Jerry Falwell, Sr. leads a “I Love America” rally at the New Jersey State Capitol, 1980. William Sauro, NYT.
A lot of people are noting the juxtaposition of Trump’s imploding business advisory councils and his quiet-as-church-mice religious advisory council members. These court evangelicals (John Fea’s term) will claim they are staying on to try to provide Christian instruction to Trump, as if there has ever been any evidence that he would abide such a thing. The real reason they’re staying on is access. Trump provides them influence (or the illusion of it) at the commanding heights of the nation they believe they ought to lead. The President’s racism is a minor inconvenience in comparison to the gains they envision.
For these court evangelicals and their followers, the on-ramp to supporting racism is not necessarily direct. It is shaped by the distinct character of evangelical nationalism. Let me try to explain what I mean. This is kind of a think piece. Tell me where I’m getting it wrong.
White evangelicals are often described as anti-statist. Hostility to governing institutions runs deep in some evangelical circles. And it’s certainly true that many white evangelical leaders have turned rhetorical posturing against the federal government into an art form. But as Axel Shaffer has argued, white evangelicals have combined that rhetoric with efforts to make the state work for them. The goal is to capture the state, not tear it down.
Though the number of white evangelicals with such frightening ambitions is relatively small, they punch above their weight. The widespread populist evangelical nationalism among ordinary white evangelicals sustains the more radical state-capturing project of Christian Right leaders.
Many white evangelicals feel both hostility toward the state and an intense identification with the nation. They are at once alienated outsiders and the nation’s truest inheritors. The evangelical historian George Marsden identified this ambivalence decades ago in his classic study of fundamentalism and American culture. The nation is, rightfully, theirs. It was founded on their principles, blessed by their devotion. Yet the forces of liberalism and secularism, acting through the federal government, have taken the nation from them.
In this wing of evangelicalism, memory and national identity center on the concerns and interests of privileged white Christians. Slavery and genocide are glossed over or presented as exceptions that somehow do not alter the essentially Christian character of the new nation. The 1960s are remembered not primarily for the destruction of Jim Crow, but as the moment when the nation turned its back on God by taking prayer and Bible reading out of schools and embracing the sexual revolution.
Think I’m exaggerating? Consider the work of history that has had more influence among white evangelicals than any other in recent decades: Peter Marshall and David Manuel’s The Light and the Glory. Published in 1977 and still in print, it has sold almost 1 million copies. In his book, Why Study History?, the evangelical historian John Fea described Marshall and Manuel’s argument:
The United States, from the time of its first settlement, was founded to show the rest of the world how to love God and neighbor. God had made a special covenant with this country, not unlike the covenant he made with the children of Jacob. Throughout its short history, America has occasionally lived up to this covenant, but at other times it has not. The study of the past presents a constant reminder of this unique and ongoing relationship between God and the United States and the role that all Americans, but especially Christians, play in making sure that divine favor rests on this land.
Ironically, as Russell Moore has pointed out, this is a form of theological liberalism that denies the sufficiency of the new covenant in Jesus Christ. It recalls the efforts of liberal Protestants’ in pre-war Germany to meld Christianity and nationalism. There, the consequences for German minorities were disastrous. So too could it be here.
As white evangelicals seek to vindicate the supposedly Christian origins and, it is hoped, future of the nation, they write marginalized groups out of the story. Imagining a past without oppressed people opens up space to imagine a future without them. This is potentially deadly. Many white evangelicals’ self-identification with this Christian nation is so strong that listening and learning from people the nation has harmed is extremely difficult. Often, the reason white evangelicals can’t be honest about racism is because they’ve never been honest about the nation they love.
The roots of this are broad and deep. We’re not talking about a fringe movement. Consider two of the most outspoken white evangelical Trump supporters among his religious advisory council: Jerry Falwell, Jr., and Robert Jeffress. Both men supported Trump early and loudly. Both men are influential leaders. And both men trace their roots to a father (Falwell, Sr.) or father figure (W.A. Criswell) who once embraced racist nationalism. Let’s examine them in turn.
As buffoonish as Falwell Jr. often appears, it is wishful thinking to believe the President of the largest evangelical university in the world doesn’t have real influence. He does. And he is using that influence to walk in the footsteps of his father. The outlines of Falwell Sr.’s career are well-known: from small-town segregationist preacher who shunned politics, to founder of the Moral Majority to take back the nation for God.
In this apparent change from political outsider to insider there is an underlying consistency: Falwell’s intense identification with the culture around him as something that must be protected from liberal forces. The shift from a southern-inflected nationalism in the 1950s to American nationalism in the 1980s is hardly the point. Falwell moved on from defending segregation to defending “morality” without ever really grappling with why he had been wrong in the first place.
Now his son supports racism because doing so gives him access to the state and the chance to protect the nation from liberal forces. The apple didn’t fall far.
The case of Robert Jeffress is a bit different. As with Falwell, some of us may like to pretend he’s a fringe figure, but he’s not. He’s pastor of First Baptist Church of Dallas. This isn’t just any church. This is where W.A. Criswell preached for over half a century. Rick Warren, in his best-selling book, The Purpose Driven Church, called Criswell “the greatest American pastor of the twentieth century.” When the most influential American pastor of this century says that, you ought to pay attention.
In an interview this week, Jeffress described Criswell as a spiritual father figure:
Jeffress grew up in the historic Dallas congregation, which formed in 1868 and will celebrate its 150th anniversary next year. As a boy, he gained spiritual insight from the late Rev. W.A. Criswell, First Baptist’s preacher for half a century.
“When I was 5, I started to become interested in becoming a Christian,” said Jeffress, who has served as senior pastor for 10 years. “My dad brought me down to Dr. Criswell’s office, and he presented the gospel, and I accepted Christ as my savior here.”
It should come as no surprise that Criswell spoke forcefully in defense of segregation during the 1950s. Indeed, this understates what he did. Over a period of years, Criswell—“the greatest American pastor of the twentieth century”—preached overt heresy from the pulpit. Criswell later publicly recanted these views and said he had been wrong. There is evidence of sincere wrestling with his sin. There are also questions to be asked about how total his repentance was, not least because of Criswell’s own words: “My soul and attitude may not have changed, but my public statements did.” Curtis Freeman has a balanced account of all this in the Journal of Southern Religion.
What is most striking about Criswell’s segregationist statements is not so much that they were demagogic and hateful—though they were—but that they expressed a comprehensive view of the world, a total attachment to nation and culture rather than Christianity. In 1956 he criticized integrationists for “trying to upset all the things that we love as good old Southern people and as good old Southern Baptists.” In an often-quoted conclusion to that sermon Criswell said:
Don’t force me by law, by statute, by Supreme Court decision…to cross over in those intimate things where I don’t want to go. Let me build my life. Let me have my church. Let me have my school. Let me have my friends. Let me have my home. Let me have my family. And what you give to me, give to every man in America and keep it like our glorious forefathers made it—a land of the free and the home of the brave.
Again, read Freeman’s account. There is American myth and individual selfishness here aplenty. I defy you to find a hint of Jesus in it.
Now, Robert Jeffress pastors Criswell’s old church, and he too is sacralizing American nationalism. The forms of racism they enable are different—for Criswell it was segregation and southern extremists, for Jeffress it’s colorblindness and a racist President. But in both cases, their conflation of faith and nation fatally compromises the supremacy of Jesus and the worth of human beings.
The court evangelicals seek to bring America back to God. Christians of conscience must firmly stand against that project. Under the banner of restoring the Christian nation, these men and women would oppress human beings. God has set his love on people. No nation can compare to the inestimable worth of a person made in the image of God.
Update: While some news outlets have been reporting on the evangelical advisory council as a currently functioning board, Fea says he learned today it was disbanded after the election. Whether Trump’s circle of evangelical advisors is an official board or not is hardly the point, but I would like to know more about why it disbanded.