MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
Evangelical Christians are among those who've been forced to address sexual misconduct this year. They regard infidelity as an especially serious sin. The president that they broadly support is accused of covering up extramarital affairs. And some high-profile preachers have confessed to sexual harassment and worse. NPR's Tom Gjelten reports.
TOM GJELTEN, BYLINE: Stories about Donald Trump's infidelity broke during the election campaign. They could not have helped him with evangelical voters. Samuel Perry, who trained at an evangelical seminary, says the conservative Protestant view of sexual misconduct is that it's the mother of all sins.
SAMUEL PERRY: The most dirty, the most damning, the most shameful - people could have a lack of prayer life. People could be materialistic. People could not be characterized by loving their neighbor. And yet what gets the gossip train going or what ruins one's reputation is really - has more to do with one's sexual past.
GJELTEN: And yet 80 percent of white evangelicals backed Donald Trump in 2016. And midterm exit polls suggest that support has held steady. Evangelical theologians struggle to explain. Wayne Grudem, a professor of biblical studies at Phoenix Seminary, has just come out with a 13,000 page book "Christian Ethics: An Introduction To Biblical Moral Reasoning." He devotes nearly 200 pages to the Seventh Commandment - thou shalt not commit adultery. He says it does apply to Donald Trump.
WAYNE GRUDEM: I have not heard of any evangelical leader who said that his marital unfaithfulness was acceptable or anything but morally wrong, sinful and needs to be repented of.
GJELTEN: And yet Dr. Grudem, like most other evangelicals, voted for Donald Trump. He's among those who cite Trump's appointment of conservative judges. Others say they think Trump has changed and is now a born-again Christian. But there are more examples in the evangelical world of behavior that doesn't accord with sexual ethics. This past year has brought numerous stories of evangelical preachers engaging in sexual misconduct. What does it all mean? Wayne Grudem has an answer.
GRUDEM: (Laughter) I mean, there's sin the human heart.
GJELTEN: This is not a trivial statement. Evangelical Christians emphasize their dark view of human nature. Everybody from presidents to pastors is a sinner and needs forgiveness. Men are especially prone to sexual sin. Samuel Perry, who now teaches religion at the University of Oklahoma, has a new book titled "Addicted To Lust." He says evangelical Christians believe God designed men to be sexual initiators and therefore potentially dangerous animals - almost like men who know they'll turn into werewolves whenever there's a full moon.
PERRY: You know, you see these scenes in movies where you've got guys who - you know, they know it's a full moon out, and they're going to - they're running around begging somebody to lock them up. I mean, that's almost what we're talking about.
GJELTEN: In this view, if a man is not at least tempted to commit sexual sin, there must be something wrong with him.
PERRY: Being an evangelical man and confessing to be somebody who makes sexual mistakes almost validates your masculinity, in a way. You know, look. I'm a man. I'm a red-blooded man who struggles with sin like everybody else. And I'm dealing with it.
GJELTEN: So when a man engages in sexual misconduct, it's not surprising. That doesn't mean it's not wrong. But it's understandable. This is why some evangelical men say they follow the so-called Billy Graham rule - never be alone with a woman who's not your wife. Of course, that limits what work men and women can do together.
NANCY BEACH: Our fear of potential moral failure may well drive us to conclude that the answer is to go back to our safe comfort zones.
GJELTEN: Nancy Beach, a former pastor at Willow Creek Community Church outside Chicago, last spring accused the church's founder of improper advances. But speaking about sexual violence this month at Wheaton College, she warned against any effort to keep men apart.
BEACH: To not invite women to the leadership table and also to establish 20 more rules of how we can't be in the same elevator or anywhere near one another...
BEACH: ...so that no one will have the opportunity to sin.
GJELTEN: Evangelicals have obviously thought about sexual sin for a long time. But the stories of this past year have brought discussions of it forward. Politics, theology and gender relations in church communities will all be affected. Tom Gjelten, NPR News.
(SOUNDBITE OF NEW ORDER SONG, "CEREMONY")