to a basic truth the complaints about the hypocrisy of Trump’s religious supporters ignores.
For Evangelicals, the key issue in 2016 was religious liberty. They felt Hillary Clinton’s election would mean the appointment of more liberal judges and federal bureaucrats that would, piece by piece, dismantle their First Amendment protections, driving them from the public square as their views on social issues were rendered anathema by an intolerant popular culture.
At the time, I wondered why they would trust a candidate who was devoid of religious principles or conservative convictions, to keep his promises. But their faith was rewarded since he has governed, if not behaved, like a conservative, appointing judges who are likely to stem the liberal tide that Evangelicals feared would extinguish their religious freedom. If that means putting up with Trump’s vulgar bullying on Twitter, it is, like Burleigh’s formulation, a fair bargain in their eyes.
The same test applies to Orthodox Jews, who are, as Rosenblatt notes, more engaged with Israel than other Jews. There was little reason to think Trump would be a strong supporter of Israel or keep promises like moving the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. But those who believed he would were right. If you think the safety of Israel is the most important issue, then the trust placed by his Jewish supporters in Trump has been amply rewarded. They would not be tempted to swap him for a good family man — like, say, Barack Obama — who believed in more “daylight” between Israel and the United States and sought to appease Iran.
Would these religious voters prefer to vote for someone whose behavior exemplifies their values as well as agreeing with them on litmus test issues? Most probably would. But since they view Trump’s excesses as regrettable but hardly a threat to the republic, they will always prefer a sinner who defends religious liberty or backs Israel over a more moral alternative who would not do so. You may not agree, but they’re doing what liberals — who presumably also care about morality — did 20 years ago. As such, it may be hypocritical, but it is not irrational.
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of JNS — and a contributor to National Review. Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.