Evangelical Republican leaders are sticking with Donald Trump, saying his lewd caught-on-tape comments are reprehensible but that there is no other real option for them at this point.
Levels of enthusiasm for the billionaire businessman vary among the leaders, but for the most part they said they are not about to follow the lead of the several dozen Republican members of Congress who have ditched Mr. Trump in the wake of the leaked tape.
“It’s not like this is new,” said Family Research Council President Tony Perkins. “That’s why I aggressively supported another candidate in the primary, Ted Cruz, who I share values with. But we only have a choice between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump now.”
Evangelicals tend to couch their support for Mr. Trump in pragmatic terms, such as through appeals to the composition of the Supreme Court or warnings about the havoc Mrs. Clinton’s policy agenda would wreak on the nation.
Evangelist Franklin Graham called Mr. Trump’s most recent scandal indefensible but added that the “godless progressive agenda of Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton likewise cannot be defended.”
“The most important issue of this election is the Supreme Court,” Mr. Graham said in a Facebook post. “That impacts everything. There’s no question, Trump and Clinton scandals might be news for the moment, but who they appoint to the Supreme Court will remake the fabric of our society for our children and our grandchildren, for generations to come.”
But critics of the religious right see the faith-based voting bloc’s support of a thrice-married man who has bragged about his affairs as the height of hypocrisy.
Barry W. Lynn, president of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, said religious leaders ought to be “embarrassed” about supporting Mr. Trump.
“The religious right chose decades ago to elevate family values over any other moral issue, and now most of its members dismiss conduct like infidelity, sexual harassment and assault as pretty much irrelevant in choosing a president,” Mr. Lynn said. “I think it calls into question what they honestly stand for and have always stood for.”
In the 2005 tape, Mr. Trump is heard talking about his failed efforts to seduce a married woman and about groping women without their consent.
That was too much for many Republican officeholders — particularly those in tight re-election bids.
“Donald Trump’s behavior this week, concluding with the disclosure of his demeaning comments about women and his boasts about sexual assaults, make it impossible to continue to offer even conditional support for his candidacy,” Sen. John McCain of Arizona, the 2008 Republican presidential nominee, said in disavowing Mr. Trump.
But some religious leaders saw Mr. Trump’s predicament as emblematic of biblical themes of sin and redemption, and the Trump campaign has encouraged that.
Vice presidential nominee Mike Pence emphasized Mr. Trump’s “humility to apologize.”
“I don’t condone what was said, and I spoke out against it,” Mr. Pence said in North Carolina on Monday. “But the other part of my faith is I believe in grace.”
Ultimately, Mr. Perkins said, the stakes this year are too high to abandon Mr. Trump. Pointing to President Obama’s tenure in office, Mr. Perkins said four or eight years of a Hillary Clinton presidency can drastically change the course of the nation.
“I thought, ‘What can four years of this guy Barack Obama do to the country?’ Boy, was I wrong,” he said. “He has dismantled, practically dismantled, the republic in eight years. And Hillary Clinton will finish it off.”