In 2007, Jerry Falwell Sr. passed away after suffering a heart attack. Falwell, a genial televangelist in the second half of his life, spent his later years trying to recapture the attention of his Evangelical base. With his popularity and political clout, Falwell had made numerous financial decisions that proved questionable and made claims that were increasingly strange. For example, on September 13, 2001, Falwell claimed that the terrorist attack that week on New York and Washington was a result of God’s judgement. In a televised interview with fellow televangelist Pat Robertson, Falwell said
What we saw on Tuesday, as terrible as it is, could be minuscule if, in fact, God continues to lift the curtain and allow the enemies of America to give us probably what we deserve… The abortionists have got to bear some burden for this because God will not be mocked. And when we destroy 40 million little innocent babies, we make God mad. I really believe that the pagans, and the abortionists, and the feminists, and the gays and the lesbians who are actively trying to make that an alternative lifestyle, the ACLU, People for the American Way, all of them who have tried to secularize America, I point the finger in their face and say, “You helped this happen.”
This was the kind of Christianity that Norman Vincent Peale had avoided. God, according to Peale, believed the best in Christians. God did not want to punish the world again, was not vengeful, but wanted humans to reach their full potential. This is the story of Christianity in the Twentieth Century: two very different concepts of God continually dividing Christians one from another.
In the 1980s, “hellfire and brimstone” preacher Jimmy Swaggart took it upon himself to publicly and rigorously undermine “positive confession” preacher Jim Bakker, who Swaggart claimed was “a cancer upon the body of Christ.” Bakker had built the PTL television network and Heritage USA, a recreational park for Christians that had daily communion services, Passion plays, and recreations of Jerusalem in the Second Century to bring believers closer to the life and times of Jesus and Paul.
Bakker and Swaggart had both endured severe poverty during childhood. Where Bakker encouraged his television audience to a more metropolitan life and was known for robust business and land development, Swaggart believed Christians had been called to a sober life that rejected the ways of the world. Swaggart proudly claimed that he had never had “even a drop of alcohol,” never smoked, and never watched a movie by “those Hollywood liberals with their sex and debauchery.” In an April 23, 1990 New Yorker article, Jim and his wife, Tammy Faye were profiled as “personifying the most characteristic excesses of the nineteen-eighties — the greed, the love of glitz, and the shamelessness — which in their case were so pure as to almost amount to a kind of innocence.” Turning his lip in scorn, the self-styled ”old-fashioned, Holy Ghost-filled, shouting, weeping, soul-winning, Gospel-preaching preacher” Swaggart glowered through horn-rimmed glasses and shouted for deliverance from”sissified preachers” and ”pretty little boys with their hair done and their nails done, who called themselves preachers.”
From 1984 to 1987, Bakker was investigated by The Charlotte Observer. As a result of their reporting, Bakker was charged with fraud and stepped down from his ministry while he underwent a new investigation by the government for fraud and racketeering. Pressured to release his ownership of the satellite network during the investigation and trial, Bakker said he did not trust his staff or his denomination because of Swaggart’s influence. He believed Swaggart was instrumental in the difficulties he was enduring, eventually turning over control of the PTL Network, its satellites, and theme park Heritage USA to Jerry Falwell, who had pledged to become caretaker of the empire. Falwell immediately broke up the ministry and sold each piece in a mirror of corporate raids so characteristic of the time. Baker watched this turn of events from a prison cell, horrified at the broken promises of Falwell and the collapse of the world he had known. Following a 16 month Federal grand jury probe, Bakker was indicted on eight counts of mail fraud, 15 counts of wire fraud, and one count of conspiracy. The jury found him guilty on all 24 counts and he was sentenced to 45 years in prison and a $500,000 fine. Bakker and his associates maintain that Swaggart was instrumental in his downfall, sowing mistrust within their denomination, the Assemblies of God, and instigating rumors of extramarital liaisons. But now free and once again on television, says he has forgiven Swaggart – after all, they were both born poor. They were virtually brothers, both climbing the ranks of the Assemblies of God. They just went in different directions and had different concepts of God. Today, Bakker maintains it was Falwell who had truly betrayed him. Swaggart’s issues with Bakker were over theology and the nature of Christianity; their differences were never personal. In fact, the day Bakker was sentenced, Swaggart went into his studio to film a plea to his television audience. He begged Christians to call, write, and challenge Judge Robert Daniel Potter’s sentencing of Bakker to 45 years as excessive. Bakker’s son, Jay, claims that Swaggart called every minister in his rolodex, waking some of them up from sleep, to get their support in denouncing Judge Potter’s sentencing of Bakker and to rally their congregations to do the right thing. In February 1991, the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit upheld Bakker’s conviction on the fraud and conspiracy charges, but voided his 45-year sentence as well as the $500,000 fine. The Court ordered that a new sentencing hearing be held as a result of Judge Potter’s statements during sentencing. Judge Potter had said that Bakker’s actions resulted in “those of us who do have a religion” being lampooned as “saps from money-grubbing preachers or priests” was evidence that Potter had injected his own religious beliefs into considering Bakker’s sentence.
Falwell, for his part, profited from Baker’s duress. While dismantling PTL, Falwell raised $20 million to help keep the Heritage USA Theme Park solvent, including a well-publicized waterslide plunge there. By June of 1987, at the height of the PTL scandal, Falwell’s ministry had secured $91 million in revenue as a result of his business dealings, enrollment at Liberty University, and televised requests for money. Unlike Swaggart, who privately lobbied for Bakker until his own scandals consumed him, Falwell publicly called Bakker “a liar, an embezzler, a sexual deviant,” and “the greatest scab and cancer on the face of Christianity in 2,000 years of church history”. In 1988, in one of many examples of his ability to distort reality, Falwell said that the Bakker scandal had “strengthened broadcast evangelism and made Christianity stronger, more mature and more committed.”
Bakker’s son, Jay, vividly recalled that period of time in his 2001 book, Son of a Preacher Man. The Bakker family, together with spiritual and professional leaders throughout the Evangelical community, felt betrayed by Falwell, who had pledged at the time of Bakker’s resignation to help in his eventual restoration as head of the PTL ministry organization. In a sense, Falwell’s unethical behavior toward Bakker was setting the ship aright, a reparation of sorts for the excess of PTL and redistribution of wealth toward orthodoxy. Falwell not only profited from the breakup, but told confusing and uncorroborated versions of the entire period to explain why his lies were “the right thing to do.” This was not the first or even the last time that Falwell confused and disappointed Evangelicals.
In 1987, Falwell took on Hustler magazine and founder, Larry Flynt for defamation and emotional distress. He lost the case and was humiliated. In an effort to spin his loss, Falwell befriended Flynt which only served to confused his Evangelical base even more. In 1999, he famously penned the article “Parents Alert: Tinky Winky Comes Out of the Closet” for his National Liberty Journal, where he claimed that children’s television icon Tinky Winky was gay because the character had a boy’s voice yet carries a red purse. “He is purple, the gay-pride colour; and his antenna is shaped like a triangle, the gay-pride symbol.” Falwell went on to allege, in vague strokes, that there were “subtle depictions” of gay sexuality in all publicly funded educational programming that was intentional. There existed a “Gay Agenda” to destroy America and subvert the nuclear family. There was no proof of this, and news outlets had a field day mocking and ridiculing the Southern Baptist in his dotage. On The Today Show, Falwell tried to defend his position to Katie Couric, telling her that to have ”little boys running around with purses and acting effeminate and leaving the idea that the masculine male, the feminine female is out, and gay is O.K.” is something ”which Christians do not agree with.” Kenn Viselman, a promoter of Teletubbies was also on the program and countered: ”We’re talking about a show for 1- to 4-year-olds. If we had homosexuals in it, they wouldn’t even know it. But we don’t.” All of the attention around Falwell was too much. He tried to end the matter by issuing a terse statement to the public, “As a Christian I feel that role modelling the gay lifestyle is damaging to the moral lives of children.” Falwell retired from the spotlight and turned his attention to a tremendous fundraising effort for his school, Liberty University. His brief appearance after 9/11 where he claimed America was responsible for the terrible attack further marginalized him.
Like Swaggart and Bakker, Falwell had grown up in relative poverty and felt called to ministry at a young age. In 1956, at the age of 22, he declined an offer to play for the St. Louis Cardinals to found Thomas Road Baptist Church in Lynchburg, Virginia. There were 35 members at the time, but within six months, Falwell had developed his ideas and polished his sermon delivery. He capitalized on available media and began the “Old Time Gospel Hour” which aired on both radio and television. In 1971, he founded Lynchburg Bible College, which later became Liberty University, with 154 students and four full-time faculty members. By 2007, despite all of Falwell’s gaffes and unethical behavior, Thomas Road Baptist Church had grown to a healthy 24,000 members, many of whom were also students at Liberty.
And then Jerry Falwell Sr. died.
His son, Jerry Falwell, Jr. had served as General Counsel for his father’s entities since graduating the University of Virginia School of Law in 1987. In 2000, he joined the Board of Trustees of Liberty University, serving as Vice Chancellor from 2003 until the death of his father in 2007. He was immediately appointed to fill the vacancy left by his father. During the last years of his father’s life, Jerry Jr. was instrumental in helping Liberty boost enrollment and acquire new streams of funding. It worked. Liberty confidently emerged as a leading institution for Evangelical study of law, divinity, the arts, and osteopathic medicine. Under his leadership, Liberty University grew from roughly 37,000 students to more than 90,000 students in a shockingly brief period of time, in large part through online learning. 80,000 student take courses through Liberty University Online and, by 2012, Jerry Jr. – not serving as Chancellor and President of the school – announced that Liberty’s net assets exceeded $1 billion US dollars. Jerry Jr. was not shy about revealing that this valuation was a ten-fold increase from where the school stood in 2006 shortly before his father’s death. As Norman Vincent Peale had taught for so long, God’s favor was known through material wealth, business success, and the belief that it wasn’t necessary to be an expert at anything to be an expert at everything.
Like Peale, Falwell Sr. had shared his thoughts on issues outside the scope of spiritual development. Liberty University is a testament to his ability to surround himself with knowledgeable and capable individuals who informed him on matters he felt important, then left him to carry out his vision. Randall Balmer, writing for Politico, explains that Evangelicals became a strong political force for a small number of pastors in the 1970s. Falwell, Swaggart, and founders of the Christian Broadcast Network, Jim Bakker and Pat Robertson, were instrumental in using media to recast world events and legal decisions as “oppression” of the Christian message and a Christian way of life. Revisionist history is a hallmark of Evangelicalism, according to Balmer. Facts, dates, and legislation don’t seem to matter, only the narrative they are given by religious leaders.
Evangelicalism originally began in 1910 with the publication of The Fundamentals, a 12 volume collection of 90 essays, apologetic and polemic, written by conservative theologians to defend Protestant orthodoxy and Americanism. If, as stated previously, the history of Christianity is one of inner conflict, the publication of The Fundamentals was a temporary truce. Darwin had published his Origin of Species in 1859, Freud his Interpretation of Dreams in 1900, The Psychopathology of Everyday Life in 1901 and essays on the Theory of Sexuality in 1905. Theologians in Europe were responding to these works as soon as they were published while a delay in publication and transport left Americans behind. American and British theologians wanted to respond with a unified voice to the influence of Germanic thought. The publication of The Fundamentals galvanized Christians and made clear distinctions between the heretical “social gospel” and the orthodox rugged individuality of America, between the races which were “invading” America through every port, and the decline in morality that England experienced at the time as “good Christians” left for the Americas or migrated toward the more racially homogeneous corners of Europe.
If it seems all of this is too much information or that I am circling around a point, then you have arrived at the proper frame of mind to understand the cycle of religious fervor in American Christianity. The “fundamentalists” who wrote The Fundamentals wrote in response to what they felt was theological and social liberalism. They claimed scriptural precedent to support their intolerance, views on the division of the races, personal piety, and temperance. Dale Carnegie’s jovial How To Win Friends and Influence People appeared in 1936 to address the rigid sobriety that had begun to characterize Christianity. Peale, writing shortly thereafter in 1952, also wrote The Power of Positive Thinking in response to the rigid theological orthodoxy he had experienced as a child. Billy Graham’s Los Angeles Crusade of 1949, now turning back to the “fundamentals” of Christianity, sought to stake out a middle ground of optimism with one rigidly defined message: “The Saving Power of God through His Son, Jesus Christ.” Each of these events inspired fundamentalists to sound the alarm of heresy. Figures like Falwell, Swaggart, and Robertson built media empires on conditioning Evangelicals to accept a thin version of history. They conditioned Evangelicals to close their eyes and ears to understanding. And they have saddled Evangelicals with the responsibility to tithe and donate above their means. Each one of these efforts were disguised as Restorationism – the effort to “reclaim” what a sinful Other has stolen from them – expressed through determined political force. As Swaggart and Falwell dominated television and radio, new pseudo-ministers like Oprah Winfrey and Tony Robbins appeared, new incarnations of Carnegie and Peale, to remind those fed up with Evangelical pessimism that there was still good in the world, Truth to pursue, and this Truth wanted each individual to succeed at life. The result was, as could be obvious, a kind of spiritual schizophrenia, an inability to determine what was real. Was God for them individually, for America? Did God love them? If so, then why did this God not wipe Communist Russian off the map and make clear who were the real Christians? Why were the prophecies of war and destruction always pushed back? This God always seemed to shift directions, to “anoint” people that would confuse and let them down, to elevate and bless those who participated in evil and lived outside the morality defined on their television sets. This God was always unpredictable. Their politicians were always corrupted over time.
Each decade saw a familiar turn of events. The God that Americans had been comfortable with from the 1920s through the 1960s was a kind and benevolent deity who, by default, was on the side of those who voted Republican, participated in consumerism, worked long hours, and did not allow themselves to get into debt. Suddenly, this God was angry and vengeful – the language of Christianity had changed. New ministers arrived who gave a voice to their uncertainty and went further than Peale’s Americanism to demonize foreigners. The Cold War had begun. Whenever consumerism became excess, or a Democrat got a significant number of votes, Evangelical leaders rang the alarm bells and decried the “immorality” of the American people. It was always the fault of a neighbor in their midst who had succumbed to foreign ideologies.The difference between “us” and “them” was never more clear than in the American pulpit – support for social systems that fed the poor and clothes the naked was “Communist.” A good Christian protected their own.
Evangelicalism, in this way, is the story of America in the Twentieth Century. Advancing, despite setbacks. Succumbing to temptation. Reversing course. Trying again. The changes taking place in America occasionally inspired disenfranchised “voices in the wilderness” (like Swaggart and Falwell) to reclaim the integrity of a former era and restore the nation.
It’s not a particularly novel event in American religious movements. The Latter Day Saints were founded by Joseph Smith, a visionary who believed that doctrinal purity had been corrupted by profitable and respected ministers. Smith sought to reclaim the truth of God’s original intentions which, he claimed, were evident only when the true people of God were being persecuted. Extremists like Jim Jones or David Koresh developed cults on this same premise, as have many gurus and healers over the years. What we see, then, is a division within Evangelicalism that has led time and again to figures who capitalize on ignorance, who take things too far within their belief system.
Steve Waldman, founder of the religious website Beliefnet, says that he thinks fundamentalism is a subgenre of Evangelicalism. In an interview with Frontline, he explains.
People often get confused between the terms evangelical and fundamentalist. They mean two different things. Evangelicals are a very broad group. It’s probably a third or 40 percent of the population of the United States. Fundamentalists are a subset of that. They are very conservative politically. Have a literalist view of the Bible. Evangelicals have a much wider range of political views. A lot of them are conservatives, but not all of them… It’s a pretty broad range. You tend to think of evangelicals as being fundamentalists [though] because the most well known evangelicals are people like Jerry Falwell who are fundamentalists and are very conservative.
It is this division which confused me for so long. Fundamentalists were extremists like Jones and Koresh, I was told time and again. Yet it became all too evident during the campaigns of John Kerry and George Bush that something else was happening. By the time Barack Obama was the candidate of the Democratic Party and John McCain that of the Republicans, moderates had abandoned Evangelicalism. Like me, they were disgusted by the intolerance and racism they realized had been consuming their congregations for too long.
John McCain wasn’t the first Republican to distance himself from characters like Falwell, and the Republican Party wasn’t always synonymous with far-right Christian fundamentalism. Arizona Sen. Barry Goldwater, who was considered the epitome of an arch-conservative when he ran for president against Democrat Lyndon B. Johnson in 1964, had no use for the Religious Right either. Goldwater famously said that “the Religious Right scares the hell out of me.” Speaking of Rev. Jerry Falwell, who by then was a powerful voice for Evangelicalism, Goldwater added, “All good Christians should kick him in the ass.”
And that’s just the kind of thing Trump’s political success with Evangelicals has been built on – the sadistic need to demonize “others” and, when challenged for scriptural precedent, claim they are a victim of oppression. As those who have been paying attention to the current election cycle are aware, Trump has become adept at misdirection, blaming, and claiming to be a victim. Evangelicals revel in playing the underdog, in revising history to claim whatever is convenient for their current dilemma. They revel in well-known leaders threatening to “kick them in the ass.” Like a virus without adequate remedy, criticism only serves to strengthen and mutate Evangelicals, to fuel their narrative of victimhood and allow them to stimulate their base. You see? This is why we need (insert law or social issue of the week)! It’s people like this who keep oppressing us! To be clear, it is a twisting of reality. It is deception. And the only ones who profit from these lies are – you guessed it – leaders like Falwell smart enough to stimulate fear and exploit disaster for personal profit, leaders like Peale who offer a smug self-satisfaction, or leaders like Trump who are able to do both.
The theology of Trump does not require scriptural precedent. It doesn’t even require an understanding of history, Christian or otherwise. Which is why this article has tried to connect several steps in the process, to show a timeline from which Evangelicals have become detached. This article includes no references to scripture because it simply isn’t important to Evangelicalism. Scripture, like reality, is twisted and misapplied when left in the hands of Evangelicals. For them, scripture is a marketing tool. Scripture appears on screens and billboards, on pillowcases, on Instagram and coffee cups, but not in the daily decisions they make about ethics, social justice, politics, or personal behavior – key issues raised by the law, the prophets, and the Gospels. We might even go so far as to say that Evangelicals deny scripture except where it is poetic – compact, quotable, and adaptable apart from context.
If the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures were dissected and categorized, we might look at them like so.
- Teachings – ex: Genesis to Deuteronomy, concerned with personal responsibilty
- Prophets – ex: Isaiah to Malachi, concerned with social responsibility.
- History – ex: Joshua to Nehemiah, concerned with telling what actually happened and the consequences of decisions.
- Writings – ex: Psalms and Proverbs, concerned with short-sighted thoughts for meditation and daily consideration.
- Gospels – ex: Matthew through John, concerned with the teachings of Jesus.
- Epistles – ex: Acts through Revelation, concerned with theological developments in a new era.
What happens when your reading of scripture replaces personal responsibility with the promise that everything you do is right? History can be rewritten to prove any point you wish, and teachings are (without the context of history) reduced to a text become so small they can fit in the pocket almost as an amulet of protection. The tactile Bible, a thin and colorful book, becomes an idol. This leaves a shell of religion only good for meditation and daily consideration, a sutra or mantra, now that it is uncoupled from any spiritual practice or historicity. It becomes a shell of religion that can be printed on bumper stickers and t-shirts. Highly creative and adaptable, but placing no demands on the believer. Scripture for Evangelicals is something convenient, its only function a symbol to bring together a diaspora of those who have forgotten their heritage.
That Trump sought and acquired the enthusiastic support of Jerry Falwell Jr., who inherited (rather than earned) his father’s mantle is less surprising than one might think. That Trump also has the support of Joel Osteen is even less surprising. Make no mistake, Donald Trump is not ignorant. His ability to vacillate on a position is not incompetence. It is a measured ability to keep both sides of Evangelicalism in suspense, to match their outlandish statements, to rattle the saber of eschatological promise of coming wars, and to play both the victim and the champion. His bumbling of scripture is admirable for, after all, Evangelicals cannot “rightly divide the word of truth” themselves. A cursory glance through the history of this strange political force shows Trump is doing exactly what Evangelicals have done for a century – swaying and adapting, recasting himself each day as a new creation, and forcefully insisting he is always right, despite overwhelming evidence of his shortcomings. Perhaps this is why Jerry Jr. claims Trump is “one of the greatest visionaries of our time” and a Christian brother “who reminds me of my dad.” Trump purposefully emulates both Peale and Falwell.
What has gone unnoticed apparently is that Trump is not only playing to the two sides of Evangelicalism, but the primary denominational voices within Evangelicalism: Baptists and Presbyterians. Where Baptists perpetually speak of victimhood and oppression, Presbyterians speak of expansionism and a “purity” that is more than fleetingly enthocentric. Pat Robertson, interviewing Trump, once said, “You inspire us all.” For Robertson and his followers, this may very well be true given how short-sighted and decidedly American Evangelicalism is. Trump is not doing something new or careening wildly from one position to another. His revisions of his personal history, what he said (or didn’t) in previous interviews, his intolerance for social responsibility, are all predictable for those who know how Evangelicalism has historically functioned and the cycle of secularization and restorationism.
Evangelicalism has long been vague on doctrine out of necessity. The Fundamentals required that Baptists and Presbyterians come together on their lowest common denominators, agreeing on consumerism, sentimental moralism, upward mobility, and family values – cultural issues that were important at the turn of the century and mystically remain “biblical” to the very present. It is perhaps telling that these pursuits sound familiar to those of us who recall that these were the same issues that fueled the campaigns and regimes of demagogues during that same period of history. They too capitalized on ignorance, rewrote history, and shrugged off accountability. In this way, Trump’s “theology” blends together the very worst of both Peale and Falwell, an enterprising nationalism willing to exploit ignorance and twist the truth for profit. It is, as Michael Horton concludes, “a combination of moralistic, therapeutic deism and pragmatism” that so perfectly appeals to all corners of Evangelicalism.
But I would be remiss without one final remark. That Trump is occasionally compared to Hitler, Stalin, and Mussolini is no accident. In fact, the parallels are much deeper than promises of military might. The vagueness of doctrine allows the Americanism from both sides of Evangelicalism – both positive and aggressive – to replace Jesus on the cross with the red, white, and blue. As Benjamin Corey puts it, “The powerful influence of American culture has, for quite some time, seeped into the Christian faith to the point where we have an entirely new product. Instead of Christianity as it was passed onto the disciples and early church, we have a uniquely American version.” Combined, the vagueness of Christian doctrine, the disappearance of scripture, and a strong sense of American identity without location (the East and West Coasts being stark contrasts to Middle America or even say, the Northwest) allows for a vacancy that can be filled with individual hopes that are curiously always violent. Trump’s “theology,” loose as it is, always gravitates towards violence and hatred of foreigners because that is what America represents after a decade of war. Whether he galvanizes Evangelicals or simply gives voice to their frustration, Trump perfectly expresses the hostility of a group that feels suppressed within America. My hesitancy to distance myself from Evangelicalism was because I wanted to believe the best in them, to hear their stories and sympathize.
Today, I see nothing in Evangelicalism that embodies the teachings of scripture. Nothing compassionate or sympathetic. Evangelicals demand understanding now because, for so long, they have – willfully or ignorantly – ignored the cries of the impoverished, ridiculed the hungry, mocked the naked and the sick. Though there is a measure of truth to Evangelicals who claim they are misunderstood, Donald Trump has afforded them an excellent opportunity to be heard. When the 2016 election is over, no matter who wins, America will have begin addressing intolerance within both politics and religion, and how it is that a man with no experience in or with either group came this close to leading all of us.
10 Ways to Determine if your Christianity Has Been “Americanized” by Benjamin Corey
Your “Deeply Held Religious Belief” Isn’t Biblical, by April Kelsey