Can Donald Trump Take Up the Mantle of Jerry Falwell?

When the billionaire speaks at Liberty University, he'll have a chance to solidify support from evangelicals.

Charlie Neibergall / AP

Since announcing his bid for president, Donald Trump has been the victim of many strained comparisons. The conservative columnist Ann Coulter argued that he’s “like Reagan,” the writer Thor Benson likened him to Emperor Palpatine from Star Wars, Ohio Governor John Kasich implicitly compared him to Adolph Hitler in a television advertisement, and author J.K. Rowling even weighed Trump against her Harry Potter villain, Voldemort.

But perhaps the most surprising comparison came from Liberty University president, Jerry Falwell Jr., on Fox News Channel last week: “I think Trump reminds me so much of my father.” The senior Falwell was a fiery televangelist, founder of Liberty, and a prominent leader on the religious right, who registered millions of evangelicals to vote before his death in 2007. Trump is best known for a reality TV show and luxury real-estate developments.

This comparison will be tested on January 18, when Trump addresses the evangelical student body at Liberty, America’s largest Protestant college. A recent NBC poll show that the real-estate mogul has the support of 33 percent of white evangelical voters, the highest of any Republican candidate. His speech at Falwell’s Liberty marks his final chance to win over more of this important Republican voting block ahead of the February 1 Iowa caucus. It’s admittedly a tough sell.

Donald Trump has been accused of many things, but being convincingly religious is not one of them.

He claimed his favorite book is the Bible and even waved one around at a political rally, but was initially unable to name his favorite verse when asked. He has compared himself to altar-call evangelist Billy Graham, but also said he’s never asked God for forgiveness. He claimed to be a faithful Presbyterian, but then the church he claimed to attend released a statement saying he was not an “active member.”

Jerry Falwell Sr., by contrast, founded the Thomas Road Baptist Church at age 22 in 1956. When Falwell wanted to make a point, he didn’t just wave a Bible; he quoted extensively from the book he called “the infallible word of God.” While some would say he misinterpreted or misapplied its teachings to fit his political ends, none would accuse the preacher of being irreligious. (I heard many scripture-laden sermons from Falwell Senior when I was an undergraduate student at Liberty University from 2000 to 2004.)

The differences here are not inconsequential. A 2015 poll by the Barna Group found that evangelicals are far more concerned with a candidate’s faith than the general population. 45 percent of evangelicals say religious faith is one of the most important factors in choosing a presidential candidate, compared with only 9 percent of all Americans. If Trump can’t at least seem more devout than he has in the past, he can’t expect to shepherd more of the conservative faithful into his flock.

But the rift between Trump and evangelical stalwarts like Falwell has as much to do with politics as piety.

Conservative Christians tend to place a disproportionate amount of emphasis on a handful of issues—these days, abortion and LGBT issues. These are issues on which most have refused to compromise.

Falwell Senior was passionate about these two matters, perhaps to his peril. An outspoken pro-lifer who advocated the overturn of Roe v. Wade, the preacher pressed for the appointment of anti-abortion judges and for greater restrictions to abortion services at the state level. He stressed the need for “viable alternatives” to abortion. He even launched the “Liberty Godparent Home,” which helped facilitate adoptions for expectant mothers who wished to bring their children to term but could not care for them.

Though Trump now describes himself as pro-life, as late as 1999 he labeled himself “very pro-choice” on Meet the Press. He says his conversion on the matter is due to hearing personal stories of children who were nearly aborted, but the journey has not been a swing from one extreme to another. In an interview with Bloomberg News’s Mark Halperin in January of 2015, he said, “I’m pro-life, with the caveats. You have to have the caveats.” Trump listed the exceptions as incest, rape, and protecting the life of the mother.

Some evangelicals may be suspicious of his “flip-flops” on abortion, and the most hardline are less willing to support any exceptions in their opposition to abortion.

On LGBT issues, Falwell was also rigid—some would say downright offensive—in his opposition to homosexuality and gay marriage. They say it’s bad form to speak ill of the dead, but in this case, Falwell’s comments speak for themselves. The preacher said that AIDS was God’s punishment both for LGBT people and “for the society that tolerates homosexuals.” He told PBS that homosexuality was a choice, and he supported ex-gay conversion reparative therapy, which has been widely discredited and shown to cause psychological distress in participants.

Falwell’s most egregious comment on sexuality occurred after the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center, when he suggested that “the gays and the lesbians” were partly to be blame because they incited God’s wrath. Lumping them in with feminists, pagans, and abortionists, he railed, “I point the finger in their face and say, ‘you helped this happen.’” He later apologized.

On LGBT issues, Human Rights Campaign says Trump has a “mixed record.” He’s opposed marriage equality, though he has supported domestic-partnership benefits. He has favored amending the Civil Rights Act to protect LGBT persons from discrimination, which many conservatives oppose. After reviewing his record on these matters, MSNBC suggested Trump may be “2016’s most LGBT-friendly Republican.” Not exactly words of comfort for evangelical Christians, many of whom have been inflexible on LGBT issues, and not within a Manhattan avenue block of Falwell’s stringency.

The disconnect between Donald Trump and American evangelicals is not only political in nature, but also moral. Whatever the other criticisms of Jerry Falwell Senior, no one accuses him of not practicing what he preached. The televangelist remained married to his first wife, Macil, for half a century, and was never even accused of marital misconduct, unlike many of his colleagues. Despite his harsh rhetoric, he never used profanity in public. In a tradition like evangelicalism, the public piety of political and religious leaders matters.

Trump, on the other hand, is thrice married and has often used profane language in speeches and interviews.  He has made a portion of his wealth in the casino industry, and as Gary Scott Smith points out at Newsweek, “has displayed little concern for the poor, orphans, or refugees—groups evangelicals profess to want to help.”

If evangelicals held Trump to the same standard they have applied to leaders in the past, he would hardly pass muster. Russell Moore, leader of the Southern Baptist denomination’s political arm, recently described Trump as “unrepentant serial adulterer who has abandoned two wives for other women” and who has grown rich through “an industry that preys on the poor and incentivizes immoral and often criminal behavior.”

Given that Trump diverges from Falwell and so many evangelicals on substantive policy and personal morality, it is odd to see him at Liberty. Trump likely feels pressure to make his case there. The fact that Ted Cruz, Jeb Bush, and Ben Carson have also spoken at the evangelical college suggests that the Republican road to the White House passes through Lynchburg, Virginia. But if evangelical engagement with politics is driven by a politics and morality, Trump may be facing an impossible task.

And yet, the late televangelist and the poorly coifed billionaire are not totally distinct. Falwell Junior elaborated on the comparison to his father by saying, “[Trump] says exactly what he thinks no matter what anybody cares.” And, on this point, the likeness between the two men is difficult to deny.

The elder Falwell was a lightning rod for controversy, warring not just against the liberalizing cultural forces but also against political correctness. He took heat for claiming that the Teletubbies were gay icons and bad for children, for example. While Falwell seemed to lack evidence to support such an assertion, he was not deterred. His ultimate foe was not a children’s television character, but the people he believed to be modern-day speech police.

Trump has also become known for inflammatory rhetoric. He has insinuated that Mexican undocumented immigrants are criminals and rapists, and he has been accused of Islamophobia for his harsh proposals for closing mosques and investigating American Muslims. Similarly, Falwell made disparaging comments about the Muslim prophet Mohammed.

Both Falwell and Trump have also made comments widely believed to be misogynistic. Trump has mocked the physical features of prominent women such as Rosie O’Donnell—and who can forget his comments insinuating that Fox News host Megyn Kelly was probably menstruating? Falwell often attacked feminists, once saying, “These women just need a man in the house.”

So is Donald Trump just Jerry Falwell for a new generation? No. There are real stylistic similarities between the two men, but also substantive differences. The question is whether the likenesses or the dissimilarities will loom larger in the minds of a new generation of evangelicals, who have come of age since the glory days of Jerry Falwell Senior’s Moral Majority.

On January 18, Trump will stand in front of more than 10,000 young evangelicals to make his case, while countless more will watch on their television screens and computer monitors. He will extemporize, tapping into their passions and frustrations. But it’s difficult to imagine that, like Falwell, his speech will end with cheers from the committed and conversions of the cynical. Because for evangelicals, the preacher is almost as important as the sermon itself.