Making America Great Again?

If you haven’t heard, Donald J. Trump is a Republican candidate for president. And in the run-up to today’s Iowa Caucuses (which may give his candidacy a big boost) he secured the official and unofficial endorsements of two well-known Evangelical Christians, Jerry Falwell, Jr. and Robert Jeffress, respectively.

A thrice-married casino, real-estate mogul, and reality TV star who flouts private property rights, whose third bride posed nude, and who once joked about dating his own daughter, Trump claims to be the person best suited to “make America great again.” He even wears a baseball cap with those words on it to prove it.

Falwell, Jr. is the President of Liberty University, founded in 1971 by his late father, the evangelist Jerry Falwell, Sr. After years of struggling financially, the university hit the jackpot when it began offering online courses and degrees. According to a July 15, 2015 Washington Post story, “Fifteen years ago, Liberty had 5,939 undergraduate students and 735 graduate students. Last fall, the university enrolled 49,744 undergraduates and 31,715 graduate students.”

Virtually all of these students (“three-quarters of undergraduates and 97 percent of graduate students,” the Post notes) are taking courses through distance education. Although an Evangelical school known for its theological and political conservatism, “the exponential growth of Liberty University has been fueled by billions in federal student aid made possible by President Obama and congressional Democrats.”

[Author’s Note: I asked the editor to remove a paragraph at this point from the original version of this essay. I made an error in my depiction of the relationship of Liberty University to the federal student loan program. It was not my intent to disparage the many fine faculty, including several friends of mine, who teach at LU.]

In the 1980s, the elder Falwell filed a lawsuit against Hustler Magazine and its founder and owner, the pornographer Larry Flynt, “to recover damages for libel, invasion of privacy, and intentional infliction of emotional distress.” What precipitated the suit was a parody interview of Falwell, Sr. published in Hustler, in which the faux-Falwell tells the story of his “first time”: in an outhouse with his own mother while both were inebriated. Although Falwell eventually lost the suit in an appeal heard before the U.S. Supreme Court, he and Flynt soon became friends, which is a testimony to the late Falwell’s spirit of generosity and his willingness to show love to those whose ways of life are contrary to Christian practice.

Trump points to Falwell Jr. (center): A sucker is born-again every minute.
Trump points to Falwell Jr. (center): A sucker is born-again every minute.

I suspect that Falwell, Sr. would have still filed the suit if Hustler had published a mock interview in which the late Liberty president was depicted wearing a “Make America Great Again” baseball cap while insinuating that he is a thrice-married casino, real-estate mogul, and reality TV star who flouts private property rights, whose third bride posed nude, and who once joked about dating his own daughter.

Robert Jeffress is the pastor of First Baptist Dallas, a megachurch with a membership of 12,000. Although he endorsed Mitt Romney for president after the former Massachusetts governor had secured the 2012 Republican nomination, in 2011 he supported the candidacy of Texas governor Rick Perry, offering these memorable words in commendation: “Do we want a candidate who is a good, moral person – or one who is a born-again follower of the lord Jesus Christ?” For those keeping score, Romney was the “good, moral person” while Perry was the “born-again follower.” One wonders what was going through Perry’s mind when he heard Pastor Jeffress describe him in contrast to “a good, moral person.”

Having settled for endorsing the “good, moral person” in the 2012 general election and coming up short, Pastor Jeffress has apparently concluded that his political fortune may now lie in a candidate who not only makes no pretense of being a “good, moral person,” but exceeds Triumph the Insult Comic Dog in the sheer volume of personal slurs issued against his critics – or even against those who simply question him. This should leave us with no doubt that Pastor Jeffress must be a man of tremendous faith, since he believes that this candidate will “make America great again.”

Trump has tapped into an anger that is very real in America. It arises from a frustration that our elected officials have largely abandoned the working class for the adulation of corporate America and elite culture. Thus, it is unsurprising that Trump on his website offers positions on only five issues: U.S. China Trade Reform, Veterans Administration Reforms, Tax Reform, Second Amendment Rights, and Immigration Reform. If you wanted to cast as wide a net as possible to capture the hearts and minds of the working class, Trump’s list is a stroke of marketing genius.

This explains the support of Falwell and Jeffress, both of whom have seemed to set aside their critical faculties in their assessment of Trump. For these are men who – reared on the cadence emanating from those old sawdust revivals – are suckers for good preaching that can move the pilgrim from his mercy seat.

And Trump is a damn good preacher. So much so that many evangelicals don’t seem to notice the un-Christian personal insults, slurs, arrogance, mendacity, and incoherence. Which just goes to show you that not only is a sucker born every minute; sometimes he’s born again.

Trump with supporters
Trump with supporters

Francis J. Beckwith is Professor of Philosophy & Church-State Studies, Baylor University, and 2016-17 Visiting Professor of Conservative Thought and Policy at the University of Colorado, Boulder. Among his many books is Taking Rites Seriously: Law, Politics, and the Reasonableness of Faith (Cambridge University Press, 2015).