Revelations regarding Donald Trump’s unsavory and possibly illegal behavior toward women have been painful for a lot of Republicans who earlier swallowed their misgivings about the mogul and strapped on the party harness on his behalf. But they’ve been especially difficult for conservative Evangelicals who had reason to view his leering and groping and boasting as a reflection of everything they viewed as sinful in secular society, and as illustrative of Trump’s own heathenish and narcissist worldview.
As the flagship Evangelical publication Christianity Today put it in a remarkable editorial earlier this week:
[T]here is hardly any public person in America today who has more exemplified the “earthly nature” (“flesh” in the King James and the literal Greek) that Paul urges the Colossians to shed: “sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires, and greed, which is idolatry” (3:5). This is an incredibly apt summary of Trump’s life to date.
And so the vast majority of Christian-right leaders who have (like their flocks, according to the polls), with varying degrees of enthusiasm, made their peace with Trump are in something of a defensive crouch. And the most prominent among them, Liberty University president Jerry Falwell Jr., is facing a revolt from a sizable number of people at his own school.
A group calling itself Liberty United Against Trump has released a statement (signed by 250 Liberty students, faculty, and alumni) excoriating its president for associating the school with “one of the worst presidential candidates in American history.” Deploying the biblical parable of the beam and the mote, the group suggested that conservative Evangelicals like Falwell who justified support for Trump by pointing to Hillary Clinton’s flaws or ideological positions were betraying their primary responsibility to steer clear of a politician “who is actively promoting the very things that we as Christians ought to oppose.”
And here’s the most stinging rebuke to Liberty’s president:
While he occasionally clarifies that supporting Trump is not the official position of Liberty University, he knows it is his title of president of the largest Christian university in the world that gives him political credentials.
The not-so-subtle implication is that Falwell has joined the Trump train in borrowed clothes: those of his school, which has indeed displaced older Evangelical bastions like Wheaton and Bob Jones as the Notre Dame of fundamentalist Protestantism, and of his late father, the Moral Majority founder who made Liberty the academic and cultural powerhouse it has now become.
There’s no question Liberty has become the symbol of conservative Evangelical involvement in politics, partly because of its Falwell leadership, and partly because its regular “convocations” provide a convenient megaphone for pols seeking to send a message to Evangelicals far beyond Lynchburg. Liberty is where Mitt Romney made his case in 2012 that he was a reliable ally of the Christian right both despite and because of his own LDS faith. Ted Cruz launched his 2016 campaign at Liberty. When Bernie Sanders wanted to demonstrate his willingness to reach out beyond his own fervent band of supporters, he spoke at Liberty. Gary Johnson is going to be there next week. And just yesterday, Trump’s running mate, Mike Pence, spoke at Liberty defending the Boss, to a decidedly lukewarm reception. He was, of course, introduced by Falwell.
It is unclear whether there’s a genuine conservative Evangelical revolt under way against Trump that extends beyond elites and such high-profile but not necessarily representative protests as the one at Liberty. But whether or not it is manifested in any serious loss of Republican votes, there is a new attitude among Evangelicals becoming evident that is a long-term threat to the Christian-right movement Jerry Falwell Sr. did so much to create. As the Liberty protesters put it: “Associating any politician with Christianity is damaging to the Gospel of Jesus Christ.” That statement would have been rank heresy in the days when conservative Evangelicals were lining up to back Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush. Thanks to Donald Trump, we are beginning to hear it a lot.