Remembering John McCain

McCain Falwell

McCain with Jerry Falwell

Here are some things I remember about John McCain (1936-2018).

The “Straight Talk Express” was a breath of fresh-air in 2000.  McCain was strongly critical of the Christian Right approach to politics.  He blasted George W. Bush for visiting Bob Jones University before the South Carolina primary.   During the campaign he said, “I am a Reagan Republican who will defeat Al Gore.  Unfortunately, Governor Bush is a Pat Robertson Republican who will lose to Al Gore.”  At one point he called Jerry Falwell and Robertson an “evil influence” on the Republican Party.

In 2008, McCain did a flip-flop on the Christian Right. (I wrote about it here). He knew he needed its support if he was going to defeat Barack Obama.  McCain gave the commencement address at Liberty University on 2006.  He said that the United States Constitution “established the United States of America as a Christian nation.”  (I wrote about this in the introduction to Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?).  He took the endorsement of Christian Zionist John Hagee and then rejected it after Hagee made an anti-Semitic remark.  He started using the phrase “City Upon a Hill.”  And, of course, he chose Sarah Palin as his running mate.

During the 2008 primary season, the sponsors of the “Compassion Forum” at Messiah College invited McCain to come to campus to talk about his faith and its relationship to politics. The event took place several days before the Pennsylvania primary.  CNN covered the event and it was hosted by Jon Meacham and Campbell Brown.  McCain declined the invitation.  Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton accepted the invitation.  I will always be disappointed that McCain did not make this a bipartisan event.  I spent a lot of time that night in the press “spin room” explaining to reporters that McCain was invited, but chose not to attend.  (Later he would attend a similar forum at Rick Warren’s Saddleback Church).

I will remember his “thumbs down” on the GOP attempt to repeal Obamacare.  I still watch this video with amazement and study all the reactions of his fellow Senators

I will remember this and I wonder if we will ever see anything like it again.  When civility and respect for the dignity of political rivals is disregarded, the moral fabric of a democratic society is weakened.  What McCain did at that town hall meeting in 2008 was virtuous.

Rest in Peace

“Falwell the Lesser”

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

Conservative pundit and former radio talk-show host Charlie Sykes says that “Trump’s most prominent evangelical supporter displays an incredible mix of historical ignorance mixed with moral vacuity.”

Here is his piece on Falwell Jr. at the conservative Weekly Standard:

One of the inestimable blessings of social media is that one does not have to be a student at Liberty University to have the benefit of the historical or moral insights of the institution’s president.

On a regular basis, Jerry Falwell Jr. dispenses his evangelical wisdom to his tens of thousands of Twitter followers, and provides an invaluable guide to the moral and political shapeshifting among evangelical leaders as they struggle to rationalize their support for Trumpism.

Even in an era of marked by exquisite self-humiliations, Falwell has distinguished himself. Along with his wife, Falwell Jr. famously posed for a thumbs-up picture with Donald Trump in front of a wall of Trump memorabilia—including a cover of Playboy magazine featuring a younger Trump with a provocatively posed model. 

(At the time the picture was taken, the model in the picture was “in prison for participating in a scheme to transport cocaine from Los Angeles to Sydney—by hiding the drug in airplane toilets.”)

Read the rest here.

I have my own thoughts on Falwell Jr. and the rest of the court evangelicals.  I published them in a book titled Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump.

Believe Me 3d

My Piece at *Religion Dispatches* on Jimmy Carter’s Visit to Liberty University

Liberty-Ben-Carson-Jimmy-Carter-Jerry-FalwellHere is a taste:

Last year Donald Trump delivered the commencement address at Liberty University in Lynchburg, Virginia. Jerry Falwell Jr., the president of the university, said that Trump’s speech “will go down in history as one of the greatest commencement speeches ever.”

This year’s speaker was Jimmy Carter, the 39th president of the United States. On Saturday the Liberty University community heard a commencement address from an evangelical Christian who disagrees with Trump and Falwell Jr. on almost every major policy issue of the age.

Carter and the Falwell family have had an uneasy relationship over the years. Both Carter and Jerry Falwell Sr. (the founder of Liberty University and the father of the current university president) claim(ed) to be born-again Christians. But during the Carter administration, Falwell Sr. was a staunch critic of the president’s position on a host of social issues. Carter supported the Equal Rights Amendment. Falwell Sr. did not. Carter opposed prayer in schools and a constitutional amendment banning abortion (although he opposed abortion personally). Falwell Sr. championed both issues. Carter believed that government had a major role to play in promoting justice. Falwell thought government was an intrusion on individual liberties.

Falwell Sr. also criticized Jimmy Carter for his infamous 1976 interview with Playboy magazine in which the Georgia governor and presidential candidate confessed that he had “committed adultery in my heart many times.” Falwell Sr. said that Carter’s decision to give an interview to Playboy “was lending the credence and the dignity of the highest office in the land to a salacious, vulgar magazine that did not even deserve the time of his day.”

Read the rest at Religion Dispatches.

Robert Jeffress and Jerry Falwell Sr. Aided a Southern Baptist Victim of Abuse

PaigePatterson(2)

Autumn Miles tells her #metoo story at Christianity Today.  Writing in the context of recent remarks by Southwestern Baptist Seminary’s Paige Patterson, Miles credits Robert Jeffress and the late Jerry Falwell Sr. for helping deal with an abusive husband.

Here is a taste of her piece:

When I was in the midst of divorce, my father called our good family friend, Jerry Falwell Sr., founder of Liberty University, to ask his counsel on how to handle the situation. He told my father, “Tell your daughter to get away from that marriage and come to Liberty, where she can meet a young man who will treat her right.”

Years later, when my second husband (whom I did indeed meet at Liberty) and I were speaking with Robert Jeffress, senior pastor of First Baptist Dallas, I shared my story with him. He looked me in the eye and said, “What that church did to you was wrong.”

“It is never God’s will for a woman to endure physical abuse to keep a sick marriage alive,” he later told me. “God hates violence. In fact, the reason he gave in Genesis 6 for destroying the world was because of unbridled violence. To abuse another person is to abuse someone God created in his image; it is tantamount to abusing God himself.” (Jeffress has recently commented on the Patterson case.)

I had two Southern Baptist leaders affirm God’s love for me and his desire to use my story for his kingdom. Those two men gave me hope that someday, a change would come to the SBC. That day is today. As I track Patterson’s case and the larger conversation around it, I see the spirit of God working to bring freedom to the hearts of those who’ve been captured by domestic violence. Jesus came to set the captives free, and through these brave men and women, the bondage of domestic violence is being lifted.

Read the entire piece here.  These are the acts of compassion and love that we should expect from our evangelical pastors.

What Jimmy Carter Can Teach Jerry Falwell Jr. Tomorrow

81e2e-carter

Last year Donald Trump delivered the commencement address at Liberty University. This year’s speaker is Jimmy Carter.

Carter and the Falwell family—the late Jerry Falwell Sr. founded the university in 1978 and Jerry Falwell Jr. is the current president—have not always seen eye-to-eye about how evangelicals should engage with public life.

Both Jimmy Carter and Jerry Falwell Sr. claimed to be born-again Christians, but during the Carter administration, Falwell Sr., the host of the popular “Old-Time Gospel Hour” television program, was a staunch critic of the president’s position on a host of social issues.  Carter supported the Equal Rights Amendment.  Falwell Sr. did not.  Carter opposed prayer in schools and a constitutional amendment banning abortion (although he opposed abortion personally).  Falwell Sr. championed both issues.

Falwell Sr. also criticized Jimmy Carter for his infamous 1976 interview with Playboy magazine in which the presidential candidate confessed that he has “committed adultery in my heart many times.”  Falwell Sr. said that Carter’s decision to give an interview to Playboy “was lending the credence and the dignity of the highest office in the land to a salacious, vulgar magazine that did not even deserve the time of his day.”

By 1980, Falwell Sr. was leading a contingency of conservative evangelical ministers, a group that included Jim Bakker, Pat Robertson, James Robison, and Tim LaHaye, who rejected Carter in favor of Ronald Reagan.

Reagan was fond of talking about the Christian roots of American freedom, often mentioning the seventeenth-century Puritan belief that the United States was a “city upon a hill.”  Reagan opposed abortion, promised to fight moral decay, and said he would keep the federal government from intruding on the lives and schools of ordinary evangelicals.

Even after Reagan defeated Carter in the 1980 presidential election, Falwell Sr. did not stop his criticism of the former president.  When the Lynchburg minister questioned Carter’s faith, Carter fired back: “There is nothing any television evangelist can do to shake my faith…Jerry Falwell can–in a very Christian way–as far as I’m concerned, he can go to hell.”

Fast forward to 2016.  When Donald Trump made a campaign stop at Liberty University, Jerry Falwell Jr., who would shortly thereafter endorse his candidacy, took his own shot at Carter: “My father was criticized in the early 1980s for supporting Ronald Reagan over Jimmy Carter…because Ronald Reagan was a Hollywood actor who’d been divorced and remarried and Jimmy Carter was a Southern Baptist Sunday school teacher….Jimmy Carter was a great Sunday school teacher, but look what happened to our nation with him in the presidency.  Sorry.”

So why is Jimmy Carter giving the commencement address tomorrow at Liberty University?

Because Carter is a grace-filled Christian.  After Falwell Jr. read a Bible passage at a prayer service on the morning of the Trump inauguration, Carter, who was also in attendance, approached the Liberty University president and thanked him.  As Falwell Jr. put it in a Liberty press release: “He stopped me afterward and told me he thought I did a good job…He said he saw my name on the program before I spoke, and he thought it was great that I’d be here to read Scripture.  He was very kind.”

Carter did not need to do this, but his evangelical faith no doubt compelled him. He has a lot to teach Falwell Jr. and the students at Liberty University.  Consider:

  • Carter confessed his sin on the pages of Playboy magazine.  Jerry Falwell Jr. supports a president who has been on the cover of Playboy multiple times and claims to have never had the need to confess his sins.  In fact, Trump’s Playboy cover is prominently displayed in this picture of Trump and Falwell Jr.
  • Jimmy Carter practices a Christianity defined by hope, not fear.
  • Jimmy Carter is an advocate for peace in the Middle East and has long shown his solidarity with Palestinian Christians.  Jerry Falwell Jr. supports the president responsible for this.
  • Jimmy Carter understands that the Christian life is a life of humility, compassion, service, and self-sacrificial love, not a life in pursuit of political power.
  • Jimmy Carter calls Christians to “work together in harmony and to forget about political differences and to pursue the principles of Jesus Christ.”  Falwell Jr. seems more concerned about dividing the Christian church.
  • Jimmy Carter called the nation to self-sacrifice and a sense of limits.  He understood that American freedom also required a sense of duty and a commitment to the needs of others.  Falwell Sr. chose a presidential candidate who defended a political philosophy that offered “the right to dream ‘heroic dreams’ without sacrifice.”  Reagan promised “a combination of guttural self-interest mixed with a utopian vision of the future,” a vision “that Carter could never offer….”

I look forward to hearing Carter’s speech.

What is Happening at Religion News Service?

RNSI have done a lot of writing for Religion News Service over the years.  I hope to continue writing for the site.  I am also a big fan of their reporting.  When the names Yonat Shimron, Adelle Banks, Emily McFarland Miller, or Kimberly Winston come across my feeds, I take notice.

But it appears that the syndicated news service has been facing some difficult challenges of late.  It’s a complicated story and Julia Duin’s piece at Get Religion unpacks it well.  I was most interested in the part of the story dealing Richard Mouw, the evangelical theologian and former president of Fuller Theological Seminary.  Here is a taste:

Last summer, Mouw was growing increasingly disenchanted with President Trump and wondered how he should confront his fellow evangelicals about the unqualified support many were still offering the chief executive. The most obvious editorial vehicle he could use was “Civil Evangelicalism,” Mouw’s regular column for RNS. But how to do so?

Mouw remembered a time back in 1980 when the senior Falwell had echoed the words of Southern Baptist Convention President Bailey Smith, who said that “God Almighty does not hear the prayer of a Jew.” Falwell later said he agreed with Smith (Read this Washington Post story for details of who said exactly what) but seemed to modify his tune after a trip to New York, where he met with Jewish leaders.

However, it’s important to note that Mouw’s column said the following, concerning Falwell’s actions (without mentioning Smith):

… Then there was the time when [Falwell] said in a speech that God does not hear the prayers of Jews. This comment provoked an outcry from Jewish leaders. Your father’s immediate response was to call the folks who had criticized him and ask for a meeting. He flew to New York and spent several hours in discussion with these religious leaders. A rabbi friend who was present told me that your father was sincerely humble in his apologies. And when the meeting was over, your dad issued a statement asking Jews for forgiveness for what he had said.

Recalling this incident nearly 40 years later, Mouw, decided to post an open letter to Jerry Falwell Jr., one of the most visible evangelical supporters of the president.

“I said, ‘Look, isn’t it time to admit you were wrong about Trump?’ ” Mouw told me Wednesday. “I said, ‘Look, your dad was willing to admit he made a mistake.’ ”

RNS posted Mouw’s open letter on Aug. 9. You can read it on the website of The Colorado Springs Gazette, since this opinion piece has been deleted from the RNS home page.

It didn’t take long for Mouw to hear back from the younger Falwell.

“Within a day,” he said, “I get an email from the legal department of Liberty University saying I had defamed the character of Jerry Falwell, Sr.; that he’d never said that and I had to publish a retraction or they’d take legal proceedings against me.

Read the rest here.

 

I Thought the Christian Right Opposed Pornography?

Porn

Evangelicals believe that pornography is sinful.  But many evangelicals are happy to support a POTUS who pays a porn star for sex as long as that POTUS appoints the right federal judges.  Over at The New Republic, Jeet Heer reminds us that the fight against pornography was central to the rise of the Christian Right.  What happened?

Here is a taste:

Pornography was a political hot button topic from the 1960s until the 1990s, when changes in censorship law and new technologies like video recording made erotic imagery much more pervasive. Along with opposing abortion and gay rights, being anti-porn was one of the key organizing principles of the religious right. In 1997, Moral Majority founder Jerry Falwell spoke for many social conservatives when he told CNN, “pornography hurts anyone who reads it, garbage in, garbage out. I think when you feed that stuff into your mind, it definitely affects your relationship with your spouse, your attitude towards life, morality.” But today, Jerry Falwell’s son, Jerry Falwell Jr., is one of Donald Trump’s biggest supporters. (In 2016, he was photographed at Trump’s office in front of a framed copy of a Playboy cover featuring Trump.)

The shift from Falwell’s relentlessly anti-porn position to Falwell Jr.’s indulgence of Trump was made possible because of a wider shift away from the older anti-porn crusades, which perhaps peaked with the Reagan administration’s release of the Meese Report in 1986, which made a dubious effort to link pornography with violent crime. The religious right’s anti-porn push in the last decades of the twentieth century took place at a time when porn was mostly distributed through videotapes and magazines. It was possible to imagine that consumer boycotts could suppress porn. That became far less realistic after the rise of the internet.

Read the rest here.

 

Cal Thomas Breaks Down and Embraces the Strong Man

calOn Tuesday I reported on New York Times columnist Ross Douthat’s recent lecture at Messiah College.  Here is part of that post:

Christians might find themselves relying more heavily on political strong men to protect them from the forces of secularization.  This is the approach that many evangelicals who support Donald Trump seem to be taking.  In one of the more stinging lines of the lecture Douthat suggested that some evangelicals seem to need Trump (a man with no real Christian convictions to speak of) to protect them in the same way that Syrians need the brutal dictator Bashar Al-Assad to protect them.  (I should note that Douthat was quick to say that Trump was “not as bad” at Assad).

Well, it looks like conservative political commentary and former Jerry Falwell lieutenant Cal Thomas, a writer who has repented of his involvement in the early days of the Christian Right, has once again embraced the strong man.

Here is a taste of his September 27, 2016 column titled “It’s Time for Trump.”

Donald Trump is addressing the legitimate concerns of a large number of Americans who increasingly feel ignored by their government. These concerns include anemic economic growth. A growing economy produces private-sector jobs that create capital and wealth. These forgotten Americans are against open borders, which the president seemed to champion in his final speech to the United Nations General Assembly. Billionaire George Soros has pledged “to invest up to $500 million in programs and companies benefiting migrants and refugees fleeing life-threatening situations.”

Many are tired of fighting wars we don’t win and fighting terrorism with no clear strategy, all the while admitting more “refugees” from countries where terrorism is a way of death. They are weary of the denigration of law enforcement. Hardworking people are tired of being told they are not paying enough in taxes to a government that only wastes it.

The ignored are tired of being branded racists. Christians are tired of being called homophobes and Islamophobes and told their beliefs are inferior to those who want to destroy the country and undermine values that were once widely held. If the secular progressive agenda is considered progress, as they claim, what would regress look like?

Heather Wilhelm, writing at the conservative National Review, has taken Thomas to task for his Trump endorsement.  Here is a taste of her post “Attention, Christians: Donald Trump is Not ‘Your Jerk’“:

Cal Thomas, a Christian syndicated columnist, is the latest in a long line to crack. I met Thomas years ago, around the time of his 1999 book, Blinded by Might, which was written with Ed Dobson and — forthcoming irony alert — cautioned against Christians’ attempting to find salvation in politicians or the Republican party. I wove my way to the front of the event, which was at a church, and cheerfully introduced myself. “Mr. Thomas,” I said, bright-eyed, “I want to be an opinion columnist!”

“Oh,” he chuckled. “You poor thing.”

Boy, was he right! He must have seen 2016 coming. Fast forward to today, past Clinton and Bush and Obama to the current Clinton/Trump horror show, and witness Cal Thomas writing his September 27 column, in which he endorses Donald Trump. It’s a doozy.

“All analogies break down at some point,” Thomas writes, “but let’s engage in a theological stretch. When Jesus overturned the money changer’s tables in the Temple, he said that instead of a house of prayer, the elites of his day had turned the Temple into ‘a den of thieves.’ This increasingly applies to Washington.”

I’ll pause here to note that the co-author of Blinded by Might just compared Washington, D.C. to a house of worship. But wait! It gets better: “Only one candidate for president is capable of overturning ‘the money changers’ in Washington. The political, governmental and media elites have had their chance to turn things around and they have failed. Now it’s time for Trump.”

Let’s ignore the fact that Thomas just used an analogy in which he compared Trump to Jesus. Let’s also ignore the fact that amidst all this talk about corrupt money-changers, Thomas just endorsed a candidate who literally bankrupted businesses involving seedy money-changing tables, stiffed people who worked for him, and has applauded the abuse of eminent domain, in which the government can plow over poor people’s homes in order to build things like casinos and fancy hotels.

Yes, forget all that. Trump is going to be “our jerk”! Trump, Thomas argues, is the only candidate who can stop the “secular progressive agenda,” which seems odd, if you actually listen to what Trump says. Trump will fight for “Christians who are tired of being called homophobes,” Thomas tells the world; meanwhile, the real Trump recently called for immigrants to be questioned about their approval of gay rights. Trump, despite Thomas’s protestations, offers incoherent and conflicting paragraphs on transgender bathrooms. His history of abortion flip-flops is almost awe-inspiring.

When it comes to Christians, in fact, Trump seems passionate about just two things: (1) making everyone say “Merry Christmas” on command, and (2) manipulating what he has repeatedly called a “powerful” Christian voting block.

Read Wilhelm’s entire post here.

Cal Thomas’;s career has now come full-circle.

Not Everyone in the Liberty University Orbit Likes Who Jerry Falwell Jr. Endorsed

DeMossOver at The Washington Post, Philip Rucker has a nice piece on what some of the Liberty University faithful think about president Jerry Falwell Jr’s decision to endorse Donald Trump for President of the United States.  Mark DeMoss, the longtime assistant to Jerry Falwell Sr., is concerned about Falwell Jr. and the school that he leads.

Here is a taste of Rucker’s article:

Mark DeMoss, who for many years served as chief of staff to Falwell Sr. and considered the televangelist a second father, said in an interview that it was a mistake for Falwell Jr. to endorse Trump. He said the Republican front-runner’s insult-laden campaign has been a flagrant rejection of the values Falwell Sr. espoused and Liberty promotes on its campus.

“Donald Trump is the only candidate who has dealt almost exclusively in the politics of personal insult,” DeMoss said. “The bullying tactics of personal insult have no defense — and certainly not for anyone who claims to be a follower of Christ. That’s what’s disturbing to so many people. It’s not Christ-like behavior that Liberty has spent 40 years promoting with its students.”

DeMoss, a public affairs executive with deep ties throughout the national evangelical community, sits on the board of Liberty University and chairs its executive committee. He said he has discussed his views about Trump personally with Falwell Jr. — “This appears to be something we’re just going to disagree on,” DeMoss said — but otherwise has kept his opinions private.

On Monday, however, with Trump poised for sweeping Super Tuesday victories, including in Virginia and in DeMoss’s home state of Georgia, DeMoss decided to break his silence in an interview with The Washington Post.

“I’ve been concerned for Liberty University for a couple of months now, and I’ve held my tongue,” DeMoss said. “I think a lot of what we’ve seen from Donald Trump will prove to be difficult to explain by evangelicals who have backed him. Watching last weekend’s escapades about the KKK, I don’t see how an evangelical backer can feel good about that.”

 

Apparently DeMoss does not seem to have a problem with Marco Rubio (who he is supporting) engaging in the “politics of personal insult.”

Evangelical Heirs: Falwell and Graham

franklin-graham-libertyLast week The New York Times ran a piece on Jerry Falwell Jr. and Franklin Graham and their different approaches to politics in this election year.  Of course Falwell Jr. and Graham are both heirs to influential 20th-century evangelicals.

Here is a taste:

Both men say there is no rivalry between them as they pursue different ways of engaging in politics.

“He’s got to make decisions and do things that he feels God is calling him to do,” Mr. Graham, 63, said of Mr. Falwell, 53. “And I have to do things that I feel God is calling me to do.”

But for both, those decisions play out in the shadows of their fathers.

“The Grahams and Falwells across generations have chosen different tactics, but the tactics could be equally influential,” said John C. Green, a political scientist at the University of Akron and an author of “The Bully Pulpit: The Politics of Protestant Clergy.”

He added: “I don’t see Franklin Graham as deeply involved in partisan politics the way Jerry Falwell Jr. is with his endorsement of Trump. But he’s much more active in politics in the broader sense.”

Read the entire article here.

After reading this piece I wondered if Graham and Falwell Jr. actually have more in common with one another.

Maybe Some Evangelicals Think Trump is Another Reagan

Trump and ReaganI 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.

Jerry Falwell Jr. “Endorses” Donald Trump

Trump-L-Jerry-Fallwell-Sr.-AP-Photos-640x480The 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,d 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.

 

GOP Candidates and Their Evangelical Constituencies

d5271-billy_graham

Is there a “Billy Graham” wing in American evangelicalism?

Last week I wrote about Marco Rubio’s new religious liberty advisory committee.  In that post I argued that the make-up of the committee suggests Rubio’s attempt to appeal to mainstream evangelicals.  I compared these evangelicals with those evangelicals who support the Ted Cruz and Donald Trump candidacies.

Today I learned that Russell Moore, President of the Ethics and Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Church, offered a similar analysis.  Here is a quote from an article at Roll Call:

Russell Moore, president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, said Trump, Cruz and Rubio are appealing to disparate camps of evangelicals.

“I would say that Ted Cruz is leading in the ‘Jerry Falwell’ wing, Marco Rubio is leading the ‘Billy Graham’ wing and Trump is leading the ‘Jimmy Swaggart’ wing,” Moore said, meaning that Cruz has largely followed the classic Moral Majority model that was the face of the conservative movement — he has received endorsements from figures such as Focus on the Family founder James Dobson — while Trump “tends to work most closely with the prosperity wing of Pentecostalism” which tends to believe that God would financially reward believers.

I chose to use the adjective “mainstream” to describe the Billy Graham wing of evangelicalism.  This wing of evangelicalism, which I would associate with Christianity Today, Graham, Wheaton College, Moody Bible Institute, Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, Campus Crusade for Christ (now called “Cru”) and InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, is the kind of evangelicalism that I am familiar with because it is the evangelicalism that  I joined as a teenager in the 1980s.

But after thinking a bit more, I wonder if this wing of evangelicalism is still “mainstream?”  Perhaps Moore’s “Falwell” wing or Trump’s “prosperity” wing may now be more mainstream.

Thoughts?

Thoughts on Jerry Falwell Jr. and Guns

Jerry Falwell Jr.’s remarks about guns at Liberty University have been nagging me all day.  This is because I know some Liberty faculty, know people who currently attend Liberty, know parents who have sent or are sending their kids to Liberty, and know many Liberty alums.  Last night I reached out to some of my Liberty connections. Some responded. Some did not.  

In case you haven’t heard, on Friday during the university convocation Falwell Jr. told the Liberty students and other members of the community–some 12,000 of them were in attendance–that they should arm themselves in order to protect the campus from potential “Muslim” intruders.  Here is what he said.

If some of those people in that community center had had what I’ve got in my back pocket right now [applause] … is it illegal to pull it out? I don’t know. I’ve always thought that if more people had concealed carry permits, then we could end those Muslims before they walk in and kill. So, I just want to take this opportunity to encourage all of you to get your permit. We offer a free course. Let’s teach ’em a lesson if they ever show up here.”

These remarks were greeted with loud applause in the arena.  If Twitter is any indication, the Liberty community seems to be supporting their president on this issue.  Check out Falwell’s Jr.’s Twitter feed.  He is retweeting all of the positive tweets.  In fact, he claims that he has never received more positive feedback.

I understand that Falwell Jr. has made efforts to bring Liberty out of the separatist, fundamentalist, politically conservative world of his father, Jerry Falwell Sr., the founder of the institution.  Liberty has a long way to go on this front, but Falwell Jr.’s decision to invite Bernie Sanders to speak on campus was a step in the right direction.  This kind of gesture will never be enough for hard-line liberals and secularists who despise the very existence of a place such as Liberty University, but the invitation of Sanders, when taken in historical context, was a significant breakthrough.

I am thus sympathetic with the thoughts of evangelical monastic Shane Claiborne. Perhaps Falwell Jr. just got caught up in the moment, like his father did on more than one occasion. His father was not above apologizing for his brash comments, including his remark that gays and lesbians were responsible for the terrorist attacks on 9-11-01.  

I hope that Falwell Jr. eventually realizes that his words were poorly formed and that he needs to apologize. To do so would be an act of Christian courage far more meaningful than the arrogant remarks he made last Friday.  Perhaps he could also admit that his remarks were the unfortunate product of a nasty, politically-charged culture war mentality that has defined the Lynchburg campus since its founding.  Old ways die hard.

But if Falwell Jr. apologized he would disappoint the Liberty faithful who are currently praising him for his remarks.  His followers might think that he is a coward who is caving in to attacks by the “liberal media.”  How the president responds in the next few days will tell us a lot about the direction he wants to take Liberty University. 

I am also afraid that Falwell Jr. may have hurt Liberty University’s reputation as a “safe” place for young conservative evangelicals to attend college.  Schools like Liberty are advertised as “safe” because students are taught correct doctrine, meaning that there is a good chance that they will graduate with their faith in tact.  But Liberty is also “safe” because the parents of young evangelicals believe that their children will be protected from the evils and dangers of the outside world.

Is Liberty as safe today as it was before Falwell Jr.’s “bring it on” convocation address on Friday morning?  It is a question worth asking. I know that there are  many on the Liberty campus who are asking this question right now.

I also wonder about the wisdom of encouraging college students to carry concealed weapons. From what I understand, guns are allowed on the Liberty campus, except in the dorms.  Why not in the dorms?  And why doesn’t the logic that keeps guns out of the dorms apply to the campus as a whole? Where do students put their guns when they are in their dorm rooms?  Just curious.

There also seems to be a theological issue here.  I am guessing that Liberty University teaches that human beings are born sinful and are thus prone to act in sinful ways.  If they really believe this doctrine, wouldn’t arming the student body be a bad idea? 

In conclusion, I would encourage the Liberty University community to read Marilynne Robinson’s recent essay on fear.  (She is one of my favorite Calvinists!)  Here is just a small taste:

There is something I have felt the need to say, that I have spoken about in various settings, extemporaneously, because my thoughts on the subject have not been entirely formed, and because it is painful to me to have to express them. However, my thesis is always the same, and it is very simply stated, though it has two parts: first, contemporary America is full of fear. And second, fear is not a Christian habit of mind. As children we learn to say, “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for Thou art with me.” We learn that, after his resurrection, Jesus told his disciples, “Lo, I am with you always, to the close of the age.” Christ is a gracious, abiding presence in all reality, and in him history will finally be resolved.

These are larger, more embracing terms than contemporary Christianity is in the habit of using. But we are taught that Christ “was in the beginning with God; all things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made….The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” The present tense here is to be noted. John’s First Letter proclaims “the eternal life which was with the Father and was made manifest to us.” We as Christians cannot think of Christ as isolated in space or time if we really do accept the authority of our own texts. Nor can we imagine that this life on earth is our only life, our primary life. As Christians we are to believe that we are to fear not the death of our bodies but the loss of our souls.

Who is Jerry Falwell?

Who is that guy holding Tinky Winky?

The other day in my Introduction to History class at Messiah College I was talking about a former student who wrote her senior honors thesis on Jerry Falwell and the rise of the Moral Majority.  (I discuss this student in chapter 7 of Why Study History?)

As I began to explain how my former student had to put aside her liberal politics and beliefs in order to empathize and understand the world according to Falwell, I noticed that many of the 20 students in the class were giving me strange looks.

After a few minutes I figured it out. I asked the students how many of them had ever heard of Jerry Falwell.  Only two hands went up.  I then told them that Falwell was the founder of Liberty University and nearly everyone nodded.

Here are my initial thoughts about this conversation:

1.  Evangelical students today do not identify with the Christian Right’s founding generation.  They really have no clue about Falwell apart from the school he founded.

2. Evangelical students really have no understanding of the history behind the movement in which many of their parents came of age and which probably informed the kind of households in which their parents raised them.

3.  Messiah College students, while no less pious, tend to be a bit less connected to the evangelical “movement” or “subculture” than students at other Christian colleges. Falwell and the other founders of the Christian Right did not have a great influence on many of them.  I compare this to the couple of visits I have made to Wheaton College in the last few years where there is a definite sense that “evangelicalism” is a major part of the identity of the college and the students who attend it.  (But to be fair, most at Wheaton would not identify with Falwell as much as Billy Graham or Christianity Today).

For the record, I also asked them if they had ever heard of Billy Graham.  Almost all the hands went up and no one thought he was a professional wrestler.

What else should I make of my students’ failure to know anything about Falwell?

Michael Sean Winters on Journal of Southern Religion Podcast

I am really enjoying these Journal of Southern Religion podcasts with Art Remillard.  Art should get a job for NPR or perhaps pinch hit for the American History Guys.  His latest interview is with Michael Sean Winters, the author of God’s Right Hand: How Jerry Falwell Made God a Republican and Baptized the American Right.  I have seen a lot of good press related to this book and I hope to get to it at some point this summer.  In the meantime, enjoy the podcast.

What Evangelicals Learned from the Religious Right

Writing at The Atlantic, Jonathan Merritt reminds us that the Religious Right turns 33 this month.  I am not sure why this anniversary is worth celebrating apart from the fact that Merritt has a book on the subject to promote, but he does make some astute observations about how the Jerry Falwell and his colleagues (and followers) have affected American evangelicalism.  Merritt concludes:

First, partisan religion is killing American Christianity. The American church is declining by nearly every data point. Christians are exerting less influence over the culture than even a few years ago, organized religion no longer garners the respect of the masses, and two in three young non-Christians claim they perceive the Christian church as “too political.” Church attendance is declining, and the percentage of Americans claiming no religious affiliation is rising.

As sociologists Robert Putnam and David Campbell argue, the church’s partisan political alignment is at least partly to blame. In a recent article in Foreign Affairs they write, “In effect, Americans (especially young Americans) who might otherwise attend religious services are saying, ‘Well, if religion is just about conservative politics, then I’m outta here.'”

The question we must now answer is not, “Can we save this nation?” but “Can we save our faith?” And the only way it seems we will be able to do the latter is through abandoning the partisan, divisive strategies adopted by the Christian right and begin engaging the public again in more prudent ways.

Second, we learned that partisan Christianity cannot effectively change our culture. When the religious right formed, conservative Christians were energized around restricting abortion and same-sex marriage, reducing the size of government, and protecting religious freedom. More than a quarter-century later, these same debates innervate the movement. Little progress has been made despite their best efforts, and an increasing number of individuals now recognize the religious right strategy has largely been a failure. The irony of this turn of events is that Christians above all others know that true change must occur in hearts — not just the halls of power.

Jerry Falwell: Founder of the Megachurch

First off, let me say that I have become slightly addicted to Religion & Politics, the new online journal from the John C. Danforth Center on Religion & Politics at Washington University in St. Louis.  They are publishing some really good stuff by some excellent authors.  (One note:  it might be helpful to have a link to the Center somewhere on the Religion & Politics homepage).  I am really eager to see how the Danforth Center grows, especially after they did a national search last  season for scholars who study religion and politics. (Have the new hires been announced?).

I think the readers of The Way of Improvement Leads Home will find today’s piece by Michael Sean Winters to be particularly interesting.   Winters argues that Jerry Falwell is the founder, among other things, of the present-day megachurch movement.

Here is a taste:

But for all his political influence, Falwell should also be remembered for his role in shaping another major development in the life of American evangelical religion: the megachurch. Before he created a political dynasty, before he founded a university, before he molded the Republicans’ base of social conservatives, Falwell built a church. Thomas Road Baptist Church in Lynchburg, Virginia, was his base, one that now boasts 20,000 members. It was from there that Falwell’s influential political and educational dynasty would grow. And it was from there that he learned the models of fundamentalist insularity and evangelical outreach that would mark his later endeavors.

Evangelicals have long liked crowds, and Falwell was not the first evangelical preacher to lead a church that held thousands. The Cane Ridge revival in 1801, which ignited the Second Great Awakening, reportedly attracted more than 20,000 people, but that was for a revival, not for establishing a permanent church. In the 1920s, Aimee Semple McPherson built the Angelus Temple in Los Angeles, seating 5,300 people, filled three times a day with members of her Foursquare Gospel Church. But she did not host a variety of ministries attached to her worship services. In 1956, when Falwell founded Thomas Road Baptist with only 35 members, he would, over the next fifteen years, build it into what would become one of the first modern-day megachurches in the country.

A megachurch is not simply a large church. If it were, St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome might qualify. Rather, megachurches are large Protestant enclaves—averaging 2,000 or more on a Sunday—and are usually located in the suburbs or exurbs of cities, where they cater to congregants through a host of ministries and services, schools, and day care centers. True to this mold, over the years Thomas Road Baptist had to build four different sanctuaries to accommodate its growth. More importantly, Falwell continually added new ministries to his church, creating a sub-culture for his parishioners.

This is a nice piece of religious journalism, but is it true?  Can anyone point to other evangelical churches that predate Thomas Road Baptist Church and can be defined, by Winters’s standards, as a megachurch?