As Jerry Falwell Jr. spoke on the Republican convention’s final night, longtime observers of the Christian Right movement, of which his father was a founder, had to shake their heads in wonder. Gone was the usual claim that the Republican candidate was a Man of God motivated by profound faith and humbled by a sense of religious duty. Gone was any long recitation of Christian Right issue positions or accomplishments. Gone, perhaps most significantly, was any reminder of the covenant between conservative Christians and the Republican Party in which the former took the spiritual risk of political engagement in exchange for the latter’s promise to turn back the cultural clock.
Instead, Falwell emphasized Trump’s pledge to change the half-century-old IRS rule in which nonprofit groups (including churches and other religious institutions) were told they had to choose between tax-exempt status and the ability to endorse political candidates and engage in direct electioneering activities — a pledge the tycoon made in a recent meeting with conservative Evangelical leaders designed to win them over. Like many of these leaders, Falwell, who endorsed this Philistine at the very beginning of the 2016 cycle, has in a crude, transactional manner sold out, like a ward heeler with a constituency that needs favors from the Boss.
Yes, Trump has also gone to some lengths to promise judicial appointments sure to support reversals of the constitutional right to abortion and same-sex marriage. And, even more important, he’s made the Christian Right’s enemies his own — the “elitists” and “cultural relativists” of the secular left and mainstream media, the Muslims that deny Jesus as the exclusive Way, and the disparagers of Israel’s biblical role in the Last Days. Going along with this politician’s ambitions is a small matter of overlooking his crudity and egoism; his instrumental treatment of other people (especially women); his deep involvement in the Babylon of mass popular culture; and his “populist” manipulation of very un-Christian racial and ethnic resentments.
It’s hard to know what goes through the minds of people who consider themselves followers of a messiah who preached love for one’s enemies as they cheer Trump’s declarations that he wants to torture and kill terrorism suspects and their families, and deport millions of Christians and their children into destitution and violence, and reverse years of conservative Christian investment in criminal-justice reform, and intimidate other countries into letting America always be first. Like Falwell, they do mostly refrain from claiming that Trump — who has not been able to bring himself to admit the need for divine forgiveness — is himself a man of faith, though the Christian Right warhorse tried to suggest he was a “Baby Christian” who had only recently found God. But for the most part, they implicitly treat him as the Scourge of God (as Attila the Hun was once described), a pagan sent to smite the wicked.
Some conservative Christian leaders may simply emulate other conservative ideologues who, as a purely practical manner, have decided to go along with the Trump candidacy in hopes of inheriting the GOP after he loses, or cashing in chits if he wins. Or perhaps they are just following their flocks, unlike some (notably Southern Baptist spokesperson Russell Moore and longtime Christian Right and homeschooling advocate Michael Farris) who have made a prophetic stand against Trump. As longtime observer of Christian conservatives Sarah Posner noted:
A July 13 Pew Research Center survey found that 78 percent of white evangelicals intend to vote for Trump — meaning Trump will likely match the level of support among white evangelicals enjoyed by George W. Bush in 2004, when white evangelicals made up 23 percent of the electorate, and were an essential 36 percent of all Bush voters.
This is obviously not the first time in Western history that religious people have followed irreligious politicians who promise to fight against the forces of cultural change that threaten all entrenched sources of privilege. But it must be painful to some to observe that, despite the trappings of religious invocations and the country musicians touting their Bible-believin’ (along with their trucks and their guns) as tokens of defiance toward liberals, this has been a profane convention celebrating profane values. Farris recently said the acceptance of Trump represented the “end of the Christian Right.” That may overstate the case, but the days when the GOP could comport itself as the Christian conservative party are gone for the immediate future. Conservative Catholic columnist Ross Douthat read the draft of Trump’s speech tonight and tweeted: “The speech is basically Buchananism without the religion.” That means culture war with no restraint, and perhaps no survivors. And that’s scary.
By: Ed Kilgore, Daily Intelligencer, New York Magazine, July 21, 2016
On the surface, the political dynamic is baffling. Jerry Falwell Jr., the son of a legendary right-wing TV preacher and the head of one of the nation’s largest evangelical universities, threw his official political support behind Donald Trump – a secular, thrice-married casino owner who’s never really demonstrated any interest in, or knowledge of, matters of faith.
And yet, here we are. Falwell has not only offered a spirited (no pun intended) endorsement to the Republican frontrunner, he’s even gone so far as to say Trump “reminds me so much of my father.”
There’s a fair amount to a story like this one, but let’s start with a blast from the recent past.
In November 2007, another thrice-married New York Republican was running for president, who also had a secular track record of supporting abortion rights and gay rights. And yet, a high-profile televangelist – Christian Coalition president and Christian Broadcasting Network founder Pat Robertson – nevertheless threw his support to that GOP candidate, Rudy Giuliani.
Social conservative activists and leading religious right groups howled, for reasons that are probably obvious. Giuliani was the antithesis of everything evangelicals were looking for in a Republican presidential candidate, and yet, Robertson ignored his allies and threw in his lot with the secular, Catholic adulterer.
Why? Because Robertson’s priorities weren’t (and aren’t) at all similar to those of many other evangelical leaders: the “700 Club” host saw a Republican leading in the polls; he wanted a seat at the table with a man he perceived as a future president; and so Robertson followed the prevailing political winds.
With the benefit of hindsight, we know this was a poor bet – Giuliani failed spectacularly as a candidate, earning exactly zero delegates – but it was a reminder that Robertson is a partisan first and a culture-war ideologue second, while other prominent social conservatives reverse the two.
And Robertson isn’t the only social conservative who thinks this way.
In the current GOP race, prominent political evangelical leaders effectively limited their top choices to five Republican presidential hopefuls: Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, Mike Huckabee, Rick Santorum, and Ben Carson. Trump was an afterthought.
Cruz emerged as the religious right movement’s standard bearer, but like Robertson eight years ago, that didn’t stop Jerry Falwell Jr. from going his own way.
Of course, there’s also the larger question of why Falwell’s fellow evangelicals would even consider Trump in the first place. We can’t say with certainty whether the Liberty University president has partisan or electoral motivations, but that’s a separate question from what other social conservatives are thinking as they, too, rally behind Trump.
The Washington Post’s Greg Sargent published a good piece on this last week.
Instead, Trump’s success among evangelical voters may be rooted in the fact that, more than any other GOP candidate, Trump is able to speak to their sense of being under siege. Trump somehow conveys that he understands on a gut level that both Christianity and the country at large are under siege, and what’s more, he is not constrained by politically correct niceties from saying so and proposing drastic measures to reverse this slide into chaos and godlessness.
I recently talked to Robert Jones, the CEO of the Public Religion Research Institute, who has been studying evangelical opinion for many years. His research has led him to believe that Trump is very good at speaking to evangelicals’ sense of a lost, mythical golden age in America that predates the political and cultural turmoil of the 1960s.
In other words, we’re talking about a group of voters – largely white, older, social conservatives – who hear Trump vowing to “make America great again,” and believe him, without much regard for his ignorance about religion, his messy personal life, or his previous policy positions.
If a secular, thrice-married casino owner who uses phrases like “Two Corinthians” is eager to champion a vision of a bygone era, these evangelicals appear to care more about the message than the messenger.
By: Steve Benen, The Maddow Blog, January 26, 2016
Evangelicals weren’t supposed to like Donald Trump. He’s boasted about never asking God for forgiveness, exhibited total biblical illiteracy, and had as many wives as an Old Testament patriarch.
But none of that matters. When the billionaire mogul spoke at Liberty University this morning, he got a rapturous welcome that showed just how much evangelicals love him—and why. The obsequiously warm reception he received may upend conventional wisdom about what conservative Christians want from their presidential candidates. And that’s great news for Trump.
Fox News morning programming warmed up the 11,000-strong crowd, and then the university’s hipster Christian worship band led students in song.
“We worship you today because you’re the great celebrity in this place,” prayed David Nasser, the school’s senior vice president for spiritual development, addressing God.
The boisterous crowd—some of whom woke up at 3:30 a.m. to get good seats—proceeded to worship Trump.
Trump’s performance certainly drew some sneers, especially when an attempt to pander fell flat after Trump mispronounced a biblical reference as “Two Corinthians” instead of “Second Corinthians.” But despite that, his overwhelmingly warm reception confirms that he’s just as competitive as any other Republican among evangelical Christian voters.
This was not always obvious. Many conservative Christian power-brokers—including Penny Nance of Concerned Women for America and Russell Moore of the Southern Baptist Convention—have harshly criticized Trump. And his calls for barring Muslims from immigrating to the U.S. worried many conservative Christians who prioritize issues of religious freedom. But that doesn’t matter.
Jerry Falwell Jr., the university president and son of Moral Majority founder Jerry Falwell, introduced Trump to the crowd and left no doubt about his feelings for the golden-haired mogul.
“In my opinion, Donald Trump lives a life of loving and helping others, as Jesus taught in the Great Commandment,” he said.
Then he compared Trump to Reagan.
“My father was criticized in the early 1980s for supporting Ronald Reagan over Jimmy Carter for president, I should say, because Ronald Reagan was a Hollywood actor who had been divorced and remarried, and Jimmy Carter was a Southern Baptist Sunday School teacher,” Falwell said. “My father proudly replied that Jesus pointed out that we are all sinners, every one of us.
“Jimmy Carter was a great Sunday School teacher,” Falwell added, “but look what happened to our nation with him in the presidency.”
The implication was clear as a bell: Evangelical Christians shouldn’t stress about Trump’s personal life.
But Falwell didn’t just compare Trump to Reagan; he also said Trump reminded him of his father, generous and pragmatic. And he compared Trump’s presidential campaign to the university itself.
“I’m proud that Liberty is now strong enough financially to refuse gifts if they come with objectionable conditions,” he said. “And it is clear to me that Donald Trump is the only candidate in this national election to make that same claim. He cannot be bought. He is not a puppet on a string like many other candidates—”
The crowd erupted in cheers.
“He is not a puppet on a string like many other candidates who have wealthy donors as their puppet masters,” he continued, essentially indicting the entire rest of the Republican field.
The Trump/Liberty love is a mutual one. After sauntering on stage to sustained applause, Trump announced that the turnout at the event was a new record for a Liberty University convocation—perhaps unaware that student attendance at these weekly meetings is mandatory—and said he would dedicate the impressive feat to Martin Luther King Jr.
A spokeswoman for the university said 11,000 people attended the event and did not confirm if Trump actually broke a record or what the previous record was.
Trump said that being compared to Jerry Falwell the elder was “really an honor for me.” Then he reiterated his promise that department stores will say Merry Christmas if he becomes president (Christians love that, you know).
“I have friends that aren’t Christian,” he noted. “They like to say Merry Christmas, they love it, everybody loves it.”
He also noted that he is a big fan of the Bible, saying it is the only book to top The Art of the Deal.
“Everybody read The Art of the Deal,” he said. “Who has read The Art of the Deal in this room? Everybody. I always say, a deep deep second to the Bible.
“The Bible blows it away,” he added. “There’s nothing like the Bible.”
He spent the bulk of the speech talking about Iran, the so-called Islamic State widely known as ISIS, and the sad mendacity of the national media (“Twenty-five percent are good. Two percent are great.”). Said sad national media, he argued, has failed to report on just how much support Trump has won.
“You’re not getting a real picture of the silent majority, which Jerry Sr. had something to do,” he said. “And that’s a phrase you should be really cognizant of. Because it is a silent majority, but I think I’m gonna up it a little bit because it’s no longer so silent. It’s really a noisy majority.”
Trump wasn’t especially articulate there, but the appeal was clear: His success isn’t a fluke. Rather, the implication was that Trump’s supporters come from a long tradition of grassroots conservatives who seek to use the political process to change cultural norms (see Christmas, War On).
And Trump’s pitch was perfect.
“He spoke to the Liberty audience and culture almost as if he was a part of it,” said Johnnie Moore, former senior vice president at the school, “as if he had been a part of it—a graduate or an alumnus or someone who had had kids go there.”
Moore said that’s because—despite his “Two Corinthians” flub—he came off as authentic.
“Not a single person in that crowd this morning thought, I wonder if he’s lying to me,” Moore said.
He noted that evangelical Christians have two basic approaches to politics: Some want candidates to have as much in common with them as possible—they embrace long-shot contenders like Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum because they share their identical convictions about Christianity’s role in public life. The Falwells aren’t in that school of thought. Rather, they like winners, even if that means backing candidates who used to be pro-choice and have a few divorces under their belt. That’s why Jerry Falwell Sr. made good with John McCain after the Arizonan called him an “agent of intolerance,” and it’s why their family was so undyingly loyal to the Bushes—even as George H. W. Bush struggled to win evangelical support.
The Falwell family hasn’t lost its single-minded interest in winning, and that’s why Jerry Jr. had such kind words for Trump.
“It was clear that he would be extremely comfortable if Trump was the candidate,” Moore said.
This should surprise no one. In 2012, a few months before Obama’s re-election, Trump spoke at the university for the first time. Jerry Jr. praised his most controversial stances in an affectionate introduction.
“In 2011, after failed attempts by Senator John McCain and Hillary Clinton, Mr. Trump singlehandedly forced President Obama to release his birth certificate,” Falwell said, dead serious. And the students roared.
Trump’s speech that year was a little bawdier; he encouraged students to get prenups (“I won’t say it here because you people don’t get divorced, right? Nobody gets divorced! OK, so I will not say have a prenuptial agreement to anybody in this room!”) and he stirred controversy by telling them to “get even” with people who wrong them. Luke 6:29 definitely isn’t Trump’s favorite Bible verse.
Despite that, Jerry Falwell Jr. practically begged him to run.
“It’s not too late to get back in the presidential race, is it?” Falwell said after that 2012 speech.
And now Trump is in, and Falwell seems to love it. This puts him a bit at odds with other evangelical leaders; a coterie of conservative Christian influencers secretly agreed last month to coalesce behind Ted Cruz, as National Review reported. But Falwell is hedging. Cruz, who announced his presidential campaign last year in the same room where Trump spoke, might be more faithful than Trump, and he might not have been married a bunch of times, and he might have that neat Harvard Law degree. But that doesn’t necessarily make him a winner.
Students at the school shared Falwell’s energy for the candidate. Five bros wore shirts that spelled out the word TRUMP—one letter per T-shirt—and spent the time before the event posing for photos and fielding media questions. Others woke up early to get front-row seats for the mogul’s speech.
Christian Malave, a student at the university, said he likes Trump’s attitude.
“He just thinks about everyone before himself,” he said. “And yet he has the most money in the world.”
Sophomore Emma Jerore and Freshman Mary-Madison Goforth said they were in line for the speech by 6 a.m. so they could get good seats.
“He’s a very wise businessman,” Goforth said.
Jerore said she is trying to pick between Rubio and Trump. Goforth said she faced the same dilemma.
“Today definitely motivated me a little more towards Trump’s side,” she said.
“We both got to shake his hand, so that was, I mean, enough in itself,” she added.
A number of students said they were trying to decide between Trump and Cruz. Brian Teague, a sophomore studying aviation who sported a Trump T-shirt, said Carson lost support when news broke in early December that he doesn’t believe in hell.
“A lot of people were leaning towards him because he was so humble, you know, his morals,” Teague said. “But when he left the idea of hell, I think that’s when he lost a lot of people.”
That said, Liberty isn’t all Trumpkins. Caleb Fitzpatrick, a freshman from Tampa, Florida, said he thinks the billionaire is the worst Republican candidate.
“I think he has no idea what’s going on in the world,” he said. “I think he’s arrogant, I think he’s a narcissist, I think he’s perverted.”
Still, students gave Trump an adoring welcome. If Trump wants to build a new moral majority, he’ll know where to find footsoldiers.
By: Betsy Woodruff, The Daily Beast, January 18, 2016