Jerry Falwell Jr. is the president of Liberty University. He is also a self-appointed spokesman for American “evangelical Christians,” many of whom accept his self-appointment and take what he says seriously. He gets a lot of press.
(I still think of myself as an evangelical Christian in the sense that I follow and try to share the good news of Jesus. But, since the label now refers to people who think that devotion to Christ is best expressed through an unswerving allegiance to conservative political positions and leaders, I can’t use it to self-identify anymore. So I don’t.)
On September 28, Falwell tweeted the following: “Conservatives & Christians need to stop electing ‘nice guys’. They might make great Christian leaders but the US needs street fighters like @realDonaldTrump at every level of government b/c the liberal fascists Dems are playing for keeps & many Repub leaders are a bunch of wimps!”
On October 1, he tweeted this: “That video of @JeffFlake in the elevator cowering and nearly crying as liberals screamed at him and then acquiescing to their demands for FBI investigation (hopefully not led by Comey/Strzok types) is the best illustration I’ve seen of what is wrong with the Republican Party!”
Falwell seems to be saying that Christians shouldn’t be concerned with whether or not our nation’s political leaders follow Christian principles, or even basic human kindness and consideration, in their governing. This helps explain how he as a “Christian leader” could be an early and enthusiastic supporter of Donald Trump during the most recent presidential campaign and how he remains a cheerleader for the president.
When I was a student at a Georgia Baptist college and a Southern Baptist seminary a few decades ago, I learned that Baptists had throughout their long history championed religious liberty and separation of church and state. Many but not all Baptists have backed off of that conviction in recent years, but I still think it’s the American way, grounded in the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States of America.
That amendment opens with these words: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof...” Too simply put, the amendment means that the United States government can’t endorse any religion and cannot prevent citizens from practicing the religion of their choice.
But the amendment doesn’t mean that Christians (or people of other faiths) shouldn’t play an active role in the government, either as elected or appointed officials or as citizens. We have the same rights as anyone to support our positions, to advocate for our preferred policies, and to vote for our preferred candidates.
Falwell’s words set me to thinking about the ways Christians think about and try to influence the government. Some Christians would like to see what they regard as Christian principles be the law of the land. They are the culture warriors.
Many of them would evidently have no problem having their views of morality imposed through legislation. Some—maybe most—of them support President Trump, despite his personal failings that would in their eyes immediately and irrevocably disqualify others, because they believe he will further their agenda.
Other Christians—and I count myself among these—do not want Christianity (or any other religion) to be the nation’s official religion for several reasons, of which I’ll name just three.
First, the Constitution doesn’t allow it.
Second, if Christianity were the nation’s official religion, crusaders with a very narrow view of what constitutes morality would end up in charge.
Third, the kind of “Christian” leaders who would end up running things would, through mental and spiritual gymnastics I can’t fathom, find a way of ignoring Jesus’ teachings. They’d base their policies more on Leviticus than on the Sermon on the Mount. They would govern in ways that would indicate an apparent belief that Jesus rode into Jerusalem on a warhorse rather than a donkey and that, rather than dying on the cross, he “called ten thousand angels to destroy the world and set him free” (as the old song says he could have, but didn’t).
This brings me back to Falwell’s tweet of October 1, in which he chastises Senator Jeff Flake for evidently being influenced by the appeals of two sexual assault victims to ask for further FBI investigation of Judge Kavanaugh. I fail to see how a “Christian” leader can criticize someone for feeling sympathy and showing compassion.
It seems that in Falwell’s view, sympathy and compassion signify weakness, while callousness in pursuit of “conservative” hegemony signifies strength. (I put the word conservative in quotation marks because I don’t think a lot of what the GOP is pursuing under Trump is truly conservative.)
I must admit, though, that even as I support separation of church and state, I find myself wanting my government and my country to act in accord with basic principles of justice and mercy that lie at the heart of Christian faith and practice.
I realize that this must sound odd. After all, can a government and nation that aren’t Christian really follow Christian principles? Is it possible for a non-Christian government to behave in more Christian ways than a “Christian” one?
A member of a church I was serving as pastor asked me, “If I’m trying to decide between two candidates, and one of them is Christian and the other isn’t, shouldn’t I as a Christian vote for the Christian?” I answered, “I can imagine scenarios in which a non-Christian candidate might support policies and practices that are more Christian than those that certain Christian candidates support.”
I had in mind policies and practices in the realms of healthcare availability, economic justice, gender equality, race relations, war and peace, and others. I still have such issues in mind when I vote.
Some Christians seem willing to support political leaders who lead in ways that violate basic human, much less Christian, principles because they think they will make the country in some sense “stronger.”
Others of us support those who will govern in ways that reflect basic human compassion and concern as well as the Christian approach—be they professing and practicing Christians or not—of doing all they can to help “the least of these” (Mt 25:40).
We do so because we believe such governing will truly make America stronger.