Cornel West and Robert George Will Be Speaking at Liberty University

Cornel West and Princeton professor Robert George will be speaking at an event on civil discourse at Liberty University.  If I am reading the schedule correctly, it looks like the event will take place on August 30, 2019.

West

West and George regularly travel to college campuses and other places to talk about civility and the importance of the liberal arts.  Here is a post we did on a recent discussion at the American Enterprise Institute.

Civil discourse is one thing, but I can’t imagine that Cornel West will not speak truth to power in Lynchburg.  As many of you know, Jerry Falwell Jr., the president of Liberty University, is a leading court evangelical who has called Donald Trump the “dream president” of evangelicals.

George, on the other hand, will be on something close to home turf at Liberty despite the fact that many Liberty students probably don’t think he is truly saved because he is a Roman Catholic.

The Church as the “GOP Farm Team”

Liberty U

Over at The Week, Bonnie Kristian has a brief piece chronicling the role that evangelicals are playing in propping-up the Republican Party.  She writes in the wake of this event at Liberty University.  Here is a taste:

That such an event would exist, and that it would be hosted at Liberty, is hardly surprising. But, as I feel I am constantly saying about the intersection of religion and politics in America these days, what does not surprise still should shock. Pastors and Pews may be the natural evolution of the religious right, the logical next step in Republican politicians’ use of church infrastructure for political ends, but that makes it no less worthy of protest.

This is not the point of church.

This is not why we gather together. This is not how we grow the kingdom of heaven. This is not how we incarnate the new reality started at the cross. This is not a way to spread the hope of Christ.

The Republican Party platform is not the Gospel. No politician of any party can, in that sense, offer good news. Seeking political power is not a pastor’s job. And to thus subvert church into a partisan political resource is to make it cease to be the church, to take that third temptation — “all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor” — where Jesus turned it down. It makes Christianity a means to a far lower end.

Read the entire piece here.

Pastors Preaching Politics: It was Bad in 1776, it is Bad Today

Black Robe

400 evangelical pastors are heading to Liberty University this week to participate in an event sponsored by the American Renewal Project.  The goal of the closed meeting is to mobilize pastors for the 2020 election.  Speakers at the event include former Virginia congressman (now Liberty professor) David Brat, Christian nationalist David Barton, and Christian Broadcasting Network political analyst David Brody.  (I am guessing that they are not mobilizing pastors to vote for a Democrat :-))

The American Renewal Project is run by David Lane, a Christian Right politico who wants pastors to preach political sermons, run for political office, and use their ecclesiastical authority to convince parishioners to vote for Donald Trump in 2020. We wrote about him here and here.

Here is a taste of Brody’s article at the Christian Broadcasting Network website:

“The Pastor and Pews events have been extremely valuable in mobilizing church-going voters and illuminating critical issues for elections,” said former presidential candidate and Fox News Contributor Mike Huckabee. 

Huckabee, a former pastor himself, has spoken at these events many times before and understands their value. 

“I am convinced that the pastor and pews model was instrumental in the 2016 election of President Trump and has been instrumental in numerous statewide elections for congressional, US Senate and gubernatorial races.”

President Trump won 81 percent of the white conservative evangelical vote in 2016 and during it all, the American Renewal Project was on the ground and extremely active. In the 60 days before the General Election, ARP spent $9 million in six battleground states, including some big prizes like Florida, Ohio and North Carolina.  Now they’re back at it looking for a repeat. 

“It is the single, largest, most cohesive voter bloc in the last election,” said Doug Wead, a noted historian, and best-selling author and advisor to two U.S. Presidents. “Now its all about voter ID and turnout.”

With all the extra vitriol, animosity and energy aimed at Trump this time around, the president will need a similar showing or even better to win in 2020.  

Read the rest here.

Lane and other Christian nationalists and court evangelicals believe that they are a modern-day “Black Robe Brigade,” a name given to revolutionary-era pastors who supported American independence in 1776.

The appeal to the Black Robe Brigade reveals a fundamental problem with these kind of history-based Christian Right arguments.  Lane, David Barton, and others give a moral authority to the past that is almost idolatrous.  In other words, if pastors used their pulpits to promote a political agenda in 1776, then they must have been right.  If it happened in the eighteenth-century it is somehow immune from any moral or theological reflection today.  Thomas Jefferson said that our rights come from God, so Christian nationalists conclude, with little theological reflection on whether or not Jefferson was correct, that our rights indeed come from God.  This leads them to make all kinds of wackadoodle arguments that the amendments related to quartering soldiers, trial by jury,  excessive bail, and cruel and unusual punishment are somehow rooted in biblical teaching.

At the heart of all this is the belief that the American Revolution was ordained by God.  If this is true, then any attempt at promoting this significant moment in providential history–whether it be carried out by preachers or patriots–must be good. The Black Robe Brigade mixed religion and politics and so should we.  There is very little deep thinking about how the mixing of religion and nationalism in the church–whether it happened in 1776 or 2019–harms the witness of the Gospel.  Perhaps this explains why church attendance was at an all-time low during the American Revolution.

Court Evangelicals Jerry Falwell Jr. and Jack Graham Attack Southern Baptist Russell Moore on Immigration

Detention

Over the past year or so I have been calling attention to  the ways the Trump administration has exposed a deepening divide in white American evangelicalism.

Back in July 17, 2017, in the Washington Post piece that introduced the phrase “court evangelicals” to a national audience, I wrote:

The court evangelicals are changing the religious landscape in the United States. The Trump presidency is only six months old, but it is already beginning to alter long-standing spiritual alignments. It seems as though Christians are not changing Trump, but rather that Trump could be changing Christianity.

Historians will write about this moment in terms of both continuity and change. On one hand, court evangelicals are part of a familiar story. For nearly half a century, evangelicals have sought to influence the direction of the country and its laws through politics. But Trump has forced them to embrace a pragmatism that could damage the gospel around the world, and force many Christians to rethink their religious identities and affiliations.

And this:

The 20 percent of white evangelicals who did not vote for Trump — many of whom are conservative politically and theologically — now seem to have a lot more in common with mainline Protestants. Some in my own circles have expressed a desire to leave their evangelical churches in search of a more authentic form of Christianity.

Other evangelicals are experiencing a crisis of faith as they look around in their white congregations on Sunday morning and realize that so many fellow Christians were willing to turn a blind eye to all that Trump represents.

This division in white evangelicalism was on display again during Franklin Graham’s June 2 call to prayer for Donald Trump.  I wrote about that here.

Today we see yet another illustration of how nasty things are getting within white evangelicalism.  Russell Moore, the President of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission and a staunch anti-Trumper, tweeted a response to an Associated Press story about the horrendous treatment of children on the Mexican-Texas border:

By all reports, the Associated Press, and by extension Moore, are correct about the moral problems on the border and the failure of the Trump administration to do anything about it.  As I posted yesterday, a Trump administration lawyer even tried to make a case that these children did not need soap, toothbrushes, or blankets.

But this did not stop the court evangelicals from pouncing.  Here is Jack Graham, pastor of the Prestonwood Baptist Church:

He followed-up with this:

Just for the record, Moore retweeted a report from the Associated Press, not CNN.

Another court evangelical who got into the mix was Jerry Falwell Jr., the president of Liberty University, a Christian school that claims it is the largest Christian university in the world.  (Actually, it is not, but we won’t go down that road right now).   I cannot embed Falwell Jr.’s tweet because he blocked me a long time ago, but I can quote it:

Who are you @drmoore? Have you ever made a payroll?  Have you ever built an organization of any type from scratch?  What give you authority to speak on any issue?  I’m being serious.  You’re nothing but an employee–a bureaucrat.

Wow!  There are so many things we could say about this single tweet. It not only captures the divide within white evangelicalism, but it also speaks volumes about Jerry Falwell Jr. as a Christian leader and educator.  Here are few comments:

  • Did Falwell Jr.? “build” Liberty University “from scratch?”  I think that honor belongs to his father.
  • Falwell Jr. appears to equate one’s validity to speak with moral authority with one’s business acumen.
  • Similarly, Falwell believes that people who are “employees” or “bureaucrats” have no moral authority to speak on social issues.  Is this how he treats his faculty members at Liberty University?  Like Moore, some of them have Ph.Ds and have earned the right to speak publicly on matters of expertise and social concern.  Is this the kind of culture Falwell Jr. has created at Liberty?
  • Perhaps it is comments like this that contribute to what I understand to be the recent decline in applications and enrollment at Liberty University.  And it would make perfect sense for a Christian university that has a leader who values only business skills to fire a dozen divinity school faculty.

And here is writer Jeet Heer:

https://platform.twitter.com/widgets.js

Did Jerry Falwell Jr. Just Admit That He Is Not Involved in the Spiritual or Christian Dimensions of Liberty University?

falwell-jr

We covered Falwell’s “grow a pair” tweet here.  And then we did a post on his decision to delete the tweet.  But amid all the discussion, I missed an important part of this story.  Here is a taste of a Washington Times piece on the controversy:

Mr. Falwell deleted the tweet after people complained about its crudeness. He later responded to critics by clarifying that he is not a spiritual leader.

“You’re putting your ignorance on display. I have never been a minister. UVA-trained lawyer and commercial real estate developer for 20 yrs,” he wrote. “Univ president for last 12 years-student body tripled to 100000+/endowment from 0 to $2 billion and $1.6B new construction in those 12 years

“The faculty, students and campus pastor @davidnasser of @LibertyU are the ones who keep LU strong spiritually as the best Christian univ in the world,” he added. “While I am proud to be a conservative Christian, my job is to keep LU successful academically, financially and in athletics.”

Interesting.  It almost seems like Falwell is not interested in the links between Christianity and the academic, financial, and athletic “success” of Liberty University.  It sounds like he is excusing his crude tweet by claiming that he is not a minister and thus not  responsible for the Christian culture of Liberty.  If you are a Liberty University faculty member, parent, student, or alumnus, this might be a good thing! 🙂

Court Evangelical Jerry Falwell Jr. Deletes Crude Tweet About David Platt

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

Relevant magazine has it covered:

It appears that the president of Liberty University has deleted a crude tweet he sent to pastor and author David Platt.

Yesterday, he sent a tweet that read,  “Sorry to be crude but pastors like [David Platt] need to grow a pair. Just saying.” That tweet no longer appears on his timeline.

Context

I am guessing there were economic considerations at work here.  Falwell must have come to the conclusion that the tweet was not good for Liberty University.

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

jerry-falwell-696x362

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.

“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.

Liberty University Took Some of the Old Southwestern Seminary Stained Glass Windows

Stained glass

Watch this video.

Last month I wrote a post titled “Big Changes at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary.”  I wrote about the Fort Worth, Texas seminary’s decision to remove stained glass windows devoted to two architects of of the conservative takeover of the Southern Baptist Convention: Paige Patterson and Paul Pressler.  Both men were accused of sexual misconduct last year and Patterson was ousted as president of the seminary.   Jacob Lupfer wrote about this here.

In addition to Patterson and Pressler, there were also stained-glass windows removed with images of Jerry Falwell Sr. and Jerry Vines, a former president of the Southern Baptist Convention and a member of the conservative resurgence.  Jerry Falwell Jr. now has the Falwell Sr. and Vines windows.  They are on display at Liberty University.

In the video, Falwell Jr. praises the conservative resurgence of the Southern Baptist convention and mocks the “new regime” at Southwestern Theological Seminary who removed the windows.  He even calls the new administration a Southern Baptist “deep state.”

As Southwestern Theological Baptist Seminary tries to move beyond a horrendous year in which multiple cases of sexual harassment were revealed, the authoritarian leadership of Paige Patterson was exposed, and financial difficulties rocked the school, Jerry Falwell Jr. wants to keep that legacy–the darkest parts of the conservative resurgence in the SBC– alive and well at Liberty University.  Is it only a matter of time before the Patterson and Pressler stained glass window make their way to Lynchburg?

Here is a taste of a Liberty University press release:

At Liberty University’s Baccalaureate Service on Friday night, President Jerry Falwell made a bold statement to the Southern Baptist Convention when he displayed two stained-glass windows that were recently removed from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary’s chapel. The windows feature Liberty’s founder, Dr. Jerry Falwell, and Dr. Jerry Vines, who delivered the Baccalaureate address.

The two windows were part of a larger collection that honored the leaders of the Conservative Resurgence among Southern Baptist churches. Installed only a few years ago, the Falwell window was made possible by financial contributions from Liberty University.

 In a SWBTS press release from 2015, the seminary stated: “In order to pass along the story of the SBC’s Conservative Resurgence, Southwestern has dedicated stained-glass windows in MacGorman Chapel to those who played a major role in turning the convention back to a high view of Scripture.”

But on Friday, just moments before black drapes were removed, revealing the two large windows behind him on the stage, President Falwell said that “unfortunately, a new generation has taken the Convention away from those values in many ways.” He said the windows have been “removed by the new regime.”

Falwell demanded that SWBTS return the money donated for the windows and sent a plane to Fort Worth, Texas, this week to retrieve them. They will go on display in the Jerry Falwell Museum on campus.

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 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.

Michael Cohen Helped Jerry Falwell Jr. Handle “Racy Photos”

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

The court evangelical plot thickens.

It looks like Michael Cohen does not only “take care of things” with Trump’s adult film star lovers, but he also has the back of the president of evangelical Liberty University.  Let’s see how this plays out.

Here is Aram Roston’s reporting at Reuters:

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Months before evangelical leader Jerry Falwell Jr.’s game-changing presidential endorsement of Donald Trump in 2016, Falwell asked Trump fixer Michael Cohen for a personal favor, Cohen said in a recorded conversation reviewed by Reuters.

Falwell, president of Liberty University, one of the world’s largest Christian universities, said someone had come into possession of what Cohen described as racy “personal” photographs — the sort that would typically be kept “between husband and wife,” Cohen said in the taped conversation.

According to a source familiar with Cohen’s thinking, the person who possessed the photos destroyed them after Cohen intervened on the Falwells’ behalf.

Read the rest at the Reuters website.

Mike Pence is Liberty University’s 2019 Commencement Speaker

Liberty U

Expect the Liberty University commencement to be an early 2020 Trump campaign stop.

Press release:

Liberty University will welcome Vice President of the United States Michael R. Pence to deliver the keynote address at its 46th Commencement on May 11.

Pence made the announcement himself to Liberty students on Friday morning via a video conference from Washington, D.C., to the university’s Vines Center, which was serving as a satellite location for the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC).

“It is great for us to be back at CPAC 2019, the largest gathering of conservatives anywhere in America,” Pence said. “I’m honored to be joined here by thousands of conservatives in our nation’s capital, but I also want to give a shoutout to all those great conservatives watching across the country, especially all of our friends joining us live from Lynchburg, Va., at Liberty University — I’ll see you in May.”

Commencement will mark Pence’s second visit to campus. He spoke in Convocation on Oct. 12, 2016, as then-Indiana governor and Republican vice presidential candidate.

“It seems strange that a university would praise an employee for helping to rig online polls”

Liberty U

Inside Higher Ed is running a follow-up story on the Liberty University Chief Information Officer who accepted a bag of cash from Michael Cohen in exchange for rigging online polls to make Donald Trump look like a successful businessman.  We covered this here.

Here is a taste of Lindsay McKenzie’s piece:

Gauger did not respond to request for comments, but Liberty University released a written statement last week supporting him.

“Liberty University, like many other educational institutions, has permitted its employees for many years to engage in business, consulting and other side work that does not interfere with their employment obligations to the University,” it states. “Also, like other organizations, Liberty recognizes the strong demand for highly skilled IT professionals creates special challenges in recruiting and retaining talented employees with those skills and experience. The opportunity for Liberty’s IT employees to develop businesses and products is particularly important to attracting and maintaining Liberty’s IT talent. John Gauger is one example among many outstanding LU employees who have made great contributions in their official roles and also enjoyed success as independent entrepreneurs, allowing them to enhance their capabilities and generate more revenue for their families while allowing the University to retain them on our team.”

The university’s response surprised outside observers.

“It seems strange that a university would praise an employee for helping to rig online opinion polls,” said Tom Davenport, professor of information technology and management at Babson College, a private business school in Wellesley, Mass. “But Liberty University seems to me not a typical university in many respects — it is mostly an advocacy organization for evangelical conservatives and, more recently, Donald Trump.”

Davenport described the incident as “highly irregular on many fronts,” not only because of Liberty’s response but because Gauger was running a business on the side.

“That the CIO had a separate company is unusual in my experience, said Davenport. “Most CIOs in universities and elsewhere are plenty busy with their primary jobs and don’t have time to freelance even if their employers would allow it.”

Read the entire piece here.

This article contains quotes from several Chief Information Officers at secular institutions who say that what Gauger did was unethical.  Why doesn’t the leadership of a Christian institution understand this? When it comes to ethics, shouldn’t a Christian institution be setting the bar?

I also wonder if Falwell Jr. would have defended Gauger if he was working for Barack Obama or another Democrat? Is this just another example of situational ethics at Liberty University?

In most eras, the behavior of Gauger and Falwell Jr. would be embarrassing for Liberty University.  But not in the age of Trump.

Hey Liberty University, This is What Happens When You Get Into Bed with Donald Trump and “All the Best People” Who Work for Him

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

A top-level administrator at one of the largest universities in the world rigged online polls to promote Donald Trump as a great businessman.  These polls were used to puff Trump in preparation for his presidential run.  Cohen paid John Gauger, Liberty University’s Chief Information Officer, to manipulate the polls in Trump’s favor.  Gauger claims that Cohen paid him between $12K and $13K in a blue Walmart bag.  (Cohen claims he paid with a check, but that’s not really the point here).  Cohen says that Donald Trump directed him to find someone who could rig the polls.

Lindsay Ellis of The Chronicle of Higher Education reports:

President Trump’s former top lawyer paid Liberty University’s chief information officer to manipulate online polls in an effort to raise Trump’s profile before his successful presidential campaign, The Wall Street Journal reported on Thursday. The news shows a deeper relationship than previously reported between the president and employees of the university, a private Christian institution located in Virginia and led by Jerry L. Falwell Jr., a prominent Trump ally.

The Liberty technology administrator, John Gauger, also created a Twitter account, @WomenForCohen, to promote the president’s lawyer, Michael Cohen, according to the Journal. “Strong, pit bull, sex symbol, no nonsense, business oriented, and ready to make a difference,” the account’s description read on Thursday.

In one post reviewed by The Chronicle, the @WomenForCohen account shared a photo of Cohen, Falwell, and his wife. “Love to see good #Christian people on board the #TrumpTrain #Liberty #Trump2016,” the account wrote. The Journal reported that a female friend of Gauger operated the @WomenForCohen account.

Gauger told the Journal he had been paid by Cohen with a blue Walmart bag filled with $12,000 to $13,000 in cash, as well as a boxing glove once used by a Brazilian athlete. Cohen disputed that characterization, telling the Journal that Gauger had been paid by check, not cash.

Those previously unreported connections are the latest in a longstanding series of ties between Trump and Liberty. Trump has delivered multiple speeches at Liberty in recent years, including at a 2017 commencement. An administrator and Liberty students also produced a film about a former firefighter who said he had heard God say that Trump would be the next president.

Read the entire piece here.

Jerry Falwell Jr, the president of Liberty University and a prominent court evangelical, said that he knew Gauger was working for Trump, but claims he did not know the nature of the work.  Frankly, I find the latter claim hard to believe.  When it comes to Trump, Falwell seems to know just about everything that happens on his campus.  He refused to allow the student newspaper to run an anti-Trump story. He prevented anti-Trumper Shane Claiborne and others from coming on campus to pray.  And he forced an anti-Trump member of the Board of Trustees (and longtime Falwell family friend) to resign.  Falwell is thorough.  How could he have missed the fact that one of his administrators was rigging polls to try to manipulate the American public on behalf of the man who Falwell has described as the evangelical “dream president.”

When I read this story I decided to take a look at Gauger’s @womenforcohen Twitter account.  The tweets reveal that this Liberty University employee got into political bed with Michael Cohen and, by extension, Donald Trump.  As I argued in Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump, this is what happens when you get too close to political power  As you read these tweets, please recall that Cohen is going to jail for violation of campaign finance laws and the person responsible for the tweets is a senior administrator at Liberty.

 

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

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

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

Falwell Jr. says:

There’s two kingdoms. There’s the earthly kingdom and the heavenly kingdom. In the heavenly kingdom the responsibility is to treat others as you’d like to be treated. In the earthly kingdom, the responsibility is to choose leaders who will do what’s best for your country. Think about it. Why have Americans been able to do more to help people in need around the world than any other country in history? It’s because of free enterprise, freedom, ingenuity, entrepreneurism and wealth. A poor person never gave anyone a job. A poor person never gave anybody charity, not of any real volume. It’s just common sense to me.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Again, here is Falwell:

It’s such a distortion of the teachings of Jesus to say that what he taught us to do personally — to love our neighbors as ourselves, help the poor — can somehow be imputed on a nation. Jesus never told Caesar how to run Rome. He went out of his way to say that’s the earthly kingdom, I’m about the heavenly kingdom and I’m here to teach you how to treat others, how to help others, but when it comes to serving your country, you render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s. It’s a distortion of the teaching of Christ to say Jesus taught love and forgiveness and therefore the United States as a nation should be loving and forgiving, and just hand over everything we have to every other part of the world. That’s not what Jesus taught. You almost have to believe that this is a theocracy to think that way, to think that public policy should be dictated by the teachings of Jesus.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stone adds:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Darryl Hart Weighs-In on the Thomas Kidd-Jonathan Merritt Debate

Liberty U

In case you haven’t heard, Baylor University historian Thomas Kidd and journalist Jonathan Merritt had a debate.  Read all about it here.  And now Darryl Hart has commented on it.

As is usually the case, Darryl manages to throw everyone under the bus in one way or another, but the crux of his piece is a criticism of Merritt.  Here is a taste:

Where does this leave us? More people read Jonathan Merritt than Tommie Kidd and more editors and journalists read Merritt than Kidd, and this despite the fact that Kidd is one of the most productive evangelical historians who writes for first rate university and trade presses. What impresses Americans, despite our high rates of college education, is a presence in the media (from podcasts and cable news to Twitter). And yet, if Jonathan Merritt hadn’t had a father who went to seminary to study with professors who read some of Kidd’s book, and if Merritt himself had not gone to a college that only hires and grants tenure to professors with Kidd’s kind of accomplishments, he wouldn’t have a job as a writer.

At some point, journalists might want to pay it backward a little to the teachers who educated them (even indirectly).

Read the entire post at Hart’s Patheos blog.   The only real issue I have with the excerpt above is this line: “if Merritt himself had not gone to a college that only hires and grants tenure to professors with Kidd’s kind of accomplishments…”  Actually, Merritt is a 2004 graduate of Liberty University.  As far as I know Liberty does not have any historians of Kidd’s caliber (it is primarily a teaching university and most faculty don’t publish books with Yale, Princeton, Oxford, and Basic) and the college does not grant tenure.

Par for the Course: Liberty University Hires Hugh Freeze

Freeze

Liberty University, the second largest Christian college in the world, just hired the former disgraced University of Mississippi coach Hugh Freeze to run its football program.  Freeze coached at Ole Miss from 2011-2017.  During his tenure he posted a 39-25 record, beat Alabama in Tuscaloosa, and got his team to a few prominent bowl games.  The NCAA investigated Freeze and the program for recruiting violations, but from what I can tell the violations were not the primary reason Freeze left the program in July 2017.

Freeze left Ole Miss after the administration learned that he had made a dozen calls to escort services during recruiting trips and he did so from his university phone.  He resigned in disgrace.

Since his resignation, Freeze, a born-again Christian who attends Pine Lake Church, an evangelical megachurch in Oxford, Mississippi, has been trying to rehabilitate his reputation.

In January 2018, Freeze began what some have described as his “redemption tour” on the campus of Liberty.  You can watch his speech (and his wife’s speech) to the students here:

Freeze must have made an impression on Jerry Falwell Jr. that day.

It seems that Falwell Jr. has become the university president of forgiveness and second chances.   In November 2016 he hired Ian McGaw as the university’s athletic director.  Some of you may recall that McGaw lost his athletic director job at Baylor University when he failed to report a a gang rape by Baylor football players.

And let’s not forget that Jerry Falwell Jr is one of the strongest evangelical supporters of Donald Trump, a man who, unlike Freeze, will not ask for forgiveness for his moral indiscretion and infidelity.

Here is a taste of Jason Kirk’s piece at SBNation:

It remains to be seen how Freeze can recruit at Liberty with multiple, interweaving scandals in his background. Lots of coaches have a scandal or even two, but how many have scandals that directly contrast with the entire public image those coaches presented of themselves?

Then again, it’s Liberty, where the school president once said the ex-Baylor AD “fits perfectly.” I don’t think the image that the rest of us see from the outside matters at all, compared to the image the school chooses to see of itself.

Read the entire piece here.

If You Attend Liberty University, Your E-Mail Address Was Sent to a Republican Candidate

Liberty U

Liberty University is selling student e-mail addresses to Republican political candidates.  Here is a taste of an article at The News & Advance:

Liberty University leased an expansive list of university-owned student email addresses to Republican Corey Stewart’s campaign for U.S. Senate in a pair of rare transactions that campaign experts said represents a new front in the growing world of digital electioneering in federal races.

The Stewart campaign paid the university a total of $9,754.80 in two separate payments, according to publicly available campaign finance reports filed with the Federal Election Commission.

It is unclear exactly how many email addresses are included in Liberty’s list but in a telephone interview University President Jerry Falwell Jr. hinted it could be in the tens of thousands.

Here is more:

Christian Griffith, a Liberty University junior, said he first noticed the campaign messages in June. Since then, his inbox has been flooded with Stewart for Senate emails.

“I got so many that they now go to my spam box,” Griffith said. “I have a piling of them sitting in my junk mail and they’re all unnecessarily aggressive.”

Griffith said the sale amounted to a one-sided endorsement of a partisan political campaign.

Read the rest here.