Like the president he adores, Jerry Falwell Jr. knows how to command media attention. Asked if there was anything Donald Trump could do to squander his support, Falwell provided a one-word answer: “No.”
As the interview with Joe Heim of the Washington Post unfolded, Falwell made one jaw-dropping claim after another.
The teaching of Jesus is politically irrelevant and only “a theocrat” would suggest otherwise.
Despite what Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount, rich people bless the world while their poor cousins jam up the gears of commerce.
Most significantly, Falwell used a curious revision of two kingdoms theology to justify his support for a president who runs strip clubs and casinos while paying off Playboy bunnies and porn stars.
“There’s the earthly kingdom and the heavenly kingdom,” Falwell told Heim. “In the heavenly kingdom the responsibility is to treat others as you’d like to be treated. In the earthly kingdom, the responsibility is to choose leaders who will do what’s best for your country.”
The clear implication is that caring for the poor while loving, forgiving and blessing your enemies is bad for the country.
Was the president of Liberty University simply replaying a well-worn Christian trope, or does he have a valuable new spin on two kingdoms theology?
The two kingdoms idea entered the Christian lexicon back in 410 when Alaric and the Visigoth hoards entered Rome through the Salarian gate and put the eternal city to the torch. How could such a horrifying outrage be explained?
“The Anabaptists jettisoned two kingdom theology as just another failed vestige of Christendom.”
Pagans were convinced that the gods were punishing the empire for embracing Christianity. In The City of God, Augustine offered a different explanation. The religion of Jesus had been a boon to the Romans, he said, but no earthly city, and no institutional church, can substitute for the City of God.
Augustine made a clear distinction between the Roman Empire, which protected the church and provided a rough measure of justice, to Alaric and the Visigoths who promised only chaos and anarchy. Good government is a good gift from God, Augustine acknowledged; it just isn’t the kingdom of God.
In time, the medieval church developed a two-tier system of overseers, a lay realm that was free to use “the lower righteousness” of the sword (generals, magistrates and the like), and a monastic minority set aside for prayer and the higher righteousness of Jesus.
By the time of Martin Luther the Roman Empire had devolved into a Holy Roman Empire. As the monk from Wittenberg nailed his 95 theses to the cathedral door the pope was squabbling with Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor, and both men were locked in a power struggle with an emerging noble class. Luther’s Wittenberg rebellion would have been quickly snuffed out had it not for the intervention of Frederick the wise, Elector of Saxony. Luther had to establish a working relationship between his fledgling reform movement and local magistrates like Frederick.
Many scholars doubt that Luther and the Elector of Saxony ever met face-to-face and the two men were ideological opposites. Luther was horrified by the widespread notion that you could cut short your time in purgatory simply by viewing relics and buying indulgences. By 1521, the year Luther was hauled before the Diet of Worms, Frederick had amassed a relic collection of over 19,000 specimens (including a thumb from St. Anne, a twig from Moses’ burning bush, hay from the holy manger and a substantial supply of milk from the sacred breasts of the Virgin Mary). A steady stream of pilgrims queued up to view these wonders which, rumor had it, were powerful enough to eliminate more than 1,900,000 years of purgatory.
“Falwell … prefers the hard ethics of Wall Street, K Street and the Marine Corps to the soft ethic of Jesus.”
Still, despite his profound theological differences with his lord and protector, Luther used a clever variation of Augustine’s two kingdoms doctrine to reward Frederick and his heirs for protecting his movement. Luther’s two kingdoms featured a sword-wielding public realm responsible for both civil and ecclesiastical matters, and a spiritual and private realm where genuine Christians held fast to the way of Jesus. Luther wanted to keep the clergy out of the law and order business while ensuring that strong magistrates were on hand to punish the papists, Anabaptists and Jews who disagreed with him. John Calvin made a few tweaks of his own to two kingdoms but generally followed Luther’s lead.
The Anabaptists jettisoned two kingdom theology as just another failed vestige of Christendom. The only two kingdom division they warranted were a church comprised of true disciples of Jesus and a “world” comprised of everybody else. But the Augustinians, Lutherans, Calvinists and Anabaptists all agreed that the higher righteousness belonged to Jesus. If everyone followed the Sermon on the Mount there would be no need for the sword of secular authority.
Jerry Falwell Jr. disagrees. He prefers the hard ethics of Wall Street, K Street and the Marine Corps to the soft ethic of Jesus. A good dispensationalist, Falwell is fine with Jesus setting up his Sermon on the Mount kingdom when he returns on the clouds of glory. In the meantime, however, Jerry Jr. has a different kind of savior in mind. Somebody big, mean, nasty and profane, the kind of guy the baddies can’t push around.
Donald Trump looks like that man.
Jerry has nothing but contempt for the Sermon on the Mount because it won’t work until Jesus returns to make it work. Even then, Jesus will use the hard ethics of the sword to enforce the soft ethics of the kingdom.
How do we make sense of a Christian leader who thinks Jesus was either wrong or irrelevant?
Jerry Jr. came of age in a world dominated by Jerry Falwell Sr., the godfather of the Religious Right. The aristocracy of conservative evangelicalism has been eating off of the Falwells’ china since Jerry Jr. was a babe in arms. It’s the only world he knows.
“The aristocracy of conservative evangelicalism has been eating off of the Falwells’ china since Jerry Jr. was a babe in arms.”
The Religious Right was formed to protect the Old South from the corrosive acids of secularism. In this world, the civil rights movement, feminism, environmentalism and a rapidly expanding religious and ethnic diversity are collectively viewed as the enemy. Unless it is dominated by Old South overseers, higher education is viewed with suspicion. The kingdom ethics of Jesus are rejected because they interfere with the business of the Old South.
Men like Jerry Falwell Jr. aren’t pining for a return to racial segregation. Liberty University has its fair share of African-American and Latino students and Jerry Jr. is proud of that fact. But true devotees of Old South nostalgia won’t be found apologizing for slavery, Jim Crow, lynching or opposition to the civil rights movement. When a post-Charlottesville Donald Trump suggested a moral equivalence between white supremacists and counter-protesters, Jerry Jr. told reporters that the president struck exactly the right tone.
So, if the ethics of Jesus are such an embarrassment, why does Jerry Jr. persist in calling himself a Christian? He clings to the Christianity of the Old South. He is opposed to women preachers, kneeling football players, reparations, minimum wage laws, environmentalism and compassionate immigration policies as inimical to Old South values.
“Men like Jerry Jr. love Trump because he shares their worldview.”
Men like Jerry Jr. love Trump because he shares their worldview. Trump invites Jerry Jr. to the White House and Jerry Jr. invites Trump to Liberty University. Did Jerry Jr. enjoy that kind of access to the Obama White House? Jerry Jr. uses two kingdoms language because it links his Old South nostalgia to orthodox Christianity. But did he ever leverage two kingdoms talk so he could give Barack Obama a pass?
Trump’s America knows only two kinds of people: winners and losers. Does that qualify as a twisted version of two kingdoms theology? I suppose it does.