It’s long been a conceit in literary scholarship that each generation of poets must “kill off their father” in order to usher in a new era of artistic expression. They must give the old master his due in their own poetry—either through eulogizing him directly, mastering his technique, or revisiting his themes—but then they must somehow “bury” him and leave him behind. During a tour of Scotland in 1803, Wordsworth purposefully sought out the gravesite of Robert Burns, afterwards which he wrote the poem, “To the Sons of Burns, After Visiting the Grave of Their Father.” The first stanza reads:
'MID crowded obelisks and urns
I sought the untimely grave of Burns;
Sons of the Bard, my heart still mourns
With sorrow true;
And more would grieve, but that it turns
Trembling to you!
In 2014, on a trip for Eden Vigil, I visited Liberty University in Lynchburg, VA. At the center of campus in an open rotunda, deceased founder Jerry Falwell, Sr. also rests “’mid crowded obelisks and urns.” An eternal flame burns over him. Falwell, Sr. was decidedly an old master, one of the driving forces behind the Religious Right in what historian Randall Balmer calls the fourth era of American Evangelicalism.
Wordsworth was not a Scottish writer, and didn’t necessarily need to “kill Burns” in order to free himself up for a new poetic vision. It is said that Wordsworth had to kill Milton, just as later Shelley would have to kill him. So instead Wordsworth addresses the “Sons of Burns,” the new generation of Scottish poets. The first thing he reminds them of is that they are “Sons of the Bard,” that is sons of Shakespeare. If they are looking for their identity in Burns, they are thinking too myopically. Nonetheless, Burns was known as the “Bard of Ayrshire,” so the reference also works in the same way that the word Christian (literally “little Christ”) evokes the spirit of the one true Christ in us. Jerry Falwell, Sr. was a Christian, but he was not the Christ.
The only time I heard Rev. Falwell speak live was when I was a student at Moody Bible Institute, a Bible college which sprung up during what Balmer calls the third era of American Evangelicalism. It was 1984, an election year, and Ronald Reagan was seeking his second term. The Moody Band had worked up some patriotic tunes and Falwell, Sr. walked out on the stage of Torrey-Gray auditorium to the brassy melody of “Hail to the Chief.” Later he told us from the podium, “I don’t care who you vote for. Just vote for the Reagan of your choice!” We all laughed heartily. He told a joke: “Why is the American Civil Liberties Union so opposed to the public display of nativity scenes?” (We don’t know, Rev. Falwell, why?) “They’re jealous, because in their entire membership they don’t have a single virgin or three wise men.” We laughed guiltily, unsure whether ACLU’s deflowering qualified as a dirty joke. I imbibed the conflation uncritically. If you want to be an American Evangelical, you vote Republican. If you want to be an American Evangelical, invest political power in your religious leaders, and religious power in your American patriotism. If you want to be an American Evangelical, view other groups oppositionally, including those who purport to uphold common values to your own like “liberties.” And yet, this one encounter wasn’t my earliest memory of Jerry Falwell, Sr. My dad used to switch on the TV on Sunday mornings before we left for church. The Old Time Gospel Hour was broadcast live from Thomas Road Baptist Church in Lynchburg, VA, and Rev. Falwell was presiding. Organ music. Choral voices. The old hymns. “Open your Bibles to. . . . John 3:16.” I loved the background noise of my childhood Sunday mornings. It made me feel rooted in something older and more substantial than myself. I too was a “Son of the Bard,” and not just a product of my subculture.
In his poem “To the Sons of Burns,” Wordsworth grieves alongside the young poets, but moreover, he “trembles” for them. In the fourth stanza, he warns them that well-meaning people, “honest men,” will emerge who, “of your Father's name will make/A snare for you.” They will try to co-opt you, to direct your spirit through ossified channels, to give you a pass if your poetry proves mediocre. So, Wordsworth admonishes the young to take their own blank sheets of paper (a quire) and run away:
Far from their noisy haunts retire,
And add your voices to the quire
That sanctify the cottage fire
With service meet;
There seek the genius of your Sire,
His spirit greet;
The current president of Liberty University is Jerry Falwell, Jr. who has famously endorsed Donald Trump, first for the Republican nomination and now for the US presidency. Falwell’s heir is counted among “honest men,” but has created a “noisy haunt” at Liberty, particularly when he introduced the candidate during campus chapel with the statement, “In my opinion, Donald Trump lives a life of loving and helping others as Jesus taught in the great commandment.” Southern Baptist leader Russell Moore unwittingly played the role of Wordsworth with his tweet: “Trading in the gospel of Jesus Christ for political power is not liberty but slavery.” Should the students of Liberty University un-enroll and run away? Perhaps not, but they should at least retire, as to a cottage’s fireside, to that black battered Bible that Falwell, Sr. used to preach from at Thomas Road. “There seek the genius of your Sire, His spirit greet.” If the students simply retreat to Falwell Sr’s gravesite, e.g. to his legacy, they will find plenty of Old Time segregationism and “fear of the other” (most notably, Falwell’s Sr. spiteful pronouncements about homosexuals and Muslims). The “cottage” however is the Bible; the “fire” is the Gospel. We are well advised to linger there for hours.
In 2016, Donald Trump came along and helped kill Jerry Falwell, Sr. in the service of a new promising era of American Evangelicalism—and for this I am grateful. What I actually mean is this: when the old guard of the Religious Right (Falwell Jr., James Dobson, Wayne Grudem, et.al.) endorse the immoral character and the spiteful agenda of a nominee like Donald Trump, they are effectively signaling the end of a historical period of evangelical Christianity in America. What our new identity will be—I have my hopes and some inklings. At the very least, our identity will not be bound up in simply being someone’s “voting bloc.”
Historian Randall Balmer, already alluded to twice, also feels that we are in transition toward a new (fifth) era of American Evangelicalism. His book The Making of Evangelicalism (very readable at a brief 84 pages) was published in 2010, that is, long before the Republican ascendancy of Donald Trump. According to the author, American Evangelicalism began with an initial confluence of Scots-Irish Presbyterianism, Continental Pietism, and the vestiges of New England Puritanism. This core (what we might even now call “we” as in “we evangelicals’) then approached four “junctures,” where we chose to identify with one path over the other each time. We are the product of four transitional moments.
In the first era, we moved during the Great Awakenings of the 1700s from a Reformed to an Arminian theology of salvation. Having newly taken our political destiny in hand, we now took control over our religious destiny as well. We could “make a decision for Christ” and proactively construct the mechanisms of revivalism. The second great transition was from post-millennialism to pre-millennialism. With dispensational thoughts of escaping in a rapture, we abdicated the steward’s mandate to make this world a better place. In the third transition, the Scopes Monkey Trial of 1925 (one of our first great battles with the ACLU)* was just one of the affronts that set us to constructing our own subculture: “They set about forming their own congregations, denominations, missionary societies, publishing houses, Bible institutes, Bible colleges, Bible camps and seminaries—all in an effort to insulate themselves from the larger world. The project was ambitious and Herculean and costly, but evangelicals believed that the integrity of their faith was at stake” (49).
There is a prevailing myth about the “Rise of the Religious Right,” Balmer’s fourth stage of American Evangelical evolution. The myth is that Roe v. Wade (1973) unleashed a great righteous outrage and compelled Evangelicals to re-engage the world. But this is a myth. The truth is that evangelicals in 1973 lagged far behind Roman Catholics on opposition to abortion. W.A. Criswell, former Southern Baptist head and no stranger to the pulpit at Thomas Road, said immediately after Roe v. Wade: “I have always felt that it was only after a child was born and had a life separate from its mother that it became an individual person, and it has always, therefore, seemed to me that what is best for the mother and for the future should be allowed.” Instead, it was a different court case—Green v. Connally (1971)—that convened the founding members of the Religious Right. A district court had authorized the IRS to revoke the tax-exempt status of any institution which engaged in racial discrimination. On January 19, 1976, the IRS served notice to fundamentalist Bob Jones University of Greenville, SC. According to Balmer,
Evangelical leaders, prodded by [Goldwater veteran Paul] Weyrich, chose to interpret the IRS ruling against segregationist schools as an assault on the integrity and sanctity of the evangelical subculture. And that is what prompted them to action and to organize into a political movement. “What caused the movement to surface,” Weyrich reiterated, “was the federal government’s moves against Christian schools,” which, he added, “enraged the Christian community” (64).
These are the facts of our Fourth Era founding. Now, consider the values expressed in that founding. We were not mobilized to “care for the least of these” (vulnerable fetuses, oppressed minorities); we were rallied to self-protect, and to preserve our subculture. The prevailing emotion was rage, not love. We had just wanted to be left alone to preach the Gospel until the rapture, and then--“How dare the federal government tell us what to do on segregation!” How dare they take away our tax-exempt privilege. We had lost the Scopes Monkey Trial. We lost the Green v. Connally appeal (8-1, with Rehnquist the lone dissent.) The prevailing value of the era is evident in this founding narrative. We felt powerless and we swore to never feel that way ever again. We would seek power. We want to win.
Power is precisely the reason why Donald Trump is being so effective in killing our father. Part of the “art of the deal” after all is to know what the other side wants better than they know it themselves. So we get the situation where Jerry Falwell Jr. calls Trump a loving man, and James Dobson calls him “a baby Christian,” and Mike Pence calls him a “good man,” and Wayne Grudem calls him “a moral choice.” By what objective set of observations could these statements possibly be true?! A new generation of evangelical Christians—Millennials if you will—with poetry in their souls, listen to the last vestiges of the Religious Right and think that they are speaking in tongues. “Loving, Christian, good, moral”—it’s just so much glossolalia when in the political endorsement of a Jerry Falwell, Jr. But then along comes Donald Trump with the gift of interpretation. “Power,” he says plainly, “Your fathers are talking about power.”
Donald Trump has had two significant encounters with American Evangelicals during the summer. The first occurred on June 21 in New York where he met by invitation only with Falwell, Jr., Dobson, and hundreds of other evangelical leaders. He spoke about American Christianity’s slide to getting “weaker, weaker, weaker,” a slide he would turn around on the first day of office.
And I say to you folks, because you have such power, such influence. Unfortunately the government has weeded it away from you pretty strongly. But you’re going to get it back. Remember this: If you ever add up, the men and women here are the most important, powerful lobbyists. You’re more powerful. Because you have men and women, you probably have something like 75, 80 percent of the country believing. But you don’t use your power. You don’t use your power.
Then on August 11, Trump met with a group of Evangelical leaders and pastors in Orlando, FL. He told the story of how Lyndon Johnson, a “powerful” man, challenged tax-exemption for politically-active religious groups and “basically silenced the pastors and the ministers and the rabbis and the priests, and people of religion. And I said, wow, that's incredible. And for some reason, the churches, the pastors, the evangelicals, they didn't do anything about it. It's very strange, because I know how tough you are.”
And when they told me that, we're in a building in Manhattan and I said, so, that means that you have less power as powerful people, as people that are representing -- in some cases, thousands of people, on, generally, Sunday, that means that you have less power than people walking up and down the street? I pointed thirty stories down, I said look, see the people walking up down? That means you have less people than they do, really, and yet you should be far more powerful. And if you look what's happened to religion, if you look at what's happening to Christianity, and you look at the number of people going to churches -- and evangelicals know this also -- it's not on this kind of a climb, it's on this kind of a climb of slow and steady in the wrong direction.
By the time he was done in Orlando, Donald Trump drove the final nail in the coffin of Jerry Falwell Sr. by taking the Old Time Gospel itself and interpreting it as power. You may remember that immediately after the New York meetings, James Dobson had started a rumor that Donald Trump had professed a saving faith in Jesus Christ and should be treated as a “baby Christian.” The Trump campaign never responded. As Trump finished his remarks in Orlando however, he said:
So go out and spread the word. And once I get in, I will do my thing that I do very well, and I figure it's probably maybe the only way I'm going to get to heaven, so I better do a good job. OK?
Randall Balmer writes, “Evangelicalism in America has evolved and mutated over the centuries—that, in fact, is the burden of this book—but it is still possible to identify some generic characteristics: an embrace of the Holy Bible as inspired and God’s revelation to humanity, a belief in the centrality of a conversion or ‘born again’ experience, and the impulse to evangelize or bring others to the faith.” Did none of those leaders of the Religious Right in Orlando, those “honest men,” those Sons of Falwell, ever love Donald Trump enough to challenge him? No Mr. Trump, heaven is not gained by power nor by winning, nor by restoring tax-exemption to powerless Evangelicals. In fact, the choir at Thomas Road Baptist Church used to sing an old hymn: “There is power, power, wonder-working power, in the blood, of the [powerless] Lamb.”
What the next phase of American Evangelicalism will look like, I do not know. Perhaps we are headed for what Dietrich Bonhoeffer called “religionless Christianity.” It will be characterized by a trusting embrace of powerlessness. I hope we will seek out the powerless of society—the poor, the immigrant, the refugee, the minority, the despised—and try to ingratiate ourselves with them instead. I hope we won’t try to do anything for them, but rather do everything with them. We will honestly engage what the historical church and the global church call “God’s preferential option for the poor.” Abortion will still be a strong issue but we will, hopefully, root it in the solid theology of a John Paul II and not in the sexual-revolution-backlash of an opportunistic political party.
I dedicate Wordsworth’s final stanza to a new generation of evangelical poets—Connor, Adelaide, Bronwynn, Sammi, Liz, Andrew among them, as well as the dear kids I met at Liberty University. Wordsworth told the Sons of the Old Masters:
Let no mean hope your souls enslave;
Be independent, generous, brave;
Your Father such example gave,
And such revere;
But be admonished by his grave,
And think, and fear!
The entirety of Wordsworth's poem "To the Sons of Burns" can be read here.
*Editor's Correction-- In a previous publication of this article, I mistakenly reported that "we evangelicals," led by William Jennings Bryan, "lost" the Scopes Monkey Trial to Clarence Darrow and the ACLU. In actuality, Bryan won the original case. The schoolteacher John Scopes was charged $100, which he refused to pay. In the end the Tennessee Supreme Court threw out the case on a technicality. For a fascinating discussion of why the general public, including myself, always seem to assume that evangelicals lost the Scopes Trial, I recommend Barry Hankins's chapter in his book Jesus and Gin: Evangelicalism, the Roaring Twenties, and Today's Culture Wars (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010). In the end, win or lose, we were affronted indeed!