In June, on the day Donald Trump met with nearly a thousand conservative religious leaders in New York, Jerry Falwell Jr., the scion of a founding father of the Christian right, proudly tweeted a photograph of himself and his wife Becki flanking the Republican presidential nominee. Taken in the candidate’s Trump Tower office, the photo showed the trio smiling broadly, both men giving a thumbs up, intending to promote, in Falwell’s words, Trump’s “incredible job” that day laying out an agenda palatable to the Christian right. But despite Falwell’s PR effort, the photograph contained one small flaw that triggered an instant eruption of ridicule: to the immediate left of Becki Falwell’s head was a framed cover of Playboy magazine, featuring a much younger Trump with a smug grin, hands in his tux pockets, and a half-clothed woman, her ass pressed into his leg, smiling mischievously at him over her shoulder.
To anyone who has followed the trajectory of the religious right from its founding in the late 1970s through the age of Trump, the image was a near perfect encapsulation of the bafflement, frustration and dismay that has roiled the evangelical world since Falwell Jr. endorsed Trump in January, just before the Iowa caucuses. That March 1990 issue of Playboy (in which Trump presaged a future presidential run) appeared on newsstands a little over a decade after Falwell’s father, the late Jerry Falwell Sr., founder of the Moral Majority, played a key role in transforming Republican politics by turning white conservative evangelicals and Catholics — voters opposed to, among other secular sins, pornography — into the party’s most dependable voting bloc.
In the 2016 Republican primary, Falwell Jr., the president of the evangelical Liberty University, had a choice of 16 other candidates, including several with impeccable records on the religious right’s core issues of opposing abortion and LGBT rights. Every one of them was more rehearsed in public displays of piety and biblical literacy than Trump. By contrast, Trump, who says he’s a Presbyterian but has not recently belonged to any church, Presbyterian or otherwise, stumbles over Bible verses and even describing basic tenets of Christianity. One of his most notable gaffes was his August 2015 statement that he has never asked God for forgiveness — something many evangelicals have apparently either forgotten or forgiven.
Falwell’s decision to endorse Trump, not as the only man standing at the end of the primary process, but as the best man for the job before a single vote was cast, was seen by many as besmirching his father’s legacy. There was “anger, frustration, bewilderment,” says one evangelical activist who opposes Trump. “You’d hear comments like, ‘If we see the Trump school of business open at Liberty University, we’ll know why this happened.'”
The endorsement was a clear setback to the other contenders, particularly Ted Cruz, whose campaign had expected evangelical support after the Texas senator chose to announce his presidential candidacy with a sermonizing speech at Liberty last year. Sarah Erdos, the director of faith grassroots outreach for Cruz’s campaign, says Falwell’s decision to back Trump was “disheartening.”
Falwell denies that Trump has ever given, or promised to give, money to Liberty University. He says he fielded one call from Cruz’s father Rafael, a fiery pastor whom Trump would later baselessly suggest abetted the John F. Kennedy assassination, about an endorsement, but settled on Trump. Falwell insists that he, and not Trump-skeptical religious right leaders, had his finger on the pulse of grassroots evangelicals. Indeed, in many evangelical-heavy state primaries, Trump won a majority or plurality of white evangelicals, according to exit polling data.
Along the way, though, Falwell’s endorsement wreaked havoc in the evangelical world by pitting evangelical allies against each other in bitter and unusually public ways. Mark DeMoss, a Liberty alumnus who was Falwell’s father’s chief of staff, and later an advisor to Mitt Romney’s 2008 and 2012 presidential campaigns, was asked to step down from the executive committee of Liberty’s board after criticizing Falwell’s Trump endorsement to a Washington Post reporter.
DeMoss, a respected public relations executive specializing in evangelical causes, tells Rolling Stone, “instead of Jerry Falwell and I simply saying publicly, ‘This is one we disagree on,’ it got very personal and ugly. Some of the reaction, quite frankly, felt to me very Trumpian, the way the Trump campaign treated people, Trump’s campaign supporters treat people.”
But Falwell defended his decision — and Trump himself. “I think a lot of those folks are really opposed to Trump because of other reasons,” he says. “I think they are probably more liberal than they admit on the issues, some of them. And I think they use his personality, or what he said about this person or that person, as a reason not to support him.” Calling politics a “blood sport,” Falwell likens the process to playing a football game or fighting a war, in which “you’re not supposed to turn the other cheek. You’re at war.” He adds that many evangelicals, like he does, see how “personable” Trump is “and how generous he’s been to a lot of people in his personal life. I think that’s what makes somebody a good Christian.”
DeMoss has no patience, though, for Falwell’s claim that his father’s endorsement of the divorced Ronald Reagan over Baptist Sunday school teacher Jimmy Carter in the 1980 election, and of George H.W. Bush over Christian right activist Pat Robertson in 1988, is evidence that the supposedly obvious evangelical candidate isn’t always the best choice. “Oh, please,” says DeMoss. “Both Reagan and Bush in my opinion exhibited more character and integrity and certainly civility than does Donald Trump.”
DeMoss isn’t the only mainstream evangelical Republican to publicly castigate his Trump-supporting brethren. Michael Gerson, the former George W. Bush speechwriter, has used his nationally syndicated column to pen scathing indictments of Trump and his evangelical supporters. In one, Gerson even used a biblical analogy to argue that evangelical supporters of Trump will be stigmatized by God. “In legitimizing the presumptive Republican nominee, evangelicals are not merely accepting who he is; they are changing who they are,” Gerson wrote. “Trumpism, at its root, involves contempt for, and fear of, outsiders — refugees, undesirable migrants, Muslims, etc. By associating with this movement, evangelicals will bear, if not the mark of Cain, at least the mark of Trump.”
Falwell, though, insists his evangelical critics haven’t read their Bibles. “I think they just need to read the teachings of Jesus more closely and stop trying to apply the teachings Jesus meant for personal every day life to the government,” he says. Falwell, the president of the leading evangelical university, takes his biblical argument further, offering an odd analogy: “I don’t think Jesus would have said, back when he was alive, to his disciples, ‘Only vote for the Roman emperor who is one of my followers.'”
At the June meeting in New York, Falwell introduced Trump, pronouncing him “God’s man to lead our great nation at this crucial crossroads in our history.” But for many evangelicals, that meeting, at which Trump pandered to the group by promising to repeal the IRS rule prohibiting use of tax-exempt church resources to endorse political candidates, and to stack the Supreme Court with anti-abortion justices, was nothing more than an embarrassing charade. Michael Farris, a leading figure in the Christian homeschooling movement who worked with the elder Falwell in the Moral Majority, wrote in a widely circulated op-ed that the gathering “marks the end of the Christian Right.”
“I’ve been a part of political groups of evangelical leaders who’ve screened presidential candidates for decades,” says Farris, who also founded Patrick Henry College, an evangelical school in Purcellville, Virginia, known for funneling students into internships and staff positions in the George W. Bush White House. But, he tells Rolling Stone, “I won’t do it anymore.”
Indeed the aftermath of the meeting was marred by a comedy of errors, sparked by Michael Anthony, a Pennsylvania pastor who attended the meeting and recorded a brief interview with religious right icon James Dobson, founder of Focus on the Family. Dobson told Anthony he had heard that Trump “did accept a relationship with Christ, I know the person who led him to Christ.” It was fairly recent, Dobson added, “and I believe he really made a commitment, but he’s a baby Christian, we all need to be praying for him.” Dobson acknowledged, though, that Trump “doesn’t know our language,” noting that he “said hell four or five times” during the meeting with religious leaders.
Falwell made similar excuses for Trump’s language and failure to address issues in rhetoric that would roll off the tongue of anyone steeped in evangelical culture: talking about alleged infringements on religious freedom for opposing same-sex marriage, about one’s policy proposals for “protecting the unborn,” that “life begins at conception,” or about how one’s “biblical worldview” will help restore the country to its lost “Judeo-Christian values.” Trump has called for the reversal of the 2015 Supreme Court decision legalizing same-sex marriage, and belatedly criticized this term’s decision striking down portions of a restrictive Texas abortion law, but hardly made either issue a centerpiece of his campaign.
“There’s sort of a cultural divide between New York City, and how Christians there express their faith, and evangelicals in this part of the country that sometimes I think it took Mr. Trump a while to understand,” Falwell says. “So I think that some of the misunderstandings throughout the campaign have been because of that cultural divide more than anything else.”
After Anthony’s interview with Dobson went viral — to much chortling about the term “baby Christian” — Dobson issued a statement that “Trump appears to be tender to things of the Spirit,” but that he did not know for sure whether the pastor he referred to, Paula White, had actually converted Trump. White, a long-time friend of Trump whose own televangelism career has been marred by scandal, later told the Christian Post, “I can tell you with confidence that I have heard Mr. Trump verbally acknowledge his faith in Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of his sins through prayer, and I absolutely believe he is a Christian who is growing like the rest of us.” (White did not respond to interview requests from Rolling Stone.)
Falwell now almost seems to relish how Trump undermined the religious right leadership, much like Trump’s supporters generally delight in how he has upended the GOP. “I don’t think it matters what the evangelical ‘leadership’ says or does,” Falwell tells Rolling Stone. “I think that’s just the leadership trying to tell the people what to look for in a president. I think the people are smarter than that, and I think they’ve figured out you can’t trust career politicians.” As for Trump saying “things that are offensive,” Falwell adds, “this is not a race for the pastor-in-chief, it’s the commander-in-chief. I think it’s obvious to the vast majority of rank-and-file Christian voters.”
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