For evangelicals, sin is redeemable — but can that allow sex offenders to dodge their actions?

Many of Roy Moore’s evangelical supporters see alleged “sins of the past” as no longer relevant.

Onetime Alabama Senate frontrunner (and longtime Christian theocrat) Roy Moore has managed to hold onto his evangelical base, despite being embroiled in allegations of sexual misconduct with at least eight teenage girls when he was in his 30s. Several major evangelical figures, including Jerry Falwell Jr., and Franklin Graham, both of whom serve on Donald Trump’s unofficial evangelical advisory council, have spoken in support of Moore, and, according to the latest Fox News poll, 65 percent of white evangelicals in Alabama still plan to vote for him.

Why?

Evangelical support for Moore is based on a variety of factors. There are those who think that the allegations against Moore are the result of a political smear campaign, or — worse — that diabolical “forces of evil” are attempting to push God out of government, in this case by muddling a staunch Christian politician’s chances of winning a Senate seat. There are those who think that “courting” a teenage girl just isn’t that big a deal. There are those who believe the good Moore can do in office — like working to ban abortion — outweigh the bad in his personal life.

But, perhaps most importantly, an alarmingly common evangelical approach to sexual misconduct — and misconduct more generally — is deeply rooted in theological concepts of sin, redemption, and forgiveness that make it easy to dissociate a wrongdoing individual from his past misdeeds on the grounds that he has already been “forgiven.”

When it comes to the allegations against Moore, this narrative has been pervasive among evangelical supporters. In line with the aforementioned Fox News poll, Dottie Finch, a Moore supporter interviewed by CNN shortly after the allegations came out, took this view: “And if it has happened, I believe the good Lord has forgiven him and he has the right to continue to prove himself.” An Alabama retiree and Moore supporter quoted by the Huffington Post took a similar tack: “And if he had done it, it doesn’t matter in God’s eyes because he’d have been forgiven.” Kenneth Frost, a Baptist deacon, agreed, telling the Los Angeles Times, “I have to forgive him, just like God forgave me.”

To understand Moore’s supporters, we have to understand the theology of sin and redemption

Now, it’s important to understand that “evangelicalism” isn’t a single unified church (unlike, for example, the Catholic Church), but an umbrella term for a number of Protestant groups characterized by a belief in the Bible as the center of the faith and a focus on salvation through grace alone (more on that in a bit). So, it’s worth mentioning here that talking about “evangelical theology” is necessarily a bit reductive; within different evangelical churches and even on a church-to-church level, there are differences in emphasis on particular doctrines or ideas. That said, there are certain elements that make evangelical theology distinctive.

Generally speaking, though when we talk about “sin” in a wider Christian (not just evangelical) context, we’re talking about something a little bit more complicated than simply “bad” or “unethical” actions. Sin is more holistic.

It’s part of the human condition (through the idea of original sin, human beings are automatically inclined toward sinful acts, inheriting the guilt of Adam’s first sin in which he ate the forbidden fruit in the garden of Eden). It’s a sickness that eats away at the sinner as much as it does the people whom that sinner hurts.

In that sense, sin is considered a form of bondage: Human beings are afflicted by temptation to do evil that warps their perceptions and their desires. Saint Augustine — the fourth-century theologian regarded by Christians across the theological spectrum as among the most formative in the Christian tradition — describes the human condition as one of being trapped by sin: “Emancipation cannot, without God’s grace, be achieved by the human will, which is by no means to be called free so long as it is subject to prevailing and enslaving lusts.”

This sentiment of sin being something over which human beings have minimal control becomes even more extreme in much Protestant thought. John Calvin, the 16th century reformer (and father of Calvinism), puts it thus: “Human will does not by liberty obtain grace, but by grace obtains liberty.”

While human beings are responsible for their own actions, they are also, in another sense, enslaved. Their minds, hearts, and bodies alike can be overcome by toxic and harmful desires, from lust to jealousy. It’s a pretty depressing picture of humanity, but also one that — for better or worse — is deeply sympathetic about the human propensity for moral and ethical failure: It’s part of who we are as people.

So how do we escape this condition?

For Christians, that’s where Jesus comes in. In evangelical Christianity, even more than in other forms of Christianity, the moment of salvation — when a sinner accepts Jesus Christ — is a moment of total renewal, of rebirth (hence the term, “born-again Christian”). Grace — Jesus’s salvific forgiveness — provides an avenue by which the sinner can transcend the sinful human condition, something no human being can do on their own.

Ideally, grace doesn’t just provide a “get out of jail free card” for past actions; it also helps transform an individual. Simply put, God’s grace is supposed to make you a new person and set you free from the “bondage” of sin. Christians will still sin, of course, and stray from the path of righteousness — what’s often known as “backsliding” in evangelical circles — but the idea is that faith is central to combatting those temptations.

An essay on the website for Christian Broadcasting Network (CBN), the Pat Robertson-founded Christian evangelical network best-known for popular faith-based show The 700 Club, captures this dynamic well:

“When a believer backslides, he falls back in some way into a less desirable condition. His lapse may be a relatively minor … not praying, reading the Bible, and keeping his focus on living for God. … Pay close attention to matters of the heart. The Christian life is about having a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. Avoid focusing primarily on a list of dos and don’ts. Stay close to the Lord throughout each day.”

The focus for evangelicals here is not on human action but on God’s grace and God’s choice to extend it. While evangelical Protestant traditions differ on the degree to which there’s any element of human decision in the process, there is a general sense that most of the “work” is being done by God (to reach out to and save) the individual.

Evangelical theology can go too far in dissociating the sinner from the sin

So what does that mean for Roy Moore — or for other Christian men accused of sexual misconduct?

In theory, the idea of sin described above wouldn’t allow anyone a “get out of jail free” card for their actions. If anything, the ideal is that sinners, once they have been transformed by grace, would actively and consistently use that grace to work for a better world, and engage in true repentance for their prior actions; a repentance that would involve taking responsibility and making amends.

In practice, however, it can be a vastly different story.

Often, evangelical narratives around sin and redemption draw a clear line between a past (pre-saved) self and the reborn, Christian self.

As writer and scholar David Sessions writes in the Daily Beast:

Personal conversion, and re-conversion after “backsliding,” are the core of evangelical faith. Virtually every evangelical Christian, no matter how squeaky-clean their life may have been, has a “testimony” about the moment they became aware of their sin and need of a savior. … The testimonies of serious sinners — say, thrice-married serial adulterers — can have a particularly powerful effect on believers. Radical “come to Jesus” experiences reinforce evangelical mythology about everyone else in the world being miserable and depressed without God.

Often this narrative is particularly prevalent among evangelicals who have been accused of sexual misconduct. After evangelical television personality Josh Duggar confessed to molesting his sisters as a teenage boy, he and his family used the salvation playbook. Michael Seewald, whose son is married to one of Duggar’s sisters, spoke out against the media condemnation of Duggar, who was never charged with a crime: “The ultimate answer … is what Josh found and millions like him. He found forgiveness and cleansing from Jesus Christ. There are many of you that are reading these words right now having had thoughts and deeds no better than what Josh had and did.”

Disgraced megachurch founder Ted Haggard resigned his post in 2006, after admitting to drug abuse and a sex scandal with a male sex worker. He returned to public church life with similar rhetoric: “I am a sinner and [my wife] is a saint. … I feel we have moved past the scandal. We have forgiveness. It is a second chance.”

In other words, there’s a tendency among evangelicals to see sexual (or other) sins that have happened long ago (or even not that long ago), either prior to conversion itself or prior to a “re-conversion” or renewal of faith, as, well, natural. Of course people commit sinful acts, because sin is part of the human condition, and of course people are victims of sin without God’s grace to help free them of it.

There are a few problems with how this manifests in practice. It can absolve “saved” individuals of too much responsibility for past misdeeds, since they’re considered the deeds of a past, different self. It encourages a culture of silence among evangelicals about their struggles, since salvation is “supposed” to mean that temptation goes away, and any “backsliding” is the result of insufficient faith. Finally, this theological approach also means that “sins” tend to be conflated, especially sexual sins: consensual premarital sex and sexual abuse are often seen on the same spectrum, both the result of a temptation too great to bear.

Without God, the implication goes, people have almost no agency. In Moore’s case, the fact that his alleged sins happened so long ago — and that the intervening years have seen him become more and more committed to the idea of a theocratic Christian state— only intensify some evangelicals’ sense that Moore’s actions then (even if true) don’t necessarily have a bearing on who he is now. It’s also worth noting that in the aftermath of Trump’s campaign, evangelicals have done an extraordinary about-face when it comes to their view on the importance of politicians’ personal morality.

Many, many Christian scholars and thinkers have been intensely critical of this “get out of jail free” approach to sin and grace, as I noted earlier this month. Among the most prominent in the past century was Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German pastor and anti-Nazi dissident who was executed in a concentration camp for his activism. Bonhoeffer distinguished between “cheap grace” — easy forgiveness that allowed individual perpetrators and oppressive societies to get away, unchallenged, with their actions — and “costly grace,” or forgiveness that also asks hard questions, and demands social change.

It’s worth noting, however, that several prominent evangelicals — including the president of Southern Baptist Convention’s policy arm, Russell Moore (no relation) — have spoken out criticizing Moore’s evangelical supporters. “Christians, if you cannot say definitively, no matter what, that adults creeping on teenage girls is wrong, do not tell me how you stand against moral relativism,” Russell Moore tweeted.

Despite this, “cheap grace” has become seemingly common in some evangelical communities, especially when there are practical political or pragmatic reasons (i.e., a Republican in power) to overlook a sin and preserve the social status quo.

The language of sin could help us process sexual abuse — but not the way Moore’s supporters are using it

There are many, many things we can criticize in Roy Moore’s supporters’ attitude to his alleged misdeeds. But one of them is that by adopting “cheap grace” for Moore, they’re overlooking the fact that the language and paradigm of sin, as distinct from ethics, can be useful and even beneficial, even in the secular sphere, when properly applied.

The language of sin and redemption allows us to look at someone who commits a “bad” or “wrong” act through a broader lens. Instead of simply focusing on the unethical nature of that act, the sin/redemption paradigm has the advantage of providing avenues for exploring both the factors leading up to that act and the ways in which a person might make amends for it. It challenges us to ask wider questions: How has this person been shaped by toxic forces and societal attitudes within the broader culture? How has this person been shaped — or warped — by his or her actions? How have emotions like shame or guilt played into a wider feedback loop of toxic behavior? How can this person make amends for what he or she has done?

The idea of “restorative justice,” for example, is predicated upon an application of some of these principles in a non-religious context.

After the Troubles tore apart Northern Ireland for decades, participants including former and current members of paramilitary organizations on both sides of the conflict were brought together in facilitated meetings with those they had affected, including those whose family members had been killed as a result of violence in the region. Working with mediators, perpetrators sought to make amends for their prior actions through, for example, the financial or material restitution, sincere apology, or volunteer work. According to the backers of one pilot program of restorative justice in the region, the model was extremely effective: in all but one of the areas covered by that program, paramilitary violence fell to zero.

It can work in other settings as well. According to a UK study done over eight years, 85 percent of victims of crime who participated in restorative justice program alongside traditional criminal justice proceedings — including facilitated meetings with the offenders — expressed satisfaction with the outcome. While cases of sexual assault adjudicated in the restorative justice system are rare, some women who have experienced rape have reported finding the restorative justice process a valuable part of finding closure more broadly.

The evangelical narrative of sin and redemption isn’t necessarily bad. Recognizing the frailty of the human condition, and having compassion for it, alongside a robust advocacy for all victims, can be a healthy and useful way of achieving closure for victims and rehabilitating perpetrators.

But that’s not what Moore’s supporters are offering when they say he’s been forgiven. That’s just cheap grace.