Op-Ed: The evangelical slippery slope, from Ronald Reagan to Roy Moore
When I was growing up in the evangelical subculture in the 1960s and 1970s, I heard a lot of warnings about slippery slopes, especially relating to the Bible. If you dared to interpret the many-headed beasts or the vials of judgment in the Book of Revelation as allegory, then pretty soon you’d read the creation accounts at the beginning of Genesis not as history but as stories. Slippery slope. Not long thereafter you’d question the miracles of the New Testament, trade in your King James Bible for Kahil Gibran’s “The Prophet” and become (I don’t know) a Druid, an Episcopalian or perhaps a coastal elite.
Many of the slippery slope scenarios I heard applied to behavior. A sip of beer would lead to wine, then the hard stuff and, inevitably, to a life of debauchery. A trip to the movie theater would lead to a pornography addiction. Playing poker with friends would lead to a gambling addiction. Slippery slope. Dancing, of course, placed you on the fast track to sexual intercourse.
I left the evangelical subculture, more or less, at the end of the 1970s. Little did I know that evangelicals were then stepping onto their own slippery slope that would lead to Donald Trump and now Roy Moore.
To say that I left the evangelical subculture is not quite accurate — and not only because evangelicalism is so stamped into my DNA that it is impossible to leave entirely. Evangelicalism really left me more than I left it. The religious tradition that shaped me was part of a long and noble movement that, in earlier generations of American life, took the part of those on the margins of society. Evangelicals, especially in the 19th and early 20th centuries, sought to educate those on the bottom rungs of society so they would have a better life. They worked for the abolition of slavery and advocated equal rights, including voting rights for women.
The slippery slope that began with the religious right’s embrace of Reagan in 1980 has led to decades of moral compromises.
By the late 1970s, however, leaders of the religious right were preparing to abandon that legacy, and their first step onto the slippery slope was their embrace of Ronald Reagan.
Until the 1980 presidential campaign, evangelicals roundly condemned divorce. Anyone who was divorced, even the innocent party, was ostracized and even expelled from evangelical congregations. My mother told me she could never vote for Nelson Rockefeller because he had divorced his wife and then remarried.
Reagan, too, was both divorced and remarried. But suddenly, in 1980, that was no longer important to Jerry Falwell and other leaders of the religious right. They had decided to care more about non-biblical matters such as states’ rights — the right to be left alone and do as they saw fit, including racially segregate their schools — than the biblical message that marriage is forever.
As I’ve said before in these pages, I once counted the number of articles condemning divorce in the pages of Christianity Today, the flagship magazine of evangelicalism. The magazine ran dozens of such articles in the 1970s. After 1980, the number dropped to the low single digits.
Thus began the religious right’s descent into the maw of the Republican Party. Despite evangelicalism’s long tradition of care for those Jesus called “the least of these,” leaders of the religious right offered no dissent when Reagan lavished tax cuts on the wealthy, just as they produced nary a whimper when George W. Bush flouted centuries of just war teaching or when Donald Trump suggested a moral equivalence between the white supremacists in Charlottesville, Va., and those who opposed them.
It is now a matter of record that 81% of white evangelicals voted for Trump in the 2016 presidential election – a twice-divorced, thrice-married casino owner who boasted of his marital infidelities and his sexually predatory behavior. And yet, evangelical leaders were all in: Franklin Graham, Tony Perkins, Jerry Falwell Jr. and many others.
After the 2016 election, who knew the slippery slope could reach any deeper? But then came Alabama’s Roy Moore, the Republican candidate for the U.S. Senate who fashioned an entire career out of playing the martyr for the religious right — and was credibly accused of pursuing, even molesting, underage girls.
Surely evangelical leaders would finally draw the line at behavior that sounds an awful lot like pedophilia, behavior that, as an assistant district attorney would surely know, was a violation of Alabama state law?
The slippery slope that began with the religious right’s embrace of Reagan in 1980 (over a fellow evangelical, by the way, a Southern Baptist Sunday school teacher) has led to decades of moral compromises. The refusal to condemn Moore is shaping up as just another way station on the slippery slope.
Randall Balmer, an Episcopal priest, is the John Phillips professor in religion at Dartmouth College and the author of more than a dozen books, including “Redeemer: The Life of Jimmy Carter.”
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