I know this sounds like a crazy idea, but when I heard Jerry Falwell Jr. introduce Donald Trump last week at Liberty University it provided me with a plausible explanation for why some evangelicals support the New York real estate investor’s candidacy for POTUS. (By the way, Falwell Jr. endorsed Trump today).
Here is what Falwell Jr. said:
My father was criticized in the 1980s for supporting Ronald Reagan over Jimmy Carter for president because Ronald Reagan was a Hollywood actor who had been divorced and remarried and Jimmy Carter was a Southern Baptist Sunday School teacher. My father proudly replied that Jesus pointed out that we are all sinners, every one of us, and when Jesus said “render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s” that meant that we are to be good citizens, voting, active in the political process, serving in the armed forces if necessary. And while Jesus never told us who to vote for, he gave us all common sense to choose the best leaders. Dad explained that when he walked into the voting booth he wasn’t electing a Sunday School teacher or a pastor or even a president who shared his theological beliefs. He was electing the President of the United States and the talents, abilities, and experiences required to lead a nation might not always line up with those needed to run a church or lead a congregation. After all, Jimmy Carter was a great Sunday School teacher, but look what happened to our nation with him in the presidency. Sorry.
If there are other evangelicals who think this way, it might explain why Trump is so popular among them. In this statement Falwell Jr. tries to neutralize the evangelicals–such Russell Moore and Michael Gerson–who have argued that evangelicals should not vote for Trump because of his character or his policies that seem to run counter to some evangelical beliefs.
As Falwell Jr. points out, his father supported Reagan despite the fact that the former California governor was divorced and did not share Falwell Sr.’s evangelical theology. What Falwell Jr. doesn’t point out was that Reagan had supported pro-choice legislation as the governor of California. Falwell Sr. was willing to look beyond these things because presidential leadership was less about the candidate’s faith commitments and more about his leadership abilities, which were defined by Falwell Sr. in terms of free-market capitalism and an understanding of the world informed by American exceptionalism. (And I am sure it made it a lot easier when Reagan came around to a pro-life position on abortion).
Trump may have his flaws, but, as Falwell Jr. notes, “we are all sinners.” Trump has a strong and decisive personality, he is a defender of the free-market, he claims he will protect Christianity against the “threat” of Islam, he believes in American exceptionalism, he opposes gun-control, and he is a staunch opponent of Obama and Hillary Clinton. These are the characteristics that many conservative evangelicals want in a candidate. With the exception of moral issues such as abortion and gay marriage, Trump’s religious views (or lack thereof) really don’t matter.
Maybe we should stop trying to figure out the theological reasons why so many evangelicals support Trump and simply conclude that since the Christian Right hitched its wagon to GOP politics, nostalgia for the 1980s will always trump (no pun intended) Christian character and faith-informed policy proposals.
For many evangelicals, Trump is the new Reagan.