Jerry Falwell Jr. surely didn’t expect the fallout he received when he introduced Donald Trump to a gathering of evangelical leaders in New York City in late June.
It’s not that anyone was surprised that the presumed Republican presidential candidate would be given an evangelical platform or the support of Liberty University’s president; they were surprised by the tweet that Falwell used to mark the event.
The tweet featured Falwell and his wife standing beside Trump in front of a vanity wall of framed magazine covers featuring the presidential nominee. One of those covers—which would have been obscured if they’d only stood a foot to the left—was the 1990 Playboy cover featuring Donald Trump and Playboy bunny Brandi Brandt.
Twitter’s response was instantaneous. Some people pointed out the times that Falwell’s father, as the founder of the Moral Majority, railed against Playboy magazine, while others mentioned the fact that Brandt was currently in prison for cocaine trafficking. Most of the comments stated or implied that Falwell was a hypocrite who was endorsing Trump and pornography. Falwell responded to the firestorm with a tweet that has since been deleted: “Honored for same hypocrites who accused Jesus of being a friend of publicans and sinners to be targeting me over a decades old mag cover!”
The main concern seemed to be the morality of a presidential candidate and the extent to which that should matter to Christians who support him. And while several issues collided here, maybe the most significant question raised is this: Should we be looking for the “most Christian”—or most moral—candidate they can find?
Jesus and the Political Establishment
The minute we’re introduced to Herod in Matthew’s Gospel, we see that Jesus is born into an extremely politicized environment. Herod is willing to kill an entire city’s toddlers to ensure that he doesn’t lose his power and influence because he, like everyone else in Israel, is expecting that the messiah is going to be a political figure.
The underlying subtext of the Gospels is an expectation that Jesus is going to rescue the Jews from the oppressive yoke of Roman rule. Even after his resurrection, Jesus’s disciples are still waiting for the emphasis to become political. They pointedly ask him, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” (Acts 1:6)
In the meantime, Jesus’s entire message is about the kingdom of God. All of his energy is focused on infiltrating the kingdom of man with a new kingdom, one in which Christ ruled. This new kingdom would be “a city on a hill” and its power would come from contrasting itself with the kingdoms of this world—not by taking them over or improving upon them.
Evangelicalism and Political Endorsements
American evangelicalism has become this huge voting bloc—for right or wrong—with the potential of swaying entire elections. Because of this, every candidate is expected to play up their Christian cred as they pander to Christian voters. Christians with an influential platform need to have the wisdom not to be manipulated by political process.
The Playboy cover fiasco reveals the problem with the Church inserting itself into politics. If the game is more about the personal righteousness and Christian pedigree of a candidate rather than their ability to lead, you’re going to be constantly rewriting the narrative. For instance, in the wake of the Falwell/Playboy brouhaha, James Dobson told us that Trump has only recently accepted Jesus as his savior.
In this election, questions about both candidates’ personal faith have been discussed—and whether it’s publicly lying about something or just saying inflammatory things—critics of either candidate can find “moral” reasons not support the other.
As an American, I have the civic responsibility and honor to take part in the political process. As a Christian, I need to remember that my faith and hope does not lie in the kingdoms of man. While Christians can certainly run for public office, I’m under no obligation to vote for them. My goal is to elect leaders with foreign and domestic policies that make the most sense to me. Otherwise, I am at the mercy of any wolf that’s dressed up like a sheep.
There’s a lot of money and power in politics, and throughout history it’s been an area of temptation for the church. It’s extremely flattering when high-profile candidates start heaping attention on you in order to gain an endorsement from your Christian platform. It’s time for the church to opt out of the game. After all, our focus is on kingdom building, not empire building.