In the two weeks leading up to Tuesday's New Hampshire primary, Donald Trump gained momentum from some high-profile endorsements, among them conservative evangelical leader and Chancellor of Liberty University Jerry Falwell Jr., oldest son of the late controversial televangelist.
Despite Trump's unfiltered and vitriolic tirades aimed at pretty much everyone who isn't him; despite his proposed policies that feed discrimination against Muslims, Mexicans, and refugees; despite the arrogant bullying that he employs to get what he wants; despite his continued use of crude and offensive language without apology; and despite the fact that nothing he does embodies the evangelical mantra of What Would Jesus Do, Falwell Jr. has decided Trump's the best man for the job. According to exit polls from Tuesday's primary, a good number of New Hampshire's conservative Christians apparently agree. And, as Trump courts a much higher percentage of evangelical voters in South Carolina and some of the other upcoming primary states, he will undoubtedly rely on Falwell Jr.'s continued support. In a country where personal freedom is tantamount, Falwell Jr. can certainly rally behind whomever he wants.
It's just that when you spend a good part of your career, as Falwell Jr. has, positioning yourself as someone whose life and mission are directed by Biblical principles, someone "called by God" to champion the message of Jesus Christ, such an endorsement can't help but raise a few eyebrows. And it has. Since Falwell Jr.'s January 26th announcement, other evangelical leaders have spoken out. One, John Stemberger, president of the Florida Family Policy Council, even said, "The late Dr. Jerry Falwell Sr. would be rolling over in his grave [...] this in no way represents the legacy of Dr. Jerry Falwell Sr."
As someone affected at a deeply personal level by strands of the late Dr. Jerry Falwell Sr.'s legacy, I can't say that I agree, Mr. Stemberger.
I was raised in a conservative evangelical Christian home. My father's father was a Baptist minister, and my mother's grandparents were missionaries. Sunday school, weekly worship services, Bible studies, Christian fellowship events -- all were central to my childhood and adolescence. And, though we lived in Canada, there was no wall to keep Falwell's voice from crossing the border. Our conservative churches modeled many of the fundamentalist values touted by his Moral Majority here in the United States. The music and sermons from Falwell's Old Time Gospel Hour often filled our house -- especially in the four years my grandmother, who wouldn't let us play cards on Sundays, lived with us. The words of hymns and scripture are embedded in my brain. Loving Jesus was a part of my DNA. And because I was 13 years old and living in comfortable ignorance about the deepening intersections of politics and morality and money, I didn't know that there might be something to fear about the way many Christians attached their worldviews to the legalism Falwell preached from his mighty and influential pulpit.
Then, something happened.
In 1985, after suffering a massive heart attack, my father -- a surgeon himself -- underwent a quadruple bypass. The lifesaving blood transfusion his doctors gave him during his surgery was tainted with HIV. Eight months later, he tested HIV positive.
In the years before AIDS appeared on the scene, Jerry Falwell Sr. had launched malicious attacks on what he often called "the gay lifestyle." When the first reported cases of the disease in North America were linked primarily to gay men, he wielded his influence as a weapon of discrimination to further that agenda and to shape public perception. Labeling AIDS a "gay plague," Fallwell Sr. inflamed people's fears about the nature of the disease's spread and declared, "AIDS is not just God's punishment for homosexuals; it is God's punishment for the society that tolerates homosexuals."
This rhetoric of hate, not unlike Trump's "us" against "them" position on illegal immigrants and Muslims, fuelled a culture that responded with callous ignorance to the growing AIDS pandemic. Messages like Falwell Sr.'s and those of other evangelicals who jumped on his bandwagon spilled down and spawned a church climate where victims of HIV were not only unwelcome, they were denied the care and compassion that Christianity so ardently preached.
In the face of this growing stigma, a stigma that still hangs over the 36.9 million men and women worldwide living with HIV/AIDS, my father knew the threat his HIV status posed. To him, that threat felt greatest in our own Christian community. He made the only decision he thought he could. He kept his illness secret. For the ten years before he died from an AIDS-related infection in 1995, my family lived with the lonely knowledge of his progressing disease and impending death. The unraveling of my involvement with the organized Christian Church in the twenty years since is due largely to my inability to reconcile the cruel and polarizing words and actions of vocal church leaders like Jerry Falwell Sr. with the foundational messages of peace, love, and compassion I believe were the soul of Jesus' ministry.
I do not know Jerry Falwell Jr., and I did not know his father. But I intimately know the power of their public personas to prey on those members of society who desperately crave someone to tell them the perceived truth about what's "right." In the 1980s and '90s, Jerry Falwell Sr. manipulated the political leanings of an entire generation of conservative Christians who then turned their fears and self-righteousness on the many innocent people, my father included, suffering from a terrible disease that does not discriminate. And if legacies are what we're talking about here, with his endorsement of Donald Trump, a divisive presidential candidate so far removed from the core values of "personal integrity, sensitivity to the needs of others and social responsibility" that Falwell Jr. attributes to himself and the university he heads, then it seems to me he's picking up right where his father left off.