Evangelicals, Ethics, and Supporting Donald Trump

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Evangelicals—at least, we white ones—are having a hard time in the public eye these days. Perhaps you’ve noticed.

Jerry Falwell, Jr., president of Liberty University in Virginia, hasn’t helped things. His support for Donald Trump was early and has remained strong to this day. How strong?

A recent interview by The Washington Post quotes Falwell not as reluctantly voting for Trump over Hillary Clinton, nor as supporting Trump because his policies, on the whole, more closely accord with Biblical values than do the alternatives. Here’s an astonishing clip from that interview that shows just how deep runs Falwell’s devotion:

Is there anything President Trump could do that would endanger that support from you or other evangelical leaders?

No.

That’s the shortest answer we’ve had so far.

Only because I know that he only wants what’s best for this country, and I know anything he does, it may not be ideologically “conservative,” but it’s going to be what’s best for this country, and I can’t imagine him doing anything that’s not good for the country.

The bigger issue here is not Jerry Falwell, Jr., but that statements such as these keep enabling people to denounce white evangelicals—whether in national media, in social media debates, or around the dinner table at Thanksgiving or Christmas—as uncritical stooges of a wildly immoral president.

Christian theology is clear that each of us is a sinner and is capable of big sins, not just occasional little ones. Christian theology is clear that each of us is so sinful, in fact, that we need a Saviour, not just an Instructor or an Example. That’s the “Old-Time Gospel” Jerry Falwell, Jr.’s father would preach and presumably what Jerry Falwell, Jr. would say he believes.

—Except, however, when it comes to President Trump? How is it that Donald Trump is somehow elevated above the common lot and infallibly going to do what’s good for the United States?

And thus we confront the second, even deeper, problem in such thinking. Since when is “what’s good for the country” the only concern Christians should bring to politics? How does working as a legislator exempt one from the Lord’s command to love not only one’s neighbour, but also even one’s enemies?

Here’s how Falwell views the political (ir)relevance of Jesus’s teaching:

It’s such a distortion of the teachings of Jesus to say that what he taught us to do personally — to love our neighbors as ourselves, help the poor—can somehow be imputed on a nation. Jesus never told Caesar how to run Rome. He went out of his way to say that’s the earthly kingdom, I’m about the heavenly kingdom and I’m here to teach you how to treat others, how to help others, but when it comes to serving your country, you render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s. It’s a distortion of the teaching of Christ to say Jesus taught love and forgiveness and therefore the United States as a nation should be loving and forgiving, and just hand over everything we have to every other part of the world. That’s not what Jesus taught. You almost have to believe that this is a theocracy to think that way, to think that public policy should be dictated by the teachings of Jesus.

Let’s take a few of these ideas in reverse order. “To think that public policy should be dictated by the teachings of Jesus” is to support rule by clergy, a “theocracy.” Well, no, it isn’t. Because if you think Jesus’s teachings are irrelevant to public policy, then whose teachings are indeed relevant? Jefferson’s? Machiavelli’s? Sun Tzu’s? If you bracket out Jesus’s teachings, somebody else’s perforce will guide you instead. Whose teachings are you and Mr. Trump following, Mr. Falwell?

Second, since when does “loving and forgiving” mean to “just hand over everything we have”? No serious Christian ethicist has ever interpreted those words that way. Falwell sounds more like Nietzsche—and in a particularly silly mood—in caricaturing Christian understandings of love and forgiveness as becoming a doormat to everyone who would exploit you.

Third, of course “Jesus never told Caesar how to run Rome.” But when Christians did take over the Roman Empire a few centuries later, are we supposed to believe that their Lord had provided no moral guidance for them to run it? Christians instead have found rich guidance from the Bible—including, of course, the teachings of Jesus as rendered variously in the different books of the New Testament. (My own recent book, Why You’re Here, is an example of working out such ethics.)

To give credit where it’s due, Mr. Falwell is right not to push for a theocracy, not to try to incorporate directly any particular part of Scripture (e.g., the Ten Commandments, the Sermon on the Mount) in American law, and not to equate individuals, churches, and states, which each have their particular ethical calling. In each of these respects, in fact, he belies the stereotype of the Religious Right.

Still, to simply take the Biblical reins off and let the state run where it will seems an obviously bad idea. To believe that anyone in the Big Chair—whether Donald Trump, or Justin Trudeau (or Andrew Scheer or Jagmeet Singh or Elizabeth May)—will always make the right decisions seems, to put it extremely mildly, unsupported by history or Scripture.

And by what standard would one, in fact, judge those decisions to be right? In what, indeed, do you believe “the good of the country” subsists, if you’re not going to listen to Jesus about such fundamental matters?

Ever-increasing GDP? Ever-increasing military might? Ever-increasing international prestige and influence?

No wonder people like Falwell pronounce Trump to be a figure like the Persian emperor Cyrus. Those were exactly Cyrus’s values, too.

But what’s a Christian like Jerry Falwell, Jr., doing endorsing them?

Not following Jesus’s teachings, he says.

And I believe him.

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John G. Stackhouse, Jr., PhD, serves as the Samuel J. Mikolaski Professor of Religious Studies at Crandall University in Moncton, New Brunswick. A graduate of Queen’s University, Wheaton Graduate School, and the University of Chicago, he was formerly Professor of Religion at the University of Manitoba and held the Sangwoo Youtong Chee Chair of Theology and Culture at Regent College, Vancouver. He has given interviews to ABC, NBC, CBC, CTV, and Global TV as well as to CBC Radio from coast to coast. His work has been featured in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Times Literary Supplement, The Globe and Mail, the National Post, The Atlantic, Time, and Maclean’s. Author of over 800 articles, book chapters, and reviews, his tenth book has been released this year: “Why You’re Here: Ethics for the Real World” (Oxford University Press).