Trump at Liberty University


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.

The “Court Evangelicals”

John Fea, professor of history at Messiah College, has a new name for the circle of Christian Right sycophants around President Trump: “court evangelicals.” Fea explains:

Not all evangelicals who voted for Trump are what I am describing as “court evangelicals.”  I am going to use this phrase from now on to describe Trump’s inner circle of evangelicals who think it is a good idea for ministers to endorse candidates from the pulpit, have bowed a knee to the political power of the presidency, think Trump is a “baby Christian,” believe evangelicals have found their “dream president” in Trump, and regularly show up at the White House whenever Trump wants to say something about religion.  The court evangelicals sacrifice their prophetic voice to political influence.  The court evangelicals have put their faith in a political strongman who promises to alleviate their fears and protect them from the forces of secularization.

This is genius. It’s a simple and cutting phrase that accurately describes these so-called leaders. While they mouth spiritual platitudes from time to time, they behave like hangers-on to royalty.

They accept and endorse all manner of evil, from constant lying to sexual assault to racism, because to speak as Christians on these matters would cost them their position in the court of their ruler. I wish I were exaggerating. As Fea noted this morning, new reporting in the Chronicle of Higher Education has dug up Falwell’s reaction to the lies and racism Trump used to enter the political stage several years ago:

Throughout their relationship, Mr. Falwell has praised Donald Trump for speaking fearlessly, even when others would say he was speaking falsely. The “birther” issue, Mr. Falwell said, was one such profile in courage.

“He was brave enough to say something that was so politically incorrect,” Mr. Falwell said. “I had no idea where Obama was born or if he had a birth certificate; I didn’t have an opinion on that. But just the fact that he was bold enough to challenge Obama on something like that, because you didn’t see the press challenging Obama much. And so that impressed me that he was bold enough to do it.”

It’s not just that Falwell fails to speak as a Christian in this instance. His perspective is openly barbaric. A vicious lie impressed Falwell because of its sheer audacity. Breaking out of the bounds of conventionally accepted speech was more important than truth itself.

It’s easy to forget, but Falwell was defending Trump’s anti-Christian beliefs years before his run for the presidency. In 2012 Falwell invited Trump to speak at a Liberty University convocation. It went like this:

Speaking to 10,000 students at the convocation, the New York financier and real estate mogul discussed the nation’s ills – high debt, unemployment, dependence on foreign goods, and the oil crisis — and the lack of leadership in the White House to address these ever-growing concerns.

“The world is laughing at us,” Trump told the students. “We just seem to have lost our edge, and now we’re in a position that unless things take place and take place fast, we are going to be, for many, many years to come, in serious trouble to the point that I don’t know we can really come back.”

He then encouraged students to “get even.”

“I always say don’t let people take advantage — this goes for a country, too, by the way — don’t let people take advantage. Get even,” Trump said. “And, you know, if nothing else, others will see that and they’re going to say: ‘You know, I’m going to let Jim Smith or Sarah Malone, I’m going to let them alone because they’re tough customers.”

The comments sparked an outcry from critics, who said Trump was inappropriate to preach his gospel of “get even” at a place that reveres Christian values.

Falwell said Trump’s comments were not out of line.

“The Associated Press quoted where Jesus said, ‘Turn the other cheek.’ But Jesus also ran the moneychangers out of the temple in anger with a whip – and so there is a time to be tough, there’s a time to look out for yourself and for your family and for your country and to defend yourself – and I don’t think that’s contrary to what Jesus taught at all.”

Trump hasn’t changed, and neither have the court evangelicals. Is there anything they wouldn’t do for power? And is there any amount of oppression that ordinary white evangelicals would not support, if they felt safer by it?

I still believe—praise God!—in the reality of the risen Christ. But we, his followers, are the strongest evidence against him.

Do Historians of Evangelicalism Promote Racial Exclusion?

the evangelicals

I’ve started reading Frances FitzGerald’s new synthesis, The Evangelicals: The Struggle to Shape America. It’s highly readable, engaging, and seems like it will serve as a useful overview for students or for people with a general interest in the topic. I’m not even half-way through, so consider what follows not so much a criticism of the book, but a broader commentary on the state of the field and our discourse. Perhaps it’s unfair to FitzGerald to use The Evangelicals as an occasion to do this, but her book repeats patterns we’ve seen in other work.

It begins with the publisher, which most likely has nothing to do with Fitzgerald. Open up the book jacket and you see this:

In this major work of American history, distinguished historian Frances FitzGerald describes the profound ways in which evangelicals have shaped our nation, our culture, and our politics. Her sweeping and authoritative account gives us the whole story for the first time.

You might say this is typical publisher overselling that doesn’t matter much. But why should we settle for misleading and exclusionary statements? Then turn to the end of the book, before the notes. FitzGerald has included a short glossary of theological terms. I don’t know if this was her idea or the publisher’s, but it’s a good idea. The first word FitzGerald defines is evangelical, using David Bebbington’s theological definition. There is no social definition; the theology does all the work here.

So, in sum we have:

  1. A book called The Evangelicals
  2. A publisher boasting it is “the whole story.”
  3. A definition of evangelicals that includes all Protestants who believe the theology Bebbington describes.

A book that did this would be really exciting. But it’s certainly not this book, which we learn pretty quickly when we turn to the introduction. FitzGerald writes,

This book is not a taxonomy or attempt to describe the entirety of evangelical life,  but rather a history of the white evangelical movements necessary to understand the Christian right and its evangelical opponents that have emerged in recent years. It purposely omits the history of African American churches because theirs is a different story, mainly one of resistance to slavery and segregation, but also of the creation of centers for self-help and community in a hostile world. Some African American denominations identify as evangelical, but because of their history, their religious traditions are not the same as those of white evangelicals. Only long after the success of the civil rights movement did some black churchmen begin to enter the story of white evangelicals and their internal conflicts.

In other words, this is another book about white evangelicals and the Christian right, making the very title of the book misleading. I’d be curious to hear what scholars of African American Christianity think of FitzGerald’s words here. I’m curious to know what I’ll think by the time I finish this book and the other one on the docket, Mary Beth Swetnam Mathews’ Doctrine and Race: African American Evangelicals and Fundamentalism between the Wars.

I don’t mean to pick on FitzGerald. After all, this is a synthesis that is in many ways only repeating the treatment (or lack thereof) of whiteness and blackness in many earlier books. Marsden, Carpenter, Sutton—wonderful books all, but no one is going to mistake them for sophisticated treatments of race. There are legitimate questions to ask about what we’re really doing with these methodological choices. FitzGerald describes it as historically driven, but I’m unconvinced. It is possible to describe exclusion without reinscribing it. We’ve failed to do that.

We run the risk of absurdity: defining our subject by race even as we pretend that race was not central to our subject.

The upshot of all this is that white evangelical is one of the most familiar phrases in our political lexicon, even though we can’t agree on what evangelical means, and we’ve barely even tried to figure out what whiteness has meant in the movement. This is so odd, so difficult to defend on a historical or intellectual level, that I begin to question our (I include myself in this) ethical stance. Does our work historicize racial exclusion, or recreate it? I think we would do well to sit with that question for a while.

Republican-Voting Christians Need To Speak Up Now

lol gop
“People will die, but the rich will be so much richer! Ha ha!”

If you’re a Christian who votes Republican, your voice is desperately needed now. Call your Republican member of congress and tell them you oppose the GOP health care bill because it fails to provide for the poor and the sick. If you’re a Christian, these principles are more important to you than limited government.

The Republicans are trying to pass a health care bill that oppresses the poor and sick so that rich people can have more money. The Congressional Budget Office estimates 24 million people would lose health insurance coverage. The best estimates we have indicate that this would cause thousands of preventable deaths every year.

I’ve heard from Trump-supporting Christians who have been offended by my words during and after the election. They didn’t want to be lumped in with the people supporting hatred, racism, and oppression. This is an opportunity for those Christians to demonstrate their sincerity. Do they oppose this cruel legislation? Or do they put party politics above human decency?

Sincerity, good intentions, or ignorance do not absolve these Christians from responsibility. If they think this bill falls under the rubric of “complicated partisan politics” and so they can’t speak against it, they’re supporting oppression. Even if they sincerely believe the lies of the Republican donor class, they’re still supporting oppression. No one is making them tune in to the make-believe world of talk radio and Foxnews. No one is making them believe the self-serving lies wealthy people tell about the economy. No one is making them ignore evidence and sit in an echo chamber. These are the choices they make.

Many of them will respond, “But it’s not the government’s job to provide health care.” If that’s their belief, they have a responsibility to explain why people must die for the sake of their abstract principles.

In sum, if Republican-voting Christians can’t rouse themselves to oppose this inhumane legislation, they ought to step up and have the courage of their convictions. If you want to oppress people, own it and do it proudly.

Russell Moore Apologizes; Keeps His Job

Russell Moore has apologized to Trump-supporting Southern Baptists, and will keep his job:

A week ago, Moore met with denominational leader Frank Page over an investigation into numerous complaints regarding the ERLC. The criticism centers around Moore’s vocal opposition to Trump and his campaign, his characterization of the faith and motives of Trump’s Christian supporters, and whether such messaging (toward fellow Southern Baptists not DC lawmakers) extended beyond the proper role of the ERLC president.

Moore reiterated and clarified the apology he shared in December, but ultimately stood by his positions.

“I stand by those convictions, but I did not separate out categories of people well—such that I wounded some, including close friends,” said Moore. “I cannot go back and change time, and I cannot apologize for my underlying convictions. But I can—and do—apologize for failing to distinguish between people who shouldn’t have been in the same category with those who put politics over the gospel and for using words, particularly in social media, that were at times overly broad or unnecessarily harsh. That is a failure on my part.”

No word yet on whether Moore’s Southern Baptist opponents who have promoted racism, hatred, lies, and oppression of the poor will apologize for their behavior. Don’t hold your breath!

White Evangelicals Stand By Their Man

Lakewood Church, where Pastor Joel Osteen offers a weekly reminder that life is really all about you.

Messiah College historian John Fea asks, “Where are the Trump Evangelicals?”

The last time I checked, Christians believe that lying is a sinful practice. The last time I checked, Christians stood for things that are true. With this in mind, why don’t I hear a massive chorus of evangelical Christians–especially the 81% of Christians who voted for Trump–calling the POTUS to task?

Where indeed. Why do people who believe that Jesus Christ is truth react so casually to pathological dishonesty?  There are thousands of plausible answers to this question, but it draws my mind to two books in particular. One is Todd Brenneman’s Homespun Gospel. In their religious communities, evangelicals have learned to feel more than to think. Feeling a personal connection with God is characteristically evangelical. But the notion that one would think through the implications of the gospel for all areas of life is foreign to many evangelical communities.

In this anti-intellectual climate, perhaps Trump’s verbal expressions of support for Christianity outweigh the substance of his anti-Christ politics. After all, many evangelicals attend churches that serve as weekly emotional pick-me-ups rather than sites of Christian community formation. If you attend a prosperity gospel church, or a more insidious self-focused church, you’re accustomed to lies from spiritual authority figures. What’s the big deal if the president is a liar too?

The point here is not that ordinary evangelicals are consciously weighing whether or not to support an alternative reality made of lies. (“Christian” Right political leaders are doing that, but that’s another story). Instead, ordinary evangelicals are living in religious and social contexts that make it very hard for them to discern facts. They are desperately confused about what is true and who (and what) to believe.

This brings to mind Molly Worthen’s book, Apostles of Reason: The Crisis of Authority in American Evangelicalism. Evangelicals claim the Bible as their final authority, but who gets to interpret it? In the end, is it not the individual, alone before God? Who is in charge? And what role does reason play? Are science and faith compatible? Should evangelicals lacking traditional qualifications in a field be trusted over credentialed experts who are not evangelicals? Worthen writes,

It is evangelicals’ ongoing crisis of authority—their struggle to reconcile reason with revelation, heart with head, and private piety with the public square—that best explains their anxiety and their animosity toward intellectual life.

Anxiety really is the right word. In the face of these confusing questions, I’ve seen many ordinary evangelicals throw up their hands in frustration. While they hold fast to their basic faith claims, in broader questions of public life they effectively become postmodernists, insisting that it is too difficult to know what is true. I’m not talking here about the idea that we’re all culturally located and bring our own biases to a text. This evangelical postmodernism is a debilitating confusion that makes it difficult to understand or trust the very processes of knowledge-production in the contemporary world.

So they rely on trusted evangelical gatekeepers to guide them. But to an extent that is not clear to ordinary evangelicals, these gatekeepers are often semi-closeted political activists whose primary allegiance is to Republican politics rather than Christian faith.

During the campaign, ordinary evangelicals learned that it was ok to vote for Donald Trump because he had recently had a conversion experience. He had, in other words, become an evangelical. Many evangelicals probably didn’t know from where the story came. It was simply too good to be false. Trump met with the heretical prosperity gospel televangelist Paula White, and she declared that he had become a believer. (By the way, I’m sure he is a believer in her gospel.) The political activist and family guru James Dobson not-so-subtly passed this story along, and soon it was common knowledge in evangelical circles. And after all, if the grandfatherly Dobson, who had dispensed so much wisdom to evangelical families over the decades, believed Trump’s conversion was real, wasn’t that evidence enough?

This all sounds rather condescending, but the alternative interpretation—that ordinary evangelicals know full well what they are doing—implies something far worse.

Books for Our Moment: A Conversation with Todd Brenneman

During the election of 2016 and its aftermath, my thoughts kept returning to Todd Brenneman’s Homespun Gospel. Brenneman argues that evangelicalism has become a religion defined largely by sentimentality, as expressed through three tropes: “the fatherhood of God, the infancy of human beings, and the nostalgia of home and nuclear family.” Evangelicals have discarded the centrality of doctrine and have embraced a religion of feeling. Evangelicalism, Brenneman writes, is more an “aesthetic worldview”  than a set of intellectual beliefs.

Dr. Brenneman is Assistant Professor of Christian History at Faulkner University, and a keen observer of contemporary evangelicalism. Recently he very graciously agreed to answer a few of my questions about how his book relates to our current moment.  Our lightly edited conversation is below.

Part of what drew me into your book when I read it was that at the time I was just entering into this long-running conversation about how to define evangelicalism. Theologically? Institutionally? Is it a brand? And then you come along with a very different answer to that question, emphasizing feeling, emotion, aesthetics. It was startling and intriguing to me. And part of what I appreciated about the book was that it was an exploration of people’s religious worlds, not just a story of political mobilization. We’ve seen a whole stream of historiography on evangelicalism that seems to think the only story worth telling is the rise of the Christian right. You’re doing something different. And that raises my first question: Why should people who aren’t evangelicals themselves, or scholars of religion, care about the triumph of sentimentality in evangelicalism?

I would say recognition of the triumph of sentimentality is important because of why anything about evangelicalism is important.  Outside observers have often been “late to the party” so to speak when trying to understand evangelicalism and its staying power.  Right before the recent election many newspapers and even some scholars were hailing the end of the Religious Right only to see that backfire.  The power of evangelicalism, though, is not in whether or not evangelicals can intellectually defend it but in the feelings of evangelicalism.  More than that, scholars of religion have been emphasizing the practice of religions over the beliefs of religions, except when it has come to evangelicalism.  Only recently have scholars begun really investigating the practice of evangelicalism and to fully understand that, I believe we need to understand sentimentality and its function.

What connection, if any, do you see between the kind of sentimentality you write about in Homespun Gospel and a political context in which 4 of 5 white evangelicals are said to have voted for Trump?

I believe that what motivated evangelicals the most (and this is not unique to me) to stand behind Trump were the very issues at the center of evangelical sentimentality.  Many observers pointed to the vacancy in the Supreme Court as a pivotal reason why evangelicals lined up behind Trump even though his Christian credentials in beliefs and morality were suspect in the most generous reading.  So what does the Supreme Court have to do with sentimentality?  The issues of marriage and abortion still politically motivate evangelicals.  Domesticity and its protection are ideals that evangelicals are willing to line up behind in large numbers.  I also think Trump’s nostalgic call to “Make America Great Again” played on the sentimental heart of evangelicals.  The claim being there was a time when America was great and many evangelicals probably believed that such a time was when they had more moral authority in the country or at least when Christians had more moral authority.

In your final chapter you write about the relationship between sentiment, fear, and evangelical politics. What role do you think fear played in evangelicals’ political posture in 2016?

Scholars of sentimentality in philosophy, literature, and American studies have noted that it is unfortunately a very small step between sweet sentimentality and fear/hatred.  Sentimental appeals often rely on conceptions of universality.  Sentimentality is built on the assumption that everyone feels the same way or at least should feel the same way.  When those political drives motivated by nostalgia and domesticity are frustrated, it can lead to fear of the future or even hatred toward those who do not hold similar positions.  I believe that motivated some evangelicals.  President-elect Trump played on those fears of the others, even encouraging (intentionally or not) hatred of them for what they (whoever “they” are) have done to America’s greatness.  So, we see this mix of decades of political frustration with respect to the conservative evangelical agenda, fears of what will happen to marriage and what is happening to unborn children, and there was a backlash to the progressive direction the country had been taken.  This fear, though, I believe for evangelicals was born out of sentimentality.

Where do we go from here? How do we use sentiment in a healthy way and work for a more robust evangelicalism? (ok, big question!)

Christianity should be a religion of both heart and head.  Distortions happen when one aspect is emphasized over the other.  Sentimentality can be a powerful force in motivating people, but if the head isn’t guiding and harnessing that sentimentality, it could go in diverse directions.  When one looks at the leaders currently in evangelicalism, we can see abuses, we can see the encouragement toward stances or positions or beliefs that border on unbiblical if not anti-Christian, and yet if there is no voice calling for introspection, examination, logical dialogue, churches can be led in dangerous directions.  What needs to happen is heart-directed evangelicals and head-directed evangelicals need to see that they need each other.  The New Testament especially talks about how God brings people with diverse talents together in community and no one with a specific talent or preference can say to someone else not directed the same way that they are unnecessary.  Both components are needed for a vibrant community that will have a significant, transformative effect on local communities and even globally.

Finally, what’s next for you? Is another book on the horizon? 

I am department chair, so that requires a lot of administrative work.  One of the projects I do have on the back burner though is an examination of the “Bibles” of evangelicalism.  Although evangelicals claim allegiance to the same Bible, how that Bible is used and depicted in the political realm, in inspirational literature, in children’s literature, etc., indicates that there are essentially multiple “swords of the Spirit” at work in evangelicalism.  I hope in the near future to pursue this some more.