First up from the God Machine this week is a look at the religious right movement and its reaction to reports that Donald Trump allegedly had an extramarital affair with a porn star, to whom he apparently paid $130,000 in hush money shortly before getting elected.
In theory, evangelical Christians should find allegations such as these scandalous, evidence of widespread cultural decay, and the kind of failure of moral standards that fuels the religious right movement itself. And yet, consider what happened when Family Research Council President Tony Perkins sat down with Politico this week.
He knows about the cursing, the lewdness and the litany of questionable behavior over the past year of Trump's life or the 70 that came before it."We kind of gave him -- 'All right, you get a mulligan. You get a do-over here,'" Perkins told me in an interview for the latest episode of POLITICO's Off Message podcast.Weigh a paid-off porn star against being the first president to address the March for Life live via video feed, and a lot of evangelical leaders insist they can still walk away happy.
Perkins added that evangelicals "were tired of being kicked around by Barack Obama and his leftists. And I think they are finally glad that there's somebody on the playground that is willing to punch the bully."
Let's put aside for now the oddity of this up-is-down worldview. While we're at it, let's also look past the fact that Trump is an admitted adulterer and Daniels was not his first alleged mistress (how many "mulligans" Christian conservatives are prepared to extend to Republican politicians is unclear).
Let's instead pause to appreciate the gravity of the religious right movement embracing that which its leaders once ferociously condemned: moral relativism.
Trump has high-profile allies in this movement -- Perkins, Jerry Falwell Jr., Pat Robertson, Franklin Graham, et al -- who've effectively made a moral calculus, borne of political objectives. So long as their partisan ally in the White House delivers on social conservatives' goals, the religious right is prepared to lower the bar on their stated principles.
The movement, or at least the 2018 version of it, has its priorities, and championing the highest moral standards isn't necessarily one of them. As the Washington Post's Michael Gerson put it, "The level of cynicism here is startling. Some Christian leaders are surrendering the idea that character matters in public life in direct exchange for political benefits to Christians themselves. It is a political maneuver indistinguishable from those performed by business or union lobbyists every day. Only seedier. You scratch my back, I'll wink at dehumanization and Stormy Daniels. The gag reflex is entirely gone."
Following his "mulligan" comments, Perkins was rather explicit in endorsing the virtues of the religious right's dubious deal. "This isn't blind allegiance [to the president] on the part of evangelicals," Perkins said on Thursday. "This is reasoned support for a political leader who has made and kept his campaign promises."
But that only reinforces the underlying point. Moral assessments, in this case, are conditional. So long as politically conservative evangelicals are satisfied with Trump's politics, those Christians are prepared to turn a blind eye to Trump's morals. His failings are, in a purely practical sense, less relevant than the religious right's broader wish-list.
What's less clear is whether evangelical Christianity in the United States will ever be the same.
Michael Steele, the former Republican National Committee chairman, shared his personal message to the religious right on MSNBC's "Hardball" this week: "Just shut the hell up and don't ever preach to me about anything ever again. I don't want to hear it.... After telling me how to live my life, who to love, what to believe, what not to believe, what to do and what not to do and now you sit back and the prostitutes don't matter? The grabbing the you-know-what doesn't matter? The outright behavior and lies don't matter? Just shut up."
Also from the God Machine this week:
* While peddling a strange anti-FBI conspiracy theory, Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) tried to draw a comparison to the Immaculate Conception, which he didn't understand. "If you're going to make an analogy at least know what you're talking about," CNN's Chris Cuomo told the confused congressman.
* Vice President Mike Pence recently attended a church service with a pastor who wasn't pleased with Trump's "shithole countries" comments.
* Mormons have a new institutional leader: "Russell M. Nelson, the new leader of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, isn't expected to move the church in major new directions, church members and activists said Tuesday."
* And in Missouri, the Satanic Temple is helping a woman who believes the state's anti-abortion "informed consent" law is a violation of her religious beliefs. It's a case worth watching.