When asked about Donald Trump, Pope Francis said no one who builds walls instead of bridges is a Christian, and Jerry Falwell Jr. came to the defense of his man Donald, criticized the pontiff because he “judged others.” Jerry Jr. went as far as to compare Trump to Jesus, who “called the religious elite of his day hypocrites, a generation of vipers, and he called them wolves in sheep’s clothing.” Falwell said that “if what Donald Trump said is bad, then also what Jesus said is bad…”
It isn’t the first time. When he endorsed Donald Trump for the presidential nomination, Jr. said of the playboy millionaire, “In my opinion, Donald Trump lives a life of loving and helping others as Jesus taught in the great commandment.” These statements indicate that Jr. is delusional. Or not. He could be pandering to religious conservatives just as cynically as the Donald is.
Many people affiliated with the conservative Evangelical university are not happy with the endorsement. Students protested, and a group of alums posted a letter asking Falwell if Trump was slipping him cash. “We ask because,” the alums write, “if you were willing to tarnish yours and Liberty’s reputation, we hope at least the school received some of Trump’s (father’s) cash in return.”
Others call up the memory of Jerry Falwell Sr. to shame Jr. for the Trump endorsement. John Stemberger, president of the Florida Family Policy Council, said, “The late Dr. Jerry Falwell Sr. would be rolling over in his grave if he knew the son who bore his name had endorsed the most immoral and ungodly man to ever run for president of the United States.” However, if they turn the light toward Jerry Sr., they might get a glimpse of the real reason for this endorsement, the one veiled in a risible comparison of Trump to Jesus.
Jr. was not lying when he said in a December Fox New interview, “Trump reminds me so much of my father.” Here is where, as far as I can tell, the alums who are worried about Jerry Jr.’s spoiling Liberty University’s reputation are speaking from a place of historical ignorance.
People around Lynchburg lauded Jonathan Falwell –the younger brother who inherited Jerry Sr.’s church when Jerry Jr. inherited the presidency and chancellorship of LU—for issuing a statement that he would not endorse a political candidate. In his statement, Jonathan still stressed that the US needs a “return to righteousness.” Cruz must be his man.
The words return to righteousness get to the heart of the issue. What time period are they longing for? When was this nation righteous again? Their hero Ronald Reagan was fond of calling up a vision of that righteous America:
[Alexis de Tocqueville] wrote a book called Democracy in America. And there’s one line in that that, I guess, has been quoted more than any author has ever had a line quoted. Because he said that he had searched for the greatness of America when he was here… He said it wasn’t until he went into the churches of America that he found the answer: pulpits aflame with righteousness. And he said, ‘America is great because America is good. And if America ever stops being good, America will stop being great.
What does the term America’s goodness even mean in this context? Even though de Tocqueville did not pen these words about America’s goodness and her greatness, what good and great America did he tour? Democracy in America was published in two volumes around the 1840s—a time when two and a half million human beings were being systematically brutalized and exploited in forced labor camps called plantations for profit in the United States of America. Countless other human beings were being chased off their land or exterminated to clear land for more forced labor camps. Is this the good and great America for which they pine?
A more standard time they harken to is the 1950s, when America was strong and righteous. With the end of the 1950s, good America came under attack, an attack that became fevered in the 60s. Jerry Sr. actively fought against the decline of his ideal America. He started his church in 1956 with the disgruntled members of another church. Black human beings, Christian or not, were not allowed inside. In 1958, he preached “Segregation or Integration, Which?” and it was “entirely devoted to defending racial segregation, citing Genesis 9:18-27, Noah’s curse on Ham, as its biblical basis.”
In the sermon, he preached, “If Chief Justice Warren and his associates had known God’s word and had desired to do the Lord’s will, I am quite confident that the 1954 decision would never have been made.” He said, “When God has drawn a line of distinction, we should not attempt to cross that line.” Further, he said, “The true Negro does not want integration…. He realizes his potential is far better among his own race.” He warned that integration “will destroy our race eventually. In one northern city,” he continued, to shock his white congregation, “a pastor friend of mine tells me that a couple of opposite race live next door to his church as man and wife.” His fat preacher voice boomed out that the 1964 Civil Rights Act was, in reality, “civil wrongs.”
Jerry Falwell Sr. was an outspoken opponent of racial integration, and vocally supported the Governor of Virginia as he attempted “Massive Resistance” to school desegregation by closing down whole school districts. Jerry Sr. was the first chaplain of the group formed to resist integration in Lynchburg, and offered the closing prayer after one school superintendent gave a speech encouraging opposition to integration in the name of states’ rights. J. Edgar Hoover produced anti-King literature. Jerry Sr. helped distribute it. In a sermon entitled “Ministers and Marchers” Jerry Sr. impugned,
the sincerity and nonviolent intentions of some civil rights leaders, such as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Mr. James Farmer, and others, who are known to have left-wing associations. It is very obvious that the Communists, as they do in all parts of the world, are taking advantage of a tense situation in our land, and are exploiting every incident to bring about violence and bloodshed.
When the white supremacist George Wallace backed down from his stand against desegregation in the doorway of the University of Alabama in 1963, where he had vowed to keep two black students out, he resumed the struggle under the banner of resistance to a huge, tax-and-spend government that infringed on states’ rights. Falwell Sr. followed Wallace into the struggle for small government and states’ rights. He continued to rail against the civil rights movement, now in terms of outsider interference, saying that he would not be “bullied and attacked by white Northern demonstrators” who “demand we follow their dictates.”
In 1985, Jerry Sr. traveled to South Africa and schmoozed with its white supremacist government leaders who were under increasing international pressure to end apartheid. Upon his return, Jerry Sr. praised the white supremacists, and, just as he had tried to undermine Martin Luther King Jr.’s work for racial justice, he publically sneered at the black 1984 Nobel Peace Prize winner Desmond Tutu. An Anglican bishop, Tutu was a leader in the movement for racial justice in South Africa. Jerry Sr. said, ”If Bishop Tutu maintains that he speaks for the black people of South Africa, he’s a phony.” He went on to urge his followers to support the white government by buying South African gold coins and investing in companies that operate there. He spoke out publically against freeing Nelson Mandela from prison.
People are quick to point out that Jerry Sr. “repented” of his racist past, as if that makes it all disappear and anyone who brings it up is out of bounds.
First, Jerry’s racism was not the benign patronizing racism of the southern gentleman, the kind we now know even Atticus Finch harbored. Jerry was an activist in the fight against civil rights with venom on his tongue. Second, he never gave up the fight, just carried it out in a more clandestine way, at least as far as black people in America were concerned. His was a tribal struggle all along; Liberty University did not lose that when he died any more than you could immediately reverse the course of a ship steaming hell-bent in one direction.
One commenter on the Lynchburg News & Advance article about Jerry Jr.’s endorsement of Trump writes, “Your dad would be ashamed of you!” She is wrong, just as the alumni who say he is ruining the reputation of Liberty University are wrong. Jerry Jr. is supporting Trump for the same reasons white nationalist Richard Spencer is. According to Spencer, “Trump, on a gut level, kind of senses that this is about demographics, ultimately. We’re moving into a new America…” and Trump understands the “unconscious vision that white people have—that their grandchildren might be a hated minority in their own country. I think that scares us.”
This might characterize the majority of students and professors at Liberty University and it might not. It is a fact though that Neo-Confederate arguments are still being promulgated in their history department. In a short video documentary posted on Vimeo in 2013 called The Enduring Legacy of the Civil War, Liberty University history professors link the fight against same-sex marriage to the southern fight against abolition—both characterized as the good Christian fight for state’s rights against the evil encroachments of an overreaching federal government. LU Professor Dr. Carey Roberts for instance, in discussing the cause of the Civil War, has this to say:
What we saw happening from the 1820s to the 1830s and 40s is that one particular section of Americans, largely in New England, through various religious movements and activities really, really pitched a war against tolerance. And as a result of that—the breakdown of toleration, tolerating those things you dislike—Americans eventually start killing each other.
The result of all that killing in the Civil War? According to LU Professor Chris Jones, the Civil War was the beginning of the federal government’s usurping of the states’ rightful powers, and as a result, “We have all of us, us U.S. citizens that live in the United States, have increasingly become slaves so to speak…”
This is what Jerry Jr. is talking about when he uses terms like small government and religious freedom. Let’s stop pretending this is something other than what it is. He might not be doing it with the same panache and charisma as his dad, but he is, in reality, doing precisely what Jerry Sr. would do. He is protecting the territory of the rich white man from the encroachment of people with brown skin.