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Herschel Walker mess proves Christian right cares only about power, not abortion

A Senate candidate's scandals over abortion hypocrisy and abuse show why today's Christian right doesn't care about morality.

Republican U.S. Senate candidate Herschel Walker speaking to a crowd of voters while campaigning in Emerson, Ga., on Sept. 7.
Republican U.S. Senate candidate Herschel Walker speaking to a crowd of voters while campaigning in Emerson, Ga., on Sept. 7.Read moreNatrice Miller / MCT

In the increasingly fraught autumn of 2022, it’s beyond cliché to accuse an increasingly militant American right of “saying the quiet part out loud.” Once gently framed worries about rising authoritarianism in U.S. politics have given way to rally crowds raising their right arms in Nazi-looking salutes while the soundtrack of the wackadoodle conspiracy theory QAnon plays in the background.

But when Dana Loesch — the conservative bomb thrower best known for her provocations on behalf of the National Rifle Association — took to the TV airwaves on Tuesday on a show called The First, she not only took on the big issue that more mainstream Republicans seemed eager to avoid, but she turned the volume dial way past 11, maybe to around 17.

It was just hours after the bombshell Daily Beast revelation that Georgia’s GOP U.S. Senate hopeful Herschel Walker — the ex-football star whose challenge to Democratic Sen. Raphael Warnock is crucial to his party’s 2022 ambitions, and who claims he supports a total abortion ban — had paid for a girlfriend’s abortion in 2009. To make matters worse, that story triggered the candidate’s son Christian Walker to go on a social media rampage accusing his dad of threatening to kill their family and forcing them to move six times in six months.

But unless you’ve spent the last six years in a cave or a coma, you may not be shocked to learn that Loesch doubled down on full-throated support for Walker’s election next month (in addition to attacking the millions of women who’ve aborted a pregnancy as “skanks,” just for the heck of it). She said the only virtue that matters on Election Day isn’t actual virtue, just “winning.”

“I don’t care if Herschel Walker paid to abort endangered baby eagles,” Loesch said. “I want control of the Senate.” Because with that control comes the Christian right’s fantastical vision of dominion over not just American politics but also the culture and the courtroom and the classroom — and, of course, the rights of women to govern their own bodies. Because the so-called “family values” of American fundamentalists now drawn toward Christian nationalism turn out to be mere window dressing that can be tossed for the movement’s true aim: authoritarianism.

Given the way that Walker’s seemingly disastrous campaign — yet still neck and neck with Warnock’s — has been going, it wouldn’t shock me if the story about aborting endangered baby eagles drops tomorrow. It still wouldn’t matter.

No prominent Republican candidates or party leaders came out and condemned Walker — not for the shocking allegations of domestic violence leveled, ironically, on the fifth anniversary of the #MeToo movement, and not for his role in aiding abortion, which a lot of 2022 GOP politicians like Pennsylvania Senate hopeful Mehmet Oz have insisted is “murder.”

To the contrary, donations poured into Walker’s campaign after the news broke — some $500,000 if the campaign can be believed. About 250 evangelicals rallied behind Walker at a prayer luncheon at a Baptist church in Atlanta, as the candidate raced into the studio to record an ad summoning every Christian platitude about forgiveness, insisting he is “saved by grace.” Any true salvation is more likely from his backers’ thirst for power.

It wasn’t always like this. This week also marked the fifth anniversary of the 2017 report that a Western Pennsylvania congressman who belonged to the Republican Pro-Life Caucus, Rep. Tim Murphy, had pressured a woman he was having an affair with to have an abortion. Murphy was condemned by some Republicans and resigned in a matter of hours — yet the political winds were already shifting. Just months earlier, evangelical voters had overwhelmingly voted for Donald Trump, despite myriad sexual misconduct scandals and that tawdry Access Hollywood tape. In 2011, only 36% of Republicans said they could vote for a politician who’d committed “an immoral act”; today, it’s 71%.

It’s easy to reach for the simplest explanation of why a deeply flawed candidate like Walker is still in the running: That in an era of negative partisanship, there is no scandal that trumps the desire by Republican voters for a GOP Senate that would block President Joe Biden’s judicial nominees and prevent what they call “the woke liberal agenda.” And that’s surely part of it — but there’s also something much deeper in play.

The conservative movement is about one thing: preserving traditional hierarchies, especially around white privilege and patriarchy, by any means necessary. In the past, democracy — in times and places where white Protestants were the majority — often served that agenda well, and there were dirty tricks like Jim Crow laws for the places where it didn’t. But in an increasingly diverse and better-educated America, the old hierarchies are fading. So today, the far-right has a brand-new tool kit — a belief that Christian law trumps the will of the voters, or that vote counts don’t matter because elections are rigged (although they aren’t), or merely faith in the raw power of imposing unqualified candidates on the body politic.

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“In that imagined past, white men ruled the roost, families went to church every Sunday and outsiders knew their place,” Clemson University political scientist Laura Olson wrote in a 2020 essay. “A deep-rooted desire for a return to that past may have been why Trump’s Make America Great Again slogan has proved so potent. As Yale scholar Philip Gorski has argued, that phrase can be interpreted to mean ‘making white Christianity culturally dominant again.’”

When Trump said famously in his 2016 campaign that “I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody, and I wouldn’t lose any voters, OK?” the statement caused amazement but also bewilderment. Six years later, we’ve come to understand exactly what the future 45th president was talking about — a movement willing to steamroll past any potential flaw, nuance, or nod to higher principles in order to impose its will. It turns out that electing blatantly dishonest and unworthy candidates is the ultimate test — with Walker as the exclamation point.

Indeed, there is something both perverse and yet profoundly fitting about the candidacy of Walker, whose supposed assets — his popularity as a Heisman Trophy winner who brought a national title to the University of Georgia in 1982, and his long friendship with Trump — are swamped by his liabilities not just in his unseemly private life but his many lies about his schooling, work, ties to law enforcement, and his lack of any political coherence. It sounds bizarre, but Georgia Republicans may see those flaws as a feature, not a bug.

“When I see the walking stereotype of Black male mediocrity that is Herschel Walker, I am reminded that a significant swath of white folks need this to be who Black people are, who Black men are,” Rutgers women and gender studies professor Brittney Cooper, who is Black, wrote on Twitter. “Violent, idiotic, brute, immoral, deadbeats.”

Georgia Republicans are hoping to impose Walker on the electorate not because they think he will do good things for their state, but a) just to show that they can and b) to vanquish Warnock, whose virtues as heir to the Atlanta pulpit of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and an advocate for society’s less privileged is a true portrait of decency that they don’t want voters getting used to for the next six years. Their movement is desperate to all but end democracy and impose Christian law, flawed vote counts, and Big Lie-backing leaders on America because they know their phony-baloney ancient hierarchies are on the verge of collapsing into rubble.

It was never about abortion. It was never about the sanctity of marriage or the Golden Rule. It is only about that one word: control. And unless the silent majority of Americans who believe in morality and good government show up on Nov. 8, the good guys are in very real danger of losing it.

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