Party Foul: Why Trump’s Profanity might cost him with Evangelicals

Jeremy Sabella
Religion Department, Kalamazoo College

02 October 2017


It is no secret that white evangelical Christians have been staunch supporters of President Trump. His unscripted commentary on NFL protests last week may mark the moment that this support begins to erode.

At issue is not what Trump said, but rather, the way he said it. Commentators have rightly noted that Trump had much harsher words for black athletes peacefully exercising their first amendment rights than for those who turned out for violent white supremacist marches. While the racially problematic nature of Trump’s comments may not alienate his evangelical base, the fact that he used the term “son of a bitch” to describe an NFL player just might.

At first glance this might sound farfetched. This is the same figure that openly mocked a senator’s P.O.W. record, disrespected a Gold Star family, and boasted about the size of his manhood on national television. If evangelical support persisted in the face of these comments, what damage could a single misplaced word do? Yet historical precedent suggests that conservative evangelicalism takes its taboos around language very seriously. Breaking these taboos can exact a high cost.

Take the case of Richard Nixon, who like Trump enjoyed broad evangelical support. As his presidency got mired in the Watergate scandal, renowned Baptist preacher Billy Graham continued to work closely with the president. Graham did not break publicly with Nixon till he heard the infamous White House Tapes for himself. The tapes provided compelling proof that Nixon had engaged in obstruction of justice. But what caught Graham’s attention was hearing the president of the United States using profanity. Apparently, this convinced Graham that Nixon was not who he thought he was.

In light of the broader scandal, this fixation with language might seem like a clear-cut case of straining gnats and swallowing camels. Yet there was an inner logic to Graham’s reaction. For many conservative evangelicals, speech provides a window into the soul. The ability to avoid foul language implies that one had learned to tame the tongue, which in turn suggests strength of character. Conversely, speech laced with curse words suggests a lack of spiritual discipline bound to manifest in other areas of life. From this perspective, Nixon’s profanity revealed him to be the sort of person who might abuse his office to spy on his political enemies. The charges against Nixon now seemed a good deal more credible.

In practice, remaining within the parameters of acceptable speech is relatively straightforward: 1) Avoid choice four-letter words and their adjacent terms, and 2) refrain from using God’s name in vain. Observe these two rules, and conservative evangelicals will support you so long as you champion their political priorities. Nixon pushed conservative evangelical causes, so Graham supported him—up until he broke the language code. Trump delivered on a conservative Supreme Court nominee, so his evangelical base remains solid. But what will happen now that Trump called an NFL player a “son of a bitch”?  

What we do know is that, a couple days later, NFL players and owners stood united in league-wide acts of protest. Even owners who are known to be close to the president defied him publically. Jacksonville Jaguars owner Shahid Khan, who donated $1 million to Trump’s inauguration committee, stood arm-in-arm with his players, describing this as a Rosa Parks moment for his team. New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft, who gave Trump a Super Bowl ring, described himself as “deeply disappointed” by Trump’s statement. Even Dallas Cowboys owner and Trump donor Jerry Jones took a knee with his team before standing with arms locked for the anthem. Trump tried to drive a wedge between NFL owners and protesting players. Instead, players and owners stood together in defiance. This is not what POTUS had in mind.

Would any of this have happened if Trump had not used a curse word? Probably not. Throughout his campaign and presidency, he has insulted individuals and groups with little political fallout (at times it actually seems to have helped him). His base has routinely overlooked similarly racially charged statements. But this time, he used a curse word. This has meant the difference between sporadic protests that team owners ignore and unified protests that galvanize the NFL.

During his pastorate in the 1920s, Reinhold Niebuhr puzzled over why it was so difficult to get fellow clergy to support social justice causes. He related how a pastor he had “suspected of cowardice for years” proved him wrong when he delivered a “tirade against women who smoke cigarettes and lost almost a hundred of his most fashionable parishioners.” The pastor didn’t lack for moral courage. He simply didn’t see systemic race and class issues as warranting public action.

One wonders if Niebuhr thought back to this when he called Graham out for growing too cozy with Nixon to no apparent effect. It wasn’t that Graham lacked the courage to stand up to Nixon. He simply didn’t perceive the moral hazard that his proximity to the presidency put him in. Not till Nixon broke evangelical Christian taboos around language did the scales fall from Graham’s eyes.

And they have fallen from the eyes of NFL owners as well. Whatever their personal beliefs, they seem to have absorbed similar sensibilities around language. If Trump is the sort of person who can’t tame his tongue, then maybe he’s the sort of person that would do the things that his critics allege. Trump’s profanity united NFL players and owners in protest. It may also prompt his conservative evangelical base to withdraw support.

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