I had a strange flashback this week, as I was watching the long, long introduction by the Rev. Jerry Falwell Jr., as he welcomed New York City billionaire and reality-television icon Donald Trump back to the campus of Liberty University.
This flashback took place when Falwell spoke the following words (as I framed them in my "On Religion" for the Universal syndicate):
Trump used blunt words crafted for populists angry about losing and tired of watching politicians break their promises. Claiming outsider status, Trump endorsed their anger.
Yes, Trump is not a Sunday school candidate, admitted Falwell. Then again, he said, "for decades, conservatives and evangelicals have chosen the political candidates who have told us what we wanted to hear on social, religious and political issues only to be betrayed by those same candidates after they were elected."
Read that quote again. Is this tense, even angry Falwell quote aimed at President Barack Obama?
No way. It is aimed at the GOP mainstream. This brings me to the topic of this week's "Crossroads" podcast, with host Todd Wilken. Click here to tune that in.
That Falwell anger reminded me of what I heard long ago -- 1997 to be precise -- when I served as a commentator for MSNBC during the network's daylong coverage of the "Stand in the Gap" Promise Keepers rally that covered the National Mall in Washington, D.C.
The mainstream journalists who covered that event, as a rule, framed it as a protest against the lifestyle left and President Bill Clinton (and, yes, they thought it may have had something to do with fathers, husbands, families and racial reconciliation).
Seriously? It was news that some cultural conservatives were upset with Clinton?
Journalists missed the real political news of that day (as opposed to the many interesting religion angles), which was the anger -- much of it openly expressed -- poured out on Republicans in Congress (looking at you, Newt Gingrich) who had promised breakthroughs in the defense of marriage, the protection of unborn children, etc. There were few references to the White House. There was plenty of talk about politicians who had let evangelicals down in the recent past.
So what happened at Liberty University this week? I think we heard Falwell the younger openly stating that he was mad enough at the GOP establishment to (gasp) vote for a Trump.
Will other cultural conservative ever, ever be willing to make that leap? That's the question that journalists have to keep asking as the news rolls into Iowa and then South Carolina.
There is no one "evangelical" vote this year. Reporters have to dig into the doctrinal and political splits that are taking place out there in the pews and key pulpits.
Consider, for example, the language used by the head of the Southern Baptist Convention's main office in DC, writing on (wait for it) The New York Times op-ed page. This is long, but the Rev. Russell Moore must be heard out:
There’s no religious test for office, and there shouldn’t be. My Baptist ancestors were willing to make alliances with the heretical Thomas Jefferson because he believed in religious liberty. It didn’t matter that they never would have let him teach Sunday school.
We should not demand to see the long-form certificate for Mr. Trump’s second birth. We should, though, ask about his personal character and fitness for office. His personal morality is clear, not because of tabloid exposes but because of his own boasts. His attitude toward women is that of a Bronze Age warlord. He tells us in one of his books that he revels in the fact that he gets to sleep with some of the “top women in the world.” He has divorced two wives (so far) for other women.
There's much, much more:
What is surprising is that some self-identified evangelicals are telling pollsters they’re for Mr. Trump. Worse, some social conservative leaders are praising Mr. Trump for “telling it like it is.”
In the 1990s, some of these social conservatives argued that “If Bill Clinton’s wife can’t trust him, neither can we.” If character matters, character matters. Today’s evangelicals should ask, “Whatever happened to our commitment to ‘traditional family values’?”
Mr. Trump tells us “nothing beats the Bible,” and once said to an audience that he knows how Billy Graham feels. He says of evangelicals: “I love them. They love me.” And yet, he regularly ridicules evangelicals, with almost as much glee as he does Hispanics. This goes beyond his trivialization of communion with his recent comments about “my little cracker” as a way to ask forgiveness. In recent years, he has suggested that evangelical missionaries not be treated in the United States for Ebola, since they chose to go overseas in the first place.
Still, the problem is not just Mr. Trump’s personal lack of a moral compass. He is, after all, a casino and real estate mogul who has built his career off gambling, a moral vice and an economic swindle that oppresses the poorest and most desperate. When Mr. Trump’s casinos fail, he can simply file bankruptcy and move on. The lives and families destroyed by the casino industry cannot move on so easily.
He’s defended, up until very recent years, abortion, and speaks even now of the “good things” done by Planned Parenthood. In a time when racial tensions run high across the country, Mr. Trump incites division, with slurs against Hispanic immigrants and with protectionist jargon that preys on turning economic insecurity into ugly “us versus them” identity politics. When evangelicals should be leading the way on racial reconciliation, as the Bible tells us to, are we really ready to trade unity with our black and brown brothers and sisters for this angry politician?
Bu the way, note the emphasis on the racial reconciliation theme. Does a GOP presidential candidate have much of a chance without some votes from African-American and Latino evangelicals, whose churches are often growing more than those of their white establishment neighbors?
So who is who? As I end, let me point readers toward a CNN commentary that ran under the headline, "The 7 types of evangelicals -- and how they'll affect the presidential race." Daniel Burke notes:
Yes, evangelicals represent a large slice of the electorate, especially in states that vote early in the campaign calendar. In 2012, 57% of people who participated in the Iowa presidential caucuses identified as "born again" or evangelical. This year, evangelicals are again predicted to make up a majority of GOP primary voters in a slew of states that vote by early March.
But evangelicals rarely vote as a bloc, especially in the primaries. They disagree not only on the candidates but also on more basic principles like how active Christians should be in partisan politics.
"The problem is that many secular people think that all evangelicals are alike, when there are multiple streams and theological and generational divides within evangelicalism," said Russell Moore, a leading Southern Baptist.
With the help of experts, we counted seven ways evangelicals approach politics.
Look them over and let us know what you think.
Also, as you read look for places where the divisions are DOCTRINAL, not just political. Remember that LifeWay definition of "evangelical" that has been embraced by the Southern Baptist Convention and the National Association of Evangelicals? It includes:
... four statements to which respondents would strongly agree in order to be categorized as evangelical:
– The Bible is the highest authority for what I believe.
– It is very important for me personally to encourage non-Christians to trust Jesus Christ as their Savior.
– Jesus Christ's death on the cross is the only sacrifice that could remove the penalty of my sin.
– Only those who trust in Jesus Christ alone as their Savior receive God's free gift of eternal salvation.
Complex times. Enjoy the podcast.