Jerry Falwell Jr., son of the Moral Majority founder and heir to his father's evangelical Liberty University in Lynchburg, Virginia, on Tuesday endorsed the non-evangelical, marginally religious Donald Trump for president, less than a week before the Iowa caucuses.
For months, Trump's appeal to evangelicals has been a head-scratcher for Beltway insiders and even many evangelicals. After all, the twice-divorced, one-time supporter of abortion rights who appears to have barely a Cliffs Notes grasp of the Bible hardly epitomizes the moralizing ideologue or the pious family man — both presidential prototypes for the Christian right.
But there's a simple explanation for the evangelical embrace of Trump: Having not succeeded in making America Christian, evangelicals coalescing around Trump have decided to settle for making it great (or "great," as the case may be).
It's all there in Falwell's own words about Trump, whom he describes as "a successful executive and entrepreneur, a wonderful father and a man who I believe can lead our country to greatness again." Note that Trump is not described as a wonderful husband, often a crucial criterion for evangelical voters, or as a revivalist who will save the Christian nation, or even as the guardian of crucial Supreme Court appointments who could oversee making abortion illegal in all 50 states.
For Falwell, Trump is a strongman who can save America where the Christian right has failed to do so. Falwell's endorsement is a tacit admission that his father's mission to rescue America from the supposed scourges of feminism, the "homosexual agenda" and secularism is now a defunct fundamentalist dream. Falwell, who leads evangelicalism's flagship university — which claims to "encourage a commitment to the Christian life, one of personal integrity, sensitivity to the needs of others, social responsibility and active communication of the Christian faith" — seems to have conceded that those virtues are insufficient for America's greatness.
In 1980, the late elder Falwell, who died in 2007, lamented that "[o]ur movies, television programs, magazines, and entertainment in general are morally bankrupt and spiritually corrupt," and called on Christians to engage in the political process to save America. Thirty-six years later, his son is actively promoting the one Republican candidate who hails from that morally bankrupt world of television and entertainment.
But Trump has other qualities that many evangelicals admit they admire: wealth and success and — don't let this surprise you — ruthlessness. Trump first addressed a Liberty University audience in September 2012, after his failed presidential bid. In his remarks, he suggested to students that they need to "get even" with adversaries in order to succeed, prompting an outcry over whether this advice was compatible with Christian values.
At the time, Trump's special counsel, Michael Cohen — without pushback from Liberty — told ABC News that he conferred with a Liberty official, who confirmed, in Cohen's words, that "the Bible is filled with stories of God getting even with his enemies, Jesus got even with the Pharisees and Christians believe that Jesus even got even with Satan by rising from the dead. God is portrayed as giving grace, but he is also portrayed as one tough character — just as Trump stated."
Falwell later told a Christian radio program that he took Trump's advice to mean that often succeeding in life requires "being tough."
Even with the Falwell endorsement, though, Trump certainly doesn't have a lock on the evangelical vote. His most notable evangelical endorsers are Falwell and former vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin — no slouches in Evangelical Land, for sure, but they hardly represent an entire religious subculture. Ted Cruz, Trump's top competitor for evangelical voters, is racking up endorsements from figures who may not have the non-evangelical name recognition that Falwell does, but nonetheless have considerable followings. Marco Rubio, who bewilderingly is struggling to draw evangelicals in Iowa away from Trump and Cruz, is attracting the support of notable evangelical elites, but Trump and Cruz remain the top contenders for the evangelical vote.
Cruz may still pull out a victory among Iowa's coveted white evangelicals. The most recent Quinnipiac University poll, for example, has him ahead of Trump 39 to 27 percent among white evangelicals. But Trump, who fails the evangelical "one of us" test, is still drawing nearly a third of evangelical support.
It's hard not to see this as a significant number of evangelicals' discontent with the religious right's tactics, most notably its, well, religiosity. Piety and even apocalyptic Bible-thumping have failed to deliver either the Christian nation or, for many, an economically prosperous one. Every other Republican candidate on the stage with Trump may be capable of reciting Bible verses, but are they willing, as Trump is, to take no prisoners while mowing down enemies in business and politics?
One might say there was a prophecy in Trump's 2012 speech at Liberty. Trump's presidential bid that cycle had failed, even against the Mormon Mitt Romney, who faced intense evangelical scrutiny about his faith. Romney made the requisite visit to Liberty and other efforts to court the Christian right, and often rather earnestly, too. In 2016, Trump's efforts at religious pandering have been minimal and perfunctory at best, yet he may succeed in vanquishing perceived religious right favorites more handily than Romney could have ever hoped to. Oddly enough, Trump's successful but irreligious campaign could very well be the evidence his evangelical audience needs to believe that "getting even" is the best way to win.