Donald Trump introduced Brett Kavanaugh to the American public on July 9 at the White House. The same day, 40 evangelical leaders issued a statement praising Trump’s nominee for lifetime appointment to the Supreme Court. The signatories were led by Southern Baptist policy head and frequent Trump critic Russell Moore and included the denomination’s new president, pastors, and the heads of various educational institutions and high-profile nonprofits. Kavanaugh “merits appointment as the next associate justice on the United States Supreme Court,” the statement read. “We support President Trump’s nominee and will pray and work for a quick confirmation process.”
To say that Christian conservatives supported the Kavanaugh nomination does not go far enough in capturing their enthusiasm. It wasn’t just that Kavanaugh was a solid pick—reliably conservative, with a record of skepticism on Roe v. Wade—but that the nomination was a kind of payoff. “It is, of course, the reason why so many evangelicals supported Trump in the presidential election,” Karen Swallow Prior, an English professor at Liberty University, told NPRin early September. Prior did not vote for Trump, but she signed the letter of support for Kavanaugh. “We believe that he will interpret the Constitution more faithfully than activist judges in the past,” she told NPR. “And so yes, that does give us some confidence that he would uphold the dignity of human life—of all human life.” Georgia pastor Jentezen Franklin, a member of Trump’s evangelical advisory board, told the Washington Post in July that the promise of a nominee like Kavanaugh “drove millions and millions of evangelicals, more than any other issue, to the polls for Donald Trump.”
In recent days, however, many of Kavanaugh’s Christian supporters have gone silent. On Sunday, the Washington Post published a deeply reported interview with a woman who says Kavanaugh sexually assaulted her at a party when they were both in high school. Christine Blasey Ford, now a psychology professor in California, said that the attack occurred when she and Kavanaugh were at the same house party in the early 1980s. She was 15, and he was 17. Kavanaugh and a friend were both “stumbling drunk,” and they got her alone in a bedroom, where Kavanaugh pinned her down, ground against her, tried to pull off her clothes, and covered her mouth when she tried to scream. “I thought he might inadvertently kill me,” Ford told the Post. “He was trying to attack me and remove my clothing.” She was able to escape and fled the house.
Rumblings of trouble for Kavanaugh began last week, when the Intercept reported that Sen. Dianne Feinstein was in possession of a letter that included details of an unspecified accusation against him. Other details—though not Ford’s name—emerged over the next few days. On Friday, the White House issued a statement on the nominee’s behalf, saying he “categorically and unequivocally” denied the allegation. On Monday, reports indicated that Ford and Kavanaugh will both testify in front of the Senate next Monday.
For all the prominent Christian supporters Kavanaugh amassed on the day of his nomination, few of them have weighed in on the accusation against him, even as his confirmation hearings and Ford’s account have dominated headlines over the past week. A few have spoken up on Kavanaugh’s behalf, including the CEO of Catholic Charities, who has known the nominee since childhood and said: “He’s never given me any reason to doubt his veracity and character.” Ralph Reed, chair of the Faith & Freedom Coalition, wrote a Facebook post slamming Ford’s “uncorroborated 36-year-old high school allegation” as a “disgraceful, partisan debasement of the U.S. Senate and the confirmation process.” Evangelist and Trump supporter Franklin Graham tweeted that none of Kavanaugh’s FBI vettings had turned up the “36-year-old allegations,” and that the show must go on.
Other members of the religious right have offered a different argument, one that’s been echoed by many conservatives: Sure, Kavanaugh may have done it, but it was such a long time ago that he cannot reasonably be held accountable for it. Rod Dreher, a conservative writer, mused that Kavanaugh’s “loutish drunken behavior” has nothing to tell us about his current character.
But these scattered voices testing out varied defenses of Kavanaugh are the exception. Many more of Kavanaugh’s conservative Christian supporters have so far been silent, apparently content to wait and see. Starting on Monday evening, I reached out to about a dozen prominent evangelicals who publicly supported Kavanaugh immediately after the announcement in July. Franklin Graham’s representative pointed me to his online statement. But only one other person made time to weigh in. “I don’t expect we will ever know the truth about what did or did not happen,” Karen Swallow Prior told me. “But as an evangelical Christian, I am convinced Dante himself could not have devised a more fitting circle of hell for my faith community than the one in which we find ourselves: being destroyed from the inside out by the sexual sin we spent decades pointing out everywhere but in our own house. For us, this is the real trial.”