On Sunday night, as CNN’s Anderson Cooper laid the groundwork for his question to Donald Trump, silence spread across the normally raucous bar where I had camped out to watch the second presidential debate.
Up the road, I imagined Trump’s running mate, Mike Pence, might be watching from the governor’s mansion. But next to me, the young women staring at the TV, drinks in hand, wanted to know how the Republican nominee could possibly justify boasting – on video and in the most despicable terms possible – about forcibly kissing and groping women.
“That is sexual assault. You bragged that you’ve sexually assaulted women,” Cooper said. “Do you understand that?”
Trump barely took a breath before responding dismissively, “I don’t think you understood what was said. This was locker room talk.”
At that, a primordial scream of obscenities erupted from the women next to me, mercifully drowning out the rest of Trump’s words. In all the years I lived in Indianapolis, I’ve never heard such anger.
Indiana is a place where being pious and polite in public are so ingrained that people have a hard time even cursing at football games. It’s one of the most religious states in the union, with more than 70 percent of the population identifying as Christian and, of that group, more than 30 percent as evangelical.
So it makes sense that Trump’s halfhearted attempt to explain away his vulgar behavior would come up short in this conservative, Midwestern state. The same is true for Utah, where polls show the overwhelmingly Mormon population is starting to shun Trump and consider voting for Hillary Clinton instead.
What’s far more maddening, though – and perhaps at the root of the outburst that I heard Sunday night – is how so many men in the religious right movement that Ronald Reagan once championed are continuing to defend Trump and keep his campaign afloat.
On Wednesday, for example, Pence, who describes himself as “a Christian, a conservative and a Republican, in that order,” continued his post-debate Tour de Manipulative Mansplaining at Liberty University in Virginia.
“As a believer, I believe we are called to live godly lives but also we recognize that we all fall short. It’s not about condoning what was said and done, it’s about believing in grace and forgiveness,” Pence told students at the evangelical college. “As Christians we are called to forgive, even as we’ve been forgiven.”
And, then, laying it on thick as he usually does, Pence added that Trump “literally embodies the spirit of America.”
Meanwhile, Pat Robertson, founder of the Christian Broadcasting Network, has said Trump was just “trying to look like he’s macho” in that 2005 “Access Hollywood” video. Jerry Falwell Jr., whose father founded Liberty University, insists that “every single one of us are sinners.” And Ben Carson has mumbled something about how we shouldn’t care because such “locker room talk” happens all the time.
The list of Trump lackeys willing to sacrifice their morals for power and a couple of conservative U.S. Supreme Court justices goes on and on. But what’s becoming clear is that their actions will have destructive consequences.
One of my Hoosier pals with fundamentalist roots put it well. “You know, I thought the split in the church was going to be over gay marriage. It’s not,” she said. “It’s going to be over Trump.”
A growing number of evangelical women are understandably disgusted with the way many men in the religious right have thrown them under the bus. And they’re not being silent about their displeasure either.
Beth Moore, a popular evangelist and founder of Living Proof Ministries, was one of the first to speak up. “I’m one among many women sexually abused, misused, stared down, heckled, talked naughty to. Like we liked it. We didn’t. We’re tired of it,” she tweeted. “Try to absorb how acceptable the disesteem and objectifying of women has been when some Christian leaders don’t think it’s that big a deal.”
Since then, Chelsen Vicari, evangelical program director at the Institute on Religion, Christian author Christine Caine, Julie Roys of the Moody Bible Institute and a many other women have shared their outrage, too.
“I honestly don’t know what makes me more sick,” Roys wrote in The Christian Post, “listening to Trump brag about groping women or listening to my fellow evangelicals defend him.”
Many young evangelicals feel the same way. In true millennial fashion, many of these folks are far more concerned with staying true to their faith by helping people in their neighborhoods with a diverse, tight-knit community than in hanging onto political power by trying to get some old white man elected.
These are the friends I saw shaking their heads and balling up their fists in disgust Sunday night.
This is the losing game Pence, Robertson and crew are playing just to support Trump. In addition to the election, they also might lose what waning political power the religious right has left. Their strength is in numbers, after all, not just in faith.
Sure, some of this is anecdotal. Polls show support for Trump and Pence has waned among most religious groups over the past week, but white evangelical Protestants have remained loyal. A solid 65 percent of them say they will vote for the Republican ticket, according to one poll. Another poll, this one from NBC, puts at 48 percent.
The question is, how long will the support for Trump last? My guess is not long as more sordid details trickle out.
And so at what cost? To Pence and others counting on the backing of a big, solid voting bloc of evangelicals, I suspect it could be very high indeed.