Based in Sydney, Australia, Foundry is a blog by Rebecca Thao. Her posts explore modern architecture through photos and quotes by influential architects, engineers, and artists.

Jerry Falwell and the Problem of Evangelicalism: Some Observations

“Evangelical” is really a very confounding label. It’s a mark of derision for some and a badge of honor for others, but what it is not is a label with clean boundaries. Based on the context, not only the connotation but also the denotation of the word completely switches. The identifying marks of an evangelical swap drastically from person to person and from social circle to social circle. Those which D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones considered to be the marks of an evangelical are markedly different from those which, say, John Stott considered to be the marks of an evangelical. 

For what it’s worth, I’ve long identified as an evangelical. In conversations with classmates and colleagues, I’ve (I think) defended the label as helpful and productive, at least to a certain extent. There are several pillars of what has often been called evangelicalism with which I would heartily agree (i.e., the inerrancy of Scripture, the necessity of salvation from a natural state of sin through Christ alone, the duty of sharing of the Gospel, etc), but even those pillars would probably be disputed by some who disagree, but who would also like to don the evangelical identifier. Ultimately, it’s hard to argue that evangelicalism is not a splintered movement, if it can even be called a movement. 

Though this is an interesting dilemma - the fact that we have a word used to broadly define groups of Christians which means very different things to different people - it’s not a particularly novel one. What seems similarly problematic for evangelicals today, at least from where I’m sitting, is the nature of the word. As far as I can tell, “evangelical” has historically been used as a theological descriptor. For the most part, it’s denoted a series of stances which folks might take on intra-Christian issues.

Recently, though, the word’s been most often used not as a theological descriptor, but as a political one. Led by Falwell & Friends, the evangelicals of today seem to care far less about obeying God’s Law, at least insofar as it commands them to provide for the sojourner and call their unrepentant leaders to true repentance, than they do about raking in donations and chanting about building a wall which we all know will never be erected. I guess my curiosity about this Falwellian problem of evangelicalism is this: How can one claim to be an evangelical, and have been so supportive of someone whose actions stand in stark contrast to the guiding principles of one’s own personal ethic? Perhaps that’s the problem though. Perhaps the Falwells of Western evangelicalism live according to an ethic not ultimately informed by Scripture. Perhaps they live by an ethic ultimately informed by things like personal preference or holdovers of the Moral Majority simply couched in the vocabulary of Scripture. 

If Falwell wants a wall, or if (for reasons unbeknownst to this writer) he thinks Donald J. Trump is the best leader of these United States based on strictly political ideology and apart from the influence of the Scriptures, fair enough. He’s certainly free to ground his opinions consistently, and those ideas can be kicked around in the public square. However, as long as Falwell is keen on binding up the evangelical identifier with support of leaders who stand in opposition to a Scriptural, evangelical worldview, he’s in a position of near irrationality. If we’re going to ask that our President be a Christian, or if we're going to push for Christian governing principles, we should do it consistently and without effectively asking the American public to look past a steady and unapologetic body of work which devalues and objectifies women, is disrespectful of war heroes, and disparages colleagues and peers of every stripe. 

It's hard to see how Falwell’s early and steadfast support of Trump equals less than an endorsement of his behavior. What’s particularly surprising about this, though, is that on his own terms, he’s inconsistent. This crowd no doubt took issue with Hillary Clinton’s carelessness regarding her emails. But what was the complaint? “Hillary Clinton is above the law.” Do we not say the same thing when we endorse a President who said terrible things on a bus with Billy Bush, or made (makes) offensive comments over and over again about huge swaths of people? Of course we don’t. We say something much worse. We say that Donald J. Trump is above God’s Law.

If Jerry Falwell and the rest of Big Evangelicalism continue to lend their support to someone like Donald Trump on religious grounds, not only are they in an ethically and logically precarious position, but they may be committing idolatry. When we endorse politicians on unabashedly religious grounds despite their consistent and active opposition to God’s demand on their lives, we “exchange the truth about God for a lie” (Rom. 1:25), and we "call evil good and good evil” (Is. 5:20).

Hopefully, one of the hallmarks of evangelical Christianity is the desire to share a witness of God's grace toward sinners with the surrounding world. Certain things make that witness look more attractive, and some things don't. It's not hard to see which category blind Trumpian loyalty falls under. 

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