I don’t do politics on social media (nor in the pulpit), but I feel an exception is warranted – on social media, anyway. With the exception that I don’t really care that Donald Trump has not previously held public office, nor do I care that neither Ben Carson nor Carly Fiorina have ever held public office, pretty much everything else Peter Wehner writes in his Op Ed for the New York Times, Why I Will Never Vote for Donald Trump, reflects my sentiments. I am disturbed by Trump’s behavior, and even more so by some of his supporters who have compromised core values and beliefs to empower him.
I know. This is politics. And Trump’s supporters have every right to support him, for whatever the reasons. For a time I was open to the possibility, despite questions about the basis of his present positions. I accept that people change. But with no history, or substantive rationale for changes in convictions, I can only wonder how long it will be, or what circumstances might arise, before we see some of these key convictions shift back.
More disturbing to me than Trump are some of his supporters. Here I do not mean the rank-and-file Trump supporters, who enjoy the bravado, and with whom the simple catch phrase “Make America Great Again” resonates. I too am entertained, or at least I have been, to a degree. And I appreciate the vision of restoring the greatness of the USA – even if I am a little unclear whether Trump’s definition of what would make America great and my definition are similar; and even if Trump’s specific plans to usher in such restoration seem a little fuzzy to me. I am disturbed most by those who are endorsing Trump, even when Trump clearly does not represent their core values and beliefs. In other words, I am most chagrined by Christians – especially those claiming to be Evangelicals – who are compromising their faith to endorse Trump.
Now let me be clear here. Every citizen of the USA has a right to support whatever candidate they want. I do not believe Christians have a responsibility to restrict their vote to only Christian candidates. Therefore, I support the right of my fellow Christians, even fellow Evangelicals, to support Trump, if they believe he would be the best leader for our country. (Check out Mark Tooley’s thoughtful piece: Trump, Evangelicals & Security.) What I do not accept are Christians – especially Evangelicals – who will rewrite the Faith to justify their support.
The poster boy of my ire is Jerry Falwell, Jr.
In recent months Falwell has made some asinine statements and decisions. Among them was to invite Trump to speak at Liberty University, where Falwell is currently president, on Martin Luther King Day. Again, I need to be clear. I support Liberty University’s decision to have Trump speak, just as I appreciated them inviting Bernie Sanders to speak. A university is a place of ideas, where a variety of viewpoints should be allowed to be expressed. So as long as a clear distinction is made between a chapel service (during which any speakers should intelligently and faithfully exalt the One True God) and a convocation (where any variety of ideas could be expressed) I have no problem. But given Trump’s history, or at least his reputation, of bigoted statements, it seems more wisdom could have been exercised about the date when Trump would be invited to speak. A day that is designated to highlight efforts to bring about racial reconciliation does not seem the most sensitive or appropriate. Of course that is just a judgment call. (For anyone interested, my friend Marc Corbett, a Liberty University alumnus, wrote an excellent piece for The Gospel Coalition. Take a moment to listen to Marc’s lament: Why I Will Protest a School I Love.)
Most disturbing to me is Falwell’s recent total redefinition of Christianity in his justification for inviting Trump to speak on MLK Day, and in his subsequent official endorsement of Trump. Again, I believe Falwell has the right to support, and even endorse, whoever he wants. In his formal endorsement Falwell said only that:
“[Trump is] a successful executive and entrepreneur, a wonderful father and a man who I believe can lead our country to greatness again.”
But Falwell’s previous justification and reasoning was this:
“I have seen firsthand that his staff loves him and is loyal to him because of his servant leadership. In my opinion Donald Trump lives a life of loving and helping others as Jesus taught in the great commandment.”
Falwell has since offered an explanation, an Op Ed in the Washington Post. And I concur with much of his reasoning, even if I would not land on the same candidate. Nevertheless, his reasoning and his freedom – both as an American and as a Christian – to endorse Trump does not negate Falwell’s compromise of the gospel, and his misuse of the scripture.
First, even granting the validity of Falwell’s personal experiences and interactions with Trump, the “Great Commandment” cannot rightly be summarized as Falwell applies it. The “Great Commandment”, as Jesus expressed it in Matthew 22 says:
“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.”
Falwell’s application and explanation totally omit the first part, the part which according to Jesus is actually the “greatest” part, which pertains to loving God. Now I am not privy to Trumps heart. He claims to have a personal faith in Jesus Christ. Other than the evidence being somewhat sketchy, I cannot – I will not – say that Trump is not a Christian. While there is reason to be skeptical, based upon his own inability to communicate much about his faith, it is quite possible that he is merely an infantile Christian, one who has not yet come to understand his need for repentance to accompany his faith. If Trump is indeed a Christian, even an immature Christian, then his sins are as forgiven as mine are – as forgiven as all Christians’ sins are – even if he does not understand the mechanics by which God has done this, through the sacrificial atoning death of Jesus on behalf of all those God has given to Jesus. (See John 10.27-29) But Falwell’s omission is significant. Though he himself is not a minister, he is nevertheless president of a college that claims to be rooted in the Truth of the Bible. And the Truth he has omitted is essential to the faith he claims.
Second, Falwell’s omission, if taken seriously, would effectively change the message of the gospel to a message Paul says is “no gospel at all”. (See Galatians 1.6-7) By his omission, Falwell makes the essence of Christianity to be our actions. He effectively declares Donald Trump to be a Christian, not because he has repented and believed the message of the gospel, but because Trump has at times – maybe numerous times – been generous, and given to those he sees in need. Such generosity is commendable, and it is in line with the life and teachings of Christ, but this is not the essence of Christianity. It is not what makes one a Christian. Nor is kindness and generosity the sole domain of Christians. Most religions teach some form of charity as part of their moral code. What makes one a Christian, what makes Christianity different from all other religions, is the recognition that we are reconciled to God, not by our works, but by faith in what Jesus did for us that we could not do for ourselves. The distinctive mark of Christianity is grace, in the full meaning of the word. As the Apostle Paul wrote to the Ephesians:
“For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.”
Yet Falwell omitted it from his declaration.
Is this a case of simple omission? I assume so. But it is a significant omission. It is an omission that denies the gospel. It is an omission by one who should not only know better, but who has to date not clarified his omission. This is disturbing, especially since Falwell took the effort to write an Op Ed to explain why he endorsed Trump, and to clarify that his endorsement is not the same as being endorsed by Liberty University. It suggests that Falwell is concerned about Liberty University (understandably so) but it appears not particularly concerned about the gospel of Jesus Christ that he claims is the at the heart of the university.
This leads me to wonder: If the president of Liberty – the son of the Founder – is nonchalant about the gospel of Jesus Christ, is Liberty University actually a Christian college? Could it be that Liberty is actually merely Conservative? These are not mutually exclusive, but to be Christian it must be rooted in the gospel, and not merely rooted in set of moral standards, even if they are Jesus’ moral standards. To accept mere moral standards as the equivalent of the gospel is tantamount to accepting – even perhaps suggesting – that Jesus was a great teacher, but not the Son of God who came in the flesh; that Jesus is not the Lamb of God who was born to offer his life as a ransom for many. According to Falwell, as long as one tries to follow the teachings of Jesus, one meets the demands of God’s Law, and is therefore a Child of God. This is a popular belief. It is just not biblical.
Hillsdale College is an example of a school that is primarily Conservative, and it is an excellent school. Yet while Hillsdale’s modern emphasis may be constitutional conservatism, Hillsdale has never, to my knowledge, denied the principles of the gospel it was founded upon; they have never recast the gospel as Liberty’s president is now doing. Hillsdale has never substituted conservatism for Christianity.
It is for this reason that I have to wonder whether it is appropriate to continue to consider Liberty University a Christian college, at least as long as Jerry Falwell Jr is at the helm. And even if Falwell makes a public correction, at this point I would be concerned of his understanding of the gospel, that it has taken him this long to realize he misspoke; or his commitment to the gospel, that he felt compelled to explain the reason and scope of his endorsement, but not that he had inadvertently distorted the gospel. These omissions cause me to be skeptical of his ability – and his qualification – to lead any Christian college, much less one that declares itself the “Largest Evangelical Christian College in the World”. And this is not because Falwell endorsed Donald Trump. That is his right. He is free, in Christ, to do so. It is because Falwell seems to have sold out the gospel in the process of endorsing Donald Trump. And this is what saddens me.