This week, evangelicals have been debating how to respond to challenging aspects of Trump’s presidency.
Earlier this week, responding to allegations that Donald Trump had a 2006 extramarital affair with an adult film actress — and paid her for her silence — Family Research Council’s Tony Perkins said Trump got a “mulligan” on the affair.
The most striking take yet, however, came from Jerry Falwell Jr., president of evangelical Liberty University. He defended the president by arguing that Christian ethics and American politics should be kept separate. Thursday, Falwell tweeted:
Jesus said love our neighbors as ourselves but never told Caesar how to run Rome-he never said Roman soldiers should turn the other cheek in battle or that Caesar should allow all the barbarians to be Roman citizens or that Caesar should tax the rich to help poor. That’s our job.— Jerry Falwell (@JerryFalwellJr) January 26, 2018
Falwell later followed up with a (slightly) more conciliatory tweet, saying:
All the clowns commenting on my tweet below with their bowels in an uproar can relax b/c the other side of the coin is Jesus never told Caesar he shouldn’t tax the rich to help the poor either. You can be a good Christian whether you vote conservative or liberal! https://t.co/T3skE1Ewwo— Jerry Falwell (@JerryFalwellJr) January 26, 2018
In this series of tweets, Falwell’s essentially saying that Christian values are not necessarily required for good governance. Implicitly promoting militarism, low taxes on the rich, and anti-immigration policies — cornerstones of the Trump administration’s agenda — Falwell suggests that Trump need not follow Jesus’s ethic to be a Christian politician.
The most generous interpretation of Falwell’s comments is that he’s cleaving to a very specific interpretation of Biblical political ethics. It’s based on the famous line in the Gospel of Matthew that Christians should pay taxes to the state: “Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s; and unto God the things that are God’s.”
Falwell, the son of Jerry Falwell, founder of the conservative Christian group the Moral Majority, hasn’t exactly been known for adhering to that philosophy in the past.
In fact, Falwell, like many members of the old-guard evangelical right, have made the idea that Christian ethics should permeate government a central element of their lobbying work. The Moral Majority, after all, was founded with precisely that idea in mind. Falwell has used his role as a religious leader to endorse political candidates, including Trump, for whom he stumped in a Washington Post essay, comparing him to Winston Churchill.
Falwell Jr. and his evangelical allies have done nothing but make the promulgation of “Biblical values” a cornerstone of their political lobbying. In that context, Falwell’s tweet is all the more egregious.
He’s openly disregarding the tenets of his faith: While Jesus may have encouraged his followers to pay their taxes, “turn the other cheek” was also a mandate. And he implicitly celebrates Trump as a successor to Roman imperial power, glorifying a state of soldiers who do not “turn the other cheek,” tasked with keeping at bay “the barbarians.”
Falwell is revealing that there’s more nationalism than Christianity in his Christian nationalism.
It’s worth noting that Falwell’s attitude toward Trump has made him a controversial figure in evangelical circles. His own Liberty University has become a battleground as more and more evangelical students have expressed discomfort with the politicized nature of Falwell’s public pro-Trump platform.
After Trump was declared the Republican presidential nominee in 2016, 2,000 Liberty students signed a petition against him, even as Falwell heartily endorsed him on and off-campus, and the administration censored a column about Trump’s controversial Access Hollywood comments about grabbing women by the genitals. Last year, an anti-Trump pastor was barred from speaking on campus after anti-Trump students invited him to come pray with them.
But Falwell’s family legacy, as well as his public platform, allows him to perpetuate the illusion that he is speaking for all evangelicals.
When it comes to Falwell’s theology, he’s not just wrong on moral grounds, he’s wrong on Biblical ones. After all, Jesus was ultimately crucified by Roman authorities as a threat to the state on the understanding that his message was radical, subversive, and, yes, dangerous to the imperial status quo.
The gospels repeatedly emphasize that the Christian life demands a rejection of the social status quo even when it is difficult. Hence that tricky passage in the Gospel of Luke in which Jesus says: “If any man come to me, and hate not his father, and mother, and wife, and children, and brothers, and sisters, yes, and his own life also, he cannot be my disciple.”
Falwell would do well to read them.