Church and State
December 14, 2020

Jerry Falwell Jr. resigned as president of Liberty University in August after a series of scandals involving sexual indiscretions and questionable use of university funds on friends and family, but Liberty's board is still split on the partisan direction Falwell steered the private evangelical Christian school founded by his father, Jerry Falwell Sr.

Especially divisive, Politico reports, is the question of whether Liberty should continue funding the Falkirk Center, a conservative "think tank" named after Falwell and GOP activist Charlie Kirk that "has produced no peer-reviewed academic work and bears little relation to study centers at other universities," but did run "pro-Trump ads, hired Trump allies including former adviser Sebastian Gorka and current Trump attorney Jenna Ellis to serve as fellows, and, in recent weeks, has aggressively promoted [President] Trump's baseless claims of election fraud."

As a 501c(3) nonprofit, Liberty University is technically barred from supporting political candidates and spending money on political campaigns. But the Falkirk Center, founded in 2019, "purchased campaign-season ads on Facebook, at least $50,000's worth of which were designated by the network as political ads, that promoted Trump and other Republican candidates by name," Politico reports. And more generally, since endorsing Trump for president in 2016, Falwell has "pumped millions of the nonprofit religious institution's funds into Republican causes and efforts to promote the Trump administration, blurring the lines between education and politics."

Last July, for example, the Falkirk Center held a two-day summit on China policy at the Trump International Hotel in Washington, D.C., featuring a host of GOP officials and Trump allies but no Democratic speakers, Politico reports. Numerous evangelical groups have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars holding events at Trump's Washington hotel, where "prominent evangelical ministers were given VIP status," The New York Times reported in October. But Liberty University also has an academic mission, and slashed its humanities programs even as it poured millions into GOP organizations.

"The Falkirk Center, to me, represents everything that was wrong with Liberty when Jerry was there," Karen Swallow Prior, a professor at Liberty for 21 years who left at the end of last school year, told Politico. "It's brazenly partisan." University spokesman Scott Lamb said the donations to GOP organizations "are consistent with the mission and focus of Liberty University as an evangelical Christian university," and went toward "nonpartisan" activities like voter registration. Peter Weber

June 3, 2020

Many faith leaders, including the Episcopal bishop and Catholic archbishop of Washington, forcefully denounced President Trump's iconoclastic usage of the Bible and Christian shrines for photo ops as he sent the U.S. military into the streets of the capital and ordered peaceful protests violently dispersed. The response from evangelical leaders was mixed, but the ones most closely aligned with Trump were delighted.

"Every believer I talked to certainly appreciates what the president did and the message he was sending," Robert Jeffress, the pastor of First Baptist Dallas and a avid Trump supporter, told The New York Times. He gleefully told The Atlantic's McKay Coppins "it was completely appropriate for the president to stand in front of that church" and "by holding up the Bible, he was showing us that it teaches that, yes, God hates racism, it's despicable — but God also hates lawlessness."

Ralph Reed, chairman of the Faith and Freedom Coalition, told Coppins that Trump's "presence sent the twin message that our streets and cities do not belong to rioters and domestic terrorists, and that the ultimate answer to what ails our country can be found in the repentance, redemption, and forgiveness of the Christian faith." Rev. Franklin Graham told The Washington Post he "was glad to see him stand in front of that church and hold up the word of God."

Samuel Rodriguez, an evangelical leader who has been advising Trump, said he, too, was glad to see the president hold up the closed Bible "like a boss," but added, "I hope peaceful protesters were not moved away with tear-gassing." And Pat Robertson, on the 700 Club, said now's the time for showing empathy and love, not military law and order or calling governors "jerks." "You just don't do that, Mr. President," he said. "It isn't cool."

"Trump doesn't quote anything from the Bible, he really just uses it as a pure symbol of partisan identity," Katherine Stewart, an expert on the religious right at the American Enterprise Institute, told the Times. "Authoritarianism frequently comes veiled in religion." Clemson University sociologists told The Atlantic the kind of Christian nationalism that drives Trump's evangelical base isn't about theology, "it's about identity, enforcing hierarchy, and order." Peter Weber

August 27, 2018

The Russian Orthodox Church is facing a huge loss. Ukraine wants to cleave its Orthodox church from Russia — and the de facto head of the Eastern Orthodox church might grant the request — and the same team of Russian hackers that hit the Democrats in 2016 is apparently aiding the Russian church by trying to steal the private electronic correspondence of some of the Eastern Orthodox church's most senior officials, The Associated Press reports.

Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I in Istanbul, considered first among equals of Eastern Orthodox leaders, might grant Ukraine's church a "Tomos of Autocephaly" — essentially an ecclesial declaration of independence from Russia — as early as next month. The Russian hackers known as Fancy Bear, tied to Russian military intelligence, have been trying to steal correspondence from Patriarch Bartholomew's senior aides, including prelates involved in the Tomos decision, AP says.

If the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Kirill, loses authority over the Ukrainian church, it would be a big blow to Moscow, too, so it makes sense that the Kremlin would be involved, and "the more they know, the better it is for them," explains Vasilios Makrides, an expert on Orthodox Christianity. Kirill's deputy Hilarion Alfeyev has compared granting the Ukrainian church independence to the 1054 schism that spilt the Catholic and Orthodox churches. Patriarch Kirill is flying to Turkey this week to try to sway Bartholomew, 78, from allowing Ukraine's request; Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko visited Istanbul in April to encourage the split.

Russian Orthodox "leaders are connected to the FSB and their epaulettes stick out from under their habits," Moscow political analyst Dmitry Oreshkin tells AP. "They provide Vladimir Putin's policy with an ideological foundation." And the stakes are really high here, adds Baylor University church-state researcher Daniel Payne. "Kiev is Jerusalem for the Russian Orthodox people," he told AP. "That's where the sacred relics, monasteries, churches are ... it's sacred to the people, and to Russian identity." Peter Weber

June 1, 2016

Jake Strotman, 23, faced judgment at Cincinnati's Hamilton County Courthouse last week over a January brawl outside a Cincinnati Cyclones game, and Judge William Mallory handed down an unusual sentence: 12 consecutive Sundays attending the Morning Star Baptist Church, all 90 minutes of the service, with his program signed by a minister, Joshua Johnson. Strotman, who is Catholic, also paid $480 in court fines and $2,800 to his lawyer. Now, "before you go getting into a snit," says Chris Graves, who tells the story at the Cincinnati Enquirer, "you should know the sentence was Strotman's idea."

Briefly, Strotman, who'd been drinking at the game, approached Johnson and other street preachers, "asking them: 'Why do you think you can condemn people?' I didn't understand why they thought they could judge me," as he explained in court. Someone else got involved, and yelling led to a broken camera and a fistfight, during which, Strotman says, he accidentally put his hand on Johnson's face, breaking his glasses and cutting his face. When Judge Mallory threatened to send Strotman to jail for his misdemeanor attempted assault conviction, Strotman offered an alternative: "Your honor, if I may, I would be more than happy to serve a church of your choosing." Read the rest of the story, including some iffy quotes from the judge, at the Cincinnati Enquirer. Peter Weber

April 16, 2015

In Tennessee, a plan to make the Bible the state's official book is off the table — at least for now.

The Republican-controlled House approved the bill 55-38 Wednesday, despite the fact that Tennessee's attorney general, Herbert Slatery, reminded everyone in a legal opinion that the bill would violate separation of church and state provisions in the federal and state constitutions, The Associated Press reports. On Thursday, the bill was sent back to the Senate Judiciary Committee, which could take it up against next year.

The bill divided Republicans, with some claiming that it is part of the fabric of Tennessee, and others saying the book is too holy to be compared to other state symbols, like the official fruit (tomato) and amphibian (cave salamander). Catherine Garcia

October 14, 2014

Under current tax law, pastors and other religious leaders whose congregations are classified as 501(c)(3) tax exempt organizations are required to keep politics to a minimum at official church functions. Though they do not have to keep entirely mum, "no substantial part" (a vague term often interpreted as between 5 and 20 percent) of the organization's spending and activities can attempt to influence legislation or campaign outcomes.

However, at least 1,800 pastors nationwide feel that they should be able to guide parishioners politically while on the pulpit. They are participating in an event called "Pulpit Freedom Sunday," which is actually a month-long project organized by the conservative nonprofit Alliance Defending Freedom. Participating pastors say they will "[represent] biblical perspectives on the positions of electoral candidates."

The role of the church in politics was a long-debated theological question long before it was a tax issue. In 2006, Minnesota megachurch pastor Greg Boyd received national media attention when he refused to endorse a presidential candidate or advance other political causes at church, a decision that cost his church about one thousand members. Bonnie Kristian

August 7, 2014

China has a growing number of Christians, and that's causing increasing tensions with the officially atheistic ruling Chinese Communist Party. China's solution is if you can't beat 'em, co-opt them.

"Over the past decades, the Protestant churches in China have developed very quickly with the implementation of the country's religious policy," says Wang Zuoan, director of the State Administration for Religious Affairs, according to the state-run China Daily newspaper. "The construction of Chinese Christian theology should adapt to China's national condition and integrate with Chinese culture," including its path of socialism.

Christians in China have to worship in state-approved and supervised churches, and official estimates number the country's Protestant population at 23 million to 40 million, with 500,000 more baptized each year. Wang was speaking at an event in Shanghai to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the National Committee of the Three-Self Patriotic Movement of the Protestant Churches in China. He didn't address the estimated 12 million Catholics in China, about half of whom illegally follow the lead of the Roman Catholic Church while the other half worship in the officially sanctioned, Vatican-rejecting Catholic church.

Wang didn't elaborate on this new "Chinese Christian theology," but the Three-Self Patriotic Movement's Gu Mengfei explained that the year-old Chinese push to promote correct Christian theology encourages pastors and laypeople alike to extract moral teachings in line with Biblical times and with other religious faiths. "This will encourage more believers to make contributions to the country's harmonious social progress, cultural prosperity, and economic development," Gu added. Peter Weber

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