It could not have come at a worse time. President Donald Trump has promoted himself as the ultimate protector of American Christianity — against the subversive invasion of Muslims, against the equally subversive threat of atheism, against the destructive forces of secularism. According to recent polls, almost 60% of evangelicals still support Trump, no matter what.
Trump owes his popularity among evangelicals to a large extent to the fervent endorsement he has received from evangelical leaders such as Jerry Falwell Jr. Falwell is the heir to his father’s evangelical empire that includes Liberty University in Virginia, a fundamentalist school which, among other things, explicitly forbids sexual relations “outside of a biblically-ordained marriage between a natural-born man and a natural-born woman.”
Evangelical Blues, or How Supporting Trump Discredits Christianity
Apparently, the ordinance applies only to students, not to the university’s president. As has recently been reported by several reliable news outlets, Jerry Falwell Jr.’s wife entertained an extra-marital sexual relationship for several years with a former pool boy, apparently with full knowledge and endorsement by her husband, who reportedly indulged in watching the pair have sex.
Falwell has finally agreed to resign from the presidency of the university. But as a good Christian, he still expects to get more than a $10-million severance package for services rendered, such as severely tarnishing the reputation of Liberty University.
Evangelicals justify their support for Donald Trump by charging that they have increasingly become the target of ridicule and derision, their faith dragged through the mud, their values mocked and derided. Over the past several decades, American evangelicals have increasingly seen themselves as a beleaguered, even persecuted minority, threatened with cultural extinction.
There are good reasons for both why evangelicals become the target of mockery and derision and why they feel persecuted and oppressed. Take the question of evolution, one of the defining issues in what came to be known as the culture wars of the last decades of the 20th century. According to a Gallup poll, in 2017, almost four out of 10 American adults said they believed that God created humans at some point during the past 10,000 years or so (aka Young Earth Creationism).
This in itself is a remarkable finding, which makes most Europeans shake their heads in disbelief. One would think evangelicals relish these numbers. Yet the opposite is the case, and for good reason. The 2017 findings marked the lowest point in the belief in creationism since the early 1980s when Gallup first posed the question.
For evangelicals, this is just one more piece of evidence for the creeping advance of secular humanism, which they believe is destroying the very fabric of American society. In fact, when evangelicals look around, they have a strong sense that they are in the wrong movie. In a recent Pew poll, 55% of evangelicals supported the view that homosexuality should be discouraged. At the same time, the American Supreme Court ruled that same-sex couples had a fundamental right to marry. Almost two-thirds of evangelicals believe that abortion should be illegal in all or most cases. At the same time, the vast majority of Americans agree that Roe v Wade, the Supreme Court case that established the legality of abortion in the United States, should be upheld, albeit modified. Each of these cases, and others, such as the question of school prayer, have increased the sense of alienation many evangelicals feel with regard to the direction American society has taken over the past several decades.
Once considered the mainstay of American society, evangelicals have increasingly been pushed to the margins, as reflected in a recent survey by the Christian pollster Barna. In 2016, Barna found that a growing number of Americans associated Christianity with extremism. For instance, more than 80% percent of respondents thought that refusing to serve somebody because their lifestyle conflicted with their belief — such as the case of a bakery refusing to provide a wedding cake to a gay couple — constituted extremism.
More than 50% considered it extremist to demonstrate outside of an organization — such as Planned Parenthood, which provides abortions among a range of services — they consider immoral. Even trying to spread the Gospel and convert non-believers was considered an act of extremism.
To make matters even worse, recent polls found that young evangelicals had apparently been infected with the “liberal bug.” In 2017, in a Pew poll, millennial evangelicals showed considerable support for a stronger state and more public services as well as agreeing with the notion that government aid did more good than harm. To top it off, a slim majority thought that homosexuality should be accepted by society.
Even at Liberty University, young evangelicals have started to realize that life today is more complex and challenging than a simplistic view of reality based on a book composed a long time ago might allow for. And with COVID-19, there is no doubt that support for a strong state is going to increase even more, among the general public and among evangelicals alike.
The Ultimate Huckster
Under the circumstances, the public scandal surrounding the former president of Liberty University is even more devastating for a community that already feels under siege. His behavior cannot but confirm the impression, created by numerous cases in the past, that those who constantly wear their Christianity on their sleeve are nothing but a bunch of self-righteous hypocrites who consider themselves exempt from the strict rules they impose on others. It certainly reaffirms the impression that televangelists are modern-day snake oil salesmen, grifters and hucksters taking advantage of the naiveté of their victims.
Some readers might still remember Jim and Tammy Bakker, of “Praise the Lord,” who transformed televangelism into the high art of getting their followers to support their opulent life style. Or Jimmy Swaggart, who managed to have himself caught more than once in the company of a prostitute. Ironically enough, this did not prevent him from broadcasting his message from a place called Family Worship Center.
Swaggart and the Bakkers have found a worthy successor in the evangelical game of duping the rubes — Becki Falwell. According to The New York Times, Jerry Falwell Jr.’s wife served on the advisory board of Women for Trump, where she promoted — you would struggle to make this up — family values.
And yet, Jimmy Swaggart is still out there, polluting the airwaves. No doubt, Jerry Falwell Jr. will publicly atone for his transgressions, asking his loyal followers (and Jesus) to forgive and reinstall him as one of the guiding lights of American Christianity, while at the same time enjoying his millions in compensation. No wonder a large majority of evangelicals will vote for Trump in November.
Blatant hypocrisy and outright depravity have never prevented evangelicals from doing what is right in the eyes of the Lord: voting for a man who is proud to grab any woman he desires as long as he pays lip service to protecting America’s most oppressed and persecuted minority. He is the ultimate huckster, much better than Swaggart, Falwell Jr. and all the others. After all, Trump has perfected the art of the deal — a great deal for him and his toadies, a raw deal for the rest of America.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.