A statement circulated by the Trump campaign after the endorsement went public had Falwell praising the real-restate mogul’s private-sector savvy, casting Trump as a “successful executive and entrepreneur.” Tellingly, it did not mention Trump’s faith.
When Trump spoke at Liberty University last week, Falwell even went so far as to argue that the qualities that conservative Christians look for in faith leaders may not be the same qualities they should look for in elected leaders. At one point, Falwell invoked his father, the late televangelist Jerry Falwell Sr., to make the case: “Dad explained that when he walked into the voting booth, he wasn’t electing a Sunday School teacher or a pastor or even a president who shared his theological beliefs; he was electing a president of the United States.”
It’s not that Trump’s moral qualities don’t matter to Falwell. To the contrary, Falwell has repeatedly emphasized that Trump is a kind and generous person. At Liberty University, he even sought to tie Trump to religious tradition: “Donald Trump lives a life of loving and helping others as Jesus taught in the great commandment.” Falwell also signaled that Christians should be guided by faith as they decide who to vote for. “Jesus never told us who to vote for, he gave us all common sense and the ability to choose the best leaders,” Falwell declared.
Still, it’s pretty clear that Falwell’s political calculation has changed. He once suggested to Christian conservatives that the best hope for protecting their political priorities hinged on supporting a candidate (à la Huckabee) whose religious conviction matched their own. Now, Falwell appears to be arguing that faith alone is not enough—indeed, the best candidate for president may possess qualities not found in a person otherwise equipped to act as a spiritual guide. In his endorsement of Trump, Falwell suggested that a track record of secular achievement matters a great deal.
At Liberty, Falwell spoke at length about Trump’s accomplishments in the world of business, indicating that the candidate’s financial independence allows him to follow through on any promises he makes. “[Trump] is not a puppet on a string like many other candidates who have wealthy donors as their puppet masters,” Falwell said. “Imagine how wonderful it would be for once that the United States of America had as its president, a man, or a woman, who not only refused contributions but who has built companies from scratch … who runs the nation with the same entrepreneurial business principles that have brought success to their own companies.”
Like so many Americans, Falwell’s change in tone may be a reflection of his own disillusionment with the Republican Party and a desire to see a break with politics as usual. It also appears to be an acknowledgement that the old formula for picking politicians has not worked for Christian conservatives. “For decades, conservatives and evangelicals have chosen the political candidates who have told us what we wanted to hear on social, religious, and political issues only to be betrayed by those same candidates after they were elected,” Falwell said.
Voter dissatisfaction with the political elite, and broken political promises, has so far bolstered Trump’s rise. Now, that same outsider status appears to be winning Trump evangelical support, which could be crucial in Iowa, where votes are less than a week away. At this rate, Trump’s iconoclasm may just carry the day.