Jerry Falwell Jr. endorsed Donald Trump early, before the 2016 Iowa caucus, and in the years since, he’s become one of the president’s most ardent evangelical defenders. The Liberty University president blamed a Republican establishment “conspiracy” for the leak of the Access Hollywood tapes and appeared on CNN to assure viewers that Trump was a “changed man.” He later praised the president’s response to the racist rally in Charlottesville, said Trump wouldn’t need to apologize publicly for any extramarital affairs, and defended family separation at the border as “tough love.” In photographs with the president, Falwell often strikes Trump’s signature thumbs-up pose.
For a Falwell valentine to Trump to make news in 2019, in other words, it has to be something big. And on New Year’s Day, the Washington Post ran an interview with Falwell that delivered. Falwell speculated that it may be immoral for other evangelical leaders to not support Trump. He said the midterm elections somehow proved “the American people are happy with the direction the country is headed.” And he also offered one of the tidiest articulations of the contortions that evangelical Trump supporters have had to make in order to stand by their man:
There’s two kingdoms. There’s the earthly kingdom and the heavenly kingdom. In the heavenly kingdom the responsibility is to treat others as you’d like to be treated. In the earthly kingdom, the responsibility is to choose leaders who will do what’s best for your country. Think about it. Why have Americans been able to do more to help people in need around the world than any other country in history? It’s because of free enterprise, freedom, ingenuity, entrepreneurism and wealth. A poor person never gave anyone a job. A poor person never gave anybody charity, not of any real volume. It’s just common sense to me.
Falwell’s dismissal of the poor was quickly pilloried by critics, some of whom observed that Jesus pointedly praised the small offering of a “poor widow” in contrast to the donations of the rich. Others noted that low-income communities have massive collective purchasing power and that—until recently, anyway—it was their spending that drove the American economy.
Like most of Trump’s evangelical supporters, Falwell has never tried to claim that Trump is a good person. But it’s helpful to see his argument for why that doesn’t matter. The idea of dividing God’s sovereignty into “two kingdoms” comes from the 16th-century reformer Martin Luther, and it generally refers to a kind of separation between church and state: the idea that spiritual righteousness and civil righteousness are two different things, as economist Lyman Stone put it last year in a helpful essay titled “Two Kingdom Theology in the Trump Era.” In more extreme versions, however, the doctrine is used to dismiss the prospect that individual morality is relevant to the ruling of the state. As Falwell put it, “Jesus never told Caesar how to run Rome.” And it’s a “distortion,” he said, to imagine that the country as a whole should love its neighbors and help the poor just because Jesus told individuals to do so. Some interpreters have used the doctrine’s renewed popularity as evidence that Luther paved the way for Trump.
Tyler Huckabee, an editor at Relevant magazine, pointed out that Falwell’s willingness to cleave the personal and the political puts him at odds with his own institution. Liberty University, founded by Falwell’s televangelist father, has a mission statement that promotes “a commitment to the Christian life, one of personal integrity, sensitivity to the needs of others, social responsibility and active communication of the Christian faith.” That’s boilerplate evangelical language, and it implies a kind of natural blending of the spiritual and the political that is hard to square with Falwell’s breezy dismissal of the importance of morality in the public square.
At one point, reporter Joe Heim asked Falwell whether there is anything Trump could do that would endanger his support from Falwell and other evangelical leaders. He answered, simply, “No.” His explanation was a textbook piece of circular reasoning: Trump wants what’s best for the country, therefore anything he does is good for the country. There’s something almost sad about seeing this kind of idolatry articulated so clearly. In a kind of backhanded insult to his supporters, Trump himself once said that he could “stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody” without losing his base. It’s rare to see a prominent supporter essentially admit that this was true.
Correction, Jan. 2, 2019: Due to a production error, the byline for this piece was originally misattributed to Laura Bennett.