President Trump gave the commencement address at Liberty University today. It’s a win-win for Trump and Liberty’s President, Jerry Falwell, Jr. Trump gets to cloak his barbarism with the veneer of the sacred while placating the feelings of a key constituency. And Falwell gets what every court evangelical wants—credulous press coverage describing his supposed influence:
Jerry Falwell Jr., Liberty University president and evangelical icon, endorsed Trump in January 2016, calling him “a successful executive and entrepreneur, a wonderful father and a man who I believe can lead our country to greatness again.”
Falwell’s backing boosted Trump’s previously sparse evangelical bona fides and was particularly significant because many political observers had assumed that Falwell would support Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.), who had launched his campaign at Liberty 10 months earlier.
Falwell is many things; an evangelical icon he certainly is not. Talk to ordinary evangelicals and you’ll find that many have no idea who he is. A sizable number of evangelicals who do know who he is believe he’s a ridiculous figure. And some smaller number have both heard of him and like him, but do not take their cues from him.
Some other Christian Right leaders over the years have at least been able to make credible claims of speaking for a constituency. After all, they had real organizations with real activists at their command (however inflated the numbers may have been) .
Falwell’s case is different. His trick is to insert himself into the space between politicians, journalists, and ordinary voters, and claim to speak for a vast group of people. Then, when a constituency that was going to vote for Trump anyway duly does so, Falwell can preen as a kingmaker. Politicians want to court their constituencies; journalists want convenient quotes and narratives; and Falwell wants to be important. Everybody’s happy. But let’s not pretend these narratives of influence accurately describe evangelicalism, or evangelical political power.
There’s another important distinction to make. Trump was at Liberty this morning precisely because Liberty is such an unusual evangelical college. In contrast to most evangelical institutions of higher education, Liberty has always been overtly political. Indeed, its leaders have rarely bothered to hide the fact that Republican politics is more important to them than Christianity.
That’s part of what makes narratives like, “Trump goes to Liberty and reaches out evangelicals” somewhat ironic. Many evangelical institutions want nothing to do with Liberty University. It’s a culture-warring, influence-peddling debasement of Christianity. It’s an affront to many evangelical colleges that sincerely attempt to construct environments of critical thinking and Christian reflection. At those institutions, Trump might not be so welcome.