Jeffrey Epstein and the Myth of American Morals
Gilbert N. Kahn is a professor of Political Science at Kean University.
The Jeffrey Epstein episode opened many issues in American society and American politics. It underscored once again the deep-seated cultural-religious conflict which has been part of American culture since the earliest colonists’ days in America. The public response to Epstein reflects clearly the dichotomy between America the highly puritanical country and America the permissive and hedonistic society. It is a contradiction which has existed since the days of the Salem Witch Trials and Jonathan Edwards. Today, these extremes are most prevalent among right-wing religious and political conservatives; especially within segments of the Evangelical movement. This false dichotomy has become part of the core of today’s Republican Party.
Leaving aside all the political underpinnings, Jeffrey Epstein’s alleged behavior—even if only considered over this past week—has once again presented the major conflict in the role and place of morality in American politics. While the President has not been accused of gallivanting with underaged women, Trump’s disrespectful behavior and his persistent identification of women as sex objects should have elicited an enormous outcry from the religious right but nary a word has been heard. Similarly, their silence has been devastating to date on the entire Epstein affair.
In observing the President’s detached conduct last week as Alex Acosta was waffling in the wind and then at his resignation announcement, Trump’s base was totally passive. Observers were appalled at Acosta’s inability to question his previous conduct while U.S. attorney in Miami. The Trump base did not raise issues about Acosta or Trump, neither legally, morally, nor religiously.
For religious Americans to countenance this type of activity on the part of public figures while at the same time hearing their preachers decry sexual immorality and depravity underscores the obvious deep-seated double standards which exist within the Trump base. Whatever shortcomings President Bill Clinton had in this area—some of which even led in part to his impeachment—he was hardly revered or protected by a cadre of silence from the conservative right for his dalliances, as has been President Trump.
Unlike so many other Western democracies such as France and Great Britain, where extra-marital relationships are accepted as part of life, especially among the elites, America has sought to keep such conduct by public figures hidden. In the past, the numerous affairs of presidents, for example, were never reported by the press just like presidential illnesses. In today’s 24/7 news cycle, social media world, and internet availability, virtually no one’s life is private any longer, especially those in the public arena.
Among those within the Trumpian base, sexual misconduct, promiscuity, and even immoral and illegal sexual behavior are acceptable; or at least not criticized. The fact that Epstein’s alleged conduct cannot produce a religious outrage is inexplicable. The historical dichotomy—between puritanism and hedonism– may indeed be a sham. As long the silence of faith leaders, of all denominations, is accepted and tolerated, there is an implicit acquiescence and acceptance in this behavior as well as in perpetuating the historical myth.