How far–how low–do religious leaders end up going when they decide that, in public life, the end justifies any means? Consider the case of Jerry Falwell, Jr. For the Liberty University president, the end was the advancement of social conservatism. The means: Donald Trump.
Falwell endorsed Trump for the GOP nomination ahead of the Iowa Caucuses last year, and soon he emerged as one of the New Yorker’s most ardent evangelical backers. Trump’s dissolute personal life didn’t make him an ideal avatar for the evangelical cause. Nor did his transparently opportunistic change of heart on social issues such as abortion. But Falwell reminded his flock that Trump was running for president, not “pastor-in-chief.”
In a March 2016 interview with a Liberty campus newspaper, he even compared the Donald with David. Hadn’t David, though an adulterer and a murderer, found favor with God? (Yes, who can forget that marvelous Psalm, in which the king cries out to the Lord, “I will be asking for forgiveness, but hopefully I won’t have to be asking for much forgiveness. I’ve had great relationships and developed even greater relationships with ministers”?)
Judging by his Twitter and TV blitz in recent days, Falwell has kept the Trumpian faith through the first eight months of the Trump administration. Trump’s response to Charlottesville, Falwell tweeted, had been “bold” and “truthful.” He added: “So proud of @realdonaldtrump.” Note that Falwell’s praise came after the president suggested that there had been “very fine people” among the Nazis, Klansmen, and neo-Confederates who marched in Charlottesville.
Pressed by ABC’s Martha Raddatz on Sunday to identify these very fine people, Falwell descended to absurdity: “I don’t know if there were historical purists there who were trying to preserve some statutes, I don’t know. But he had inside information that I didn’t.” And more: “He saw videos of who was there. I think he was talking about what he had seen, information he had that I don’t have.” The president gets into trouble, Falwell concluded, “because he doesn’t say what’s politically correct; he says what’s in his heart.”
By now, these are familiar tropes of the Trumpian mind.
If the president says something untrue or absurd, it must be because he has secret knowledge about the matter at hand (in this case, about the supposedly innocent subjective views of people who marched with swastikas and chanted “Jews will not replace us”).
If Trump undermines presidential norms, if his careless rhetoric inflames rather than calms the nation in a moment of crisis, get over it. He isn’t PC–as if the political incorrectness of a statement guarantees that it is also true or worthwhile.
If you object to Trump’s lack of personal grace, his narcissism, his refusal to disavow support from the basest elements of his base, well, he isn’t the pope–again as if only pastors of souls are expected to possess grace, selflessness, and moral discernment.
It didn’t have to be like this for Falwell. One of the great blessings of a faith in a loving, personal God is that it liberates the faithful from the populist leaders and impulses of the moment. As Russell Moore of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention noted in his contribution to National Review’s “Against Trump” issue, “Trump can win only in the sort of celebrity-focused mobocracy … in which sound moral judgments are displaced by a narcissistic pursuit of power combined with promises of ‘winning’ for the masses. Social and religious conservatives have always seen this tendency as decadent and deviant.”
Moore might have added self-degrading.
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