Ed Stetzer on the Trump Visit to McLean Bible Church

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I agree with just about everything Ed Stetzer has written about this incident.  I said something similar, but not as eloquently, here.

For those Christians who have been criticizing David Platt from the left, I would ask several questions:

  1. What would you do in this situation?
  2. Even if you believe Trump is evil, how would you balance that with his human dignity?  Yes, he was there for a political opportunity, and it was disgusting, but I don’t know many members of the clergy who would turn someone away who was asking for prayer.
  3. Christians are called to pray for their leaders.  Several folks have noted that prayers for government leaders are embedded in the Book of Common Prayer.  So what happens when the president actually shows up and asks for prayer?  Does the call to pray for leaders cease to apply when the leader is actually in your presence?
  4. As most readers know, I am no fan of the president.  If Platt allowed Trump to speak I would have a serious problem with it.  If Platt used the prayer to demonize Trump’s enemies or extol Trump as King Cyrus, I would be the first one to scream.  But this is not what happened.
  5. Some people are complaining about the optics.  Of course the optics could go both ways.  And if you are a historian and you don’t like the image of Platt with his hand on Trump’s solider, then interpret the image for your readers.  Provide context.  Source the document (who is Platt?). This is what we do.

Stetzer gets it right.  Here is a taste of his piece at Christianity Today:

I was frustrated at the arm-chair quarterbacking I saw online, with some saying that he should prophetically have rebuked the president, others saying he should have denied the request, and still others wishing that he’d been more affirming of the president.

I tweeted:

I know that every person tweeting criticism of @PlattDavid would have handled it so much better if @POTUSshowed up to your place with little notice, but maybe just consider that he is not as smart, godly, or prophetic as you are and try to extend grace to your lesser brother.

Simply put, David Platt made a fast decision when the president came by. To condemn him for that is simply not appropriate. He basically had two choices—either honor the request or not.

Platt could have chosen to decline the visit. This would have inevitably led to attacks from Trump supporters, a public outcry over a pastor refusing to pray for the president, and questioning of his personal position on the president.

Instead, he chose the second option and, in his eyes, sought to model what he saw in Scripture about praying for those in authority.

Yes, he could have prayed behind the scenes. Yes, he could have refused to have the president on stage. To some, he should have thought of all of those options in the few minutes he had while the president of the United States was asking for something else.

But let’s give David Platt the benefit of the doubt. He’s earned it. He did what he thought was right in that moment.

There are no parameters when it comes to who we will pray for, and we are specifically commanded to pray for our leaders. Jesus commanded us all to pray for even our enemies. We can debate if that prayer should have been on the stage, but perhaps we can agree that we pray when asked to pray.

Read the entire piece here.

Jerry Falwell Jr., President of a Christian University, Tells David Platt to “Grow a Pair”

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The president of the second largest Christian university in the world is at it again.

Falwell Jr. has blocked me on Twitter, so I cannot embed his recent tweet.  But this is what he wrote:

“Sorry to be crude but pastors like @plattdavid need to grow a pair.  Just saying.”

Falwell was responding to this tweet from Fox News radio host Todd Starnes:

Apparently Falwell was not happy with pastor David Platt’s letter to his congregation that explained how he handled the Trump’s visit to McLean Bible Church on Sunday.  Falwell’s tweet suggests that Platt’s decision to explain himself to his congregation made him appear weak and not manly enough.

Several comments:

  1. First, a word about his language.  Falwell begins by “apologizing” for his crudeness.  It is worth noting that he is the president of a university.  Most university presidents are able to communicate their ideas without being crude.  In other words, they have civil language at their disposal.  But Falwell knows that his base–conservative evangelical Christians–love this kind of language.  In some ways, Falwell’s use of language says less about him and more about the kind of evangelicals that gravitate toward him.  I would not be surprised if there was a small spike in donations to Liberty University today.
  2. This tweet reveals that Falwell views the world primarily through politics, not Christian reconciliation or unity.   Remember, Platt wrote this letter as a way of dealing with conflict in his congregation–McLean Bible Church.  It was a pastoral epistle.  Platt was trying to heal wounds and keep his church body together after a difficult day.  He knew there was some division in his church after Trump’ showed- up unannounced and he wanted to explain why he handled the president’s visit in the way he did.  For Falwell to criticize Platt for trying to maintain unity in his congregation suggests that the divisive rhetoric of Trumpian politics (or any politics for that matter) is more important than unity in the body of Christ.  But this is nothing new.
  3. It is also worth noting how Falwell responded to one of his critics on Twitter.  Winfield Bevins, a professor a Asbury Theological Seminary, called Falwell out in a tweet: “What an unbelievable statement from someone who calls themselves a minister of the gospel.  @LibertyU should call on you to repent.”  Falwell responded on twitter with this: “You’re putting your ignorance on display.  I have never been a minister.  UVA-trained lawyer and commercial real estate developer for 20 years.  Univ president for last 12-years–student body tripled to 100000+/endowment from 0 to $2 billion and $1.6 new construction in those 12 years.”  Trump couldn’t have said it any better.

Sad.

David Platt of McLean Bible Church Responds to Trump’s Visit

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I have now done several posts on Trump’s decision to go to McLean Bible Church yesterday.  Now it is time for some additional thoughts on McLean’s pastor David Platt.

Donald Trump showed-up at McLean Bible Church and Platt prayed for him.  Some may have thought Platt should have closed the door to Trump.  Others thought he did not chastise him enough or speak truth to power.

I don’t think I would have handled this any differently.  Platt did a great job.

Christians value hospitality.  We like to talk about how the church doors are always open.  Yes, Trump was probably there to score political points with his evangelical base. But when someone decides to show-up at church, the minister and the congregation should not be concerned about motives.  Instead, they should seize the opportunity to change the narrative.  This, it seems, is what Platt did.

If Platt rejected Trump’s request for a visit he would not have been acting in a Christian way. If he fawned over the president or got political he would not have been acting in a Christian way.

Platt is no court evangelical.  He invited Trump into the service and prayed for him in accordance with 1 Timothy 2:1-6.  He did not flatter Trump.  He did not pray that God would protect Trump from his enemies.  He departed from the Franklin Graham instruction manual in almost every way.  Platt prayed that Trump would be an agent of justice.  He prayed that God would give Trump wisdom and reminded him that wisdom stems from the fear of God.  From Platt’s mouth to God’s ears.

This morning Samford religion professor David Bains made some good points about the optics.  Trump was tired and quiet.  Platt dictated the terms of the visit.  This was not a court evangelical begging for attention and photo-ops in the oval office.  Watch the video.  Platt walked out on stage with the authority of a minister.  Trump followed.

If his letter to the congregation is any indication, Platt did not want to have to deal with this.  On the other hand, he has no need to apologize for what he did.  This is why I think this Politico headline is misleading.

Emma Green gets it right at The Atlantic.  Here is a taste of her piece:

It is not weird for a Southern Baptist pastor to pray for the president of the United States. Yes, 81 percent of white evangelicals voted for Donald Trump, and have remained firmly supportive  of the president during his first two years in office. Yes, he has surrounded himself with a coterie of evangelical adviserswho have cemented the association between conservative Christianity and Trumpism. But even among the evangelical pastors who spoke out against Trump in the run-up to Election Day 2016—and they did exist—praying for the president is a given. As Russell Moore, a major Southern Baptist leader and a vocal Trump critic, wrote shortly before Trump’s inauguration, it is “our obligation as Christians to pray for all those who are in civil authority.”

So when Trump visited McLean Bible Church, a D.C.-area mega-church, over the weekend to show his support to the victims of the Virginia Beach mass shooting, which took place the night before roughly four hours away, it was to be expected that the pastor there, David Platt, would pray for the president. Trump showed up in the middle of the afternoon, after a round of golf, and made no remarks. The two men stood onstage together, eyes shut, Platt holding his Bible. “We stand right now on behalf of our president, and we pray for your grace and your mercy and your wisdom upon him,” Platt said. “We pray that he would look to you. That he would trust in you, that he would lean on you. That he would govern and make decisions in ways that are good for justice, and good for righteousness, and good for equity, every good path.”

What’s remarkable about this prayer is not that it happened, but that it shows how thoroughly the Trump era has opened the way for cynicism and outrage over even mundane, predictable Christian behavior. Within the world of evangelicalism, Platt does not roll with the hard-core Trump supporters; his prayer was studiously neutral, clear of boosterism and partisanship. While Trump has certainly amplified divisions among evangelicals over race, gender, and the rightful relationship between Christianity and politics, the choice to pray for a person in leadership is not a meaningful symbol of evangelicalism’s transformation under the 45th president.

Read the rest here.

Why Did Trump Go to McLean Bible Church?

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As some of you know, yesterday Donald Trump made a short visit (some outlets are reporting 16-minutes) to McLean Bible Church, an evangelical megachurch in Vienna, Virginia.  David Platt, the pastor of the church, prayed for Trump.

Why did he go?

A White House spokesperson named Judd Deere said that Trump visited the church “to visit with the Pastor and pray for the victims and community of Virginia Beach.”

Really?

I don’t know if McLean Bible Church pastor David Platt “visited” with Trump before he took the stage and prayed for the president.  As I understand it, Trump showed-up in the middle of the service.  The president did not make any public statement.  Platt’s prayer said nothing about Virginia Beach.

Trump actually came to McLean Bible Church to throw a bone to his evangelical base.  This was the day that Franklin Graham set aside to pray for the president.  I wrote about this here and here and contributed to this CNN report.

His visit had nothing to do with Virginia Beach.  I have no idea why Deere said that it was about the Virginia Beach shooting.  If he was honest, and simply said that Trump was there to honor Franklin Graham’s call for prayer, he probably would have scored more political points with the visit.  Or maybe Deere had no clue as to why Trump showed-up at McLean Bible Church.  He was covering the weekend the shift in the press shop, hear about the spontaneous visit, and simply offered the Virginia Beach explanation off the top of his head because it made sense.

One of the best things I have read on this comes from David Bains, a religion professor at Samford University.   He writes:

Yesterday afternoon was surely one of the odder moments in the history of presidential churchgoing. Returning from midday golf game at the Trump National Golf Club in Loudoun County, Virginia, the President stopped at McLean Bible Church at 2:20 pm to appear in a regularly scheduled Sunday service that started at 1:00 pm. The church is about 11 miles from the golf course. He was at the church for fifteen minutes, and in the service for only a portion of that.

The White House said that the purpose of the visit was to visit with the church’s pastor, David Platt, and pray for victims of Friday’s deadly mass shooting in Virginia Beach. Yet, while Trump was in the church there were no public prayers for the victims of the Virginia Beach shooting. Rather, Platt seemed to understand that the visit was linked to the special national day of prayer for the president that Franklin Graham and others had declared. Given that the president was being criticized in the morning for not attending church on his day, it is reasonable to conclude as historian John Fea has that that was a key reason behind the president’s church visit.

While Platt is generally being praised for offering a prayer for the president and other leaders that was not an endorsement of Trump, the White House defined the meaning of the the event in the media. Most reports have stated that the purpose of the visit was to pray for the victims of Friday’s shooting, and the 170-some miles between the church and the location of the shooting is lost on those unfamiliar with Virginia.

Platt did not endorse Graham’s designation of June 2 as a “SPECIAL Day of Prayer for the President of the United States, Donald J. Trump, that God would protect, strengthen, embolden, and direct him.” The extemporaneous prayer Platt offered while standing next to the President did not focus on the Graham’s key themes of protection and emboldening, nor did it speak of the president as being attacked. But the optic of the prayer, with the president looking weary and slightly disheveled while a young pastor prays with a hand on the president’s back and proving useful to those who wanted to see the president being prayed for in a church on this day.

Read the rest here.

In a later tweet, Bains stressed the fact that McLean Bible Church had a 1:00pm service:

Yup.

Perhaps it went down this way: Trump was on the golf course all morning and probably saw people on Twitter criticizing him for golfing while so many of his evangelical supporters were in church praying for him.  He and his staff did not like the optics, but it was too late in the day to find an evangelical service to attend.  Most evangelical congregations do not have afternoon services.

But wait!

McLean Bible Church in Vienna actually does have an afternoon service.  It starts at 1:00pm.  Jackpot!

If Trump and his crew hurried, they could get to Vienna before the service ended.  Trump showed up at 2:25pm. (Most evangelical services last anywhere between 60 and 75 minutes. Did McLean extend the service?)  But there was no time to comb his hair or take off his golf shoes.  The fact that the McLean pastor David Platt is not a court evangelical and did not sign Franklin Graham’s call for prayer was irrelevant by this point.

Finally, it is worth noting that some media outlets and popular tweeters simply took the White House at its word about the purpose of the visit and seemed to have no clue that this was all about Graham’s call for prayer and not about Virginia Beach.

ADDENDUM (June 3, 2019 at 9:12 PM):  According to commentator Kenny Brown (see his comment below), Mike Pence occasionally attends McLean Bible Church. Perhaps this also has something to do with how Trump ended up there.

Trump Makes a Stop at McLean Bible Church in Vienna, VA.

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It almost seems as if Trump saw the critical posts and decided, on the 14th green at Trump National Golf Club, to show up at a church somewhere and receive prayer.

Today was the day that conservative evangelicals, on orders from Franklin Graham, were supposed to pray for Donald Trump.  After his round of golf at his country club in Sterling, Virginia, Trump stopped, unannounced, at McLean Bible Church in Vienna, Virginia.  David Platt, the pastor of the church, prayed for him.  According to Google Maps, McLean Bible Church is 10.9 miles from Trump National Golf Club.  It is an evangelical megachurch.

Here is a taste of a report from MSN News:

Trump walked on stage at the church wearing khaki pants and a jacket over his polo shirt and holding a golf hat. He stood alongside pastor David Platt, who noted that there had been calls from Christian leaders to pray for the president on Sunday.

“We don’t want to do that just on this Sunday,” Platt said. “We want to do that continually, day in and day out. So I want to ask us to bow our heads together now and pray for our president.”

The pastor went on to offer a prayer for the president and other political leaders.

“We know we need your mercy. We need your grace. We need your help. We need your wisdom in our country,” he said. “And so we stand right now on behalf of our president, and we pray for your grace and your mercy and your wisdom upon him.”

The pastor added that he was praying not just for the president, but for “leaders in Congress,” “leaders in courts” and state leaders.

The president did not make remarks on stage before departing.

Read the entire piece here.

Platt is the 40-year old pastor best known for his best-selling book Radical: Taking back Your Faith from the American Dream.  He has degrees two degrees, including a Ph.D from the Southern Baptist New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary.  He held a leadership role in the Southern Baptist Convention (president of the SBC’s International Mission Board) before resigning in 2018 to focus more fully on his pastorate at McLean.

Platt’s prayer was the kind of stuff most evangelical pastors do every week when they pray for those in governmental authority.  Trump does not spend much time around these kinds of evangelicals (non-court-evangelicals).  I am guessing that Trump expected something a bit more political and perhaps more rooted in the culture wars.

Platt prayed that Trump would be an agent of justice and righteousness.  He made it clear that “the fear of God is the beginning of wisdom.”  He did not come across as a sycophant, nor did he mention, as Franklin Graham did, that Trump’s enemies were demonic.  I am sure we will hear more about this, but I wonder if Platt was caught off-guard by Trump’s visit.  I think he did a nice job considering the circumstances.

Back in July 2018, Platt preached about Christianity and politics at McLean Bible Church.  Read all about it here.  It appears that his prayer for Trump was consistent with what he preached in this message.

Here is what happened today:

 

 

 

Pray for Me. And While You’re Doing it, I Will be Playing Golf

Franklin Graham has called evangelicals to take some today to pray for Donald Trump against the demonic powers who oppose him.  Daniel Blake covered this pretty well at CNN.  I also tweeted about it.

If Trump’s recent tweets and retweets are any indication, he seems to love the fact that so many evangelicals are praying for him today:

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Well, today is the day of prayer for Trump.  The POTUS is probably in church today joining the evangelical faithful in prayer.  After all, as he described in one of the tweets above, we need to “all stick together and win.” Right?

Wrong.

As Nathan Francis reports at Inquisitr, Trump is golfing today:

Pastor Franklin Graham had put out a public call for pastors across the country to devote Sunday morning to pray for Donald Trump — but the president will need to get a report of how it went.

Trump appeared to skip church on June 2 for his preferred Sunday morning ritual of hitting the golf course. White House pool reports noted that Trump arrived at the Trump National Golf Course in Sterling, Virginia, at 9:35 a.m. As HuffPost White House reporter S.V. Date noted on Twitter, Trump’s trip to the links came during the nationwide effort to pray for his presidency, and the timing of his trip would rule out any morning trip to services at the president’s preferred place of worship, St. John’s Church, in Washington, D.C.

Read the entire piece here.

Mike Pence at Taylor

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Mike Pence gave the commencement address earlier today at Taylor University.  Taylor’s invitation to Pence has been controversial.  I wrote about it in a piece at Religion News Service.

As expected, dozens of students and faculty walked out of the room before Pence took the lectern.  The Washington Post has the best reporting I have seen so far.  Read Isaac Stanley-Becker’s piece here.

The Indianapolis Star has published the full transcript of Pence’s remarks.  The speech is very similar to the one he gave last week at Liberty University, but it has a slightly less culture war feel.  Pence did not reference Trump as much as he did at Liberty and he dropped some of the persecution language that I wrote about in this Washington Post piece.  Nevertheless, I stand by my original Religion News Service piece.  (See link above).

Here is the transcript:

Thank you so much. To President Haines, the Board of Trustees, faculty, staff, family, distinguished guests: It is an honor for us to be here at the Kesler Center for the commencement ceremony of Taylor University Class of 2019. Congratulations.  You made it!  

And I want to thank you, President Haines. Thank you for your friendship. Thank you for those warm words. I only wish that my parents could have heard them. My father would have enjoyed it, and my mother would’ve believed it. But would you all join me in thanking President Haines for the extraordinary leadership he’s provided here to Taylor University? We are all so grateful.

And it’s great to be here with so many friends of ours. Met a lot of them backstage.  It’s always good to be back in Indiana. And speaking of friends of mine, allow me to bring greetings from a friend I just spoke to on the phone on my way over to Taylor, shortly after we landed.  He asked me to pass along his regards.  So allow me to extend congratulations to the graduating class of 2019 from the 45th President of the United States of America, President Donald Trump. 

It is a joy to be back home again here in the Hoosier State with all of you with somebody who is the most special person in my life. You know, I always wait to introduce the highest-ranking official last.  She’s a Marine Corps mom.  She’s a champion for military families.  She even teaches art at a Christian school.  Would you join me in giving one more welcome to the Second Lady of the United States of America, Karen Pence?  

Karen and I are really honored to be back on this beautiful campus.  It really is amazing to think: For more than 170 years, Taylor University has faithfully carried out its mission “to develop servant leaders marked with a passion to minister Christ’s redemptive love and truth to a world in need.”  We heard those themes again from the podium already today.

And the class of 2019 is emblematic of that mission, and you are a remarkable class.  You come from 29 different states, 21 different nations, and I learned on the way here that more than 300 of you are graduating from Taylor University today with honors.  Congratulations to you all.  Well done.  

And among you are scholars, accomplished musicians and artists, and exceptional athletes.  In fact — in fact, I heard that all 18 of Taylor’s Trojan teams have been recognized as “Scholar-Athletes” by the NAIA.  Give yourselves another round of applause. That’s great.   

And behind all of these incredible achievements, of course, are some really special people.  Like a young woman who began her career at Taylor as an education major — but over the course of her time here, she was pulled in a different direction.  She’s gone on several mission trips abroad to minister to children in need.  She’s dedicated her time and talent, alongside her parents, to care for refugees.  And today she volunteers at least three days a week at an afterschool program here in Upland.  And today, she will become Taylor University’s first ever major in Orphans and Vulnerable Children.  Join me in congratulating Rachael Rower on a great academic career.  Where are you, Rachael? We’re proud of you.

And I also was told that Rachael is engaged to be married in just under a month.    So I guess I have to recognize another member of the class her fiancé, Joey Ferguson. Well done, Joey. You outkicked your coverage. God bless them both.

And, you know, I was told there’s another member of the Class of 2019 that I just have to mention, because I’m told he’s left an indelible mark on just about everybody he’s met here at Taylor.  He’s a great student, of course, and apparently a really good soccer player.  Good photographer.  Hard worker.  Clear thinker.  And that, even more than his rich Irish accent, is his deep and abiding faith in Jesus Christ.  It’s impressed everybody he’s met.

In fact, this young man is joined today, I’m told, by his parents, who had never been to the United States of America before today, but they just flew in to see this Taylor graduate walk across this stage. So congratulations to Charbel Salako. Where are you?  And to Charbel’s parents: Welcome to America!  What a great day.

And I know this is a great day for all of you in the Class of 2019. And it should be fun — because winners have fun, and you’re all winners today.

And you know that you didn’t get here on your own, though. The leaders here at Taylor University poured themselves into you — this administration, this incredible staff, and, of course, the men and women of Taylor’s faculty.

You know, it’s probably pretty safe to say that these professors didn’t go easy on you.  They pressed you over the last four years.  They challenged you, too.  They made you better.  They made you smarter.  They made you more ready.  So would you join me in thanking all the great faculty here at Taylor University for all they have done for you?  

And while I serve as your Vice President — and before that, as the president said here, I served as governor of this great state — the highest position I’ll ever hold is actually spelled “D-A-D.”  You know, Karen and I are the proud parents of three college graduates and that’s worth a round of applause.  Got them all through. 

So honestly, we understand, on a very personal level, the sacrifices that your families have made to help you reach this moment.  And we understand just how proud they are, as they sit all around us today.  And it’s an emotional day for them, I promise you.  They’re remembering not — not just the times that you were here at Taylor; they’re remembering all those days that led up to it.  They drove you to school, got you to do your homework before you went to bed.  And even while you were here, they encouraged you through late nights before final exams, and — and they wrote a few checks along the way, too.  

And they prayed — I know they did — for each and every one of you, every day that you were here.  So before we go any further, would all the moms and dads who are here — all the parents who are here — would you all just stand up so we can show you the appreciation that all these great graduates feel for all the support and love over the last four years?

Men and women of the Class of 2019, today you will graduate from an extraordinary university. You’ll begin your journey. New careers. New endeavors. And you know, they say timing is everything. And to this great class, I just want to tell you, straight up: You picked a great time to graduate from Taylor University. The America that awaits your energies and ambitions is experiencing a new era of optimism and opportunity.  You’re beginning your careers at a time of a growing American economy and restored American stature at home and abroad.

You know, as Vice President, it’s my honor, more than I can say, to serve alongside a President who has stood so strong for our national defense.  And on this Armed Forces Day, we honor all the soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines, and Coast Guard who defend our freedom every day. And to all the veterans who are here with us today, thank you for your service.

And I couldn’t be more proud to be part of an administration that has stood strong on the timeless values that have made this nation great, and stood without apology for the sanctity of human life.

But for all those accomplishments, you deserve to know that your timing really is great.  Because under the leadership of President Trump, we’ve been busy getting this economy moving again. We cut taxes. We rolled back regulation. We’ve unleashed American energy.

And as I stand before you today, the economy that awaits you — businesses large and small — have created 5.8 million new jobs in just over the last two years.  Unemployment is at a near 50-year low. And get this: Today, there are more job openings in America than there are Americans looking for work.  That’s great timing, Class of 2019.  

Not that Taylor grads are going to have any trouble finding a job. You know, I actually heard that 97 percent of Taylor graduates secure work or graduate school placement within the first six months of graduation. It’s a testament to this extraordinary university.

You know, the many Taylor grads I’ve worked with over the years are some of the smartest and most dedicated men and women I’ve ever known.  In fact, I’m proud that we got a Taylor grad serving on the staff of the Office of the Vice President at the White House, even as we speak.

So when you leave this remarkable place, I promise you, you’re going to find an America filled with promise. And I know the men and women of this Class of 2019 are going to thrive. Because you have the support of your families.  You have a foundation of a great and unique education.  And because, here at Taylor, it was all built on a foundation of faith — a foundation that cannot be shaken.

You know, it really is beautiful that, before you leave here today, you’ll be handed a diploma; you’ll also be handed a Bible and a Servant’s Towel.  And I believe these elements hold the keys to the success and fulfillment in the lives that await you.  And I know what I’m talking about.

You know, like many of you, I was raised in a church home. But by the time I got to high school, I lost interest in religion. I was one of those people who still went to church, but I was just going through the motions — you know, holding form of Christianity, but denying its power. 

By the time I went off to college — a little school down south of here — I just went my own way.  But when I went to school, I started to meet people — maybe like you have here — that I could tell where different.  Some people that had something I lacked. And it wasn’t just confidence or an easy familiarity; it was something they had that I knew I didn’t have.  The only way I could describe it was peace and a joy about everything in their lives.

In fact, I was so moved by their example that I started attending a Christian fellowship group on campus.  And I had this friend who ran the group.  He was a senior; I was a freshman.  And we became good friends.  And I talked to him a lot about faith issues.  And he spent a lot of time with me and was very patient.

But I noticed, you know, as I got more involved in the local fellowship group, that I decided I was going to go ahead and get involved.  And he was wearing this really cool little cross everywhere he went.  So I started asking him where he got it — you know, because I wanted to get one, too.  Frankly, I started to pester him about it. It was back then before you had these things that you’re always looking at, and we had these catalogues you order things from — you had to call on the phone. Your mom and dad will explain that to you.

And I kept bothering him about the catalogue. I said, “Hey, be sure and get me that catalogue because, you know, I want to order that cross.”  I said, “I’ve decided to go ahead and do the Christian thing. So, you know, I want to — you know, I want to start wearing a cross.”  

I’ll never forget — John looked at me one day and said some words that I’ll never forget.  I said to him, “Don’t forget about that catalogue.”  And he turned around, and he looked at me, and he said, “Mike, remember: You got to wear it in your heart before you wear it around your neck.”    To be honest with you, I didn’t know what he meant.  But I knew there was truth in it.  I wrestled with those words.

Then a little while later, I found myself at a youth Christian music festival that the group went to down in Wilmore, Kentucky.  We sat on a hillside for two days, listening to some great contemporary Christian music and messages in between.  And it was on a rainy night, sitting on that hillside back in 1978, that I heard some words I’d heard my whole life in Church — but I heard them different.

I’d always heard that “God so loved the world that He gave His only Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life.”  But on that Saturday night, I heard it different.  Sitting on that hillside, I realized that it also meant God so loved me that He gave His only Son to save me from my sin. And overwhelmed not with guilt, but with a heart overflowing with gratitude, that night I put my faith in Jesus Christ as my personal Lord and Savior.  And it’s made all the difference in my life.  

So now I want to say, not so much as your Vice President or a fellow Hoosier, but as a brother in Christ: If what you’ve seen and heard and learned in this place has also taken hold in your hearts, I want to encourage you to go from here, and live it out, and share it, and put feet on your faith as you carry and minister over the course of your lives.  Because America needs men and women of integrity and faith now more than ever.

You know, the truth is that we live in a time when religious belief is under assault.  We’ve seen unspeakable acts of violence against religious communities.  Synagogues in Pennsylvania and California.  Mosques in New Zealand.  Churches in Sri Lanka.  And three historically black churches burned to the ground in Louisiana.

And on a much lesser scale, but more prevalent, we see a change in our culture as well.  You know, throughout most of American history, it’s been pretty easy to call yourself a Christian — but things are different now.  Lately, it’s become acceptable, even fashionable, to malign traditional Christian beliefs.

So as you prepare to leave this place and build your life on the Christ-centered, world-engaging foundation poured here at Taylor University, be prepared to stand up.

You know, as Dr. Milo Rediger wrote in “Anchor Points” so long ago, he said, quote, “we’re looking for young people [here at Taylor] who are willing to stand up and be counted for God.”  And as you stand up, be prepared to face opposition.

But be confident.  For the Bible says, “God has given us a spirit not of timidity, but of power and love and self-control.”  So go show the world every day that we can love God and love our neighbor at the same time.    Our nation and our world needs it.

And know also that freedom of religion is enshrined not just in the Constitution, but in the hearts of every American.  And I promise you: We will always stand up for the freedom of religion and for the right of every American to live, to learn, to worship according to the dictates of your conscience.  That’s a promise.  

And finally, as you prepare to depart on your lives and careers, I hope that you will take one other piece of that foundation poured here at Taylor University along.  I hope that you will aspire to serve.  To be, as that towel will ever remind you, a servant leader.

You know, I believe public service is a noble calling.  But wherever life takes you, take a servant’s attitude.  Consider others more important than yourselves.  Live your lives as He did: not to be served, but to serve.

And if you need examples, you can just look around the people that are sitting with you.  A lot of young men and women here have already learned:  The fulfilled life is the life of service to others.

Like a public health major who grew up in Illinois who is graduating today.  Like many of you Taylor students, she traveled overseas to give her time and talent to help those in need.  But, as the story goes, during her J-term of her sophomore year, she was serving on a mission trip in the Middle East, and this young woman started to feel what she called “a little tug from God.”

Since then, that little tug has turned into a calling, and a calling that she’s answered.  And after graduation, this incredible young woman will move to the Middle East and serve as a Women’s Health Coordinator for the non-profit One Collective.  So would you all join me in showing our appreciation for the great example of 2019 graduate, Claire Heyen.  Well done, Claire.  We’re proud of you.  

So, Class of 2019, my word to all of you is: Never stop believing, never stop serving, and always be prepared to give a reason for the hope that you have, with gentleness and respect. Because our nation and our world need that message of grace and love these days maybe more than ever before.

And as you do these things, in increasing measure, I promise you, you’ll be blessed.  You’ll be a blessing to your family, to your coworkers, and you’ll be a blessing to this nation.

You know, America has always been a nation of faith.  As our first Vice President, John Adams, said, and I quote, “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people.  It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.”  So just know, as you strengthen the foundation of faith in your life; as you carry that faith from here, in service to your fellow Americans, you will be strengthening the foundation of America itself.  

So thank you for the honor of addressing you. To all of our graduates, I say: Have faith.  Have faith in yourselves, proven by what you’ve accomplished to get you to this very day.  Have faith in the principles and the ideals that you learned here and the noble mission that has always animated Taylor University.  And have faith that He who brought you this far will never leave you, nor forsake you — because He never will.

Congratulations, Class of 2019. You did it. God bless you. And God bless America.

Is the Founder of The Veritas Forum Behind an Anti-Muslim Facebook Campaign?

Jullberg

What is going on with Kelly Monroe Kullberg, the founder of the Veritas Forum?  Here is a taste of Asysha Kahn’s piece at Religion News Service:

Fact-checking website Snopes linked the network to Kelly Monroe Kullberg, the founder and president of The America Conservancy, whose aims, as Kullberg has described online, are “advancing Biblical wisdom as the highest love for people and for culture.” All 24 Facebook pages had financial ties to Kullberg directly or organizations she helps lead.

Posts on the network decry “Islamist Privilege and Sharia Supremacy” and claim that Islam is “not a religion”; that Islam promotes rape, murder and deception; that Muslims hate Christians and Jews; that Muslims have an agenda to “spread Sharia law and Islam through migration and reproduction”; and that resettling Muslim refugees is “cultural destruction and subjugation.”

The tactics seem to mirror the playbook of Russian troll farms, with page titles purporting to originate with diverse demographic groups like “Blacks for Trump,” “Catholics for Trump,” “Teachers for Trump” and “Seniors for America.”

Snopes found that Kullberg and her associates’ agenda appeared, at least in part, to be working to re-elect President Donald Trump in 2020. The “astroturfing” campaign — referring to efforts made to look as if they come from legitimate grassroots supporters — was at least in part funded by right-wing political donors, including a prominent GOP donor who served as a fundraiser and campaign board member for 2016 presidential candidate Ben Carson.

I was happy to contribute to the Khan’s report:

“If you would have told me about this investigation 20 years ago I would have been very surprised,” said John Fea, a professor of American history at Messiah College and author of the book “Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump.” But given Kullberg’s more recent politics, he said, it’s hardly shocking.

Once a mainstream evangelical Christian figure, Kullberg is the founder of the The Veritas Forum, a prominent non-profit organization that partners with Christian college students to host discussions on campus about faith. The discussions attract non-evangelical, non-Christian and secular speakers as well as leading mainstream evangelical voices.

Her 1996 book “Finding God at Harvard: Spiritual Journeys of Thinking Christians” topped bestseller lists. Now based in Columbus, Ohio, she has served as a chaplain to the Harvard Graduate School Christian Fellowship and spent time as a missionary in Russia and several Latin American countries.

Most recently, Kullberg appears to have shifted further right politically, taking what Fea described as a “pro-Trump, Christian Right, culture war posture” laced with anti-social justice rhetoric. The American Association of Evangelicals, for which Kullberg is the founder and spokeswoman, is “essentially a Christian Right organization whose supporters read like a list of evangelical leaders who have thrown their support behind Donald Trump as a savior of the country and the church,” he said.

“She seems obsessed with the influence of George Soros on progressive evangelicals and believes that social justice warriors have hijacked the Gospel,” Fea noted.

Read the entire piece here.

While running the Veritas Forum, Kullberg worked with Christian speakers such as Francis Collins, Robert George, Os Guinness, Tim Keller, Peter Kreeft, Madeleine L’Engle, George Marsden, Frederica Mathewes-Green, Alister McGrath, Richard John Neuhaus, Alvin Plantinga, John Polkinghorne, Dallas Willard, Lauren Winner, Nicholas Wolterstorff, and N.T. Wright.  She put some of these speakers into dialogue with the likes of Anthony Flew, Christopher Hitchens, Nicholas Kristof, Steven Pinker, and Peter Singer.

In her new role with the “The American Association of Evangelicals” she works with court evangelicals and pro-Trump evangelicals such as Eric Metaxas, James Garlow,  Everett Piper, Tim Wildmon, Wayne Grudem, Steve Strang, David Barton, and Lance Wallnau (the Trump prayer coin guy).

The divisions in American evangelicalism are widening.   The American Association of Evangelicals (AAE) is now the conservative, Christian Right alternative to The National Association of Evangelicals (NAE). Here is how it understands its relationship to the NAE:

Kullberg is also a leader with Evangelicals for Biblical Immigration (EBI) a more conservative evangelical immigration group that appears to be an alternative to the Evangelical Immigration Table (EIT).  While the EBI includes many of the culture warriors I mentioned above, the EIT includes people like Leith Anderson (President of the NAE), Shirley Hoogstra (President of the Council for Christian Colleges & Universities), and Russell Moore (President of the Southern Baptist Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission).

New alignments are forming.  Evangelicalism is changing and fracturing.

Evangelical Trump Fans: Don’t Forget to Buy Your King Cyrus-Donald Trump Prayer Coin

Cyrus-Trump-Coin-2019-2.png

In Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump, I wrote a several pages on the so-called INC (Independent Network Charismatics) prophets.  Lance Wallnau is one of these “prophets.”  Here is what I wrote about him:

Early in the 2016 campaign, Lance Wallnau received a similar word: “Donald Trump is a wrecking ball to the spirit of political correctness.”  When Wallnau’s prophecy caught the attention of Trump’s evangelical supporters, he was invited to attend a meeting with the candidate and other evangelical leaders in Trump Tower.  As Wallnau listened to Trump talk about his desire to give evangelicals a more prominent voice in government, he sensed that God was giving him an “assignment”–a “calling related to this guy.”  One day, while he was reading his Facebook page, Wallnau saw a meme predicting that Trump would be the “45 president of the United States.”  God told Wallnau to pick up his Bible and turn to Isaiah 45.  On reading the passage, Wallnau realized that, not only would Trump be a “wrecking ball” to political correctness, but he would be elected president of the United States in the spirit of the ancient Persian king Cyrus.  In the Old Testament, Cyrus  was the secular political leader whom God used to send the exiled kingdom of Judah back to the Promised Land so that they could rebuild the city of Jerusalem and its holy Temple.  Wallnau was shocked by this discovery.  “God was messing with my head,” he told Steven Strang, the editor of Charisma, a magazine that covers INC and other Pentecostal and charismatic movements….From this point forward, Wallnau would become an outspoken supporter of Donald Trump.

Recently Wallnau showed-up on the Jim Bakker television program to hawk his Cyrus-Trump prayer coins.  According to this piece at Esquire magazine, Wallnau said that the coin is the “point of contact” between God and people praying for Trump’s success.  And guess what? This coin can be yours for only $45.00.  Here is Jack Holmes at Esquire:

This truly is the Golden Age of Grifting, and the nation’s Evangelical leaders have not passed up the opportunity. The “White Evangelical Christian” designation has always been a proxy for traditionalists who believe America’s rightful social order is the racial and gender hierarchy of approximately 1956. Donald Trump has merely laid this bare by earning their support despite being the most comically heathen man to ever step foot in the White House. What principles of Jesus Christ does the president embody? The better question might be which of the Seven Deadly Sins—pride, greed, lust, envy, gluttony, wrath and sloth—does he not  represent? It’s all part of the Great Unvarnishing, as the acidity of Trump’s public persona has worn on the top coat of paint many people have applied to themselves, gradually exposing what lies beneath. It’s not about Christian Values, it’s about money and power. Unless it’s about something else.

And for those Trump evangelical supporters with deeper pockets, you can get an entire “Cyrus Trump Bundle.”  It includes the Cyrus-Trump coin, a booklet by Wallnau describing his prophecy, and DVD of Wallnau conducting a religious service.  It’s yours for $450.

As I argued in Believe Me, the Independent Network Charismatics are a very large, growing, and largely overlooked segment of American evangelicalism.  Wallnau is one of their leaders.

What Hath Trump Wrought?

trump fake news

Over at The Week, Damon Linker interprets the culture war under Trump.  Here is a taste of his piece:

On one level, [the Trump presidency] is a dream come true for the religious right — the prospect of it achieving a long-sought victory on an issue that helped to galvanize the social-conservative movement more than 40 years ago. Yet on a deeper level, it represents a retreat from the high hopes that originally inspired that movement. Those hopes were rooted in a vision of politics as a form of proselytizing. The goal was to win the war, to take back the culture by converting people of good will to the cause of defending innocent human life against the infliction of lethal violence. That would make America a more decent place, a more moral country, and a more Christian nation.

What we have instead is a different and far less decisive form of victory — one in which the Supreme Court may soon permit a dozen or so states to all-but-ban abortion outright, but also where many more states, including most with much larger populations, will move in the opposite direction, entrenching abortion long past fetal viability.

And that tells us something important about the culture war under Trump.

Rather than ending in a decisive victory for the left or the right, it has metastasized, with points of division multiplying and new fronts constantly being opened up. Immigration, guns, Israel, trade policy, violent crime, climate change, tax rates, government regulations, free speech, college tuition — seemingly every point of political disagreement has been recast as a cultural clash pitting comprehensive and incompatible views of the world against each other. It’s a full-spectrum smackdown between the liberals and the fascists. The effort to hash out a compromise, to reach consensus, is over. In its place is tribal warfare, an endless series of zero-sum conflicts over inches of ideological territory.

Instead of aiming to divide and conquer, the Trumpian right seeks to divide and then divide some more — in the hope that doing so will keep its own voters maximally energized to vote and provoke the other side into overplaying its hand, rendering itself unappealing to the few who have yet to join a side.

Read the entire piece here.

“Dear Mike Pence: The real persecution of Christians isn’t here in America”

Pence Liberty

This was just published at the Washington Post.  Thanks to Sarah Pulliam Bailey for asking me to write it today:

Vice President Pence on Saturday warned the graduating class of Liberty University to be prepared to suffer for their faith. “The truth is,” he told an audience of over 40,000 attending the commencement ceremony, “we live in a time when the freedom of religion is under assault.”

Pence said that Liberty graduates should expect to be “ridiculed” for their biblical beliefs, much in the same way that his wife, Karen Pence, was criticized for taking a job teaching art at a Christian school that opposed same-sex marriage.

Pence needs some perspective.

According to one estimate, in 2016, a Christian was killed for his or her faith every six minutes. Today, the persecution of Christians and other religious minorities is rampant, especially in the Middle East. The Islamic State has forced nearly 5 million Syrian Christians to flee for their lives.

Read the rest here.

Commencement at Liberty University

In case you missed it, Vice President Mike Pence delivered the commencement address on Saturday at Liberty University, a school that claims to be the largest Christian university in the world.

Court evangelical and Liberty president Jerry Falwell Jr. was the master of ceremonies (Why didn’t he wear a robe like most college presidents?)  At one point in the ceremony he made his wife stand up to model the black and orange flame (as in Liberty Flames)-patterned dress she was wearing.  Falwell convinced her to wear it because she was the “hottest first lady at any college in the country.” Again, context is everything here.

Surgeon and 2016 GOP presidential candidate Ben Carson also spoke. He urged the graduates not to conform to the “forces of political correctness” that “want you to shut up and not express what you believe.”  He extolled the apparent Judeo-Christian founding of the country and told the graduating class that they were our best hope to “save America.”

When Jerry Falwell Jr. introduced Mike Pence, he praised the Vice-President for doing such a great job despite constant attacks from a “hostile press.”  He described him as one of the greatest Vice Presidents of all time.

Early in Pence’s speech some folks in the crowd starting chanting “U.S.A., U.S.A, U.S.A.” This is an odd thing to chant at a Christian college graduation, but there seems to be no big difference between Christian education and patriotism at Liberty University.

Pence wasted no time turning his commencement address into a Trump rally.  He praised the Trump economy, reminded the audience that “America stands with Israel,” talked about abortion, and attacked Barack Obama for his supposed threats to religious liberty.  Like Carson’s brief speech, Pence’s speech was filled with the typical victimization rhetoric and fear-mongering that one often hears from conservative evangelicals these days.  Pence cannot seem to move  beyond the culture wars–this is how he sees the world.  It is “us” vs. “them.”  The crowd loved it.

At one point in the speech, Pence gave a moving testimony about his conversion experience. I appreciated it.  But in the context–both in terms of Jerry Falwell Jr.’s politicization of Liberty University and Pence’s connection to the Trump administration–he seemed to suggest that an evangelical conversion will naturally lead to Christian Right politics and the unrelenting support of an immoral president.  It does not.

A commencement address should be a celebration of the graduates.  A commencement speaker must put down the self and offer words of encouragement and some wise advice about life after graduation.  To his credit, Pence did some of this. But even his words of exhortation to the graduates sounded like a Trump stump speech for 2020 and a warning to watch out for the progressives lurking in the shadows ready to undermine Christian America.  This was a message of fear, not hope.  But that is how they do things at Liberty University.

I am sure we will hear similar things from Pence next week at Taylor University.

More on Donald Trump and the Johnson Amendment

johnson-gathering

Here is what I wrote about Trump and the so-called “Johnson Amendment” in Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump:

Another religious-liberty issue that concerns many of the court evangelicals is the clause in the IRS tax code commonly referred to as the Johnson Amendment.  The Johnson Amendment is a part of the code that forbids tax-exempt organizations such as churches from endorsing political candidates.  Since 1954, when the Johnson Amendment was added to the code, only one church has ever lost its tax-exempt status for violating it.  Trump first learned about the amendment during some of his early meetings with evangelicals in Trump Tower.  Since that time he has become fixated on it: he realized that the IRS would not allow evangelical pastors to endorse him or any other candidate without losing their tax-exempt status.  Trump promised his evangelical supporters that, if elected, he would bring an end to the Johnson Amendment.

For many evangelicals and their followers, Trump fulfilled that promise on May 4, 2017.  In an outdoor ceremony at the White House, with court evangelicals and other religious leaders by his side, Donald Trump issued an executive order on religious liberty.   Section 2 of the order included the statement: “In particular, the Secretary of the Treasury shall ensure, to the extent permitted by law, that the Department of the Treasury does not take any action against any individual, house of worship, or other religious organizations on the basis that such individual or organization speaks or has spoken about moral or political issues from a religious perspective.”  The statement was a reference to the Johnson Amendment without explicitly naming it.  After he signed the order, Trump told the faith leaders present: “You’re now in a position to say what you want to say…no one should be censoring sermons or targeting pastors.”

Court evangelicals cheered the new order, but in reality it did absolutely nothing to change the Johnson Amendment. The order was little more than a symbolic gesture meant to appease evangelicals and keep their support.  What may have been a public relations victory for Trump and the court evangelicals did not amount to anything because the president does not have the authority to change the tax code–that job belongs to Congress.  And when Congress did overhaul the tax code in December 2017, the Johnson Amendment was not removed.

Over at The Washington Post, Salvador Rizzo traces Trump’s history with the Johnson Amendment.  Here is a taste:

Trump says he got rid of the Johnson Amendment. It’s still on the books.

The president sometimes implies that he got rid of the amendment with an executive order. Nope.

He claims that religious leaders were being silenced before his executive order. Not quite. They were prohibited from supporting or endorsing political candidates in their official capacities, and continue to be barred from doing so as a condition of their tax-exempt status.

This is a campaign promise Trump has not fulfilled. It’s also a false claim worth Four Pinocchios.

Read the entire piece here.

Joe Biden and the Catholic and Evangelical Vote

Biden grab

How will Catholics respond to Joe Biden in 2020?  John Gehrig, Catholic program director at Faith in Public Life, has some thoughts.  Here is a taste of his piece at Religion News Service:

Data from the 2018 midterm election analyzed by Ronald Brownstein of CNN shows that Trump’s favorability among white working-class voters who are not evangelicals — think white Catholics in Biden’s hometown of Scranton, Pa. — has already fallen.

Catholic women will be a critical part of this demographic. Democrats, the analysis found, “ran particularly well this year among white working-class women who are not evangelicals, a group that also displayed substantial disenchantment in the exit poll with Trump’s performance,” Brownstein wrote. “Those women could be a key constituency for Democrats in 2020 in pivotal Rust Belt states such as Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, where relatively fewer blue-collar whites are also evangelical Christians.”

Right now a fired-up base of progressives is setting the tone in the Democratic primary, making Biden, with his baggage of Anita Hill’s treatment during Clarence Thomas’ Supreme Court hearings, a cozy relationship with the banking industry and his record of opposing busing to desegregate schools, a very tough sell.

But don’t sell him short. If Biden can emerge from the necessary challenges on his left to articulate a compelling vision for an inclusive America, one that honors the dignity of work and affirms the vital immigrant character of our nation, Catholic voters could punch his ticket back to the White House as the first Catholic president since JFK.

Read the entire piece here. I think Gehrig is right.

I also think  Biden is going to have to make some kind of an appeal to American evangelicals.  He will not win many of them, but he doesn’t have to win many to take the White House.  Biden is pro-choice, but he has often talked about his personal opposition to abortion.  This might be enough for some 2016 evangelical Trump voters to peel away and vote for him.  In 2016, there were many moderate evangelicals who were looking for a reason–any reason–to vote for Hillary Clinton.  Unfortunately, Clinton never gave them one.  I wrote about this here, two days before the election.

I also wrote about this in Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump:

Though Clinton would never have come close to winning the evangelical vote, her tone-deafness on matters of deep importance to evangelicals may have been the final nail in the coffin of her campaign.  In 2015, when a conservative pro-life group published videos showing Planned Parenthood employees discussing the purchase of the body parts and the fetal tissue of aborted fetuses, Clinton said, “I have seen the pictures [from the videos] and obviously find them disturbing.”  Such a response could have helped her reach evangelicals on the campaign trail, but by 2016 she showed little ambivalence about abortion, or any understanding that it might pose legitimate concerns or raise larger ethical questions.  During the third presidential debate, she defended a traditional pro-choice position and seemed to dodge Fox News host Chris Wallace’s question about her support for later-term abortions.  There seemed to be no room in her campaign for those evangelicals who didn’t want to support Trump but needed to see that she could at least compromise on abortion.

Let’s hope Biden learns from the Clinton campaign.

More Reporting on the Michael Cohen-Jerry Falwell Jr. “Racy Photos” Story

U.S. Republican Presidential candidate Donald Trump shakes hands with Jerry Falwell Jr. during a campaign event in Sioux City Iowa

Last night we did a post on this story.  Get up to speed here.  Since then, Washington Post writers Felicia Sonmez and Sarah Pulliam Bailey have done some additional reporting.  It turns out that actor Tom Arnold is part of the story.  But here is some material from the article that the original Reuters piece did not include:

Michael Cohen, President Trump’s longtime personal attorney, claimed to have helped prevent the release of personal photographs embarrassing to Liberty University President Jerry Falwell Jr. shortly before the influential evangelical leader endorsed Trump’s insurgent presidential bid in 2016.

Cohen made the assertion, which was first reported by Reuters, in a phone call in March with actor Tom Arnold. Arnold provided The Washington Post with a recording of the call Tuesday night.

“There’s a bunch of photographs — you know, personal photographs — that somehow, the guy ended up getting,” Cohen said on the call. The person who had the photos, who is not identified on the call, was demanding money from the Falwells, and Cohen threatened to report the person to legal authorities, according to Reuters.

Reuters reported that the alleged episode took place months before Falwell’s endorsement of Trump. Arnold told The Post that Cohen told him it occurred during the presidential race.

A statement released by an attorney for the Falwells called the account “not accurate.”

Read the entire piece here.  Let’s see how this plays out.