Jerry Falwell’s “Two Kingdoms” View is Not Only Wrong, It’s Dangerous

File Photo: U.S. Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump shakes hands with Jerry Falwell Jr. at a campaign rally in Council Bluffs, Iowa

Many of you have seen court evangelical Jerry Falwell Jr.’s interview with Joe Heim of The Washington Post.

Falwell Jr. says:

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.

When Heim asked Falwell if there is anything Trump could do that would endanger evangelical support for the President he answers, based on his political theology, with one word: “no.”

Over at Slate, writer Ruth Graham responds to Falwell’s one-word answer:

At one point, reporter Joe Heim asked Falwell whether there is anything Trump could do that would endanger his support from Falwell and other evangelical leaders. He answered, simply, “No.” His explanation was a textbook piece of circular reasoning: Trump wants what’s best for the country, therefore anything he does is good for the country. There’s something almost sad about seeing this kind of idolatry articulated so clearly. In a kind of backhanded insult to his supporters, Trump himself once said that he could “stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody” without losing his base. It’s rare to see a prominent supporter essentially admit that this was true. 

Graham also notes that Falwell’s views seem to contradict the mission statement of Liberty University.  This is true.

In its “Statement of Mission and Purpose,” Liberty claims to “promote the synthesis of academic knowledge and a Christian worldview in order that there might be a maturing of spiritual, intellectual, social and physical value-driven behavior.”  This kind of “worldview” language suggests that students at Liberty will learn to think Christianly about all things, including the ways Christianity intersect with politics and government.  After all, wasn’t this Falwell’s father’s vision for Liberty University?  Wasn’t Liberty University directly linked to Falwell Sr.’s Moral Majority–an attempt to bring Christianity to bear on government and politics?

Falwell Jr. seems to believe that the only thing Christianity teaches Christians about their responsibility as citizens is that Christianity has no role to play in our responsibility as citizens.  If I am reading him correctly, he is arguing that the promotion of capitalism, entrepreneurship, free-markets, and the accumulation of wealth is the essence Christian citizenship.  In other words, Falwell Jr. assumes that Christianity and capitalism are virtually the same thing.  I would love to hear from a Liberty professor on this point.  Is there anything about capitalism (as defined by the accumulation of wealth, free markets, and entrepreneurship) that contradicts the teaching of Christianity?   I know some Liberty professors and I DO think that they would say there is a difference between the two, but I wonder how free they are to make that critique in public.

I also wonder if Falwell Jr. believes that there is anything within the Christian tradition that might provide a critique of government.  I don’t have the time to search, but I am sure it is pretty easy to find Falwell Jr. making some kind of theological or Christian critique of Barack Obama.

It is important to note here that Falwell is not arguing, as other court evangelicals have done, that evangelicals should support Trump because he will deliver a conservative Supreme Court or defend religious liberty.  Remember, in this interview he says that there is NOTHING Trump can do to lose his support.  NOTHING!  This, of course, means that if he would commit adultery in the oval office, appoint a radically pro-choice Supreme Court justice, call for the end of the Second Amendment, or shoot someone on 5th Avenue, Trump will not lose Falwell’s support.  I don’t know of any American–Christian or not– who would be so confident about a political candidate.

The Statement of Mission and Purpose also notes that Liberty University will “encourage a commitment to the Christian life, one of personal integrity, sensitivity to the needs of others, social responsibility and active communication of Christian faith….”  Apparently Falwell believes that all these things can be practiced without any connection to politics or government.  In other words, Falwell wants to train students to live personal lives of faith, but never apply that faith to democratic citizenship.  I am not sure his father would have agreed with this.

Which leads me to one more question:  What is taught at the Jesse Helms School of Government at Liberty?  (Yes, THAT Jesse Helms). According to its website, the Helms School of Government develops “leaders who are guided by duty, honor, and morality.  It also claims to instill “a Christian sense of justice and civic duty in our students….”  Dr. Stephen Parke, the Associate Dean of the Helms School, lists his favorite Bible verse as Isaiah 1:17: “Learn to do right!  Seek justice, encourage the oppressed.  Defend the cause of the fatherless, plead the case of the widow.”  This is an interesting choice for a dean at a Christian school of government and politics at a university run by Jerry Falwell Jr.

It is also worth noting that legitimate advocates of a Two Kingdoms approach to church-state relations would also reject much of what Falwell has to say in this interview.

Again, here is Falwell:

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. You almost have to believe that this is a theocracy to think that way, to think that public policy should be dictated by the teachings of Jesus.

Martin Luther also believed that government action should not be based on the Sermon on the Mount and other teachings of Jesus.  For example, Luther defended the right to private property.  As a result, he believed government should not be based on Jesus’s idea of abandoning all of our material possessions and giving them to the poor. (Although he would have certainly warned against materialism rooted in the accumulation of private property).

But Luther’s Two Kingdom belief, as I understand it, is more nuanced and complex than what Falwell Jr. makes it out to be.  (I am happy to be corrected here by Lutheran theologians). In fact, I don’t think Luther would have recognized Falwell Jr.’s political theology.

Ruth Graham links to Missouri-Synod Lutheran writer Lyman Stone’s First Things piece titled “Two Kingdom Theology in the Trump Era.”  Stone writes:

Is it the case that Lutheran theology favors brute political realism, mercilessness in state operations, perhaps even docility in the face of tyranny? Historically, the answer has often been “yes.” But it needn’t have been, if Luther’s Two Kingdoms doctrine had been understood correctly.

The Two Kingdoms Doctrine originates in Martin Luther’s 1518 tract, “Two Kinds of Righteousness,” though before that it has resonance with Augustine’s City of God, which had influenced Christian church-state relations in the West for a millennium. In the 1518 tract, Luther lays out an idea that is central to all Lutheran teaching: There are two kinds of righteousness, civil and spiritual. By civil righteousness, Luther meant that people, by the powers of reason with which they are endowed, can refrain from murdering one another, or stealing, or lying. But no amount of civil righteousness amounts to spiritual righteousness, that is, the right-acting that may earn salvation. Perfect civil righteousness does not undo the basically sinful nature of man; only spiritual righteousness does that, and spiritual righteousness is nothing else than faith in Christ. Without faith in Christ, no amount of civil righteousness obtains salvation. With faith in Christ, no felonious indecency can forestall the saving power of grace.

Stone reminds us here that God has ordained the civil kingdom–the realm of government.  God rules in both kingdoms and he rules, according to Lutheran theologian Paul Althaus, in “goodness, mercy, and love.”  Althaus adds: “Through the political authorities, God protects his people from the violent acts of evil men.” Luther believed in a state where justice prevails as a glimpse–but only a glimpse–of the kingdom of God.

As Christians, we are called to different vocations in this civil kingdom  As Stone writes, “without faith in Christ, no amount of civil righteousness obtains salvation.”  But this does not mean that Christians are not called by God to be engaged citizens.  We must exercise citizenship as a vocational act.

Stone adds:

Does this mean that Luther’s Two Kingdoms should be viewed ignominiously today? I do not think so. Rather, Lutherans should reconsider this doctrine in light of Luther’s teaching on vocation.

In this light, several facts become clear. Citizens have a different vocation than subjects. Modern governments place a duty and a burden upon citizens, demanding that they participate in governance. No modern American has a ruler, in the sense that the Christians did to whom Paul wrote his letters. All the scriptural teachings about governments apply, but the reality of democratic and participatory governments means that a vocation-centered theology cannot view Christians as merely the subjects of the state: By having voice, Christians are participants in the rulership of their state. As such, when considering what sins they should confess, they must consider sins of rebellion against lawful sovereigns and sins of misgovernment, that is, failures to discharge the duties of self-governing citizens.

Beyond this, Lutherans must avoid the mistake of the Reformation leaders who failed to cry out against the sins of monarchs. We must exhort all “sword-bearers,” that is, all agents of the state and public servants, from schoolteachers to the president, to live up to the demands of their vocations. Our Lutheran forefathers failed in this task; all the more reason Lutherans today must not.

Conservatives who fear that President Trump may be more like the decadent Belshazzar, feasting while the kingdom falls, than like the liberating Cyrus must pray that Lutherans remember the Two Kingdoms Doctrine. How we discharge the duties of citizenship—whether by accepting the creeping authoritarianism of the last two decades, or by raising our voices on behalf of the laws and democratic norms of our country—is a question of moral conscience, suitable for confession, and demanding repentance if we err.

A similar Two Kingdoms argument comes from Glenn Tinder in The Political Meaning of Christianity: An Interpretation.  He writes:

Christianity, then, requires acceptance of society, and such acceptance cannot be a matter simply of bowing to bitter worldly necessity.  It is more appreciative than that.  Even if society is not community, it serves community in various and essential ways; and a responsible person will feel obligated to defend society when it is threatened…. (pp. 56-57).

Christians are traditionally, in their relations with governments, obedient yet disrespectful.  Thus, they violate the ethos of both secular radicals (disobedience grounded in disrespect) and of conservatives (obedience grounded in respect).  Eschewing absolute principles, they are unreliable allies of either left or right.  Their attitude, however, is anything but frivolous.  It goes down to the first principles of Christian faith.  Estranged from God, from human beings, and even from ourselves, and in our perversity continually reaffirming our estrangement, we would be overwhelmed by chaos if we did not ordinarily submit to the order contrived by political rulers.  On the other hand, we are, in the Christian vision, recipients of the mercy of God, and if we obeyed unconditionally, we would replace the exalted individual with exalted governments…As an eschatological being, man is always critical, normally acquiescent, and potentially rebellious. (p.210-211).

Falwell Jr’s view of government is dangerous.  It is a corruption of the Two Kingdoms view.  Such a corruption is what led German Lutherans to sit quietly as the Nazis took control of Germany in the 1930s.  Here is University of Virginia theologian Charles Marsh in Strange Glory: A Life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer:

Acting in the name of Luther’s doctrine of the two kingdoms–that God has established two kingdoms (zwei Reiche): the kingdom of the earth, which he rules through human government and law; and the kingdom of heaven, which he directs by grace and through the church–the German Christians determined to achieve an accommodation (however tortured) of the Fuhrer principle and Aryan paragraph under church law.  And this they would do in a spirit of obedience to God!  Under this accommodation, baptized Jews, being a difference race altogether, could no longer serve in the German Protestant Church, whose identity was now rooted in ethnicity, or racial sameness, rather than in the confession of Christ as Lord. (p.162).

In 1938, Freidrich Werner, the director of Germany’s Protestant consistory, was tasked with bringing Lutheran clergy into line with Hitler.  He required that all clergy swear an oath of allegiance to Hitler and the Third Reich.  Marsh writes:

Refusing the oath subjected one to dismissal and criminal detention.  To some degree, the underlying idea was consistent with the traditional Lutheran doctrine of two kingdoms: Christians must be obedient to the earthly authorities unto God.  But Werner went to an unprecedented extreme, turning a doctrine that had historically yielded a variety of views on church-state matters into an absolutist principle: make a “personal commitment to the Fuhrer under the solemn summons of God,” and forge an “intimate solidarity with the Third Reich” and with the saintly man who both “created that community and embodies it.”  “Submit to Hitler with a joyful heart, in gratitude, as pleasing to the Lord.

In the end, Christians–whether they embrace the Reformed, Catholic, or Lutheran tradition–are called to live out their vocations as citizens.  In this sense, they agree with my good friend Philip Vickers Fithian who believed, with the authors of Cato’s Letters, that “political jealousy” is a “laudable passion.

7 thoughts on “Jerry Falwell’s “Two Kingdoms” View is Not Only Wrong, It’s Dangerous

  1. “ With faith in Christ, no felonious indecency can forestall the saving power of grace.”

    Too many of today’s right wing “Christians” today treat this idea as a get-out-of-jail-free pass. They and their leaders can be as bad as they want (as long as they’re not actually *gay*), specifically they don’t have to adhere to any ethical or moral standards regarding anything that smacks of social justice. At its most extreme, and I’ve seen plenty of examples of people arguing from this hyper extreme interpretation, as is Franklin, social justice as a goal is seen to be actually *evil*, and anyone exhorting Christians of their moral responsibility to support government efforts to establish a fair and equitable society, for *everyone*, is shouted down as actually working for the forces of evil.

    Fred Clark has discussed this weird worldview off and on over the years, and links it to apocalyptic ideas about the Antichrist, about One World Government, etc. It’s a morally bankrupt, and suspiciously self-serving, vision of Christianity that unfortunately has taken root in a large segment of American evangelical society, one wonders whether there is any hope of ever eradicating it.

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  2. Jesus lived in a world ruled by Roman pagans, where it would have been extremely unwise for him to expound on the principles of good government. No one ever asked him, if one of your followers should perchance become Emperor 300 years from now, how should he rule? How can a man “render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s” when he *is* Caesar? Thus Christian emperors were helpless to slow Rome’s decline and fall.

    This is an unavoidable problem for any religion that, after its founder’s death, grows from a pacifist, non-threatening, turn-the-other-cheek minority sect into the One True Faith with an Earthly nation or empire to rule. The Amish will face the same problem after ever other denomination hoists the rainbow flag and dies out. (I sincerely hope Satan hasn’t the power to make that happen!)

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  3. In a kind of backhanded insult to his supporters, Trump himself once said that he could “stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody” without losing his base.

    “I kill my own mother and still they cheer me!”
    — Caesar Nero, in Paul Maier’s historical novel The Flames of Rome

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  4. Falwell’s sleight of hand, of course, is that his definition of “what’s good for the country” is, in fact, informed by his understanding of Scripture and his “Christian worldview” i.e. it includes all the stuff his Dad wanted — repeal of Roe, prayer in schools, and a sacralized vision of the nation, as well a standard sacralization of Capitalism. So is he is not really adhering to two kingdoms at all. He is simply trying to find a way to disaggregarte the bits of the Bible that would critique Trumpism, unrestrained capitalism, and American nationalism from the bits he thinks support it.

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  5. What is interesting about the “oath of allegiance” in Germany was that it was created by the German Church, not the Nazi state. It was a way of proclaiming to the state that the church supported it. According to the book “Preaching in Hitler’s Shadow” Hitler himself didn’t care about the oath. It is also worth nothing that a sermon was prepared for pastor in the confessing church that the could use to rebut the taking of the oath to their congregations (sermon can be found in “Preaching in Hitler’s Shadow”,

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