Last Friday, Jerry Falwell, Jr. took to Fox News to proclaim that in Donald Trump, “evangelicals have found their dream president.” Two years ago, this statement would have made virtually no sense, at least on the surface. To many outside the white evangelical world, it seemed — and still seems — inconceivable that a thrice-married serial adulterer, ultimate materialist, casino owner, habitual liar, and unprincipled deal-maker could ever become the standard bearer for a group that professes to base their vote on “family values.”
How times have changed. In the two years since Trump announced his candidacy, we have seen a remarkable moral unmasking of white Americans who call themselves Christian, and in particular those who claim the “evangelical” label. Eighty-one percent of white evangelical voters cast their vote for Donald Trump, and the most recent Pew Research poll puts Trump’s support after his first 100 days in office at 78 percent among white evangelicals (and 80 percent among white evangelicals who attend church once a month).
So it makes sense that Falwell would be asked to rate the president on his first 100 days from an evangelical perspective: Falwell was essentially a surrogate for Trump during much of the campaign. And in late January, Trump asked Falwell to lead a taskforce on higher education policy, whose aim is to recommend changes that should be made to Department of Education policies and procedures. He has indicated in particular that he wants to curb or eliminate federal rules that he views as overly burdensome, including the requirement that schools must investigate campus sexual assault under Title IX, a federal law banning discrimination in education.
Given Falwell’s close relationship with Trump’s campaign and administration, it’s unsurprising that he spoke so glowingly about what he views as the Trump administration’s accomplishments so far. Here are some of the claims Falwell made for why Trump is a “dream president” for evangelicals:
- Trump is more pro-Israel than Obama.
- He appointed Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court.
- He has appointed people of faith to his Cabinet.
- Trump will destroy ISIS, thereby saving the lives of many persecuted Christians in the region.
- Trump supports secure borders (e.g. the wall).
- Trump is bringing jobs back to America.
- Trump is cracking down on “sanctuary cities.”
Falwell made a point to note that he felt “... evangelicals didn't just vote on social issues this time, because the Republican establishment had lied to them over decades about those issues, and so instead, they went a different direction,” which was his explanation for why so many white evangelicals are “thrilled” about Trump’s hardline positions on immigration. In supporting Trump’s crackdowns and, in Trump's words, “big" and "beautiful” wall that will keep immigrants out, Falwell is explicitly and proudly saying that white evangelicals voted for Trump not in spite of his racist and xenophobic rhetoric about undocumented immigrants, but because of this rhetoric. How that relates to Christians, including evangelicals, who are in direct relationship to the undocumented immigrants and refugees that Trump wants to deport or keep out of our country, Falwell didn’t say.
Falwell also didn’t mention that Trump’s agenda and proposed budget would brutally cut off vital support to all “the least of these” that Jesus asks us to protect in the 25th chapter of Matthew’s gospel — or that a broad cross-section of leaders from all our Christian families, including the National Association of Evangelicals, have pleaded with this administration and Congress not to do so.
As in this latest interview, Jerry Falwell, Jr. has once again shown himself to be nothing more or less than a Republican political operative, interested in advancing his preferred policy agenda much more than examining what it means to be a Christian. Famously, when the Access Hollywood tape came out with Trump bragging his ability to commit sexual assault with impunity, Falwell stood by Trump, suggesting a “conspiracy” of GOP establishment leaders was to blame for the leak. Falwell also said that “we’re never going to have a perfect candidate unless Jesus Christ is on the ballot” and defended Trump as “a changed man,” saying, “We’re not electing a pastor. We’re electing a president.”
You can imagine how jarring it was and is to see the same religious right figures who (rightly) condemned Bill Clinton’s infidelity come to Trump’s defense. A startling poll in October 2016 showed the dramatic change in white evangelical attitudes: In 2011, only 30 percent of white evangelicals agreed with the idea that “an elected official can behave ethically even if they have committed immoral acts in their personal life.” By October 2016, that figure had jumped to 72 percent. This was the largest recorded change on the answer to this question of any racial, religious, or political demographic measured by this poll.
The issue here is not Christians voting differently from each other. That is normal and likely healthy given the independence that people of faith should show over partisan loyalties. This is about the moral hypocrisy of white American evangelical religious right leaders like Jerry Falwell, Jr. causing a crisis in the church, dividing American Christians on racial lines, and astonishing the worldwide body of Christ — the international majority of evangelical Christians who are people of color — and whose leaders keep asking many of us what in the world is going on with white American evangelicals.
That number, 81 percent, has become an international symbol that tragically now represents what white American evangelicalism stands for. It dramatically and painfully symbolizes the white ethno-nationalism that Donald Trump appeals to and continues to draw support from among white American evangelicals. It is the most revealing and hurtful metric of what I will call the racial idolatry of white American evangelical Christianity, which clearly excludes American evangelicals of color and the global majority of evangelicals. The 81 percent number ultimately signifies a betrayal of the body of Christ — which is the most racially inclusive and diverse community in the world today.
Jerry Falwell, Jr. and I believe in different gospels. With Falwell, of course, this is also a like father like son history. Jerry Falwell, Sr. opposed the civil rights movement and the black churches who led it. On the Supreme Court decision in Brown vs. Board of Education that integrated public schools, Falwell, Sr. preached:
“If Chief Justice Warren and his associates had known God’s word and had desired to do the Lord’s will, I am quite confident that the 1954 decision would never have been made ... The facilities should be separate. When God has drawn a line of distinction, we should not attempt to cross that line … The true Negro does not want integration …. He realizes his potential is far better among his own race … [integration] will destroy our race eventually. In one northern city, a pastor friend of mine tells me that a couple of opposite race live next door to his church as man and wife.”
In fact, he founded the Liberty Christian Academy in 1967, which the Lynchburg News at the time described as "a private school for white students."
He also attacked Martin Luther King, Jr., saying:
“I must personally say that I do question the sincerity and nonviolent intentions of some civil rights leaders such as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Mr. James Farmer, and others, who are known to have left-wing associations … It is very obvious that the Communists, as they do in all parts of the world, are taking advantage of a tense situation in our land, and are exploiting every incident to bring about violence and bloodshed.”
As late as the 1980s, Falwell, Sr. personally attacked South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu by calling him a “phony” and campaigned against sanctioning the Apartheid regime in South Africa. Falwell, Sr. later distanced himself from these views, but they remain an important element explaining the origin of the religious right and the views of too many white evangelicals today.
Racism is not a gospel issue to the Falwells, and never has been. That Donald Trump began his political career with a racist lie about America’s first black president isn’t an issue for Falwell, Jr. That Trump opened his campaign by demonizing immigrants in calling them “rapists” and “criminal” doesn’t matter to Jr. either. And Trump’s xenophobic assaults on Muslims seems to be something that Falwell. also agrees with, as his comments at the Liberty University convocation in 2015 indicate. After the San Bernardino shootings, he told his audience that he had a gun in his back pocket ready to use against “those Muslims:” “I’ve always thought that if more good people had concealed-carry permits, then we could end those Muslims before they walked in … let’s teach them a lesson if they ever show up here.”
It is important to remember that the majority of American evangelicals of color, and the 19 percent of us white evangelicals who voted with them — against Trump — did so because we are pro-life and pro-family. For all of us, Trump’s racial bigotry was a deal breaker and disqualifier of a Christian vote. That only a few conservative evangelical leaders, like Southern Baptist Russell Moore, took that stance was one of the saddest things about the 2016 election.
Racism and racial bigotry is a gospel issue, and overcoming our human divisions in a new multi-cultural community was at the center of the vocation of the early church. Last week, when I debated Eric Metaxas, an ally of Jerry Falwell, Jr., he said that raising the issue of race is not Christian — that talking about racism was racist. No. Unlike Dietrich Bonhoeffer, whom he has written about, Metaxas — like Falwell — has gotten the gospel wrong. It’s time for other white evangelicals to call out the white American evangelical leaders who have yet to speak out against the racial politics of President Donald Trump in his campaign, in his first 100 days, and going forward. The integrity of the church is at stake, as is our relationship with our brothers and sisters of color in United States, and our loyalty to the global multi-color majority of the body of Christ.
Let’s go back to Falwell’s characterization of Trump as a “dream president” for evangelicals. He can only mean white evangelicals. I can testify to a legion of conversations with African-American, Hispanic, and Asian-American evangelicals who would describe Donald Trump as a “nightmare” president. Ditto for almost all black parents and black pastors. Certainly Trump is a nightmare for Hispanic people in America, who are living under fear of their families being destroyed by the new president’s aggressive deportation policies.
That Trump is the dream president for people like Falwell and such a nightmare for the vast majority of evangelical, Pentecostal, and Catholic Christians around the world, and our brothers and sisters of color in the United States, really says it all.
This stark contrast reveals white evangelical Christianity in America as a bubble — a very destructive one, and one that is about to burst.