Nearly four decades after his father founded the Moral Majority, Jerry Falwell Jr. is presiding over the biggest crisis the modern evangelical coalition has ever had to face.
With his endorsement of Donald J. Trump for president on Tuesday, the younger Mr. Falwell has dismayed his fellow conservative evangelicals and baffled many others, who think it’s counterintuitive that Mr. Falwell would endorse this thrice-married reality television star.
Mr. Falwell is the president of his father’s Liberty University, seen by some as the official voice of evangelicalism. Does this mean the whole movement will follow — or at least most of it?
The answer is no, and the reason is that while the Rev. Jerry Falwell Sr. was long the face of the religious right — the go-to guy for reporters, the talking head on Americans’ television screens — his son has never played that role, even within evangelicalism. Mr. Falwell is influential, certainly, but today no one can lay claim to such a monolithic status. Even his own constituents, graduates of Liberty University, have questioned his judgment in endorsing Mr. Trump. The Trump endorsement demonstrates just how fractured evangelicals have become in this presidential contest, and how none of the candidates can count on a single leader to unite the evangelical vote behind him.
Over the decades since the elder Falwell helped start the modern religious right, politicized evangelicalism has expanded beyond a handful of organizations, producing a multitude of spokesmen, among them pastors, activists, televangelists, authors and opportunists. It’s now almost impossible to be the singular face of 21st-century evangelicalism. The movement still wields significant power, particularly in Republican politics, but the dalliance with Mr. Trump threatens to undermine its unity.
Evangelical leaders have spent decades demanding that presidential candidates pledge to govern a “Christian nation” by fusing conservative Christianity and government, producing obedient foot soldiers like Mike Huckabee, Rick Santorum, Rick Perry and Michele Bachmann, none of whom managed to emerge as a real presidential contender.
One 2016 candidate, Ted Cruz, is competing for that mantle, but continues to struggle to keep up with Mr. Trump. Another, Marco Rubio, represents a dissenting movement within the religious right, one that strives to produce a candidate who eschews harsh culture-war rhetoric while maintaining staunch opposition to abortion and same-sex marriage. Mr. Rubio is trailing both Mr. Trump and Mr. Cruz — a sign that perhaps voters are not quite ready to follow the lead of some evangelical elites who see the senator from Florida as their top choice.
A good segment of evangelical voters appear to have blithely abandoned both the Christian-nation candidacy of Mr. Cruz and the kinder, gentler social conservatism of Mr. Rubio in favor of Mr. Trump, who is unabashedly ignorant of the biblical imperatives that form the foundation of evangelical culture and politics. That Mr. Trump is a Presbyterian and not evangelical is not the issue. It’s that he doesn’t pretend to understand evangelicalism, or even his own mainline Protestantism, failures that would have been, in recent elections, disqualifiers for evangelical Republican voters.
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