Perhaps the best way to explain what went wrong with Donald Trump’s appearance at Liberty University earlier today is to clarify what wasn’t wrong with it (watch above).
There’s nothing wrong per se with a Christian university hosting a presidential candidate for a speech on their campus. In a university setting—even in a Christian one—a speech need not equal an endorsement. If other candidates are given equal access and if it is clear how such a visit might contribute to robust Christian thinking and conviction, there is no necessary offense in this. In fact, it could be a win.
There’s nothing wrong per se with a Christian university hosting a non-Christian for a speech or a lecture on campus. We should encourage a robust exchange of ideas—even with voices we might otherwise disagree with. And there is no necessary violation of principle to have, for example, an atheist participate in a symposium on the plausibility of belief. In fact, in that setting it would be profoundly beneficial to have an actual atheist come and make his case alongside that of Christians and to hear each side hash the issues out in reasoned debate. We can imagine any number of scenarios in which it might be helpful to hear from a non-Christian on a Christian campus. And I can even imagine a setting in which hearing from a non-Christian politician might actually be helpful and in keeping with a school’s mission.
There is, however, something deeply wrong about a Christian university hosting a person who shows little evidence of being a Christian and then treating him as if he were a Christian. That is what happened at Liberty University today, and that is the main thing that was wrong. Trump spoke at Liberty University’s convocation—a meeting that resembles a Christian chapel service. It began with the students singing together songs of praise—the kind that you might sing at your average evangelical church. The pastor leading the service then led the congregation in prayer and reported on local mission activities of Liberty students.
Then the President of the University—Jerry Falwell, Jr.—took the stage to introduce Trump. Even though Falwell clarified that the University wasn’t endorsing Trump for President and that other candidates had also been invited, Falwell went on to give what could only be construed as a personal endorsement of Trump [UPDATE: Falwell has since added his personal endorsement.]. He said that he admired Trump’s candor and willingness to be politically incorrect, even comparing Trump to his own late father Jerry Falwell, Sr. Falwell even said that Trump had born “fruit” through a life of love and charity to others. In every way, Liberty framed Trump’s appearance as if it were a Christian message from a Christian person. The only problem with this is that it was not clearly either one of those things. Here’s why.
Trump has given little to no evidence of actually being a Christian–at least in the way that Liberty has heretofore defined it. That is not to say that Trump doesn’t claim to be a Christian. Indeed, in his speech he claimed to be a protestant and a Presbyterian. Shouldn’t we just take him at his word? For the moment, let us set aside whether we think his policy proposals are consistently Christian. Just consider how Trump has described in his own words his Christian commitment. Trump has said that he has never asked God for forgiveness. Why? Because he says he doesn’t need it. Trump has said that he only goes to church at Christmas and Easter. His many divorces are also well-known. What kind of Christian is it that feels no need for forgiveness from his sins? That only gathers with God’s people twice a year for worship? That is involved in what is at best serial monogamy? It may be a “Christian” that is Christian in name only, not in reality.
None of these items is an unforgivable error, but they do appear to be un-repented of error. If he were applying for membership in the church where I pastor, he would not be allowed to join while having these errors in tow. If he were already a member and persisted in these errors, we would excommunicate him. In short, we would treat him as if he were not a born-again believer in the Lord Jesus. What we would not do is put him on a platform and tell everyone that he has born the “fruit” of authentic Christianity—much less invite him to give a speech in a slot that is typically reserved for Christian preaching. To do such a thing would be to call light darkness and darkness light (Isaiah 5:20). To put him before the people, to endorse his message, and to treat him as a fruit-bearing Christian is to “participate in his evil deeds” (2 John 11).
Also, it doesn’t serve Trump to leave the truth of the gospel in obscurity. What Trump needs is what all of us have needed. We need to know that we are sinners and are in desperate need of reconciliation with a holy God. If there is one thing we need in this life, it’s forgiveness from our offended Maker. The good news is that our Maker loves us and his sent his Son Jesus to die for our sins. He has resurrected Jesus from the dead to give us eternal life. Anyone who repents of their sin and believes in this Savior will taste real forgiveness and the life-transforming power of the Holy Spirit. That message is for any and everyone who will have it, and it is totally free. It may advance a political agenda to leave these things in obscurity, but it doesn’t advance the kingdom of God.
Donald Trump doesn’t have to be a Christian in order to run for president or to speak at Liberty University. But Liberty University—as a Christian institution of higher learning—has a responsibility not to confuse people about what Christianity is. And today they fell short of that in a big way.