Note from the author: This has received a lot of attention and feedback. At the bottom I have added some additional thoughts, clarifications, and links, in an attempt to address some of the more frequent responses. Whether you agree with me or not, I appreciate you reading and participating in an important conversation.
Dear Jerry Jr.,
Yesterday morning I live-streamed Donald Trump's convo address, and I have some questions about it. I'm writing you an open letter, rather than simply emailing this to you, because I suspect that other alumni share some of these questions. I'm also writing this in the genuine hope that you interact with it, because from what I remember you take very seriously the opinions of students & alumni about the university and genuinely value the feedback and dialogue. I think a public response from you would help many people, but if you would prefer to respond privately, you can send me an email.
I have to start by saying that I appreciate LU, and your leadership specifically, very much. I was a philosophy and biblical studies major; I was a prayer leader my sophomore year, and then an RA on the quads (32-1) junior and senior years, and I was one of two final candidates for RD for '09-'10. I was deeply invested in student life and in discipling other leaders. When your father passed away, I was sitting on the mansion lawn with my then-girlfriend about fifty feet from his office's exterior double doors, and I saw your brother Jonathan and Ron Godwin running down the sidewalk towards his office as sirens rang in the distance. I still remember the look of raw grief and shock on Jonathan's face when he waved away a knot of us standing on the lawn as the doors were thrown open and the paramedics rushed over. It was a very surreal day.
That was almost exactly in the middle of my time at LU. After that, you and your wife took the reins and rapidly brought a number of exciting changes. Last year, while my band and I were on tour in Virginia, we drove back through campus and I could barely recognize the place (in a good way!). Then and now, I appreciated your understated public speaking manner, and your family's constant presence and evident commitment to the campus and to students. I appreciate that you're a smart, business-savvy leader who has turned LU into a far more diverse and exciting place than most people, who only care about stereotypes, know.
I say all that to try and help you know that what I ask you now, I ask from a place of genuine appreciation, a genuine desire for Liberty to grow stronger and to lead well in the realm of Christian higher education, and a genuine sense of confusion at choices made by a brother in Christ I simply do not understand.
In an effort to be as clear as possible, the bulk of this letter is three questions to you. They are real questions--not rhetorical or "gotcha" questions--and I have included some text after each one to clarify my intent.
1. What has Donald Trump said or done that made him the best choice available to the Liberty University convocation planning team for Martin Luther King Jr. Day?
I'm sure you're aware of the vast, multifaceted, often fraught conversation about race currently taking place in the United States. Some of those conversation partners probably hold very different foundational beliefs about reality than you and I, but some are conservative Christian leaders who believe racial reconciliation is one of many facets of the Gospel. The vast majority of these voices, however, have expressed incredulity at the idea of Donald Trump being invited to speak on MLK Jr. Day specifically. To be clear: I'm not objecting to his invitation or his presence; I'm wondering what qualifies him, rather than one of the other presidential candidates, or someone else active in politics, or another religious or civic leader or scholar, to speak on MLK Jr. day. I know LU's reach and I know you could've asked any number of people. I just don't see Trump's record on racial reconciliation, and after hearing him speak I don't feel that I see it any more clearly, because he didn't talk about racial reconciliation or MLK at all.
I am genuinely curious to understand what motivated the invitation. Were you deliberately trying to make a statement about the state of conversations about race in this country? Were you making a subtle argument that the sort of policies Trump promises will actually further racial reconciliation in America more than other candidates' policies? If so, the argument was too subtle for me.
After all, LU is the biggest evangelical university in the world. It was an opportunity to make a strong statement on a fraught subject that desperately needs Gospel-minded believers thinking and acting on it. That didn't happen and I am left wondering why. I know you take pride in LU's diverse student body and that you would never treat someone differently because of their skin color or nationality, so I honestly struggle to see why you didn't seize this opportunity to make a significant statement about the work for which MLK Jr. gave his life.
2. What is it about Donald Trump's personal character and decisions that moved you to compare him to your father?
Here is what I remember about Jerry Sr. He was kind. He had an extremely warm smile, and his hands, when he grasped yours, were enormous and would swallow your hands in a handshake that was sort of like a hand-hug. He made a point to stay in touch, stay around, and dialogue with people who were very different than himself. He would honk at students walking on campus for the sake of making them startle, and he would give students rides if they jumped in his car. He spoke constantly about the need for a strong prayer life, he wore out his Bible, and he was faithful to your mother until the day he died. He was also constantly crediting any of his or Liberty's success to God's providence.
I see, in some ways, a sort of simple similarity, in that your father was a political conservative who was often misunderstood or mischaracterized, and had no interest in being "politically correct." Your father also believed that politics was an important realm for Christian activism (although I suspect that this waned towards the end of his life). But in other respects I honestly struggle to see the similarities. Donald Trump has divorced two wives and has made a large amount of his fortune from gambling (Russell Moore, no liberal, has made these points repeatedly). I have no interest in judging someone only by their past failure but I am not aware that Trump has ever addressed those things as "failures." He does not seem to act charitable towards those who disagree and does not seem as personally committed to loving people different than him as your father was. Honestly, I struggle to see how Donald Trump is a "Christian" in any meaningful, confessional sense of the word, certainly not like your father was. I often disagreed with Jerry Sr. on political and theological matters but I never once doubted that he was a faithful Christian who loved God and believed that he was humbly following Him.
So, I am genuinely curious. Many people still only know a stereotype of your father, and I have corrected this in personal conversations before, so it is possible that something similar has happened with Donald Trump. What is it, then, that motivates you to compare him to your father? What do you know that I, and many others, don't?
Perhaps this is the simplest way I can put it: Where do you see the fruit of the Spirit in Donald Trump's life?
One final note on this question: Like many other evangelicals, I recognize that we are not electing a "pastor-in-chief." I don't cast my vote for president based on someone's faith but on my confidence that they will do a good job and bring the right network with them to the presidency. I think you and I agree on that, which is why I am confused as to why you felt the need to speak about Trump's Christian qualifications at all. It seems like a cynical way to get votes from people who do consider that strongly as they cast their vote. I don't think that's what you intended, but that's what it seemed like, so I'm asking for genuine clarification here.
3. Why did your introduction sound like an endorsement of Trump's candidacy?
You were clear, of course, that LU does not formally endorse candidates for president. But then you went on to say the sorts of things about him--and not about any other candidate--that nobody says unless they're endorsing someone for the candidacy. You're a lawyer, so I know you see that just because you didn't explicitly say the six words "I endorse Donald Trump for president" doesn't mean the spirit wasn't there. The juxtaposition between your statement of LU's neutrality and your actual comments was honestly jarring. Doesn't it seem to you that, as President, it's important for you to give up your 'right' to speak that way, from that stage and in that capacity, given your duties to the non-profit institution that is LU?
I watched this convocation specifically because everybody was already talking about it before it happened, and I wanted to form opinions of my own. I was hoping to be pleasantly surprised by Trump. Like you, Jerry, I appreciate that Trump is not beholden to special interest money. Like you, I appreciate that he doesn't feel confined to the straitjacket of political correctness. Like you, I appreciate that he emphasizes taking care of military veterans, fixing our immigration system, and helping to restore American jobs.
However, there are other ways to think about these things. Someone who glories in self-sufficiency can become arrogant and forget that self-sufficiency is ultimately an illusion: there is nobody who does not depend on others for a myriad of things every day. Someone who eschews political correctness could do so because they are not kind or circumspect enough to know when to speak in certain ways and not in others, especially for the sake of being charitable, or considerate of those with whom they disagree. And someone who repeats promises that elicit cheers from the crowds may be able to win those cheers because everybody seems ready for a change, period--even when there are yet to be any specifics forthcoming on how, exactly, those grand-sounding promises will be made good. He will, after all, need to work through Congress on all this stuff.
All in all, I was not impressed. Trump did not speak about Martin Luther King Jr. or racial reconciliation at all, which is, at the very least, a huge strategic oversight from a campaign perspective (unless the assumption is that his audience doesn't care about that, which is a sad thought to me). He opened and closed his time by gloating over his own poll numbers. He should feel embarrassed at his attempts to "speak evangelical" (because he clearly is not one), and many of the policy promises he made are downright ridiculous (forcing Apple to build laptops in America? Forcing retailers to say "Merry Christmas"? Lamenting discord in the Middle East on the one hand but promising to "bomb the hell out of ISIS" on the other?).
Jerry, I want to understand why Trump was given the platform he was on MLK Jr. day. I know that you are very busy and I don't presume you have an obligation to respond, but I would appreciate it. Meanwhile, I wish you and your family (both immediate and LU) the best and hope that the spring semester continues well.
Additional Thoughts (edited 1/20/16)
Here are some common questions or criticisms I've received, and my specific responses.
"LU invites a ton of speakers, why didn't you get upset when _________ was invited?"
First, this response is a deflection--it avoids dealing with the things I actually talk about. Second, I am well aware that LU invites many people to speak in convo and that speaking is not necessarily an endorsement. Three things about Trump's speaking make this different. First, Trump is trying to win evangelical votes. If he doesn't have evangelical votes he can't secure the Republican nomination. That means, as an evangelical, I need to pay closer attention, because he is going to try to communicate with me and my "people," and I want to see whether he means what he says (as I do with anybody who specifically tries to speak to evangelicals). Second, in Jerry Jr.'s introduction, and in a subsequent interview on Hannity's show (more about that below), he offered a tacit endorsement of Trump's candidacy with remarks that are, as far as I can remember, unprecedented in terms of convo speakers. That makes me want to sit up and listen more critically.
Third and finally, events at LU don't take place in a cultural or political vacuum. Many people involved in conversations about race expressed incredulity at Trump being invited to speak on MLK Jr. day. My main complaint here is not even the fact that it doesn't seem fitting; it's that the way it went down makes LU, and Jerry Jr. specifically, seem tone-deaf. In other words, let's grant for a moment that Trump was a perfectly fine choice to speak on MLK Jr. day, or let's grant that there is a subtle political statement about racial discourse being made by Jerry Jr. or LU in having him speak. Even so, those things should be explained. That is good stewardship of one's influence in the eyes of a watching world. Trump attracts commentary and criticism like a lightning rod. Why not take advantage of that to offer some serious clarity? But none was forthcoming. I've had commenters defending LU suggesting that it might just have been a scheduling error, or may have been happenstance that it fell on MLK day. That seems really sloppy, but even if that were the case, all Jerry needs to do is say, actually, we didn't schedule him on that day because of MLK Jr. day--it was coincidental. (I don't feel great about that either, but that's a different conversation.)
"Jerry Jr. already responded to your questions in an interview with Sean Hannity later that day."
Here is the video in question, so that you can watch it yourself before I offer commentary on it:
Most of Jerry Jr.'s comments here were first said during his introduction. I took notes on this interview and will go through them in the order of the questions I asked above.
1. What made Trump the best choice for MLK day?
Nothing said here answers this question. I wish Jerry Jr. had at least said, We recognize that many even of fellow evangelicals didn't understand why we asked Trump to speak on MLK Jr. day, but...."
2. What is it about Trump's personal character and decisions that moved you to compare him to your father?
Based on his words here and in his introduction, I consider this question answered (in one sense). The similarities, as Jerry Jr. sees them, are: personal generosity, public political incorrectness, and a recognition that the qualities that make a good Sunday School teacher are not the same qualities that make a good President, as evidenced by Falwell Sr.'s support of Reagan over Carter.
I appreciate politicians who are candid and who don't feel the need to carefully vet all of their statements according to an assumed standard of political incorrectness. I applaud times Trump has been privately generous with his money and with his business ventures. And I agree that Sunday School teachers and Presidents shouldn't be held to the same standards; I already have a pastor and don't need one in the White House.
However, Jerry's comments assume Trump is qualified to be President rather than a Sunday School teacher. I think the correct answer is that he is qualified to be neither. Moreover I simply disagree with Jerry Jr. when he quotes Jesus in saying "by their fruit you shall know them," implying that Trump has shown (Christian? Political?) fruit. The only way that's true is if you weaken the sense of "fruit" to something far more anemic than what Jesus had in mind.
3. Why did your introduction sound like an endorsement of Trump's candidacy?
Hannity asked him this question specifically at the beginning of the interview, and Jerry Jr. evaded the question. He merely repeated what he said at convo: that LU does not endorse a candidate, BUT [insert piled-on praise here]. My basic point, I think, still stands: I worry that he overstepped his bounds as University President, especially in making these remarks from convocation stage as an introduction to a speaker.
"Trump exists because of Obama's failed leadership. People support him because he says what nobody else is willing to say. We need him in office to stop [illegal immigration / ISIS / the IRS / unions / Obamacare / gay marriage / liberalism / Christian persecution / loss of American manufacturing / China / Russia / Iran / #blacklivesmatter / trigger warnings]. Why can't you just support that rather than inventing reasons to complain?"
Here we come to the heart of the matter. Many of the people who messaged me or commented on this piece either outright support Trump or feel so much animus towards President Obama that literally anything except another Democrat would be preferable in the Oval Office.
It is hard to know where to begin in analyzing this. Many of the above issues seem to be either outrightly misunderstood or lied about by Trump. For instance, it simply is not true that first-generation immigrants commit more crime on average than other groups in the US, despite Trump's claim at the start of his campaign that the Mexicans crossing the border are all rapists and murderers. (In case you wonder why people accuse Trump of being a racist, it's because he's willing to throw around vague, negative generalizations about whole groups of people that seem to reveal a profound ignorance on his part about what those varied people are actually like. This is true for Muslims as well.) Also, if we want to compare Trump to Reagan, maybe we should do so on the issue of immigration: Reagan also used his executive powers (as Obama has done) to protect certain classes of illegal immigrants from deportation in the absence of Congress' action. Here's another article on immigration and crime. It's also bordering on a falsehood to say something like "black people need to worry about black-on-black crime rather than police brutality," something I've heard from many Trump supporters. First, the dynamics of inner-city living and change are extremely complicated, so if you've never lived in a large inner city area or never read the work of, say, sociologists or community development leaders, you probably won't have an informed opinion. Second, yes, some of the cases cited by Black Lives Matter are oversimplified: Eric Holder's Justice Department investigation exonerated Darren Wilson, the officer who shot Michael Brown, finding that he did indeed act in self-defense (although Brown's death is still a tragedy). But the statistics on black people shot by police are still staggering.
You guys, Trump's campaign is attracting enthusiastic support from white supremacist and nationalist groups. He disparaged Ted Cruz by saying "not a lot of evangelicals come out of Cuba." He is running a basically racist campaign. He repeatedly shrugs off requests for policy specifics on subjects like immigration in favor of falsehoods and empty campaign slogans. He tweeted an absurdly incorrect statistic about black and white crime that was traced to some anonymous racist twitter page. He has demonstrated a willingness to trample on the Constitution and civil liberties.
Given all of this, let's step back and look at what gave me occasion to write in the first place. Trump was invited to speak at the largest evangelical university in the world on a holiday honoring a foundational figure in the U.S. civil rights movement and given the most glowing introduction I can remember, everything except the explicit word "endorsement," by that university's president. Everything about that sentence is problematic! And people have the gall to ask me why I'm "inventing things to complain about."
Honestly, Trump supporter, if you're reading this, do you truly believe that he will be a competent politician, national leader, and commander-in-chief to our military? Do you truly believe that he will surround himself with the most competent people, especially people who have the ability to tell him "no" when he needs to hear it? Do you truly believe that putting a temporary ban on Muslims immigrating to the US, or mandating that all Muslims in the US register in a database, is even possible, let alone an effective deterrent to radical Islamic terrorism (and the cultural seeds and soil from which that terrorism grows)? Do you really believe that Trump can singlehandedly reverse academic and cultural trends that have brought the United States to its most culturally progressive moment ever? Do you really believe that it's possible and desirable to undertake a mass deportation of 11 million undocumented immigrants? Can you really find nothing to celebrate in the last eight years of Obama's presidency?
I was not originally motivated to write this because I think Trump is a poor choice for president. I thought he was a poor choice for a speaker in that venue on that day, and I didn't understand Jerry's quasi-endorsement of him, nor Jerry's praising his personal faith (that I am fairly certain is not there). Those things alone would have merited this post, but in receiving feedback from people I thought it made sense to elaborate on my discomfort, as an evangelical and as someone who cares about the future of this country, with the idea of Trump being president.
Thanks again to all who have read and interacted. I hope this piece has stirred a lot of good questions and dialogue and critical thought. If Jerry Jr. ever responds directly I will be sure to update again.