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


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 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?