Jerry Falwell Jr.’s Trumpian Theology
Like many Christians, I read Jerry Falwell, Jr’s New Year’s Day interview with the Washington Post with both my mouth open and my heart racing. “He can’t be saying what I’m reading!” I thought. As I kept working through the interview, I realized that Falwell, the president of Liberty University—the second largest Christian university in the world with over 100,000 students—meant exactly what he was saying. Falwell wasn’t just dabbling in politics on a personal level. He was making a full-throated theological case for why the church in America should get behind President Trump.
Specifically, Falwell said that he can’t imagine President Trump doing anything that is not good for this country, that it might be immoral for Christians not to support him, that the poor never gave anyone a job or produce charity of any real volume, and that it is a mistake to impute the personal teachings of Jesus toward toward a nation-state.
As eyebrow raising as all of that was, what grabbed my attention most was Falwell’s assertion that
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.
What this means, theologically speaking, is that Falwell has grabbed hold of a version of Martin Luther’s Two Kingdoms Doctrine from the Protestant Reformation. But he has done so—how to put this charitably?—somewhat clumsily.
Lyman Stone, writing for First Things, has an excellent description of Luther’s influential Two Kingdoms Doctrine, which drew upon Augustine’s City of God/City of Man. In turn, it gave rise to our understanding of the Doctrine of Vocation, and led to the development of the concept of Separation of Church and State. Used correctly, Two Kingdoms Doctrine helps us understand the differences between the Kingdom of God and the temporal state.
This dichotomy puts the axe to the root of notions about theocracy because it establishes that the state can never fully represent God’s Kingdom on earth. After a multitude of abuses of the medieval Roman Catholic Church’s alignment with monarchies and earthly kingdoms, Luther’s emphasis on spiritual freedom and responsibility to Christ being separate from the earthly responsibilities of the state and society were welcomed during the Reformation.
However, Luther’s teachings were misunderstood by many. Instead of those belonging to Christ being free to prophetically critique the state (while also being subject to its authority) many took this Two Kingdoms Doctrine of the separation of eternal and temporal estates to mean that the church had nothing at all to say to the state—except to submit to it and to support it in its earthly duties. As Stone says,
Luther was one of the few major Lutheran church leaders until the twentieth century to see that condemning the immorality of the state was part of his vocation. For centuries, Lutheran pastors in Europe reminded people to remain subject to their sovereigns, yet too rarely reminded sovereigns of the burden on them to care for their subjects.
. . . The church had become little more than a cog in the bureaucratic machine. Luther’s heirs, far from exemplifying the doctrine of separate and thriving estates, had, for all practical purposes, subordinated the Gospel of God to the laws of man.
By the twentieth century, nothing remained in the European Lutheran churches of the ancient prophetic voice preaching repentance to rulers. In a classic case of too little, too late, a few Lutheran heroes, such as Dietrich Bonhoeffer, could not make up for the wider Lutheran response to the threat of Nazism—which ranged from outright exuberance to strategic collaboration to vague neutrality.
This is where Falwell likewise stumbles into confusion. Falwell forgets the prophetic mandate of the church to the world that Jesus illustrates in his “salt and light” analogy in Matthew 5:13-16 when he says to his disciples,
13 “You are the salt of the earth, but if salt has lost its taste, how shall its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything except to be thrown out and trampled under people’s feet.
14 “You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. 15 Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. 16 In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.
The function of salt is to season and preserve. The function of light is to illuminate. The church is to speak prophetically to the earthly powers about the character of God and what the Scriptures say.
It does this not to dominate the earthly world, or to create a theocracy, but to witness to the realities of what we believe is the better way of Jesus. Witnessing the realities of the Kingdom of God is not just about how to be to be forgiven of sin and how to become a Christian through faith in Jesus. It also involves proclaiming and demonstrating to every facet of human life and society, including the political sphere, the ways that Jesus calls us to live.
Care and concern for the poor, the vulnerable, the needy, hungry, orphan, widow, and sojourner are all aspects of Jesus’s teachings that the church is to witness to the larger world.
So are truths about marriage, family, money, and many other things. These aren’t just individual acts of charity or morality, but dispositions and prophetic signposts that the church, as ambassadors of Christ (2 Corinthians 5:20), are supposed to witness to the larger world. When we forgive, love our enemies, establish justice, love mercy, and love our neighbors—including the vulnerable, the poor, and the sojourners—we are testifying to a narrow path and a better way. We are to proclaim and demonstrate the things that God values and declares are good, true, and beautiful. And it is through this prophetic witness that we help people understand the character of God and how to find salvation through Christ.
Yes, this is the ministry of the church to individuals and in society—but it is also the prophetic ministry of the church to the state. Because the church functions as salt and light in a culture (which is to say, all of them) that is not aligned with God’s ways.
We are to uphold the good and confront wickedness in the state, not out of condemnation or because we are trying to control or coerce people or establish a theocracy, but because we are to tell people what God is like. It is completely appropriate for the Christian to stand in the public square and call rulers to account when they behave wrongly by God’s standard.
Please note, I’m not saying that the church should involve itself in the minutiae of public policy or that there is a specific Biblical answer for every question facing the political sphere. There is no real need for Christian witness on the question of the top marginal tax rate or net neutrality. But, I am saying that the church has a role in society to uphold what is good and life affirming and to denounce what is destructive according to Scripture. We are to preserve, season, and illuminate. If the salt loses its saltiness or the light goes out, what good is it?
Falwell seems to think that the roles of the church and the state should be totally separate and that the only role of the Christian is to help choose leaders who will “do what’s best for your country.”
But, who decides what’s best for our country? Falwell says that he can’t imagine Trump doing anything that isn’t good for America and that it might be immoral for us not to support him. But on what basis can anyone make such a judgment? If what’s best for America is whatever Trump does because Falwell trusts his intentions, then this makes Trump himself the arbiter of good and evil, more god-king than fellow man.
I’m not sure that Falwell has thought this through thoroughly, but the rest of us ought to. Trump is not the standard of right and wrong. He, is like all of us, subject to a Higher Standard. The role of the church is to speak to that Higher Truth as revealed in Scripture and in the person and work of Jesus Christ. And we are to speak it to Donald Trump as well as every ruler and authority figure on the planet.
In his 1798 letter to the Massachusetts Militia, John Adams wrote, “We have no government armed with power capable of contending with human passions unbridled by morality and religion. Avarice, ambition, revenge or gallantry would break the strongest cords of our Constitution as a whale goes through a net. Our Constitution is designed only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate for any other.”
I don’t think that Adams was talking about the church being sanctioned by the state or pining for theocracy. He was saying that our system of government works best when religious and moral people exert influence in appropriate ways, because you cannot possibly write down enough laws to govern the affairs of men who hold themselves apart from the judgements of a Higher Power.
For Christians in America, this is not only our heavenly call but our earthly right. We don’t live in a monarchy. The commands of Romans 13:1-7, which call upon Christians to be subject to the governing authorities in America (and which then Attorney General Jeff Sessions appealed to when churches disagreed with the family separation policy at the border in the Spring of 2018) mean that we should participate vigorously in our democratic republic. Our system of government is different from what the Apostle Paul addressed. In many ways, in America, the rulers in question are not the president or Congress, but rather, “We the people.”
The state has a role to play in the ordering of society, to be sure. But, the church also has a role to play to guide the state morally and ethically through prophetic witness. If the church is subverted to the state in acquiescence, all manner of evil can proliferate without a check. But, when the church upholds the good and denounces the bad and calls our leaders to repentance—that is for the good not just of individuals or the church, but also for all of society. Whether our leaders like it or not.
That isn’t the establishment of a theocracy. It’s just the church being the church in a free society. Jerry Falwell, Jr. seems confused on that point. He ought to reconsider, because if the church’s witness is subverted to the governing authorities, our light will eventually go out.