Notorious Trump ally and evangelical leader Jerry Falwell Jr last week explained his controversial and long-running support for the US president. Trump's virtue, Falwell said, is that he 'says what's in his heart'. This sadly betrays a dangerous, Disney-ified and narcissistic philosophy that elevates 'being true to yourself' above all else. It also, ironically, underlines the problem so many have with Mr Trump – they don't like what's in his heart.
Trump faced a barrage of criticism last week when he equivocated over the white supremacist, neo-Nazi protests in Charlottesville, Virginia in which one counter-protest was killed. Trump said there was blame on 'many sides...many sides', and in later comments defended the right of white supremacists to protest, angrily went after the 'alt-left' and said there were 'very fine people on both sides' of the conflict. For many it fell short of the stark, passionate repudiation of racism that they expected from their president.
But Jerry Falwell Jr applauded Trump's comments, ambiguously thanking the president for a 'bold' and 'truthful' statement on Charlottesville.
On Sunday Falwell told ABC News: 'One of the reasons I support him is because he doesn't say what's politically correct, he says what's in his heart. And sometimes that gets him in trouble.'
The Christian writer Alan Noble tweeted in response to Falwell's comment, quoting the prophet Jeremiah: 'You support a man who "says what's in his heart," knowing that "the heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked"? Stop.'
Or, as Christ chastised the Pharisees: 'You brood of vipers, how can you who are evil say anything good? For the mouth speaks what the heart is full of.'
In other words, Falwell is right to say that Trump speaks from the heart – many people do – but he's deeply wrong to believe that's somehow a good thing.
It would be better PR to say Trump doesn't mean what he says, but to say he 'speaks from the heart' is a tragic indictment of Trump's inward being. When for example Trump lies (regularly and demonstrably), grossly demeans those he dislikes, boasts about sexual assault, lashes out when attacked and defends evil and racism – Falwell apparently thinks that Trump's 'unpopular' comments are simply him being true to himself.
Of course Falwell didn't mean that exactly, but his comment captures well what many see. And whatever the true content of Trump's heart (which God only knows), Christian theology strongly repudiates the idea that good leaders just 'speak from the heart', since humans are deeply flawed and the heart cannot be trusted.
I'm fond of many Disney movies, but they frequently favour an idealistic but self-centred ethic that says that right living means being 'true to yourself' or in millennial terms, 'authentic'. It's not a wholly bad idea (indeed in the context of the best stories, it can be powerful), but taken too far, or used to advise the President of the United States, it's supremely unhelpful.
The wise man knows his 'heart' is quick to judge, easily angered, and prone to selfish rebellion at the expense of others. Human beings are capable of great good, but it doesn't always come naturally. Seeking moral guidance purely from within could soon lead to ruin. Individualism is now the dominant mindset of our age, but at its worst it leads to blind, biased foolishness and falsehoods. In Trumpian terms, it's 'fake news' about how the world really is.
Our democratic systems know this of course: the president isn't surrounded by experts, learned advisors and a watchful congress so he can simply listen to himself. Experience tells us power tends to corrupt the heart, which is why wise politics favours accountability over cults of personality.
Perhaps Falwell Jr's comments were simply ill-thought through and don't deserve this depth of analysis. But the truth is many today do think just saying or following 'what's in your heart' really is a wise way to live. Now the president's apparent spiritual advisor - and an influential Christian leader - has encouraged them to think so.
The 'American Dream' might be optimistic, but it isn't that optimistic. People deserve better.
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