The title of this post is a little misleading, but I did put the word “endorsement” in quotes.
I watched and listened to Jerry Falwell Jr. introduce Donald Trump yesterday at Liberty University and I interpret what he said as an endorsement of the Trump presidential candidacy.
Technically, Liberty University does not endorse candidates. The Lynchburg, Virginia university, which boasts that it is the largest Christian university in the country, rolled out the red carpet for The Donald. The event started with a video extolling the virtues of Trump. It portrayed him as an innovative and radical politician who was confounding the political pundits. Neither Ben Carson or Bernie Sanders, who spoke at Liberty in the Fall of 2015, was given such a video introduction.
And then there was Falwell’s thirteen-minute verbal introduction of Trump (he did not introduce Carson or Sanders), which he read (poorly) off a teleprompter. Falwell gushed over Trump. He talked about his friendship with the candidate and praised Trump for making monetary gifts to those in need.
Falwell Jr. invoked Matthew 7:16 to describe Trump’s philanthropic activity. For those of you who are unfamiliar with this verse, here it is in context from the English Standard Version (a new favorite translation of American evangelicals).
Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. 16You will recognize them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? 17So, every healthy tree bears good fruit, but the diseased tree bears bad fruit. 18A healthy tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a diseased tree bear good fruit. 19Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. 20Thus you will recognize them by their fruits.
Falwell Jr. took a verse in which Jesus warns his disciples about “false prophets” and turned it around to praise Trump as a true disciple. It was implied that Trump is a “healthy tree” that “bears good fruit” because he has occasionally given money to those in need.
Of course there are other parts of the Bible that talk about the “fruits” of a healthy Christian. I seem to remember something about this from my reading of Galatians 5:
16But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh. 17For the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh, for these are opposed to each other, to keep you from doing the things you want to do.18But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law. 19Now the works of the flesh are evident: sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, 20idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, 21envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God. 22But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law.24And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.
But Falwell Jr. did not stop there. He then praised Trump for following “The Greatest Commandment.” When Christians talk about “The Greatest Commandment” they are usually referring to Matthew 22:36-40:
36 “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?” 37 And he said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. 38 This is the great and first commandment. 39 And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. 40 On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.”
If the stories he told about Trump’s philanthropic work are true, they are truly impressive. I would even say that they intersect with the spirit of The Great Commandment. But do these verses characterize Trump’s action in this campaign or in his career as a whole? I will let you decide.
Falwell Jr. then turned to a discussion of his father, Jerry Falwell Sr., the founder of the Moral Majority and Liberty University. Since deep down in his heart of hearts Falwell Jr. knows that Trump is probably not an evangelical or a practicing Christian, he needed to make a case as to why evangelicals should vote for such a guy. To make this point he turned to his father’s decision to support Ronald Reagan, a divorced movie star with a pro-choice track record on abortion, over the “born-again” Jimmy Carter in 1980. Hindsight is 20-20, making it easy for Falwell Jr. to denigrate the Carter presidency and make his father look like a prophet for throwing his weight behind Reagan instead of the Baptist Sunday School teacher. “Carter was a good Sunday School teacher,” Falwell Jr. stated, “but look what happened to our nation with him in the presidency.” (The undergraduates in attendance applauded this line. I wonder how many of them know anything about Carter or his presidency).
Instead, the Liberty president told his students, Christians should support the candidate who is the best leader and cares the most about “making America great again.” (OK–he didn’t actually use the phrase “making American great again,” but it was implied). Trump is worthy of evangelical votes, Falwell Jr. argued, because he is a good businessman and a visionary capitalist. Christians should vote for the best candidate, even if they disagree with his or her theology. After all, this is what Falwell Sr. did in 1980.
Finally, Falwell Jr. tried to draw a direct line between Trump, his father, Martin Luther King Jr., and Jesus Christ. This was the most convoluted (and downright scandalous) part of the introduction, but the message still came through. Trump, Falwell Sr., and MLK all had “radical” and “politically incorrect” ideas and were persecuted for those ideas. MLK and Jesus even died for those ideas. Of course Falwell Jr. said nothing about the content of those ideas.
Jerry Falwell turned Martin Luther King Jr. Day into Donald Trump and Jerry Falwell Sr. Day.
Make what you want of all this, but Trump is Falwell Jr.’s guy.