Back in 2007 after the death of Jerry Falwell, famed atheist Christopher Hitchens took to the airwaves of Anderson Cooper’s CNN talkshow to blast the late Baptist reverend. He began by saying that Falwell certainly wasn’t in heaven “and it’s a pity there isn’t a hell for him to go to.”

From there he went on to attack Falwell for anti-semitism as well as his noxious comments after September 11 before claiming something that may not have been true of Falwell but almost certainly is of other prominent leaders of Falwell’s movement: that he was a fraud who didn’t believe a word of what he said but was in it purely to make himself rich and powerful.

You can see the full interview below:

Beeson Divinity School dean Timothy George and Summit Ministries director Jeff Myers both came to Falwell’s defense. Many other evangelicals were scandalized by Hitchens’ remarks and chalked it up to Deranged New Atheist Syndrome, a diagnosis which, given Hitchens’ book, did not seem at all far fetched, even if the reality beneath Hitchens’ public persona was more complex.

Regarding Falwell himself, Hitchens’ comments still seem out of line. Certainly the testimony of both Beeson’s eminently trustworthy Dr. George as well as that of a former Liberty student with no professional reason to praise him would suggest as much.

However, it now looks increasingly likely that, if Hitchens words were wrong, it is not because his critique was wrong but only that his subject was. If he said the same thing of Falwell’s son or Ben Carson or Mike Huckabee or, now, depressingly, Rick Santorum, he’d be exactly right. Indeed, I have wished more than once this election cycle that Hitchens were still alive, if only so he could give these charlatans the treatment their behavior so richly deserves.

For years, conservative evangelicals, including writers at this site, have tried to defend the religious right where we could, arguing that what we need is not a repudiation of the religious right but a better religious right. We needed a religious right more understanding of how institutions work. We needed a religious right that understood that fighting a culture war requires actually having a Christian culture. We needed a religious right that paid as much attention to daily rituals as it did to world views. But the religious right’s overall project was basically sound and the men leading it were trustworthy. That’s what we told ourselves. So we defended many of the men who have now proven themselves to be so cowardly and lacking the very thing they said the secularists and liberals were missing—a moral compass.

In 2007 we even endorsed Huckabee in the presidential primary. All of that seems depressingly naive and short-sighted this side of Trump 2016. There may have been good leaders in the religious right—Falwell Sr. was probably one and Francis Schaeffer and C. Everett Koop certainly were—but the conduct of these aging leaders during this campaign season is shameful and fully merits the strongest condemnation from serious believers.

It is also a cautionary tale about seeking to acquire power and influence while lacking the sort of Christian practice necessary to sustain virtue in the teeth of success. We chased fame and prestige as it is defined by the world and we had it… for awhile. It’s just too bad it clearly cost us our souls. Now the party we pledged ourselves too and which clearly never saw us as anything more than useful idiots is ready to kick us to the curb. But rather than standing by our principles, the purported moral voices of the old religious right are cravenly throwing themselves after the scraps that a racist, womanizing, vulgar, and laughably insecure rich boy brushes off his table.

Nine years after Hitchens’ blistering attack on Falwell, conservative Christians stand on the edge of exile, facing a dark and uncertain future in which our colleges and universities’ very existence may well be in jeopardy and in which our religious liberty is likely to disappear under the weight of a Hillary presidency and a Supreme Court stacked with Clinton appointees. And you know what? It’s no less than we deserve.

Our only hope may be that our exile will be like that of the southern tribes of Israel, who were preserved thanks to a faithful remnant and in time was even restored to the land, rather than that of the northern tribes whose banishment proved permanent. Even so, if we do suffer the same fate as the latter group, we will have no right to complain.

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Posted by Jake Meador

Jake Meador is the editor-in-chief of Mere Orthodoxy as well as the Vice President of the Davenant Institute. He is a 2010 graduate of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln where he studied English and History. He lives in Lincoln, NE with his wife Joie, their daughter Davy Joy, and sons Wendell and Austin. Jake's writing has appeared in Commonweal, Christianity Today, Fare Forward, the University Bookman, Books & Culture, First Things, National Review, Front Porch Republic, and The Run of Play. His first book, "In Search of the Common Good: Christian Fidelity in a Fractured Age," will be published summer of 2019 by InterVarsity Press.

  • Mary Ellen Biggerstaff

    I am curious why you think religious liberty would disappear under a Clinton administration?

    • Larry28

      I can’t speak for the author, but I can point out one troubling example. During a speech on abortion rights last month, Hillary Clinton said this:

      “Far too many women are denied access to reproductive health care and safe childbirth, and laws don’t count for much if they’re not enforced. Rights have to exist in practice — not just on paper, Laws have to be backed up with resources and political will, And deep-seated cultural codes, religious beliefs and structural biases have to be changed.”

      If Mrs. Clinton is calling for changing religious beliefs on abortion, what other subjects are next? Mrs. Clinton’s ethics and trustworthiness problems are serious enough, but her call for changes in religious beliefs to suit a particular political and social agenda should sound alarm bells among lovers of liberty.

      • Yes, that. Also, both Clinton and Sanders have expressed strong support for the Equality Act which would make sexual minorities protected by the Civil Rights Act of 1964 in the same way that racial minorities are, which could have devastating consequences for Christian enterprises in the US. Also, a Clinton administration would interpret Title IX in much the same way as the Obama administration, which could also have potentially dire consequences.

        • hoosier_bob

          Would you mind providing actual examples instead of empty hand-waiving? Churches and most religious organizations are exempt from the Civil Rights Act. In fact, over half of all Americans live in places that provide such protections at a state or local level, and, to my knowledge, no “devastating consequences” have ensued. My home state of Illinois has offered such protections for over a decade, but plenty of churches, mission boards, and Christian publishing houses continue to operate out of the state.

          So, stop being disingenuous and be clear about what you mean by “Christian enterprises.” It’s likely that you’re referring to Christians who operate places of public accommodation who’ve decided that they want to accommodate everyone except for LGBTQ people. I’m with John Kasich here: If you want to run a business as a place of public accommodation, then you best be prepared to accommodate the public. And if you’re going to refuse to do business with sinners, then you can’t decide that LGBTQ people are the only sinners whose services you’ll decline.

          Also, can we get off of the Francis Schaeffer bandwagon. When I first became involved with evangelicalism as a graduate student in the 1990s, someone gave me a Schaeffer book. Scheffer nearly caused me to walk away. My 20 semester hours of philosophy as an undergrad certainly weren’t sufficient to make me an expert. Even so, it was clear to me that Schaeffer was just making up his facts to fit his conclusions. The man was a pathological liar and a charlatan. Yes, he told evangelicals things that they wanted to believe we’re true. The problem is that these things were mostly lies. There was no virtuous era for the Christian Right. Sure, Scaeffer’s opportunism wasn’t as crass as Huckabee’s or Santorum’s. But he was an opportunist nonetheless. If evangelicals can’t admit that, they’re not yet ready to move on.

          I don’t entirely embrace Andrew Sullivan’s distinction between Christianists and Christians. But it’s a helpful rubric, no less. If I had to describe what led me to ditch evangelicalism, I generally describe it this way. When I entered evangelicalism in the 1990s, Christians seemed to outnumber Christianists, at least in the quarters where I found myself (PCA). And even if people had some Christianist leanings, the Christian leanings seemed to predominate. That gradually ceased to be true. Christianists have now taken over, and the Christians are in the back seat. Evangelicals used to have conferences where they talked about things like grace, justification, sanctification, etc. Now they have conferences devoted to the Trinity-denying doctrine of “complementarianism” and give standing ovations to pastors who find themselves in the midst of unresolved scandals involving an alleged cover-up of child sex abuse. When it matters more to Al Mohler that your church doesn’t have women elders than it matters to him that the church covered up child sex abuse, something has gone off the rails. And consider the pack of lies spouted by the Wheaton College’s all-male, all-white, all-Christinist leadership in fumbling over the dismissal of Larycia Hawkins.

          The problem with evangelicalism today isn’t that there are a few bad apples. The problem is that the charlatans have taken over. Yes, the opportunism of Huckabee is crass. But Joe Carter was central to this crass charlatan’s rise. And where is Joe Carter today? He’s working for Tim Keller’s Gospel Coalition, churning out one lie-filled blog post after another. Groups like tie Gospel Coalition are only different from Huckabee and Santorum in terms of their refusal to let their opportunism show so blatantly. The question for evangelicals should not be how to go from crass opportunism back to veiled opportunism. No, the question should be how to ditch the opportunism and recover a “truth” that doesn’t make a mockery out of the name of Christ. But if things like the ouster of Larycia Hawkins are any indication, the Christianists aren’t going to throw in the towel anytime soon.

          • Bob – I don’t remember if you were the one with the long back and forth w/ Matt on a recent comment thread, but I think Matt said what needs to be said w/r/t religious liberty issues there. FWIW, the enterprises I’m thinking of are those businesses run by Baronelle Stutzmann, Adam and Melissa Klein, etc.

            W/r/t to Schaeffer: I think any serious person who appreciates him would grant that he is quite sloppy on certain philosophical points. That said, I’ve known too many people, not all of whom are even Christian, who knew him personally and will attest to his personal warmth, compassion, and kindness to even remotely buy your portrayal of him as a liar and charlatan. He wasn’t careful, he didn’t have access to books consistently when he did most of his writing b/c of being so poor as a result of his L’Abri work, and his parenting of Frank was a classic example of a parent sacrificing their family for “ministry” reasons and is a serious offense. That said, what you’re saying goes well beyond these specific concerns and is so strident (and so out of step with what I have heard from the *vast* majority of people I’ve spoken with who knew him personally that I struggle to take it seriously.

            On a similar note, if you can’t distinguish b/w Joe Carter and Mike Huckabee I am, again, at a loss as to how to respond. I’m not a huge TGC fan, as anyone who knows me will attest, but I do respect and appreciate Joe (and Tim Keller, for that matter) and I honestly have no clue what to say if you can’t distinguish between Joe, Keller, and TGC and someone like Huckabee.

            W/r/t to Christians vs Christianists–can you say more on that? I never found Sullivan terribly helpful on this point b/c as best I could tell what he basically meant is “individualist Christians happy to leave the public square theoretically naked” vs “Christians who care about political theology,” and so I’ve never found that formulation to be of much value. But if you have a better way of defining those terms I’d be happy to discuss that.

  • Greg

    There is certainly reason, good reason, to be deeply concerned. There are equally if not counterweighted reasons to be exceedingly hopeful and grateful, certainly because the church continues to thrive with long-term, committed adherents. (Not to mention, it’s almost impossible to find a parking space on Sunday.)

    The reality of Christian faith and ‘churchiness’ continues to be dialectical.

    ‘The official count in the U.S. Catholic Directory reports the U.S. Catholic population rose from 45.6 million in 1965 to 66.3 million in 2012.’

    [Source: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/david-briggs/counting-us-catholics-signs-of-growth-and-decline-on-the-road-to-100-million_b_2315142.html%5D

    So while our leadership consistently exhorts and expresses concern, we’re also, like, totally stoked. :)

  • I saw another story today linked on Twitter as an outrage: Memorial Day crosses for fallen soldiers removed after single complaint It was supposed to demonstrate just how anti-Christian our government has become, but as I read it I saw this:

    “It was never about religion — it was just to honor them,” Ms. Philyaw told Fox News Tuesday. “I was devastated when it had to come down.

    “At the time, it never, ever crossed my mind about the religious factor in it,” she said. “The cross is a ‘rest in peace’ symbol to me.”

    The cross as a “rest in peace” symbol to honor any dead? The cross is only a symbol of peace after you’ve been “crucified with Christ” on it, sharing in His suffering, and it is not some generic symbol for anyone.

    It is time for Christianity and civil religion in America to get a divorce

    • hoosier_bob

      Very well said. Such a common use of Christian symbols is a fairly clear-cut violation of the Second Commandment. The ease with which evangelicals tolerate such sin, and even encourage it, says a lot about the wide gap between evangelicalism and anything resembling Christian principle.

  • Abraham Bergen

    How have Ben Carson, Mike Huckabee, and Rick Santorum been acting to deserve Hitchens’ criticism? I don’t know much about their politics but I thought that Ben Carson seemed like a very decent sort of person. Just trying to learn more.

    • gives7

      Ben Carson was awesome when he schooled President Obama at the famed National Prayer Breakfast. ( https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PFb6NU1giRA ) And he was of course a near-genius doctor. But IMO he was a little naïve to announce after Iowa that he was taking days off before the NH primary, and then be dumbfounded when CNN reported it and then Ted Cruz’s folks repeated the story at several caucus sites (which turned out to be true, in spite of CNN’s imperfections).
      All this led I believe Carson, Huckabee, Rubio, and of course Trump into calling Ted Cruz a liar, or Lyin’. This hurt Cruz badly just before Super Tuesday. (I know this much: Satan is the father of lies; it’s his spiritual gift.) Heidi Cruz said if Ted’s ANYTHING (and he’s a LOT) (ask me), he’s honest. So I’m going with the wife. Plus as a government teacher I watched EVERY debate since last summer, and studied most of them, and I found Ted to be extremely honest. Texas, his home state, apparently did also appreciate his integrity, supporting him resoundingly when it came time for their presidential primary–the “hated” Ted must have kept his promises to them, in the U.S. Senate. TrusTed was a slogan.
      IMO, although I’m not the Judge, I would rank Carson, Huckabee, and probably Santorum too, in the top echelons, top 10%, of people with honesty and integrity in America, even if any are not born again Christians.
      P.S. I agree with the title above, that the American church is limping badly and we need to repent, starting with me. II Chron. 7:14, James 5:16 …But regarding Trump, who was not in my top 10 choices: must every fire chief in America be a born-again Christian, every brain surgeon, every citizen? Is freedom of religion guaranteed to the unsaved and the pre-saved? Were Romney and McCain true Christians? Many of us voted for them! Trump isn’t the nomimee quite yet. Let’s see what happens, and, if he wins as it appears, let’s see who his running mate is.

  • Dan Grubbs

    Another consideration in all this is how do the truly redeemed balance the fact that our citizenship is not of any nation of this Earth, but we are co-heirs with Jesus Christ and our citizenry lies not in the United States, but in the Kingdom of God. Yet, we still physically live here today and while we do render unto Caesar and are commanded to abide by the decrees of a God-allowed government, our first alliance and calling is to God. To Mr. Meador’s point, our utter failure to be THE dominant influence on our nation’s culture is showing up so pointedly in this year’s campaign. Where this is leading us is to a place where we believers will have to make choices because the decrees of government are very close to demanding that we violate God’s standards. Are we ready to commit civil disobedience because we’re going to stand on biblical principles? I suspect that because of our failure over the last three decades to be the dominant influence in this nation that we will not commit civil disobedience when we are commanded by government to violate God’s standards. Will we disobey when our children are told by their teacher to recite a prayer to Allah? Will we disobey when our young people are told to practice transcendental meditation with the rest of the class? These are just two examples. It won’t be long when we are told by authorities that we must do something that is in direct violation of what God says to do. How will we respond? I don’t have much confidence that we will respond with resistance and stand up for God based on our collective past behavior — behavior that has led to what Mr. Meador highlights in his thoughtful post.

  • Will Dole

    I agree with the title of the article wholeheartedly…and yet I’m not sure that supporting Donald Trump over against Hillary Clinton is necessarily cause for losing respect for someone. I’m having a hard time with the call myself. Trump is, in my view, an abominable figure, but in terms of preserving what freedom is left in this country, not only for Christians, but for all citizens, the SCOTUS is THE issue. And while I don’t trust him much on this issue, I do trust him more than Hillary. Still not sure I can pull he lever for him come November, but if someone told me they were on Court grounds (like a Santorum), it would seem reasonable to me.

  • I think the first mistake for the “Religious Right” is to look for leaders. Why? Well, two reasons… First, leaders can make those who are lead lazy and complacent. We sit back more times than not and expect our appointed mouthpiece to put a rhetorical hurtin’ on the Non-Religious Left while we cheer them on.

    Second, leaders can be corrupted, compromised, weak, or simply embarrassing because they are a fixed target and the fiery barbs come from all angles. Under such circumstances even the best of us will say something goofy that the Left will hold up and parade through the streets.

    If we look leaders we will always be disappointed because men fail and if our movement ought to be anything, as Christians, it ought to be a work of God. …There will be those who will have prime time airtime, sure, but they ought not be seen as or treated as leaders. They are mouthpieces like you and I. …The only difference is that we don’t have the stage they do.

    The movement ought to be more like a swarm rather than a flock. A flock has a leader- kill the leader and the flock falters- but a swarm has no leader. Each member of the swarm is individually in tune with the group, but no one leads.

    I only say this because I see disappointment after disappointment with those that we hope is going to be the might man of God that will lead the way to restoring our great republic. But it’s not the job of one man, it’s the job of all of us. …But only if we are committed to Christ, willing to stand up, and willing to speak boldly.

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