Charity, Common Sense, and the Failure of Falwell’s Imagination
Within the arena of politics, very little is surprising these days. In this post-modern era with its ubiquitous news and constant access to information, it is almost impossible for us to outrun contempt and sneak up on surprise. Nearly two decades into the twenty-first century and the best we can do with each new headline is to feign shock and affect awe. A half-century of American cynicism has left our consciousnesses with the collective numbness of an addict hoping to feel something to prove that they are still alive. And yet. As blasé as we have become there are those headlines that, while they fail to shock they do not fail to disappoint.
Such a headline appeared in the Washington Post on January 1, 2019. One day into the new year, two years into Donald Trump’s Presidency, the Post released an interview with arguably Trump’s staunchest Evangelical supporter, the Rev. Jerry Fallwell Jr.
The interview, featured in the Post’s Magazine, was conducted by Joe Helm and entitled, “Jerry Falwell Jr. can’t imagine Trump ‘doing anything that’s not good for the country’.” The catchy “gotcha” title, as one might expect, was low-hanging fruit for the flood of liberal commentators and leftist Christians alike who descended on the scene like a flood of migrant pickers ready to strip Fallwell bare. And to their credit and to Fallwell’s shame, the title reflects accurately his belief, consistently articulated from day one of Trump’s ascendancy, that the thrice-married-real-estate-and-casino-magnate-turned-TV-personality was and is God’s chosen vessel to bring America back from the moral abyss of the Obama years, for such a time as this.
While I would love to spend several hundred of words opining on Fallwell’s ethically baffling position as to Trump’s apparent infallibility, I feel as though other writers will plumb those shallows adequately. And, there were moments in the interview that accurately reflect a Christian realist position; Falwell briefly articulates how Jesus’ precepts of love and his instructions for his church are often misused as cudgels to shape national foreign and domestic policy. However, what is likely to be missed, in much of the valid criticism of Fallwell’s historically and even theologically disjointed absolvo of Trump, is his rather ungenerous depiction of generosity.
It is clear that above and beyond all other considerations, especially moral considerations, what Falwell admires most about Donald Trump is “his business acumen.” And who can blame Falwell for his admiration, who can not marvel at Trump’s ability to turn an inheritance of hundreds of millions of dollars into some real money. This is a line that Falwell has pivoted to from the beginning of his support, and it is a line that has been parroted by other leaders within the evangelical community. Trump’s ability as a businessman to hire others, to fire others, to spawn economic vitality is the keystone of the arch of his life, and the cornerstone of support of all those who look away from his peccadillos.
For Falwell, what makes (will make) America great (again) is its system of free market enterprise and innovation, that has enabled the jobless to find jobs, and produced capital to be shared among the nations. This is an exclusive task/burden for the wealthy. After all, to quote Falwell,
“Why have Americans been able to do more to help people in need around the world than any other country in history? It’s because of free enterprise, freedom, ingenuity, entrepreneurism and wealth. A poor person never gave anyone a job. A poor person never gave anybody charity, not of any real volume. It’s just common sense to me.”
It is “immoral”, in Falwell’s parlance, not to support this vision. Nestled in this bed of American Pragmatism is the root of almost all evangelical support for Donald Trump. It’s a pithy syllogism to be sure:
The key to American greatness is its charity,
the key to charity is economic vitality,
therefore America can be great if its leaders foster economic vitality.
Bing, Bang, Boom. Done. Well, not quite.
While this resonates with Americana, missing in this moral parody is any definition of charity, leadership, or greatness that resonates with classical Christian conviction. Lot’s of nations are wealthy. Many countries have crafted economic environments that foster great wealth and economic vitality. America may be the largest economy in the world, but it is not the only economy. Nor is it the only culture with stratified wealth concentrated in millionaires and billionaires. Nor is America the only nation to engage in private and public philanthropy. America’s distinction among the plethora of wealthy nations is owed not to the presence of philanthropy, but to the presence of an otherworldly morality that has historically informed that philanthropy. That is to say, a morality not of this world.
It is a morality which views wisdom as more precious than gold, and character more valuable than achievement; it sees strength in the weak, and an inheritance of nations for the meek. This morality makes no sense in our world; it is a backward economy. Whoever would be first, must be last; do not boast, do not envy, do not insist on having your way, sacrificially help those who can not help you back. None of these precepts find their way into the business manuals or political conferences, and none of them should be followed if you want to “get ahead” by the world’s standards. And yet this backward economy, this otherworldly morality is the key to all human vitality and to American greatness.
Now, to preempt any criticism, I believe and Providence maintains, that governments exist in a space and sphere distinct from individual Christians and from that of Christ’s Church. Not every precept given to Christians is meant to be prescriptive to a government or an economy. God has ordained a number of activities for nations and governments that he has not for individuals; it is for governments to bear the sword, to administer justice etc. Maintaining these separate spheres and providing theological discernment concerning this arrangement is a guiding principle for Providence.
However, governments are not monolithic, and they are only as morally good and as effectively just as the individuals that populate them. The key to a nations ability to administer authority is an understanding among its individual leaders that theirs is not the ultimate authority. And the key to a nation’s ability to harbor morality is an understanding among its individual leaders that their common sense is not the ultimate source of morality.
Defining Charity Down
What is unfortunate about Falwell’s comments is not his unconditional support of Donald Trump. Nor is his unquestioning loyalty to Trump’s agenda a source all that much concern. Many Christians and non-Christians alike support Trump for a variety of reasons, and many find elements of his agenda to their liking and worthy of their loyalty. Many would offer caveats to their support where Falwell does not, but that is not what is troubling. What is troubling is to see a leader within the Christian community and within the evangelical world with such a poor definition of charity. Charity is not the sole purview of the wealthy, and true charity is not robed in, or limited by, the trappings of American success.
Christian charity is the hope of mankind, and the extent to which it remains the lodestone our actions personally and nationally it will be the promise of American greatness. This charity is not defined by a king on a throne, but by a child in a manger. And this charity is not exemplified by the wealthy who give their funds, but by a poor homeless carpenter from Nazareth who gave his life. It may not be common sense, but it is the gospel.