Falwell’s Messed Up, Misplaced Unequivocal Support and the Damage It Has Done
On January 1st, the Washington Post published an interview with Jerry Falwell, Jr, current president of Liberty University, and the son of the late televangelist Jerry Falwell, who was known for making controversial statements, particularly regarding homosexuals and people of other faiths and for his involvement and commentary on American politics. The apple does not fall far from the tree.
Falwell, Jr. (or, just Falwell for the rest of this post) has been outspoken in his support of President Trump since early 2016, before Trump had even won the nomination from his own party. In his Republican National Convention speech (article, video) Falwell praised Trump as a “blue collar billionaire” (who once referred to $1 million as a “small loan”) and argued that a “decision not to vote or to vote for a third party candidate is a de facto vote for Hillary Clinton” (it’s not; that’s just flawed logic).
More recently, in Falwell’s WaPo interview, we see him doubling down on his support of the President. In response to the question, “Is there anything that President Trump could do that would endanger that support from you or other evangelical leaders?” Falwell simply replies, “No.”
As I read the interview, I became increasingly uneasy with Falwell’s responses. He sounds more like a man who is being taken care of from a political point of view and therefore willing to overlook a great many things. Or, rather, someone who is too busy counting his thirty pieces of silver to worry about what else is going on. This is exactly what is wrong with the current state of so-called Evangelicalism in America. This is why my job as a pastor is much more difficult than it should be.
You’ve seen the numbers. It is estimated that as high as 80% of white evangelicals voted for Donald Trump in the 2016 General Election. While there are some who argue (subscription article on Christianity Today) that they did not so much vote FOR Trump, as opposed to vote AGAINST Clinton, or simply for the so-called “conservative policies of the Republican Party” of which Trump happened to be the representative. For many, according to this line of thinking, it was about voting for the lesser of two evils, if you will.
Now, personally, I would argue that while 80% of white evangelicals is a sizable percentage of any subset, I do question the self-identification of many who claim to be “evangelical”.
After all, on any given Sunday, less than 20% of the population is in worship. If one were to identify as an evangelical, I would think that it would be a safe assumption that regular worship attendance would be a priority. That being the case, I can’t imagine that 80% of 20% of the population is enough to get anybody elected. Oh, and that doesn’t even take into account the fact that not all evangelicals are white in the first place. Additionally, according to Pew Research, while the largest group of Christians, Evangelical Protestants only account for 25% of the overall population.
I know this comes off as a little defensive, but as one who actually would refer to myself as a “white evangelical” who did NOT vote for Trump, I would like to think better of my peers — perhaps that it unjustified, I don’t know.
One way or another, Falwell’s unquestioning support of President Trump baffles me, but, more than that, the exegetical gymnastics in which he engages is fascinating… and I don’t mean that in a good way. Here are some other quotes from the article…
It’s such a distortion of the teachings of Jesus to say that what he taught us to do personally — to love our neighbors as ourselves, help the poor — can somehow be imputed on a nation. Jesus never told Caesar how to run Rome. He went out of his way to say that’s the earthly kingdom, I’m about the heavenly kingdom and I’m here to teach you how to treat others, how to help others, but when it comes to serving your country, you render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s. It’s a distortion of the teaching of Christ to say Jesus taught love and forgiveness and therefore the United States as a nation should be loving and forgiving, and just hand over everything we have to every other part of the world. That’s not what Jesus taught.
The government should be led by somebody who is going to do what’s in the best interest of the government and its people. And I believe that’s what Jesus thought, too.
What earns him my support is his business acumen. Our country was so deep in debt and so mismanaged by career politicians that we needed someone who was not a career politician, but someone who’d been successful in business to run the country like a business. That’s the reason I supported him.
There’s two kingdoms. There’s the earthly kingdom and the heavenly kingdom. In the heavenly kingdom the responsibility is to treat others as you’d like to be treated. In the earthly kingdom, the responsibility is to choose leaders who will do what’s best for your country. Think about it. Why have Americans been able to do more to help people in need around the world than any other country in history? It’s because of free enterprise, freedom, ingenuity, entrepreneurism and wealth. A poor person never gave anyone a job. A poor person never gave anybody charity, not of any real volume. It’s just common sense to me.
Falwell’s distinction between the heavenly kingdom and the earthly kingdom is what gets me the most here. Because he seems to be arguing that our faith should not play a role in deciding what people should be elected as our representatives in the government, and yet, at the same time, he argues for the election of government officials that will appoint conservative, pro-life judges who will uphold the point of view that he would say is shaped by his faith. So, which is it? He can’t have it both ways.
If a person wants a government that is shaped by the moral code to which he/she adheres, then it would make the most sense to elect officials who have a similar moral code.
Frankly, and we can discuss this point further if you want, Donald Trump does not have a moral code that is in alignment with the teachings of Christ. Go through his Twitter feed. Listen to the interviews he gives when he starts bashing his opponents. There is nothing Christlike about how he carries himself.
To claim that it is a “distortion of the teaching of Christ” that the nation should be a reflection of his teachings on love and forgiveness, and then say, “the government should be led by somebody who is going to do what’s in the best interest of the government and it’s people. And I believe that’s what Jesus thought, too,” is so incredibly inconsistent that I’m having trouble even articulating a cohesive response. It’s like he’s saying that Jesus would contradict his own teachings.
Why in the world would he believe that Jesus would be perfectly okay with an amoral, or even immoral, government? Read the gospels, man!
Jesus identifies with the poor, the outcast, the downtrodden, the powerless time and time again. Jesus is executed by the state (Roman Empire) because those in power (the religious leaders) saw his teachings as subversive. The disciples and early Christians were executed by the state on many occasions because of those same teachings. Do you really want to make the argument that Jesus would be okay with that because it was “in the best interest of the government”?
We can extend this logic to other places that, certainly, Falwell would not want to go — at least, I hope he wouldn’t. Throughout history, dictators have executed millions because they were seen as threats to the government. Do you really think that Jesus would be okay with that because it is an “earthly kingdom” and has no bearing on the “heavenly kingdom”?
Here’s the thing: if we are following Jesus’ teaching in our personal lives, than our public lives should be an extension of those teachings as well.
So, yes, the command to love your neighbor, and the ensuing story of the Good Samaritan in which the extent of who our neighbor is gets defined, is something that we can, and should, expect of our government as well. I don’t think we should be okay with families getting separated at the border. I don’t think we should be okay with children dying in American custody because they are being detained for pursuing an international human right. When this kind of crap is happening, our government is not a reflection of the teachings of Christ.
And the cherry on top of this crap-covered sundae is where Falwell says that Trump’s “business acumen” is what earned his support. “Business acumen”? Apparently, declaring bankruptcy multiple times, failing in multiple business ventures and scamming people out of their hard-earned money qualifies as “business acumen”. If you want 3.8 million stories on Trump’s “business acumen” just search “Trump unpaid bills” in Google, or your favorite search engine, and read away.
And yet, “Is there anything that President Trump could do that would endanger that support from you or other evangelical leaders?”
In exchange for a couple of pro-life judges on the Supreme Court, and the promise to “get tougher” on border security (a promise that is currently costing taxpayers and government employees dearly during the shutdown), these “evangelical” leaders have soiled their witness. In exchange for some “wins” in this earthly kingdom, these “evangelical leaders” have brought disdain on the name of Christ, and made the job of pastors like myself much more difficult.
Because there are people who are hurt by the policies and politics of it all. There are people whose lives have been negatively impacted. There are people who have forever sworn off the church because of this kind of unequivocal support for a person that doesn’t deserve it. This is damage that cannot be repaired in some cases, but, just in case…
Know that not all followers of Christ are represented by this one voice. Know that there are people in churches all over the country that are ready to welcome you, love you and help you in your spiritual journey. Know that there are followers of Christ who look to something more than the politics of these days. Falwell does not represent all Christians. He does not represent me.