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Opinion >  Syndicated columns

Elizabeth Bruenig: How Jerry Falwell Jr. found his MAGA religion

By Elizabeth Bruenig Washington Post

Jerry Falwell Jr. is once again spreading his uniquely modern, American version of a business philosophy roughly based on the religion known as Christianity.

In an interview with the Post’s Joe Heim, Falwell claimed, among other things, that Christianity offers no guidance on how states ought to operate (“Jesus never told Caesar how to run Rome,” Falwell says, implying that Christ’s crucifixion under Roman law may have been just from a Christian point of view); that only theocrats believe Christians ought to govern according to Christian principles; that poor people are less spiritually capable than rich people; and that God has ordained “two kingdoms” for humankind, one of which is bound only by the rules of national self-interest, and one of which – heaven – is bound by the law of God.

Falwell’s entire view of Christianity and politics more or less tracks back to that last confusion. I suspect it stems from a mistaken reading of Augustine, the fourth-century African saint who wrote “The City of God,” a massive treatise on history, philosophy and the Christian religion. In “The City of God,” Augustine develops a theory of two cities: the earthly city, and the heavenly city.

Poor readings of Augustine abound, and it isn’t uncommon to see readers take this theory of two cities to mean – as Falwell clearly does – that there is an earthly city (usually identified with the state or with public life) that God created to operate by mortal rules of self-interest, while the heavenly city is meant to operate by eternal rules of self-giving. According to this theory, there is little that isn’t permissible here in the earthly city, at least when it comes to the worldly affairs of politics and public life. And then there is the other city – the heavenly city – which, in this misreading, is often identified with either heaven itself or religious institutions such as the church, wherein Christians are actually bound to follow the dictates of their religion.

Thus, for Falwell, Christians in the earthly kingdom are free to put self-interest over – well, anything, it seems. Thus, he explains, “You don’t choose a president based on how good they are; you choose a president based on what their policies are.”

What Augustine’s two cities actually symbolize are two different destinations for the soul. The earthly city consists of the number of people who are self-seeking and self-desiring, whose ultimate end is their own benefit. The heavenly city consists of those who seek to follow the will of God. But the two cities are not separate or wholly distinct, either spatially or institutionally: They are everywhere and always intermixed. Citizens can bear dual citizenship: People who earnestly seek God in all things nevertheless live in a world shaped by and devoted to self-interest, and the generally selfish can, at times, confront the transcendent.

But Christians never stop being Christians. On the contrary, Augustine argued that not being self-seeking made Christians better citizens, as opposed to the late Roman view that they were impious rabble-rousers. What Falwell appears to take as a permission slip to abandon Christian principle when given enough power – “In the heavenly kingdom the responsibility is to treat others as you’d like to be treated,” he tells Heim. “In the earthly kingdom, the responsibility is to choose leaders who will do what’s best for your country” – more or less suggests the opposite. There is no mandate in Augustine to put aside Christianity when participating in civic life; the hope is rather that Christian morality will inform better and more peaceful citizenship – thanks to all those virtues Falwell doesn’t like: mercy, justice, equanimity.

Of course, that doesn’t mean Falwell never cares for Christian principle in American leaders, or that he would actually endorse a misreading of Augustine if it were laid out for him next to a stronger reading. He seems instead to have been reasoning backward, trying to explain in Christian terms why he holds the conclusions he does, rather than beginning from the religion and following it to its own conclusions. Critics of Christianity have struggled for centuries with precisely what Falwell does: that the religion isn’t very good at making you rich or powerful and that it offers very little advice for crushing your enemies or securing your own benefit at the expense of others. “A poor person never gave anyone a job. A poor person never gave anybody charity, not of any real volume,” Falwell claims, in direct contradiction to a lesson shared by Jesus in Mark 12.

That story goes like this: Jesus watches one day as many people, rich and poor, put money into the temple treasury. Though some rich people give large amounts of money, Jesus only stops to note the donation of a poor widow who gives only a few cents. “Truly I tell you,” Jesus says, “this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.”

There are no perfect Christians; Falwell is right about that. (I certainly wouldn’t claim the mantle.) But it’s important to distinguish between abdicating Christian values to get ahead in business and politics, and the erroneous view that God sanctions some amount of immorality as natural or appropriate to life on Earth. There is no zone in Christian theology where malignant selfishness is permitted. The heavenly city is here right now, if you want to dwell there.

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