The personal character of public figures

White evangelicals don’t care as much about corruption in political leadership as they used to. A Public Religion Research Institute poll released in October reported that white evangelicals have dramatically revised their opinions about politicians’ personal morality, in recent years.

In 2011, 70 percent said they cared about public figures’ personal morality. Personal ethical behavior was connected, they believed, to faithfully fulfilling the duties of public office. In 2016, only 28 percent of evangelicals still thought this, while the majority of them told pollsters that public figures’ personal morality didn’t really matter.

.. Obama’s personal character, his family life and his finances, provided no fodder for his enemies. Attacking him on that basis was like trying to smear Fred Rogers — or Steve Rogers. So his opponents and enemies had to turn elsewhere — to fantasy, fake news, and the fetid racist fever-dreams of “alt-right” neo-Nazis, Alex Jones loons, and the “birther” lies of a lecherous faux-billionaire.

In other words, an emphasis on “personal ethical behavior” ceased to matter because it ceased to be useful.

If personal ethics and character were treated as meaningful and important, then white evangelicals would have to concede that — despite any disagreements they might have with his policies — Barack Obama, as a person, deserved their respect. And, since they couldn’t bring themselves to concede that, they simply tossed aside their earlier “principled” belief that “Personal ethical behavior was connected … to faithfully fulfilling the duties of public office.”

.. White evangelicals toyed with one unqualified not-Romney candidate after another before eventually, begrudgingly, settling on the Mormon. Mitt Romney’s scandal-free personal life wasn’t perceived as a virtue by white evangelicals, just as the rubbing of salt into an old wound — the constant reminder that Latter Day Saints always seem, as a whole, to be way better at white evangelical piety than white evangelicals have ever managed to be.)

.. Evangelical concern for the personal morality of political leaders probably peaked after Watergate, which was a big part of why, in 1976, they supported a governor from the Bible Belt who was a Navy hero, a Baptist Sunday-school teacher, and a man of almost painful personal integrity. Four years later, though, they abandoned that guy, rallying behind the religious right as it rallied behind a twice-married former Hollywood star who campaigned on states rights and saber-rattling anti-Communism.

Reagan’s history of Hollywood and divorce were, very briefly, matters of ethical concern for white evangelical voters. His pledge to support “states rights” — at a campaign kick-off in Neshoba County, Mississippi