Rev. Thomas, the former General Minister and President of the United Church of Christ, is now a professor and administrator here at CTS. Follow his timely, provocative writings on the issues of our day.
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Jerry Falwell, Jr. endorsed Donald Trump in the presidential primary this week. This comes as no surprise. Falwell has been trumpeting his support for some time. And, according to polls, he’s not the only Evangelical lining up behind Mr. Trump. “Make America Great Again” clearly trumps a lot, including historic Evangelical values and commitments.
Trump has been married three times. He’s famous for his gambling empire that has left cities like Atlantic City in near bankruptcy. He built his brand with a TV reality show that is known for the publicly humiliating judgment, “you’re fired!” He’s boasted that he could shoot someone in Times Square and still win an election. He’s intimated that he’d be willing to execute the families of terrorists. He is, to put it generously, dismissive of poor people and immigrants. He makes crude and demeaning remarks about women who challenge him. He’s willing to have Sarah Palin endorse him while excusing her son’s alleged domestic abuse by claiming he has PTSD (which is somehow the President’s fault) even though her son never saw combat in Iraq. He also mocked her former running mate as a loser for getting captured in Vietnam. Trump’s attitude toward nuclear weapons? “What’s the point of having them if you’re not willing to use them?”
His grasp on church stuff is, shall we say, limited – “Two Corinthians?” “Little crackers” instead of communion wafers? Confession is an alien concept, but he’ll do it when someday he has something to confess. He admits that his attendance is spotty – Christmas, Easter, the major events, although lately on the campaign trail his rallies have conveniently begun with prayer. It would be interesting to hear him contemplate the meaning of the story of the Rich Man and Lazarus. Would he notice that the Rich Man is actually THE LOSER?
How does “Make America Great Again” trump traditional Evangelicalism? It doesn’t, unless you’ve so identified the Gospel with American triumphalism, exceptionalism, white Christian privilege, and military and economic dominance that the two have become more or less indistinguishable. Falwell called Trump “a successful executive and entrepreneur, a wonderful father and a man who I believe can lead our country to greatness again.” Not the most compelling Evangelical credentials except for the father thing.
There’s nothing wrong with Falwell the college president and Falwell the public citizen endorsing Trump. But Falwell the Evangelical, clearly attempting to leverage his religious connections and fame to gain Evangelical support for Trump, is a bit hard to stomach. Thank God the IRS keeps most of us from making similar fools or hypocrites of ourselves.
This, of course, brings up missing the log in our own eye while preoccupied with the splinter in another’s. (That’s Matthew Seven, Three to Five, Donald.) Religious leaders of all stripes seem as easily seduced by proximity to power and by politicians’ confirmation of their own ideologies and opinions, Gospel driven or otherwise. Progressives have as hard a time with humility as Evangelicals.
Religious leaders and political leaders have different sets of responsibilities and challenges. Both are wise to keep a healthy degree of separation, for experience shows that when either one tries to use the other for any kind of personal gain it doesn’t end well. Similarly, the voting booth and the sanctuary pose different kinds of questions to the person of faith. The Constitutional requirements of a President often involve agonizing choices for which faith or doctrine offer no simple or clear answers. Messianic presidents of both parties who have assumed divine endorsement over the years have often caused immeasurable harm in their zealotry.
That said, when determining their vote or endorsement, religious leaders and people of faith generally ought to be able to ask whether, in addition to political skill and leadership capacity, a candidate, regardless of party, displays the kinds of values, commitments, and principles embedded in the texts, narratives and ethical traditions of the voters’ religious communities, even when those candidates don’t share the voters’ faith. In Falwell’s case one would assume that might include humility, a deep respect for the dignity of all persons, compassion for the poor and the marginalized, empathy for those who are threatened by others, abhorrence of violence, honesty and integrity, care for the sanctity of creation. I’m hard pressed to see any of this in Trump’s biography, his personality, his policies, or his rhetoric.
So what’s trumping Falwell’s Evangelicalism? Either he’s willing to radically compartmentalize his politics and his Gospel, or he’s following a different Gospel altogether, one in which “Making America Great Again” has caused such distortion that Falwell’s Gospel has become wholly unrecognizable even to many fellow Evangelicals. And that should be a warning to religious people of all stripes, including those of us who tend to sit on the other side of the political aisle. The seductive role of the court prophet with its perks and privileges and fame never comes without compromises that inevitably become too burdensome or embarrassing to bear.
John H. Thomas
January 28, 2016