Secularists, non-Christians and progressive Christians have long been critics of Religious Right leader Jerry Falwell Jr. But lately Falwell has had to deal with flak from an unexpected source: fellow evangelicals who are angry over his support for President Donald J. Trump and his blend of nationalist and fundamentalist rhetoric.
Falwell, president of the fundamentalist Liberty University that his father founded in Lynchburg, Va., remains one of Trump’s strongest supporters. He recently admitted something Americans United has known for a long time: The Religious Right’s support for Trump is about power, not values.
A recent ThinkProgress story featured an in-depth look at the growing evangelical resistance to Falwell. Recently, for example, the Rev. Jonathan Martin, an evangelical Christian author and speaker, challenged Falwell’s rhetoric by calling for a peaceful protest at the university. As a result, Martin was forcibly removed from Liberty’s campus.
Martin told ThinkProgress that Falwell’s comments to Breitbart, a white nationalist propaganda website, urging evangelicals to vote for more candidates like Trump over “establishment Republicans” was among the inspirations for calling a protest.
Martin and his supporters were also disturbed over Falwell’s complicit response to the white supremacist terrorist attack in Charlottesville, Va., where he praised Trump’s victim-blaming “both sides” comments as “bold” and “truthful.” Martin noted that for many evangelicals like himself, Falwell’s Christian nationalist rhetoric stands in contrast to religious values.
“The language of Christianity cobbled together with nationalism and this new civil religion – ultimately, to me, it’s a new religion,” Martin said. “It so little resembles [Christianity]…I don’t even think it’s a fake version of Christianity at this point.”
In a statement published by the Religion News Service, Falwell defended kicking Martin off Liberty University’s campus, despite admitting that Martin “did not threaten violence” and that he does “not believe he [Martin] is a violent man.” Falwell apparently acted because he thought a call for peaceful protest would only lead to more.
Religious leaders are making it clear that Jerry Falwell Jr. does not represent them.
But the response didn’t silence Falwell’s critics. Six prominent pastors published an open letter criticizing Liberty University’s actions and called for Falwell to allow peaceful protests and debates on his campus.
“As fellow ministers of the gospel of Jesus Christ, we disagree with your celebration of Donald Trump as a ‘dream President’ for evangelicals,” the letter read. “But our disagreement is not about personality; rather, we see the stark divergence in our discernment about politics as a reflection of fundamental differences in how we understand the gospel of Jesus Christ.”
The letter continues: “We contend that the greatest threat to Christianity in the 21st century is that our Lord’s gospel would be confused with the religion of white supremacy. In our estimation, you and others who see the Trump administration as a Redemption movement are contributing to just such a conflation.”
And, as religious leaders are making it clear that Falwell’s views are not representative of Christianity, some Liberty University students are emphasizing that his views do not align with their own.
“When he uses his platform to praise and defend Trump, Falwell makes it seem as though Liberty as an institution agrees with him,” Liberty student Dustin Wahl, who organized an anti-Trump petition, told ThinkProgress. “In reality, most Liberty students have very different priorities than their president.”
ThinkProgress’s piece highlights another problematic aspect of Falwell’s leadership: Liberty faculty and staff are too worried to publicly criticize Falwell because there’s recently been a “clampdown” on free speech, which suggests that Falwell is desperately attempting to suppress views that don’t mimic his own.
But the truth remains that Falwell and the rest of the Religious Right do not represent the majority of Christians, and many clergy members continue fighting for true religious freedom and church-state separation.
If you are a member of the clergy who wants to get involved in protecting true religious freedom, join Faith Leaders United, a theologically diverse network of religious leaders that Americans United formed to ensure that religion is not being used to harm people or take away their rights. Get involved.