Trump with Jerry Falwell, Jr.
Credit: Sheelah Craighead/Wikimedia Commons

A while ago I pointed to Robert Jones’s definition of “nostalgia voters.”

Trump’s campaign—with its sweeping promise to “make American great again”—triumphed by converting self-described “values voters” into what I’ve called “nostalgia voters.” Trump’s promise to restore a mythical past golden age—where factory jobs paid the bills and white Protestant churches were the dominant cultural hubs—powerfully tapped evangelical anxieties about an uncertain future.

One of the common refrains you’ll hear from these nostalgia voters is to blame the “liberal Hollywood elite” for the cultural changes that they fear. That refrain has only grown louder as men like Harvey Weinstein and Kevin Spacey have been accused of sexual harassment. As just one example, here is what Franklin Graham wrote on Facebook recently:

Kevin Spacey is now in the news for being accused of making sexual advances toward a 14-year-old boy over 30 years ago, and even Rosie O’Donnell came out saying “We all knew.” Well, if everybody knew, why did they remain silent? We’ve all heard Harvey Weinstein’s story—82 women have now accused him of sexual harassment or even rape, and the number seems to keep growing. He’s one of Hollywood’s premier producers and was in a position to make or break careers…For far too long, Hollywood has gotten a free pass. They’ve been allowed to pollute America’s youth with moral corruption, and Washington has done nothing to reign them in.

Just to be clear, Rosie O’Donnell didn’t claim to know about Spacey’s sexual harassment of a 14 year-old boy. As she explained on Twitter, she knew “he was a creepy closeted gay guy.” But perhaps to someone like Graham, there isn’t a difference.

What none of this takes into account is how the so-called “liberal Hollywood elite” reacted to this information when it became public. The victims were believed, while those who had been accused lost jobs, awards and membership in entertainment institutions. That isn’t meant to let Hollywood off the hook. But the truth is that wherever men have power over women (which is pretty much everywhere in this culture), you are going to find instances of sexual harassment. That’s not an excuse…simply a statement of reality in a patriarchal culture.

What is telling is to take a look at how leaders of the nostalgia voters reacted to news that the man they supported for president—Donald Trump—had been accused not only of sexual harassment, but bragged about committing sexual assault. On the former, Jerry Falwell, Jr. basically accused his victims of lying. When the Access Hollywood tape was released, here is how a few of them reacted:

Jerry Falwell, Jr.:

There was nothing defensible. It was completely out of order, it’s not something I’m going to defend . . . it was reprehensible. We’re all sinners, every one of us. We’ve all done things we wish we hadn’t.

We’re never going to have a perfect candidate unless Jesus Christ is on the ballot.

Ralph Reed:

…people of faith are voting on issues like who will protect unborn life, defend religious freedom, grow the economy, appoint conservative judges and oppose the Iran nuclear deal…

I think a 10-year-old tape of a private conversation with a TV talk show host ranks pretty low on their hierarchy of their concerns.

Franklin Graham:

The crude comments made by Donald J. Trump more than 11 years ago cannot be defended. But the godless progressive agenda of Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton likewise cannot be defended…On November 8th we will all have a choice to make. The two candidates have very different visions for the future of America. The most important issue of this election is the Supreme Court. That impacts everything. There’s no question, Trump and Clinton scandals might be news for the moment, but who they appoint to the Supreme Court will remake the fabric of our society for our children and our grandchildren, for generations to come.

That’s just a taste, but perhaps you get the idea. Condemnations of Trump’s behavior were always followed by a huge “but…” Included were excuses like: we’re all sinners, it’s a low priority, and the Supreme Court is more important. Trump didn’t just keep his job, they supported his promotion to be president of the United States. In other words, a lot of white evangelical leaders gave their guy a pass for sexual harassment/abuse while those “liberal Hollywood elitists” stepped up to the plate to hold their guys accountable.  What’s up with that?

The combination of tribalism and authoritarianism goes a long way in explaining this phenomenon. Here is political scientist Alexander George Theodoridis with his definition of asymmetric polarization:

In Asymmetric Politics, Matt Grossmann and David Hopkins show us that there are important qualitative differences between the two parties. The Democratic Party is best described as a collection of group interests and the Republican Party is unified by ideology. This finding may be either the cause of or the product of a phenomenon my research has shown in study after study. Over and over, Republican voters behave in more partisan ways than do their Democratic counterparts. They identify more strongly with their party. They show more bias in interpreting new information. They engage in more boosting of their party (and derogation of the other). And, they are more likely to select out of receiving messages from the other side.

But when it comes to these white evangelical leaders, I believe it goes even deeper than that. Over the years we’ve all learned about the horrible problem of sexual abuse in the Catholic Church. But we haven’t heard much about that issue in protestant churches. As this devastating report from Kathryn Joyce documented over three years ago, that doesn’t mean it’s not a huge problem. A family member of mine who was a victim over 40 years ago suggests that is because protestant churches, organizations and schools don’t have the same kind of hierarchy that we see in the Catholic Church and so things are more easily swept under the rug.

The truth is that the interweaving threads of authoritarianism, sexism, homophobia and shame about sexuality create a toxic brew that is the breeding ground for harassment and abuse. Here is how Joyce described it:

Common threads run through the stories: authoritarian settings where rule-following and obedience reign supreme; counseling techniques that emphasize victims’ own culpability; male leaders with few checks on their power; and, in the eyes of many Christians including Tchividjian, a perversion of the Bible to justify all three. “When you have this motley group of many denominations, this independent environment, and then this distortion of scripture, that’s an environment where abuse can flourish,” Tchividjian says. “But we’ve never been forced to deal with it on a Protestant-wide basis.”

Interestingly enough, ‘Boz’ Tchividjian is Franklin Graham’s nephew, one of the few protestant evangelicals to speak out about this issue and founder of Godly Response to Abuse in the Christian Environment (GRACE).

As someone who has witnessed these patterns in evangelical Christianity over the years, it comes as no surprise to me that there is an unwillingness to hold someone like Trump accountable. It’s been going on for decades.

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