A more honest evangelical defense of Trump
Jerry Falwell Jr. says he's never spoken to Trump about faith. Wait, what?
Liberty University President Jerry Falwell Jr. is among the loudest public champions of President Trump, touting himself as the voice of the 81 percent of white evangelicals who voted for the president in 2016. Yet Falwell also says he's never spoken to Trump about faith: "I've never talked to him about that in particular," he said in an interview with The Ringer.
This is a curious honesty, a markedly different strategy than is typically employed in evangelical defenses of Trump. Yet, in a strange way, it is far preferable to the unconvincing affects of piety we more often encounter.
It is also something very new for the religious right. Consider how impossible it is to imagine the same statement coming from an earlier generation of evangelical kingmaker — can you envision, for example, Jerry Falwell Sr. telling a reporter he'd never talked faith with Ronald Reagan? Would a James Dobson of 1995 go all-in for a president without ever having cracked a Bible together? It's unfathomable. The wooing of the evangelical vote in decades past did not work like this.
I grew up evangelical, and every conversation in that community is like a game of "six degrees of Kevin Bacon," except instead of Kevin Bacon, it's Jesus, and you almost never need all six degrees. Over Christmas this year, I think we went from robots taking your job to Jesus in a single leap. Which is to say: If Falwell hasn't talked to Trump about faith, that is the result of someone's intentional choice. Whether it's Trump's or Falwell's call, I can't know, but whatever you believe, it is impossible to go to a place like Liberty, as Trump has on multiple occasions, and accidentally not talk about God.
It isn't difficult to imagine why Trump might wish to dispense with the ritual of pre-endorsement God talk. He is visibly uncomfortable when asked to speak about Christianity. But that Falwell would abstain from engaging Trump on faith is historically peculiar. It is even unusual compared to other pro-Trump evangelical figures today. In the run-up to the 2016 election, for instance, Dobson recounted a story of Paula White, a prosperity gospel huckster recently hired to the White House, leading Trump to salvation. "Trump appears to be tender to things of the Spirit," Dobson said, suggesting the president is "a baby Christian."
Or consider a letter signed by around 200 evangelicals in response to Christianity Today's recent editorial calling for the president's removal from office. Signatories described themselves as "Bible-believing Christians and patriotic Americans who are simply grateful that our president has sought our advice." They explicitly cast support for Trump as a stance on the moral high ground. "We are proud to be numbered among those in history who, like Jesus, have been pretentiously accused of having too much grace for ... sinners," the statement says. "Your editorial offensively questioned the spiritual integrity and Christian witness of tens-of-millions of believers who take seriously their civic and moral obligations."
Falwell signed the letter, but this isn't really his line. Though he sometimes slips into older habits of draping support for Trump in a cloak of Christian ethics — he once told The Washington Post that it "may be immoral ... not to support" Trump — Falwell's usual position is purely pragmatic. He might tack on, in afterthought, an expression of belief that Trump is a "good man" and "a Christian," as he did in the Ringer interview. But Falwell frequently doesn't try to obscure the fact that the foundation of his immovable loyalty to Trump is shared antipathies, paranoias, and policies. Faith is irrelevant, so long as those commonalities are intact.
Christians have long disagreed not only about the contents of our politics but about the larger framework of church-state relations. The evangelicalism of my youth tended to oscillate between political quietism and efforts to bring the state in line with Christian principles — and pro-Trump evangelicals who insist the president has a nascent faith and describe their enthusiasm for him in spiritual language are still trying to ram their politics into that latter model.
But Falwell has given up forcing such a patently difficult fit. He's operating in a different tradition now, a dualism where all that stuff Jesus said about love and peace might be great for interpersonal relations with other Christians, but in the political realm, you need violence and power to hold the "wicked in check," as the reformer Martin Luther put it. To "try to rule a whole country or the world by means of the Gospel is like herding together wolves, lions, eagles, and sheep in the same pen," Luther argued. At his most frank, this is how Falwell sees politics, with Trump as a shepherd whose religion is immaterial so long as he's willing to shoot the wolves.
I suspect many others among Trump's white evangelical supporters think the same way, though they're less willing to say so. As a fellow Christian, I have for them two pleas: First, follow Falwell in this honesty. Don't contort your conscience to deny Trump's immorality or pretend politicians' personal character matters to you. Don't call expedience faithfulness.
But more important than that, consider whether that dualist framework fits the faith you espouse. We serve a God who died for his enemies and commanded us to love ours. Is there an exception clause for politics?